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10 Great Tuner Cars Under $10K

A beginner's guide to picking your next project car

Austin Lott
Dec 27, 2017
Photographer: Super Street Archives

So you want to get started on a new build? Getting a legit project car to make your own takes a serious amount of time, money, and effort. It's also tons of fun and can often introduce you to the best kinds of people. While you're figuring out what you want to get, go to as many local meets, shows, and/or track events as you can. Talk to the guys and girls who have the cars you like, ask them about their cars, and maybe see if they can give you a ride once you get to know 'em. Make friends. These are the people you'll call when you're stuck on the side of the freeway, and for many of us, the people that have become lifelong friends.

There are a lot of factors to consider when looking for your first project, and your goals will determine what kind of condition you'll be looking for. If you want to drift, or go racing, then an interior and flawless bodywork can be sacrificed for a lower purchase price. If you want a street car, it often pays in the long run to spend the extra money up front for things like a clean cockpit and paint that hasn't been trashed. While non-running cars may seem like a good idea as a foundation, consider opting for something that runs so you have an opportunity to "fall in love" with the car, the way it drives, and evaluate the quirks it has.

This isn't the first time we've put together a guide like this—our first go around dates back to '11. We've updated our list with 10 great beginner cars for you to consider for '18. We've got some classics in here, some newer cars, and a few you might not have considered.

Scion tC

Best Years: '05 to '10

Price Range: $4,000-$6,000

From the Factory: The first-generation Scion tC was exclusive to the North American market and heavily marketed and aimed at younger buyers. This meant a ton of money was spent creating a wide range of modifications from both Toyota Racing Development (TRD) and the aftermarket at large. First-gen. Scion tC's came with the 2AZ-FE, a 2.4L inline-four that made 160 hp, which was easily bumped to 200 hp with TRD's supercharger. Compared to smaller displacement imports, the tC has more mid-range torque and responds well to turbocharging and supercharging. The five-speed manual is the obvious pick - don't settle for an automatic.

Likely Condition Today: Be wary of cars with unusually low prices. Since these were marketed as "tuner cars," there is a bit of a double-edged sword: lots of aftermarket parts availability and a wide base of people who drove them accordingly. Salvage titles are not uncommon and any potential purchase should be carefully looked over. There are enough of these out there that evidence of a repair should be enough to make you walk away. Oh, and if the trim panel above the license plate is falling off, use it to knock the price down a bit; but don't be scared, it's an easy fix that's still readily available. Also remember, the liftgate release is a button, not a lever, so be gentle.

Where To Start: Scion made sure the tC was both safe, and not too edgy, so good places to start are handling and exhaust-related mods. TRD's catalog included cold-air intakes, a mild exhaust, lowering springs, and even a supercharger. Factory mods won't net you as much power, or as dramatic an exhaust note, as their aftermarket counterparts. If you're looking for bigger gains, nearly all of the major players have modifications from Garrett to GReddy, and these engines have been built up into 750hp-plus monsters.

10 great tuner cars under 10k scion TC Photo 2/22   |   10 Great Tuner Cars Under 10K Scion TC
10 great tuner cars under 10k scion TC Photo 3/22   |   10 Great Tuner Cars Under 10K Scion TC

Inspiration: Japan never got the tC, but here's an example of one that was imported by RAYS and G-games, then used as a demo vehicle for the '07 Tokyo Auto Salon. JDM parts and a GReddy turbo kit look right at home on the Scion.

Acura RSX Type-S

Best Years: '02 to '06

Price Range: $4,000-$8,000

From the Factory: Once you get past the fact that it's not a Type R, the RSX Type-S really is a great platform for modification. You get 200hp and an excellent close-ratio six-speed manual under the hood, and it even has a vaguely usable rear seat. It's also an Acura, so you can find models with leather. The K20A2 ('02-'04), or the K20Z1 ('04-'06) have lots of potential for every level of budget, and are entertaining enough in stock form to get you hooked on dat VTEC.

