Many car companies have their own in-house tuning divisions.
Far from being a mere badge to mark out a performance model, these departments often enjoy considerable freedom to create the cars we enjoy the most. BMW's famous M division has created some brilliant cars and is celebrating its 50th birthday this summer. Here’s our pick of the best in-house tuners in alphabetical order:
Carlo Abarth (1908-1979) already had a distinguished career in motorsport when he set up his eponymous tuning company in 1949. As Fiats were the most common cars in Italy, it made sense to concentrate on tuning them. This brought success on the road and track with Fiats, though Abarth also worked with Porsche and Simca.
Fiat bought Abarth’s company in 1971 and the name was soon attached to tuned versions of the 124 Spider and 131 saloon for rallying. The Abarth name endured a period in the early 2000s as a mere trim level on humdrum Fiat models, but the arrival of the Abarth Grande Punto and 500-based models took the name back to its roots with potent small Fiats. All come with the famous scorpion badge, which comes from Carlo Abarth’s birth sign.
Aston Martin Q
What other name could Aston Martin use for its specially built cars than Q given the firm is so entwined with James Bond lore? This bespoke department doesn’t offer oil slicks and bullet-proof shields, however, instead providing Aston buyers with scope to personalise their car to a whole new level.
This approach includes tuning engines and even fitting drivetrains into cars that were not originally intended to have them. An extreme example of this is the Aston Cygnet with a Vantage S 4.7-liter V8 shoehorned into it after Aston’s engineers and a good customer thought it would be ‘funny’.
Audi Sport has two main activities: running the motorsport programs and developing high performance road cars. For the latter, Audi Sport is responsible for coming up with the engine and dynamic tuning for all S and RS versions of the company’s cars. It was also charged with developing the R8, though this was under the division’s previous name quattro GmbH.
The Sport offshoot is also where Audi’s occasional oddball cars often emanate from, such as the vaguely monstrous Q7 V12 TDI. Most Audi Sport cars are built at the subsidiary’s factory in Neckarsulm, but the RS3 and TT RS are built alongside their mainstream sister models on the main production lines.
BMW M Division
Like many car makers’ in-house tuning arms, BMW M Division started out in motor racing. The Motorsport Division turned its attention to road cars when it was officially founded in 1972 and its influence was startlingly clear with the M1 of 1978 with its mid-engined layout and 281 hp straight-six engine.
From there, a series of special cars has flowed from M Division, many of them becoming the defining fast car of their sector and period such as the E30 M3 and various M5 models. There are other BMWs that have received the M Division touch without earning its famed M badge, such as the 850CSi with its 380 hp 5.6-liter V12 motor developed under the wing of this tuning department.
Street and Racing Technology began as the team that developed the original Dodge Viper, starting out in 1989. Back then, the outfit was known as Team Viper and morphed through Specialty Vehicle Engineering and then Power Vehicle Operations before settling into SRT since 2004. It’s now part of the Stellantis group of companies.
SRT’s back catalogue is an impressive one, with plenty of large capacity motors and some incredibly quick cars to its name. They include that first Viper, the Plymouth Prowler, Dodge RAM SRT-10 pick-up, and the Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat. Most recently, SRT has developed faster versions of the Dodge Challenger and Charger, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Recent rumours suggested SRT’s demise, but they have been denied by its parent Stellantis, the name for the newly merged FCA and PSA companies.
Go faster parts and Ford have gone together since the dawn of motoring, and Ford has had a number of tuning divisions over the years. Names such as Advanced Vehicle Operations, RS and ST have all helped set pulses ticking that bit quicker, and the latest is the simply titled Ford Performance.
Unlike a lot of in-house tuning arms, Ford Performance offers a catalogue of parts for its out-of- production models. This means you can buy warranted, over-the-counter parts for your Fiesta ST, Focus RS or even the Mustang. They range from simple exhaust upgrades and air filters all the way to a supercharger kit for the Mustang, showing Ford still knows its fast car fans love a bolt-on goodie.
Contrary to what some believe, the ‘N’ for Hyundai’s in-house tuning boffins is not named after the Nürburgring. Instead, it stands for Namyang, which is home to the Korean company’s global research and development headquarters. However, that hasn’t stopped Hyundai from making the most of the German track to finesse its fast cars.
Another German influence on the N department is its boss, Albert Biermann, who was specifically sought thanks to his experience with BMW’s M Division. He arrived in 2014, a year after the N subsidiary was founded, and the i30 N was its first road car when it was launched in 2017 – and it’s pretty good.
