I’ve owned quite a few fun, sporty, cars and even started a local import sports car club a few years ago. So I know a thing or two about tuner cars.
First, never, ever buy a tuner car from someone else unless you know that person very well and know everything about the car. Buying a tuner car (like that Eclipse) from someone else means you’re about to inherit all the problems they couldn’t fix or got tired of trying to fix (i.e. the money pit).
Second, I recommend finding a car that has performance and handling right out of the box (stock). This will save you a TON of money, disappointment and various headaches when trying to take an okay car and turn it into a highly tuned performance machine.
Third, stick with cars that have a good track record for performance, reliability, gas mileage, maintenance, etc.
I’ve owned cars that were awesome completely stock (Acura Integra Type R, Honda S2000, WRX), and I’ve had cars that made good tuner cars (Acura Integra, Honda CRX Si, Mazda Miata). However, the cars that I had to make upgrades and changes to in order to make them like tuner cars (Integra, CRX, Miata, Civics, etc.), cost me a ton of time and money and they still didn’t end up as good as a car that is already sweet from the start.
As a founder/member of an import sports car club, I saw plenty of guys (and a few girls) that took cars like WRX’s, RX8’s, RX7’s, Toyota MR2’s, Nissan 300zx’s, Eclipse GST’s and GSX’s and put all kinds of money into them. Some of those cars are easy to make upgrades because they are sweet cars when stock. But some of them were very high maintenance and took a ton of money to get them where the owners wanted them. Not to mention that reliability was an issue for some of them.
Most of the guys in the club or that I knew would end up selling their cars after they tinkered with them for a while. Usually, there was something that they could never get to work right, or they just kept sucking down every penny the owner had to constantly fix or upgrade. And some of these cars didn’t make good daily drivers.
At 16, you most likely can’t afford a new car like an EVO, WRX STi, RX8, 350z or Skyline, etc. However, you can always buy a good used import sports car.
I’d highly recommend a Honda S2000. That was one of the best cars I’ve owned (I owned two different ones - a 2001 and a 2003). They are one of the best handling cars I’ve ever seen completely stock. They are fun to drive, get pretty good gas mileage (20-27mpg city/hwy) and the maintenance is easy to do and very minimal.
You can find them used in the $14,000 range for a fairly low mileage one.
I really loved my Acura Integra Type R and never should have sold it. That car was incredible for a front-wheel drive car. It was great completely stock. Unfortunately, they are hard to find without them being abused or no longer stock. And the prices for used ones are still way too high.
Some other good used cars that make good tuner cars would be a WRX (2002-2004), a Mazda Miata (90-00’) and even an EVO or 350z if you can find them for a good price, decent mileage and not abused.
I sold my S2000 almost three years ago and bought a Mazda Miata in the hopes of saving money at the time. Unfortunately, it didn’t really work out that way. The Miata has required so much more routine maintenance than my S2K ever did (one benefit to owning a Honda or Acura is how little maintenance they need - fluid changes and tires!).
I’ve also replaced things on the Miata as needed to make it better. I put on lightweight racing wheels (Kosei) and sticky tires, upgraded brakes (rotors, pads, stainless steel lines, racing fluid) and a full suspension set-up (sway bars, adjustable shocks, springs). All of these things have cost me a lot of money and the car still isn’t up to the same performance of my S2K (and I still have 100 less horsepower than the S2K - a turbo kit would cost me another $3,500-4,000).
So if you go the route of taking a car and then turning it into a tuner car, be prepared to put in a ton of money. And it always seems like there is something else to do. It never stops. It’s almost an addiction. You make one upgrade and then need another. Over time, you’ve put in more money than it would have cost you to buy a far better car to begin with that won’t even need upgrades to make it fun!
But I will say this about the Miata. You can find them CHEAP. And with VERY low mileage. They are also very easy to upgrade (similar to the early 90’s when everyone was buying Honda Civics), they have many parts for them and a good online community/forum of enthusiasts. They are also rear-wheel drive, which is preferred for a sports car. After driving FWD, RWD and AWD cars, I definitely prefer RWD first, then AWD and FWD last.
I still see some of my friends from the car club every once in a while. Ironically, three of them own Miatas and have been tuning them. Another good thing about them is that they tend to run forever and are reliable every day drivers and get good gas mileage.
Make sure you do plenty of research before you buy anything. And listen to what I said above. It could save you a lot of money and headaches.