Ten or 20 years ago, it was Subaru Imprezas and Mitsubishi Evos. For the past decade or so, it has been the Nissan GT-R. So where will the UK tuning scene go next?
According to powertrain specialist Ricky Elder, European supercars are set to be the next big thing. “Over the last two years, I’ve really felt it change,” says Elder, founder of Swindon-based RE Performance. “The GT-R has been the king of the UK tuning scene for a long time, but now we’re starting to see the rise of the supercar – Audi R8s, Lamborghinis, McLarens and even Ferraris.”
In North America, modifiers have been switched on to supercars for a long time already and, according to Elder, the UK is ready to follow suit. “US companies like Dallas Performance and Underground take European supercars and turn them into the fastest cars in the world, some developing 2000bhp. Those cars are terrifying. In the UK, we’re terrified of voiding our warranties, so we don’t have a tuning scene like they do, but it’s getting there.”
As R8s, Lamborghini Gallardos and Huracáns slip out of their manufacturer warranty periods and drop in value, a growing number of people are beginning to explore their tuning potential. The movement is being driven by those who have wned highly tuned GT-Rs and now want to switch into something more exotic. “Lots of guys are getting out of tuned GT-Rs, buying real supercars and finding them dog slow, because they’re used to 900bhp,” says Elder.
R8s are particularly popular, not least because they’re relatively common and earlier V8 models can now be picked up for around £40,000. And in the case of the V10 versions, non-Plus models can be uprated to Plus power outputs with a simple remap. They’re exactly the same engines, after all.
And if you want really big power? Twin-turbocharging is the way to go. Elder, who worked as a technical specialist for the Volkswagen Group for eight years before starting RE Performance 18 months ago, is quickly establishing himself as a leading authority on turbo upgrades for R8s and Lamborghinis.
He says: “Those engines will do 850bhp with just a twin-turbo kit and not much else – stock engine, clutch, gearbox and electronics. You’re talking £25,000, plus the donor car. That’s hypercar performance for a tenth of the price.
“We’ve just built an R8 GT, which was a £70,000 bill. That had a rebuilt gearbox and engine with aftermarket rods and pistons, head work and so on. The owner wants 1400bhp so that’s what we’ve built the car to do.
“I think we’re going to get a big McLaren wave. I’m seeing more and more as they drift out of warranty. They’re very tunable because they’re already turbocharged. They are immensely fast and we can make them faster.
“We also did a 488 GTB the other week. Ferrari ECUs are so easy to get into. You can tune them with an abacus and a bit of tin foil. The electronics aren’t protected like on other brands. Just give the ECU a tickle and all of a sudden you’ve got horsepower.”
As fascinating as it all sounds, I’m left with a number of questions. For one thing, I can’t help but wonder why you’d take an R8 – one of the last remaining normally aspirated supercars – and turbocharge it. But mostly, I just want to know what on earth a 900bhp R8 V10 feels like. Happily, Elder’s first-generation demo car is warmed up and ready for a test drive.
“It’s got a stock engine, stock clutch, stock fuel system and so on,” Elder says. “It’s only running 0.4 bar of boost. I wanted to show what we can achieve with just a twin-turbo conversion and without having to spend another £50,000 on rebuilding the engine and transmission. Even so, the car is bloody intimidating!”
Driving through the outskirts of Swindon, it’s only the completely distorted soundtrack that gives away this car’s big power upgrade – the bassy, noisy idle and the whooshes and hisses as boost is built up and dumped. Otherwise, though, the car is every bit as civilised as a factory-specification R8.
That all changes when we find some clear country roads. I tentatively prod the throttle pedal in one of the higher gears first, just to ease myself in. Eventually, I find the courage to shift down to second gear and press the accelerator all the way to the floor. Almost immediately, I lift right off again. The surge of acceleration through the mid-range is so intense that my unthinking instinct is to make it stop.
