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Mr. Frugal Presents The Five Most Cost Effective Car Mods

Posted in Car Accessories, car modifications, Featured, General, Mechanics by Kurt Ernst | April 6th, 2010 | 20 Responses |

Mazdaspeed springs & swaybars, Flyin' Miata exhaust

Times are tough, and everybody I know is trying to save as much money as they can. What do you do if you’re a gearhead looking to improve your ride on a budget? You’ve got a limited amount of money to spend, so what mods will give you the best return for your investment?

Every car is different, and it’s impossible to cover specifics by make and model. Still, the information below, general though it may be, applies to nearly all stock vehicles. Some mods will give you a “butt dyno” improvement in acceleration, others will help cut your lap times. If you’ve got any experience wrenching on cars, most of these can be done in your own garage, saving you a boatload on labor costs. You can do them one at a time, as your budget allows, since all of them are “stand alone” mods that don’t require additional upgrades to function properly.

Ditch your stock tires for “summer only” performance tires

Most cars come equipped with all season radials supplied to the automaker by the lowest bidder. These may be fine for commuting, but tires are generally the weakest link in any stock vehicle.

Upgrading to a higher performance tire will give you better braking, better turn-in and will allow higher cornering speeds. Four new tires, especially good ones, won’t be cheap, but bargains can be found on brands like Kumho or Hankook. Both build decent tires, but don’t have the inflated overhead of Goodyear, Michelin, Bridgestone or Pirelli.

Save your stock all season tires for winter driving (unless you live where it doesn’t get cold), and your upgraded tires should last you for quite a while.

Upgrade your exhaust

You can spend a little bit of money doing this or you can spend a lot; it all depends on your budget and performance expectations. Going with custom headers, a low restriction catalyst (or a ‘test pipe’, for off road use) and a performance muffler will net you the best improvement, but will have the biggest cost. Chances are good you’ll need to replace an oxygen sensor and you may need to reflash the cars ECU, so it may require a shop if you don’t have the tools and the knowledge to do this at home.

Replacing just the muffler will get you a small gain, probably just enough to feel the difference under hard acceleration. By retaining the stock exhaust upstream, you reduce the cost and complexity of swapping components that tie into your car’s ECU.

Add a cold air intake and high flow air filter

Changing out your stock airbox for a cold air intake can generally net you a few more horsepower, plus it makes the car sound a whole lot better. The downside? Since cold air intakes are generally located as low as possible in the engine compartment, you need to be careful when driving through puddles. Sucking water into a cold-air intake is a one time thing, and you’ll get to learn all sorts of cool science about how liquid isn’t compressible. You’ll also pick up valuable experience in swapping your motor for one that doesn’t have a connecting rod sticking through the side of the block. Just be careful, don’t drive through any deep puddles and you should be fine.

One more word about performance air filters: it it flows more air, chances are good it’ll flow more dirt as well. If you want the maximum performance, an aftermarket intake with a high flow air cleaner is the way to go. If you want the longest possible engine life, you may want to stick to the stock airbox and filter.

Change your stock springs for lower, stiffer ones

Stock suspensions are always a compromise between comfort, handling and crash testing requirements. If you want better handling from your ride, you need to drop the suspension and firm up the springs.

Most manufacturers have multiple options for each car, ranging from a slight drop and small increase in stiffness to track-only setups, with a radical drop and brutally uncomfortable ride. It’s your choice, but I recommend going with the smallest drop unless you’re building a race car. The net result will still be a better appearance and superior handling compared to stock.

Add stiffer sway bars

Sway bars may be the most mis-understood upgrade that people make to their vehicles. Stiffer isn’t always better; you need to know what handling traits you want before buying sway bars. Adding a stiffer bar to the front will cause more understeer if the rear is left alone; generally speaking, this results in slower lap times, not faster ones. Likewise, setting a rear sway on full stiff can result in a poorly balanced car that’s unforgiving at the limit; remember, a fast car is well balanced.

My preference is for a slightly stiffer sway bar up front and a medium-stiff bar in the back. Compared to stock, this gives me a car that has less understeer and controllable oversteer. It’s comfortable to drive on the street, yet predictable enough for track trays and autocrossing.

So there you have it, the five best “bang for your buck” car mods. Let me know if I overlooked something, or if you have other suggestions.

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20 Responses

  1. Joel says:

    Posts like this don’t come from crappy, sloppy research. They come from sheer experience and expertise. You can tell Kurt’s a pro through the content of his articles, and also you can tell he’s a writer through the entertainment value he builds in.

    Kurt, do you blog anywhere else? You’d be an asset to any site to which you contributed. You certainly are to this one.

  2. a says:

    are these ranked in order of value to price ratio?