Jaguar offers it customers a whole suite of options and upgrades through its Special Vehicle Operations outfit. Most of these are a chance for buyers to specify unique exterior and interior finishes, but for some the changes are further under the skin. This can mean performance upgrades for the engine, brakes and suspension, with the final outcome only limited by the customer’s budget and imagination.
An example of SVO’s output is the Project 8 that comes with a supercharged 5.0-liter V8 producing 600 hp. This makes it the most powerful roadgoing Jaguar the company has built to date and only 300 are slated to be made.
It’s a quirk of fate that Lexus itself started out as a top secret F project, with the letter denoting the intended Flagship status of the embryonic luxury maker from Toyota. By 2003, with Lexus well and truly on the map, a 2003 IS sedan with the 4.3-liter V8 from the GS crammed under its hood showed the F department’s intent.
The 2007 IS F was the tuning division’s first production model, complete with a 423 hp 5.0-liter V8 to give the BMW M3 a run for its money. The stunning LFA arrived in 2009 and several faster Lexus models have been launched since, like the RC F and GS F.
Similar to AMG and John Cooper, Mazdaspeed started life as an independent company called Mazda Sports Corner dedicated to tuning and racing Mazda cars. The firm started out in 1967 with Takayoshi Ohashi at the helm and it even won Le Mans for the Japanese maker in 1991. It wasn’t until 1999 that Mazda bought up Mazdaspeed and made it the company’s official tuning arm.
With Mazdaspeed in-house, upgraded performance models soon followed. The first was the turbocharged Mazda 3 hatch, then the Mazdaspeed MX-5 that also used a turbocharger to take the roadster’s power from 144 - to 180 hp.
Now a hyphenated part of Mercedes’ performance range of cars, AMG started out as a two-man band based in Groβaspach, to the north east of Stuttgart. Hans Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher both worked for Daimler-Benz developing race engine, but in their own time they were building their more highly tuned version of the 300 SE engine. This went on to win the 1965 German Touring Car Championship. The two set up in business in 1966, forming Aufrecht, Melcher Groβaspach, or AMG for short.
The pair’s outrageous AMG Mercedes 300 SEL 6.8 saloon was second overall and class winner at the 1971 24 Hours of Spa race. It put the company well and truly on the map and fast road cars followed to help fund motor racing. In 1990, AMG signed a deal that allowed its products to be sold through Mercedes’ dealer network. Then, in 1999, AMG was acquired by Mercedes and became the in-house tuning gurus with 1700 people employed at the AMG site in Affalterbach.
MINI’s JCW tuning arm acknowledges one of the original and best tuning companies that made the most of the original 1959 Mini. John Cooper was already a noted racing driver and car builder when that first Mini was launched and he saw the potential of the tiny car for motorsport. He sold the idea of building 1000 tuned cars under the Mini-Cooper name and, from there, an icon was born.
When BMW launched the modern MINI brand, Cooper and Cooper S models were part of the line-up, but you could also specify a faster John Cooper Works model. This was a kit developed by John Cooper’s son Mike and sold with certificate through official dealers. The JCW badge now applies to the most powerful versions in the range, with up to 310 hp on offer depending on the model you choose.
It’s a measure of how embedded Mountune is with Ford that you can buy the company’s tuning parts through the Blue Oval’s own website and dealers. All of these components are approved by Ford and retain the standard warranty, so you can have all the benefits of a fast Ford with none of the usual worries about long-term reliability.
Mountune started out in 1980 and has grown through its experience of motorsport to offer road car tuning products that work. There are no outlandish power claims, just real-world gains, such as increasing the power of a 2016 Focus RS from the standard355 hp to 377 hp.
Mugen is not so much in-house for Honda as in the family. The tuning firm was founded by Hirotoshi Honda (born 1942) - son of Soichiro Honda who started the car manufacturer of his name - along with Masao Kimura. From 1973, the aim was to offer more powerful engines in Honda cars and the name Mugen means ‘unlimited power’ in Japanese.
As well as a long list of race victories, including supplying engines to Formula 1 teams, Mugen has had a hand in many of Honda’s best road cars. They include the several fast Civics, the Prelude and CR-Z. You can also buy individual tuning parts to uprate suspension, wheels, brakes, exhaust, air intake, and seats that all come with Honda’s blessing.
The name derives from Nissan Motorsport, so you know the aim of Nismo right from the start. This is a tuning arm that is still heavily involved in racing, running Formula E and GT3 programs for its parent company. For road cars, Nismo is a name applied to production models that have been uprated by a small team of dedicated engineers and test drivers. Most Nismo cars end up with more power, but the team is equally focused on improving the car’s dynamic performance.