In third gear, the car accelerates with a crazed, unrelenting force, firing itself towards the horizon like a stone flung from a slingshot. Only once in a solid half day of driving did I manage to keep my foot flat in second gear all the way to the redline. It actually felt uncomfortably accelerative. I’m not sure I’d have had any spare brain capacity to deal with anything unforeseen happening. In fact, it was all I could do to grip the steering wheel and tell my right ankle to stay at full extension. I’m certain this car feels more accelerative than a McLaren P1, otherwise the fastest car I’ve driven.
It isn’t just a laggy, awkward drag-strip refugee, though. The turbos start boosting at around 3000rpm and, with the rev limiter well beyond 8000rpm, there’s a very wide operating window. You’re never off boost. And throttle response is very good for an aftermarket turbo conversion, with only a fractional delay between the throttle being opened and boost arriving. It helps, of course, that even before the turbos spool up you have 5.2 litres and 10 cylinders behind you. Being four-wheel drive, the R8 also gets the huge power down without too much fuss.
Perhaps the most impressive thing, though, is that Elder has managed to retain the basic character of the V10 engine. Rather than being flat and lifeless like lots of modern turbo engines, it still feels linear throughout the rev range and you still want to chase the 8500rpm redline. The soundtrack remains, too, a wailing, high-pitched exhaust note underscored by the manic wind rush of the turbos and blow-off valves.
Of course, you simply cannot use this amount of power on the road beyond fleeting bursts of acceleration, unless you’re prepared to take wild risks. You’d need a track or a runway to tap into the fullness of the car’s overall performance capability. But any reservations I had about turbocharging a normally aspirated supercar have been completely and irreversibly blown away. And I absolutely understand why somebody would be attracted to a car like this: it’s so exciting and completely intimidating, too.
Driving just doesn’t get any more thrilling. I’ve never met the person who designed the garish graphics on this R8’s side blades, so I’m impressed he or she knew exactly what facial expression I would pull every time the rev counter swept towards 8000rpm in second gear.
One of the highlights of Ricky Elder’s eight years with the VW Group was building a car to take on Bonneville Speed Week in 2011. “Skoda wanted to do something special to celebrate 10 years of vRS,” he says. “It decided to try and do 300km/h [186mph] in an Octavia vRS at Bonneville.
“We took a brand-new car, put a ridiculous roll cage in it and gave it massive power. We uprated the rods, did a little bit of head work and put a dirty great big turbo on it. With nearly 700bhp, the car did 227mph. The class record still stands six years on.”
Should you but a modified car?
If tuning a car can be a cost-effective way of achieving the big power outputs of a much more exotic and expensive machine, as with this twin-turbo Audi R8, buying an already tuned car can be more cost-effective still. After all, modified cars hardly ever recoup the money that has been spent on them.
But is it sensible to buy a car that has already been tuned? After all, you can’t always be sure how well the car has been modified, who it has been modified by or what parts were used. The key is to buy a car that has been modified by a reputable tuning company. Most professional outfits should be happy to discuss a particular car’s past with you and they will know exactly what has been done to it.
Buying a modified car with a unclear past, though? Be very careful indeed.
Tuner fishing: hook a modded used car, from £22K
Year 2013 Price £62,495 Power 720bhp
Not all modified GT-Rs are 1000bhp monsters, although this 720bhp one isn’t short of poke. It’s a Litchfield-built car, based on a 2014-model-year Track Pack model. According to the advert, the car cost £86,000 new and a further £10,000 has been spent on the Litchfield stage 4.5 upgrade and £7000 on a rebuilt transmission. On the outside, the car looks completely standard, so you wouldn’t know it was so heavily uprated until it ripped off into the distance.
Year 2008 Price £65,000 Power 1000bhp
Aside from the forged 20in wheels and carbonfibre skirts, this car looks very close to a standard one, unlike like so many other tuned GT-Rs. And that’s despite it developing a massive 1000bhp. There is something very cool about a near-stock-looking GT-R with a four-figure power output. It has apparently recorded a 0-100mph time of 5.4sec, making it faster off the line than a Bugatti Veyron. Not bad considering that it’ll cost you about one twentieth of a Veyron’s price.
