Ever since I got my own set of wheels at the age of 16, I’ve always been obsessed with vehicle performance. It probably stems from my days of overclocking my computers – always in search of the best tweak, enhancement or other improvement that would improve my overall computing experience. Over the years, I’ve used a number of aftermarket performance products in my cars. I thought I’d share what works and why so you can consider upgrading your ride or saving your hard-earned cash.
Why seek performance?
Some people view performance modifications as a justification to increase fuel consumption. I disagree because they aren’t looking at the big picture. Fuel economy is relative to performance. Performance can be measured a few ways including fuel consumption, emissions output and maximizing the kinetic energy your car can produce.
Automotive manufacturers have tuned most of the cars on the road to be much more conservative of their actual potential performance. They do this to prolong vehicle reliability within their sparse vehicle maintenance schedules. Simply, it gives the impression to consumers that their cars are more reliable, when in reality, they have been throttled back from their true potential. For instance, the third and fourth generation Camaro was dialed back just a enough to make sure that on paper, they didn’t compete with the Corvette in terms of performance — they often shared the same engines with improved output on the Corvettes.
The pursuit of improved performance is not necessarily juxtaposed against the pursuit of fuel economy. In the end, most people want their daily drivers to be economical and enjoyable to drive for a variety of conditions. Performance modifications can help you achieve significant improvements on your ride without any major drawbacks.
Performance modifications are a journey
I don’t recommend anyone immediately goes out and buys enhancements for their cars when they buy them. To realize the value of the modifications, you should grow comfortable with your vehicle in its stock condition. Probably, for many of you, this is your car now, and that’s okay.
Think about what you want to improve about your car. Is it the acceleration? Is it the stopping power? Is it the ride quality? Is it the fuel consumption? It could be any number of things — going on a spending spree at AutoZone or your favorite performance shop might not get you to your desired goal.
When applying vehicle performance mods, consider implementing them one at a time to get a sense for how it makes an impact on your car. Not only will you more sensibly spend your cash, you’ll understand with greater precision how your car is improved with them. If money is no object, then by all means, drop your car off at a local performance shop and give them a blank check. For the rest of us, read on.
7 Affordable Performance Mods You Should Try
- COLD-AIR INTAKE
Estimated cost: $100-$300
Benefits: Improved acceleration and fuel economy
A cold air intake is the first and easiest mod that anyone can do in less than an hour. It consists of replacing the stock, restrictive air box for your car’s intake. The premise is that by allowing air to flow naturally without any baffles or restrictions, your engine is able to breathe easier to access more air when needed, such as when using an on-ramp to join a highway.Depending on the design of the intake, you could just make it breathe hotter engine air, so try to select one that “seals” off the engine bay from the air filter area. These kits often come with a long-life air filters that require different maintenance and cleaning intervals for optimal performance.
If you find that you ford rivers or deal with significant downpours of rain, don’t leave your intake exposed to the outside elements, or you’ll hydrolock your engine. (I did this once, #fail.)
Check online forums to understand what other like-minded drivers think of their upgrades, the brands they trust and the setups they have. You could learn a good amount just by researching what others have done with their intakes and the performance they offer. This tip applies to the rest of these recommendations, too.
- CAT-BACK EXHAUST
Estimated cost: $250+
Benefits: Improved acceleration and fuel economy
Difficulty: Medium (seek an automotive shop for installation)
Along with a cold-air intake is the second mod that many people are very familiar with: exhaust upgrades. Assume for a moment that your engine is a water pump, sucking water in and pushing water out. You need to make sure that the pipes you have for your exhaust enable air to escape freely. If you do an intake upgrade, it’s a good idea to upgrade your exhaust. Aside from sound enhancements, it allows your engine to run more efficiently. Following my intake and exhaust upgrades, I’ve seen about a 5% improvement in my fuel economy.
A cat-back exhaust system entails everything after the catalytic converter, so it’s completely legal to change (except California, those legislators are bastards).Not all Cat-Back Exhaust systems have to be obnoxiously loud. With the use of resonators and mufflers, it can still be high-flow and lower-volume … but it’s safe to assume it will be significantly more noticeable than your stock exhaust system.