Likely Condition Today: Many have been modified already and could provide a decent starting point. But proceed with caution and check things like wiring so you know what you'll have to sort out, or if you should pass. There were also a few problems to look out for on early models: tail light gaskets could fail and allow water and exhaust fumes into the hatch, and the transmission was prone to pop out of gear. Many examples with higher mileage will have had these fixes performed already, since the gaskets are easy and the transmission was addressed in a technical service bulletin from Acura.

Where To Start: Start with the usual intake/header/exhaust and look at Hondata for their user-friendly ECU upgrades. You can pick up coilovers from your favorite brand, since all the serious players made them for the RSX, and find an exhaust that splits your preferred balance of tone and volume. When you're ready for more power, forced induction is the easiest way. GReddy and HKS carry popular turbo options while CT Engineering offers a reliable supercharger variant. In the DC5's heyday everyone made parts for it, so finding N.O.S. (new old stock) or lightly used parts should be a breeze.

10 great tuner cars under 10k acura RSX type s Photo 4/22   |   10 Great Tuner Cars Under 10K Acura RSX Type S
10 great tuner cars under 10k scion TC Photo 5/22   |   10 Great Tuner Cars Under 10K Scion TC

Inspiration: What starts out as a dream for a 15-year-old kid ends up as a clean 230 hp non-turbo RSX Type-S. Ethan Hamilton's DC5 featured in the February '14 issue of Honda Tuning will always be motivation.

Lexus GS

Best Years: '97-'04

Price Range: $4,000-$7,000

From the Factory: The second-generation GS came in two flavors: 2JZ-GE inline-six (GS 300) and 1UZ-FE V-8 (GS 400). Before you get too excited, the 2JZ didn't come with a turbo and made 225 hp, but is the best candidate of the two options if you want to make lots more power down the road. If you don't want 400hp-plus, then the 1UZ V-8 is a great choice, since it came with 300hp and would have included many available options as standard equipment. The GS is a Lexus through and through, despite the sporty marketing, so it will have excellent leather and wood veneer trims pieces throughout.

Likely Condition Today: There are three types of GS you'll find, and the one you go for depends on your goals: single owner cars, which will be the little old lady cars and are great for starting from a clean slate; gansta-owned cars that will be falling apart and ill kept, which should be avoided; and cars with air suspension already *heavy breathing* which could be a good starting point if the install was done well.

Where To Start: Say you get a stock GS and are looking for the "get low" part: lowering springs and a fresh set of shocks should be considered if you don't want to opt for coilovers. Do not cut the springs no matter what your friend tells you: it'll ride like hell, and you'll be dodging peanuts while bouncing off the bump stops. After you get your stance right, you'll want to start looking for the right wheels and some lower profile tires. Move inside the car and look up the Japanese VIP style for inspiration here. If you want to make some real power, go for the GS 300 and look into an inexpensive 2JZ-GE turbo kit. A JDM 2JZ-GTE engine swap would be the dream, but let's not get too out of our heads on our first project car...

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10 great tuner cars under 10k lexus GS Photo 7/22   |   10 Great Tuner Cars Under 10K Lexus GS

Inspiration: Adam Mao of San Jose, California, practiced his drifting in a GS 300 with a stock, non-turbo motor. He eventually built his naturally aspirated 2J into a turbocharged 600hp-plus beast while also swapping the sluggish auto for a five-speed manual out of a Supra.

Toyota Cressida

Best Years: '88 to '92

Price Range: $1,500-$5,000

From the Factory: The Cressida was the top-of-the-line Toyota before Lexus was introduced. Under the hood is a 3.0L inline-six that made 190 hp; nothing to get excited about, especially paired with the four-speed automatic you're likely to find. But there are some positives to the Cressida, like the fact that it's rear-wheel drive and shares components with the Supra. That means a turbo setup from the Supra can be fitted, in addition to the five-speed manual.

Likely Condition Today: You can probably find them in fair condition, though they are getting quite old now. Make sure you get your eyes checked before you bring one home, because it'll take some work. Wear items and rubber components like bushings will require replacement. Try to find something with good paint and a straight body, unless you plan to drift, since paint and body are the most expensive parts of a build.