PORSCHE 911 TURBO (996)
Year 2003 Price £54,995 Power 650bhp
It takes a special sort of person to drive any breed of 911 Turbo and conclude that it needs more power. They’re already fantastically quick just as they roll out of the factory. However, this example has been uprated with Nine Excellence’s 9e30 kit, which lifts its power output to well beyond 600bhp. Receipts for the engine work add up to more than £20,000, and the suspension, brake and styling tweaks are “likely to have cost the same”, according to the advert.
PORSCHE 911 TURBO (964)
Year 1991 Price £135,000 Power 800bhp
This 964-generation 911 Turbo with the Flachbau — or ‘flat nose’ — conversion was built by CTR Developments with receipts totalling £250,000. The engine is a 993-gen GT2 Evo motor with twin Borg Warner K27 turbos and is apparently good for 800bhp — an absurd amount of power for an air-cooled 911. The advert says the car has recorded 212mph but can still be used for long drives in “reasonable comfort”. Chassis upgrades include KW Clubsport coil-overs and “big red” 993 Turbo brakes.
AUDI RS6 AVANT
Year 2008 Price £22,000 Power 770bhp
The better part of 800bhp for the price of a mid-range Ford Focus looks like very good value indeed. The previous-generation RS6 was never as good to drive as the current model but, at £22,000, you could probably forgive this one its wooden steering and inert handling. Anyway, this car is all about its twin-turbocharged V10 engine, which produces more than 800lb ft to go with its 770bhp. The car also looks completely standard from the outside, making it perfect for baiting Ferrari drivers.
Year 2011 Price £48,000 Power 1200bhp
Comfortably the most powerful car we found, this previous-generation Mustang is proudly known as the ‘Widow Maker’. The 5.4-litre V8 has been upgraded with a Whipple supercharger, forged internals, polished and ported heads and full-race cams. The motor has also been balanced and blueprinted. It’s difficult to imagine what the resultant 1200bhp might feel like, especially being deployed through the rear wheels alone, but that ‘Widow Maker’ moniker probably isn’t far from the truth.
PORSCHE 911 GT2 (997)
Year 2008 Price £145,000 Power 829bhp
If there’s one thing the 911 GT2 does not need, it’s more power. Nonetheless, the owner of this particular example has spent a huge amount money upgrading the twin-turbocharged flat six engine to lift its power beyond 800bhp, all of which is sent to the rear wheels only, via a manual gearbox. Sounds like it might be a bit of a handful, to put it mildly. The car has recorded a 0-186mph time of just 22.5sec, which is a cool 10sec quicker than a Lamborghini Huracán manages.
FORD FOCUS RS
Year 2010 Price £23,999 Power 400bhp
When the second-generation Focus RS was new, way back in 2009, nobody could quite believe that Ford would build a front-wheel-drive car with almost 300bhp. That’s par for the hot hatch course these days, but it was a staggering amount of power eight years ago. This heavily uprated car restores some of that sense of lunacy, its turbocharged five-cylinder engine delivering some 400bhp through the front wheels. Extensive exhaust and intake mods, plus a remap, liberate the additional power.
RE Performance Audi R8 V10 Twin-Turbo versus Audi R8 V10 MK1
Price £25,000 plus donor car vs £50,000 (used)
Engine V10, 5204cc, twin-turbo, petrol vs V10, 5204cc, petrol
Power 906bhp at 7000rpm vs 518bhp at 8000rpm
Torque 650lb ft at 4000-7500rpm vs 391lb ft at 6500rpm
Gearbox 6-spd automatic or 6-spd manual or 7-spd dual-clutch automatic vs 6-spd automatic or 6-spd manual or 7-spd dual-clutch automatic
Kerb weight 1635kg vs 1635kg
Top speed 210mph (est) vs 196mph
0-60mph 3.0sec (est) vs 3.7sec
Economy na vs 19.2mpg
CO2 emissions na vs 351g/km
Audi R8 V10 review
Nissan GT-R review
Mitsubishi Evo review