In our recent "Money Pit" story, we listed a bunch of cars that are difficult to elevate to performance car status. In this story, however, we'll tell you the cars on the opposite side of the fence - cars you don't have to spend heaps on to achieve decent on-road performance.
The Really Big Bangers...
It's fair to say that any late-ish Aussie car running a big cube V8 has already enjoyed a heap of aftermarket development. That means tuning your 5-litre VN-onward Commodore or 5.0-litre EB-onward Falcon is a job that can be tackled with confidence; the industry already knows what sort of gains you'll get with a particular camshaft or bolt-on blower kit.
The great thing about these big engines is their ability to make great top-end power without overly sacrificing bottom-end performance. They're a great platform for an everyday streeter. Another big appeal is the options open to those wanting 'the power' - you can go forced induction at a reasonable cost, or you can go for the traditional hot-up techniques where there are tried and proven parts available off the shelf.
Don't forget, the starting point of these cars is already quite quick - an unmodified base 5-litre Holden or Ford thunders to 100 km/h in around 8-seconds dead.
Starting with the basics, your typical VN V8 should pick up just over 10 percent power with a bargain extractor, exhaust and intake change. Moving on from there, we've recently seen a base-spec Holden V8 gain up to a further 18 percent with a cam swap and retune (see "New Stick"), while a bolt-on blower kit is claimed to produce up to 400kW. Note that the bolt-on blower route can be done even cheaper if you keep an eye open for a second-handie in the Trading Post or at your local Commodore club.
Though nowhere near as cubed-up as the V8s, the 3-litre VL Commodore Turbo offers a similar ability to maintain bottom-end torque and a great top-end. Together with the over-priced Supra and 300ZX turbos, the VL-T is the biggest engine'd turbocar you can buy in Australia. (Porsche 3.3-litre 930 turbo excepted....)
These factory non-intercooled Holdens were released in an era when there was no such thing as premium unleaded, but could still muster 150kW. It's alarmingly easy, however, to bump this up to a tad over 200kW - the regulation Japanese 'supercar' figure.
Bolt on a 3-inch exhaust and cold air intake (as we've shown in previous articles), follow it up with an intercooler and - say - 12 psi and you'll be poking at that 200kW mark; assuming the mechanicals aren't too tired. This very noticeable on-road gain also comes with no trade-off to reliability, which hints that there's potential for even more...
Beyond these basic mods - which need not cost much more than $1000 - the sky is the limit for a VL turbo. A bit of head tidying, a cam, larger turbo, aftermarket management, bigger injectors and an external wastegate can see you powering into the 10-second bracket! Seriously fast by any standards.
Too Easy Turbos...
The Holden VL turbo is indicative of an important point to remember - all factory turbocars have more budget tweaking potential than an atmo vehicle. That means cars like Charade turbos, Pulsar ETs, Mazda 626 turbos, Mazda RX-7 turbos, Subaru RX/Vortex turbos, Mitsubishi Lancer GSRs - even the forgotten Ford Capri turbos - can all be made to haul arse on the proverbial shoestring.
Having said that, it's not always smooth sailing - every constant AWD turbo and many of the boosted front-drivers are susceptible to gearbox breakages once they've been mildly tickled.
The Mitsi Galant VR4 appears to a notable exception to this trend; here's a constant AWD turbocar that doesn't spit gearboxes at the drop of a clutch. We've seen low 12-second VR4s running their stock gearbox and no signs of on-going hassles. Furthermore, the VR4 has a much stronger bottom-end than the locally delivered 1.8-litre Lancer GSR turbo and - unlike the rival Liberty RS - it doesn't have any lifter problems.
It's not the prettiest car on the road, but this is certainly one of the most under-rated vehicles from a hot-up point of view. The standard VR4's low 7-second 0-100 km/h acceleration can be easily improved upon with an exhaust, intake, intercooler and boost. Note that the VR4 runs a lower standard boost setting than a Liberty RS, meaning there's scope for a bigger increase.
Keep in mind also, the guys in America love the 4G63 motor and have a great deal of tuning experience. That means - if you decide to go beyond the aforementioned mods - you can tap into that knowledge and reap the benefits. Using off-the-shelf parts (such as balance shaft removal kits), the US-tuners cut some very impressive numbers in their VR4s (and 4G63 powered Eclipses).