Where To Start: Once you score your Cressida do some work getting everything working, since this is a 25-plus-year-old car, then look into a suspension refresh. Since the Cressida only started to get popular more recently the options are limited, but save up for a set of coilovers from the likes of Fortune Auto, BC Racing, or Megan Racing and you'll be setting your build up right. After that, when you're ready to get dirty with an engine swap, pop the hood and consider the possibilities. That 7M can put out some halfway decent power with MK3 Supra bits, but engine swaps are the way to add serious power if you have the ambition (and money) to see it through. If you live in the right state (smog check wise), the JDM counterpart of the Cressida sported a 1JZ and makes for an easy swap, though parts availability in the States would be "overnight from Japan" status.

10 great tuner cars under 10k toyota cressida Photo 8/22   |   10 Great Tuner Cars Under 10K Toyota Cressida
10 great tuner cars under 10k toyota cressida Photo 9/22   |   10 Great Tuner Cars Under 10K Toyota Cressida

Inspiration: Ken Gushi, professional drifter, has a very relatable ride. Eight years ago, he swapped a 2JZ into his '89 Cressida, which had less-than-perfect bodywork. Stay humble, have fun.

Subaru Forester XT

Best Year: '04

Price Range: $7,000-$9,000

From the Factory: The Forester XT is a capable small family compact SUV that would typically have nothing to do with this list except for one little detail: Subaru fitted the '04 XT with the EJ255, the same base engine as the WRX STI, albeit with small differences. The stock XT made about 176 hp. Otherwise, the all-wheel drive Forester is a dependable family-friendly ride with lots of cargo room, and space for four adults to ride comfortably on a trip.

Likely Condition Today: Though 13 years old, these have kept their value well. This makes it more of a budget stretch, but also means they haven't been beat on by numerous previous owners. You'll have trouble finding many of these in places like Los Angeles, since they lack the snow that makes AWD vehicles so popular. Look in cold weather states, enjoy a road trip to get one, but avoid regions that use salt on their roads since it causes serious rust problems.

Where To Start: This is easy, since you should immediately take the EJ225 and get it as close to STI power levels as possible. Parts necessary: STI intercooler, VF39 turbo, non-catted up-pipe, exhaust, hood scoop and fuel pump. Also for the '04 Forester, you can directly swap the STI ECU, while later years require a reflash. If you want a little different sound, an aftermarket exhaust system could be substituted, too. Power jumps to about 260hp at the wheels while using all OEM parts, and that's a win in our book.

10 great tuner cars under 10k subaru forester XT Photo 10/22   |   10 Great Tuner Cars Under 10K Subaru Forester XT
10 great tuner cars under 10k subaru forester XT Photo 11/22   |   10 Great Tuner Cars Under 10K Subaru Forester XT

Inspiration: Modified magazine wrote an article about the STI conversion in '09 when '04 Forester XTs were going for $13,000 or more. With the price under $10K these days, what are you waiting for?

Honda Civic Si

Best Year: '03

Price Range: $5,000-$7,000

From the Factory: The '03 Honda Civic Si (EP3) was, and still is, a bit of a controversial model. Enthusiasts didn't love it for some of the things Honda changed, and the RSX Type-S had come on the scene at the same time, armed with a more tuner-friendly engine, and in turn the EP3 was generally ignored. It packs a K20A3, also found in the base model RSX, and produces 160hp paired with an interesting five-speed manual with its shifter mounted on the dash instead of the floor.

Likely Condition Today: Since enthusiasts generally snubbed the EP3, they were often picked up by fans who ended up being passionate about them. Since they're Honda Civics, there aren't many mechanical pitfalls to look out for on these.

Where To Start: As with the RSX, basic intake/header/exhaust should be pursued based on your personal preferences. Those looking to add serious power can start shopping for a turbo or a blower. If a swap is what you're after, Honda's K24 (found in the TSX, Element, CR-V, Accord) is an ideal upgrade with a substantial increase in torque and the potential for more power with bolt-ons or forced induction. Once you have power where you want, there are OEM Type R parts from Japan, along with Mugen, J's Racing and a slew of other aftermarket parts available to suit your taste as well as suspension options.