  3. jim says:

    best car blog ever! not like those of autoblog where people come start flame war.

  4. inthebuff says:

    I’m not a wrench turner at all..so …what would be the easiest DIY project out of the list? On an f-bomb ratio?

  5. Kurt says:

    a, yes, these are roughly ranked by expense and benefit. For example, tires will generally be the most expensive mod, but will make the biggest improvement in handling. Sway bars will probably cost the least, but will only make a modest improvement in handling.

  6. Kurt says:

    Joel, thanks for the compliment. This is the only auto blog I write for; I spend my nights as a Chippendale’s dancer when I’m not bodyguarding some A list celebrity.

  7. Kurt says:

    jim, thanks! Spread the word about us – we’d love to have more readers.

  8. Kurt says:

    inthebuff, that would be tires at zero f-bombs, because someone else is dong the install. A new muffler is five f-bombs, a cold air intake ranges from five to ten f-bombs, springs are generally around twenty f-bombs and sways are about five f-bombs. All require the consumption of beer upon completion of the job.

  9. Dave says:

    inthebuff; I’m right there with you, but I did the mufflers, CAI, and reprogramming of my 05 Mustang GT by myself. It took longer than what the directions indicated it would, but I got them done.

  10. Kurt says:

    The front sway bar install on an ’06 Miata calls for removal of the front clip. You can do it without removing the front clip, but it takes a lot of patience and a little bit of luck. The CAI requires the front clip to come off.

    On the other hand, the muffler is about a ten minute job.

  11. MJ Posner says:

    Wow, disappointed in this article. Clearly not a bang for the buck article at all. The exhaust is either cheap and gets you no extra power (except noise which may make you feel faster). Only headers will really work and that is a major expense.

    Most CAI add little or no power and some poorly designed ones actually hurt performance. Also, many low hangers can lead to water in the engine. Without a true ecu tune, a waste.

    My top five:

    1. ECU Tune (can add 20 hp and on turbocharged cars easily 50hp)
    2. Driving School
    3. Better tires (agree here with the post)
    4. Big brake kit
    5. CAI (if tune is done and is custom to teh specific cai).

  12. Kurt says:

    MJ, thanks for the feedback, and you point out exactly why you can’t write an article that’s 100% correct for every car made.

    An ECU reflash can be a great mod, if it’s available for your specific vehicle. Cost can be a factor here, especiaily if you need custom programming done.

    A driving school is a must for any driver, IMO, but it’s not a mod to the car which is why I didn’t include it. Both Mike (our editor) and I have experience as instructors, so I can attest to just how much an average driver can pick up from even a single track day.

    I’ve got to disagree on the big brake kit, as most of these are $1k and up (depending upon vehicle) and totally unnecessay for street use. Sure they help on the track, where better braking (and fade resistance) can help lap times, but they’re not my idea of a cost-effective mod for the average car and driver.

  13. Julian says:

    First off, messing with the ECU will immediately void your warranty and a BBK is hardly a bang for buck mod. Only time you’ll ever need a BBK is for track days not to mention they start from a couple thousand to 10k+.

  14. Rankin says:

    I’d like one of each, but it would probably be better to just buy a new car. (1996 civic atm)

  15. car guy says:

    Shocks before springs always, a car will always handle better with some good shocks like konis and the stock springs than with shitty stock shocks on cheap lowering springs

  16. Chuck says:

    Here’s the author’s process to writing this article:

    1. Google “cheap performance parts”
    2. Write down the most common answers
    3. Fill in dead space with useless facts and unqualified personal preferences
    4. Publish

    This is pure rubbish. Sure, these are the 5 most common performance upgrades, but if you’d put a little more thought into what *value* performance upgrades are, I think you’d realize the outpipe and intake wouldn’t get touched, and that tires which actually offer justifiable performance come at an unjustifiable price.

    Get a new job, you fail at this one.

  17. Kurt says:

    Gee Chuck, I’ve only been wrenching on cars and bikes since the early 1980s. You, on the other hand, have been doing it since 2000. I defer to your vast expertise in tuning Supras and installing stereos…

  18. BigRuss says:

    ive been wrenching for about a decade and ive learned from my family which has a racing history going back to the 70’s and most of these mods are on the top of everyones list

  19. Kurt says:

    C’mon Big Russ, admit it: your family just Googled “cheap performance parts” back in the 1970s…

  20. BigRuss says:

    nope… my uncle had a Hemi ‘Cuda and my old man ran a Porsche powered bug… and out on the track they had an Olds’ powered bug and a 440 dumped into a Duster… dont think google coulda helped them on those… hell even today im pickin up my old mans old tow vehicle he bought new back in 82