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.