Nismo was founded in 1984 and its first upgraded parts for road cars went on sale the following year. This tuning division was also charged with taking the GT-R racing and created the race car that won an amazing 29 races consecutively in the All-Japan Touring Car Championship in 1993 and earned the car the nickname ‘Godzilla’.
The Porsche GT department is the bridge between the German company’s road cars and motorsport activities. Any car with ‘GT’ in its name from Porsche uses the racing philosophy of paring back to the bare essentials to make the car as quick and capable as possible. This was established way back with the 356A 1500 GS Carrera GT of 1957, though 1980 924 Carrera GT was perhaps closer to what we understand as a modern Porsche GT.
The Porsche GT department we know today took shape in the 1990s with the development of the 911 for racing. This fed into homologation cars like the 1995 911 GT2, then the 911 GT1 for endurance racing and the launch of the 911 GT3 in 1999. Since those early cars, the GT arm of Porsche has consistently produced rawer, faster and better handling versions of most road-going models, , and in the current 911 range are the only cars In the range to retain naturally aspirated engines.
The origins of Renault Sport lie in the amalgamation of the Alpine and Gordini racing departments, both owned by then by Renault. This occurred in 1976 and the first car they created was the R.S.0.1, which was the first turbocharged Formula 1 car. The first road car to bear the Renault Sport name was the Spider launched in 1995, though the 1993 Clio Williams was also developed by RS even if it didn’t bear its name.
While the Spider was a sales flop, Renault Sport hit its stride in 2000 with the launch of the Clio 172. Its tuned 170 hp 2.0-liter engine was great, but the real revelation was how well it handled and made the opposition look stale by comparison. It set the template for all subsequent RS models.
The Cupra name may be a standalone brand now, but it started life in 1996 as an evolution of the Seat Sport motorsport division. Mirroring Cupra’s success in racing and rallying, the first road car to bear this name was the Ibiza GTI Cupra Sport 16v. This compact hot hatch with a 150 hp 2.0-liter engine was huge fun and Cupra followed up with the 204 hp Leon in 2000.
Successively faster, more powerful models flowed from the Cupra department, culminating in the Leon Cupra 300 of 2017 that offered 0-62mph in 5.7 seconds. From 2019, all performance models moved under the umbrella of the Cupra name as a separate identity from Seat.
Subaru Tecnica International, or STI for short, can trace its roots back to 1988 when the Japanese firm decided to break some world records. A standard Legacy RS was given to the newly formed tuning division to be prepped and it went on to record the world high-speed endurance record, driving 62,000 miles in 18 days at an average speed of 138.78mph.
The first road car from STI was the Legacy RS RA, which helped start the rally career of Colin McRae. In 1994, the Impreza WRX arrived with STI’s input and you can still buy its spiritual successor, the S209, in the USA. STI also continues to sell individual components to upgrade Subaru models.
Toyota Gazoo Racing
The GR badge has come to prominence with the GR Yaris hot hatch, but the tuning division behind this cracking car traces its history back to 1979. This is when Toyota Motorsport GmbH was created to run the company’s European and World racing efforts, and itself was formed from Toyota Team Europe.
Gazoo Racing made its entrance in 2016 with the TS050 Hybrid, which went on to win the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2018, 2019 and 2020. The team also won the 2019 FIA World Rally Championship, providing the perfect launch pad for the GR Yaris, a brilliant and affordable road-going uber-hot hatch.
In the USA, Toyota has run its TRD (Toyota Racing Development) arm since 1979, and this was born out of the earlier Toyota Sports Corner concern. The simple idea was to go racing and sell more cars off the back of winning. The plan worked, with TRD enjoying success in the World Rally Championship, Baja 1000, IndyCar, and NASCAR.
Today, TRD continues its racing activities and you can buy over the counter upgrades for your Toyota’s brakes, suspension, engine and wheels.
Polestar has impeccable credentials when it comes to tuning. The company was founded as a racing team by Jan Nilsson, scoring more than 100 victories in the Swedish Touring Car Championship between 1996 and 2005 with Volvo-based cars. This spawned a road car tuning business, which was eventually bought up by Volvo in 2015.
Most of Polestar’s upgrades have centred on increasing engine power with remapped ECUs, usually denoted by the small blue square badge on the boot. Polestar became a standalone brand in 2019, but you can still upgrade your Volvo with Polestar Engineered Optimisation, which is an ongoing collaboration between Volvo and tuning company Polestar Engineered.