And, don't forget, not all turbocars come from Japan. Europe offers - amongst other things - the 2.0-litre Saab 900 and 2.3-litre 9000 high-pressure turbos and Volvo has its 850 T5 turbos. The 16-valve 900 turbo could ship to 100 clicks in the 8-second bracket and the larger 9000 turbo auto took 7.9 seconds. Though not especially attractive, the front-wheel-drive Volvo 850 T5 5-speed did the deed in 7.4 seconds! Not bad. Keep in mind - as we said in the cars to avoid article - that some of these cars will need digging in order to find parts and experts. However, the Swedish turbo cars do have a very good following worldwide.
As with all turbocars, simply bolt on a free-flowing exhaust and intake, up the intercooling capacity and give a small increase in boost and you'll enjoy about 30 percent more power - and quite reliably.
DOHC Atmo Engine'd FWDs...
Another Mitsubishi product people tend to steer around is the TH Magna 3.5-litre V6. Yes, yes, we know this thing is front-wheel-drive and there's no turbo in sight, but you wouldn't believe how de-tuned this engine is in base Exec form. Unlike the other new cars we listed in our Money Pit feature, this thing can genuinely be made to haul-arse with just basic mods.
Bear in mind, a standard 5-speed 3.5 Magna rips to 100 km/h in a shade over 8-seconds.
Producing 147kW and 300Nm (only 7kW but 45Nm up on the base 3-litre), the 3.5 comes strangled by an extremely restrictive exhaust - most notably the rear muffler. Rip the stock pipe off, whack on a straight-through 2?-inch system and you'll instantly have the poke to pull away from a stock Ford XR6. Revise the air intake system and you should be well into the performance times of a current MY01 Subaru WRX (though with not as much launch ability!).
With these simple changes, you're talking a Magna with the potential to run 14s - especially if you've fitted grippy front tyres.
Once you've got to that stage, however, enjoy what you've got and leave it there. Venture to push the engine (and gearbox) harder and you'll be entering un-charted waters; who knows where to go and what'll happen from there on? But once the 180kW Ralliart version of the Magna is released (like, about now!), you can expect access to off-the-shelf hot camshafts, a front LSD and more.
Another atmo front-driver that's easier to power-up than other similar small cars is the 1992 Nissan Pulsar SSS. With its 105kW, the Pulsar SSS is a moderately quick hatch - 0 - 100 in 9-seconds flat - and will also respond well to an intake and exhaust. With around 10-15 percent more power, you'll have a responsive hatch that can whip up to 100 km/h in - say - mid 8s.
Unlike the big Magna, however, the next phase of development is obvious; bolt in an import 155kW SR20DET. This isn't how we'd spend our money, though, but it can be done.
DOHC Atmo Engine'd RWD...
A rear-wheel-drive car not many people seem to appreciate is the late model (MX83) 3-litre DOHC Toyota Cressida. It's a very conservative looking car, but dropped to the ground and riding on big polished rims there's not much to dislike.
Under the bonnet ticks a 3-litre DOHC, 24-valve 7M-GE engine that contemporary road testers oozed over. Producing 142kW, the auto-only Cressida would hum to 100 km/h in 9.0-seconds with ease. As you could imagine, though, the quiet intake and exhaust system are restrictive and it's easy to up the output to 160+ kilowatts - not that far behind the turbocharged variant found in the locally-delivered Supra, though with a les healthy torque curve.
Another possibility would be to adapt the 7M-GTE powered Supra's tough-as-nails 5-speed gearbox. Able to bolt straight up to the Cressida engine, this gearbox and the breathing mods should equate to high 7s 0-100 km/h.
Not bad for a Grampsmobile!
And a SOHC Atmo Engine'd RWD...
If the Cressida isn't your style, why not snap up a bargain priced 4.0-litre EF Ford Falcon. With its variable intake manifold, the 157kW 5-speed EF is a low 8-second 0 - 100 km/h performer that can be transformed for very few dollars.
So you want to keep up with an 'exotic' XR6? Easy - bolt on extractors, a bigger exhaust and revised intake and you'll be as quick - if not quicker than - the Tickford machine. We're talking mid 7-second 0 - 100 km/h, baby.
Beyond this - like with the big V8s - you can either whack on an aftermarket blower (good for well over 200kW) or go for traditional hot-up techniques. As previously reported by AutoSpeed, the Jim Mock DEVs are highly attractive engine package deals for anyone wanting up to around 175kW at the wheels without resorting to a blower. Go "Promise Delivered" to revisit that story.
So now you know the cars to stay away from and the ones that make good power-up machines; I hope we've saved a few people some money and disappointment.