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10 great tuner cars under 10k honda civic si Photo 14/22   |   10 Great Tuner Cars Under 10K Honda Civic Si

Inspiration: Still unsure about the potential of Honda's somewhat forgotten Civic generation? Take a look at this duo from Joseph Pham and Jeremiah Santos that we recently featured to see what's possible.

Mazda MX-5 Miata

Best Years: '92 to '97

Price Range: $2,000-$4,000

From the Factory: The Miata is the most popular car raced around the world, with several series built around them. They are simple, lightweight roadsters with nimble handling and a cheerful driving demeanor. Despite just 116 or 128 hp on tap, it wasn't a straight-line bandit, but was (and is!) an absolute joy to sling around when the going gets twisty. A 50/50 weight distribution and a small, precise shifter also make them easy to drive. They are on the small side, so anyone taller than six foot would be advised to sit in one first - head and legroom can be problems.

Likely Condition Today: Most will have a faded and often torn convertible top. Tops are easy, and not prohibitively expensive to replace (if you do the work yourself). They're also a great way to haggle a price down. Since these are getting pretty long in the tooth, check more thoroughly for rust, including under the spare in the trunk. Caution: '90 and some '91 models have crankshafts that are prone to failure (count the number of slots in the crank pulley-four is bad and eight is good).

Where To Start: First, drop the top and go for a drive. If it's cold, blast the heat and do it anyway. Start with simple things like a tune up, and do a shifter bushing rebuild. The stock piece is plastic and replacing it with a bronze one is a cheap way to upgrade the shift accuracy and feel. Since so many Miatas are used for track days, there are a wide variety of suspension upgrades available. Power upgrades come in the standard flavors, with everything from standard bolt-ons to forced induction. For the bold, Ford V-8 and Mazda Rotary engine swaps are common and well documented.

10 great tuner cars under 10k mazda MX5 miata Photo 15/22   |   10 Great Tuner Cars Under 10K Mazda MX5 Miata
10 great tuner cars under 10k mazda MX5 miata Photo 16/22   |   10 Great Tuner Cars Under 10K Mazda MX5 Miata

Inspiration: Cody Chan's Miata featured in '11 has everything from an outrageous wing to a Jackson racing supercharger.

Subaru WRX

Best Years: '03 to '06

Price Range: $6,000-$10,000

From the Factory: The stock WRX puts out 227hp, and though it had an automatic option, enthusiasts serious about modifying should hold out for a five-speed manual. The WRX has been popular since its introduction and despite a higher entry price, remains a solid choice for tuners since so much has already been done.

Likely Condition Today: Finding one that hasn't been owned by at least a few wannabe racers is going to be hard. Though they will often have been abused hard, they're built well. Early models had a notoriously weak transmission, so any sign of anything out of the ordinary with the gearbox is a reason to walk away and keep looking. Check for poorly repaired damage, too, since AWD can't rescue drivers from every situation they may get themselves into.

Where To Start: Depending on what's been done (service records), address anything that needs it first. Timing belt, especially if the previous owner didn't have a record of it being done, fluid changes, the usual. Once you've had a little fun driving it around you can start thinking about mods. The beauty of a factory turbocharged vehicle is how easy it is to make power. Adding the usual intake, exhaust and especially a downpipe, along with a tune will bump you into the 300hp-plus range. The stock bottom end is said to be good for 375hp with the cast pistons being the limiting factor. Everything from body kits to big power has been down with these, so sky is the limit.

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10 great tuner cars under 10k subaru WRX Photo 18/22   |   10 Great Tuner Cars Under 10K Subaru WRX

Inspiration: We don't ever expect anyone to ever do this again, but All Aspects Motorsports defied odds with its twin-turbo WRX making 620hp on race gas! Though the engine is exotic, the styling is exactly the kind of clean this era of WRX is known for.

Nissan 240SX

Best Years: '91 to '99

Price Range: $3,000-$7,000

From the Factory: The rear-wheel drive 240SX came from the era when Nissan made interesting cars (a moment of silence, please); '89 and '90 models had the single-cam KA24E, which made 140 hp, but you want a later S13 or S14 which got the KA24DE, good for 160 hp with dual overhead cams. Though the engine was shared with the Nissan Frontier (no joke), it makes a great starting point since it has ample torque and responds well to boost. Of course, Japan got the turbocharged CA18DET and SR20DET, which have been the two engine swaps of choice for 240 owners for decades.

Likely Condition Today: Beat up, or expensive, but usually both. Ever since they got really popular about 10-plus years ago, they've been built up into some serious drift rigs and are hit HARD with a "scene tax." The average early '90s Japanese car will hardly break $3,000, while these are just getting started there. That being said look for one that's as stock as possible, since you don't want to have to redo someone's questionable work, or have it fail on you. And if the differential is welded, walk away.

Where To Start: If you're serious about getting into drifting then it's worth saving up and getting into a 240SX. When you're trying to be competitive, you don't want to worry about what might hold or which component might fail. Since many have gone before you, the kinks have been worked out of the components you'll be buying and the common failure points are well documented. The KA24DE has numerous options for turbo setups, and since it has an additional 400cc of displacement over the 2.0L SR20, it can be made to hit similar power levels at lower boost. One of the fun things about 240SX's is the constant introduction of new body kits such as Rocket Bunny. Not something you can say about nearly anything else from the early '90s.

10 great tuner cars under 10k nissan 240SX Photo 19/22   |   10 Great Tuner Cars Under 10K Nissan 240SX
10 great tuner cars under 10k nissan 240SX Photo 20/22   |   10 Great Tuner Cars Under 10K Nissan 240SX

Inspiration: Brett Levan stuck with the KA because he didn't want to deal with the hassle of getting a junk SR20DET motor from an importer. He has the same torque as the SR20DET, similar peak power and he saved a decent amount of money. Using all JDM aero, Work wheels and a custom teal paint job, it's also one of the nicest S13s we've showcased.

Mitsubishi Eclipse

Best Years: '90-'94

Price Range: $2,000-$5,000

From the Factory: The Mitsubishi Eclipse, Eagle Talon, and Plymouth Laser are the same vehicle though with different names. They were part of a Mitsubishi/Chrysler joint effort called "Diamond Star Motors" for the Pentastar (Chrysler) and Diamond (Mitsubishi means "three diamonds" in Japanese). The year range we've recommended covers the first-generation DSM models which give buyers a wide range of options from the more affordable front-wheel drive non-turbo models, all the way to the turbocharged GSX, with 180-195hp, and all-wheel drive. No matter what drivetrain you prefer, find something with the 4G63 engine. All turbo cars have it but only some non-turbo cars. Don't end up with the inline-four from the Dodge Neon.

Likely Condition Today: They can be found in clean/stock condition (what you'll want), Fast and Furious has-been (avoid these), and tired-90's coupe (if budget is a concern). Sure, there are already modified cars out there, but those are sure to have been abused, so get something with light mods at most and enjoy the upgrade process yourself. For AWD models, ask for service records; this can quickly get costly if you have to start replacing things. The prices are quite good on DSMs for the most part, though. Maybe "everyone" else wants to go drifting and they've forgotten about the gems from DSM - their loss is your gain. Another note: second-gen, '95 to '99, models suffered from "crankwalk" which is actually excessive play in the thrust bearing. Beginners are best to go for a first-gen until they're ready to take on an engine swap, as swapping in an earlier 4G63 is the best current solution to the crankwalk issue.

Where To Start: Go through the car and get it running well before you try to throw more power at it. There's more to break when your car is 25+ years old and you crank the boost up. The first-gen cars are often priced very affordably, even the turbocharged Eclipse GSX (or Laser GS or Talon TSi). If you get a non-turbo model and want to add one, finding a turbo kit for a 4G63 is as easy as typing "eBay" into your computer.

10 great tuner cars under 10k mitsubishi eclipse Photo 21/22   |   10 Great Tuner Cars Under 10K Mitsubishi Eclipse
10 great tuner cars under 10k mitsubishi eclipse Photo 22/22   |   10 Great Tuner Cars Under 10K Mitsubishi Eclipse

Inspiration: Rewind the tapes to five years ago and Fernando Martinez was regularly throwing down sub-10 second quarter-miles on a stock bottom end. See, told you the first-gen Eclipse and its 4G63 were good.

By Austin Lott
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