Pricing varies greatly based on the brand and features of their exhaust systems – do your research – YouTube is a great way to hear the before and after samples of people’s exhaust upgrades.If you believe your stock pipes are sufficient, you can opt for an “axle-back” upgrade, which is basically just changing out the rear mufflers.
- STRUT TOWER BRACES (STRUT BARS)
Estimated cost: $100 – $300
Benefits: Improved handling
Difficulty: Medium (should have long-tube sockets for removal of strut bolts)
To improve the handling of your car as you enter turns, you might want to install a strut tower brace, which is located at the top of your front shocks. They work by balancing the forces that are placed on one side of your car to be distributed to the other side. In extremes, this will keep your tires on the ground through a high-speed turn that would normally make the other tire unstable.
Watch this video to learn more about the physics behind this mod.The benefit from this modification is that you will improve the stability of your car when rolling over bumps and making turns. An additional benefit is that you can lean on these bars when you are under the hood of your car. You can also install strut bars for the rear suspension, but I haven’t sensed a great need for this, unless for race applications.
While we’re on the topic of suspensions, if your car is older, you might want to spring [pun intended] for polyurethane (“poly”) bushings for added strength and absorption of energy transfer in your control arms and anti-sway bars in your suspension. Likewise, if you need to replace motor mounts, switch to polyurethane for added longevity and performance.In short, if you find you go over speed bumps frequently, enter frequent high-speed turns and want to improve the under-hood aesthetics, a strut brace might be a good investment.
- COMPUTER TUNE
Estimated cost: $400 – $700
Benefits: Improved performance and fuel economy.
Difficulty: Easy – Hard
We know that computers in our cars today control all aspects of its performance and emissions. Newer cars today can be tuned (edited) to improve certain aspects of the engine to unlock more horsepower throughout the entire power band. After making modifications like an intake and exhaust, you might want to explore if your car is eligible for a tune. Not all cars are designed for this modification, but many allow aftermarket settings to be written to the computer. There are two primary types of ‘tunes’ for your car: a self-service, pre-made tune and a custom-built Dyno tune by a performance auto shop.
A self-service tune often requires a handheld device that you would load a ready-made tune file provided by a distributor that would backup your computer’s settings and overwriting the stock settings. These are easy and straightforward to use (I can upload and replace tunes in about 5 minutes on the spot). Many years ago, these have been referred to as “chipped” vehicles, when you would just plug-and-play with the modifications.
A Dyno tune requires the use of a dynamometer operated by a trained professional. A dynamometer consists of a set of rollers that acts like a treadmill for your car that is strapped down securely to objectively measure horsepower and torque. What operators do is start with a template for your car and hook up additional sensors into your car’s computer. Then when the car is operated at maximum power, the programmer would update your air-fuel ratios among other settings to safely unlock more power. If you don’t want to change your tunes frequently, it’s worth opting for a Dyno tune because it will be based on your actual vehicle and not a cookie-cutter template. Discuss how the tune can be changed or restored with the shop so you know what you’re getting into.
The bottom line is that when you have a number of upgrades or you wish to maximize the power your car currently offers, a tune will get you far along. Do your research to see what the typical gains are for your vehicle. Avoid falling for those IAT mods being sold on eBay for like $10. Junk.
- HIGH PERFORMANCE TIRES
Estimated cost: $500 – $900
Benefits: Improved fuel economy and handling.
You regularly check the air pressure and wearing of your tires, right? If not, get in the habit of checking them at least once a week or so. Doing so will help you catch problems before they become disasters. That said, one way to improve fuel economy and handling is to invest in a good set of lower-resistance “Summer Tires” so you don’t needlessly add more rolling resistance to your car.
If you find you do a lot of highway driving and don’t find yourself hitting water, ice, snow or mud, then you will benefit from these higher-performance tires. They are made with different rubber compounds that are “harder” so they don’t erode as quickly as other tires. They also have specialized tread patterns that reduce its “bite” into the road.
Assess your driving behavior and situations to decide if these are appropriate. If you typically experience all four seasons, stick with an all-season/terrain tire.I’m not suggesting you go nuts and get Mickey Thompsons on your car. Research the reviews from thousands of other drivers on tires on a site like TireRack, compare their UTOQ ratings and look into professional reviews of the tires when making your decision.
- H.I.D. HEADLIGHTS
Estimated cost: $50 – $300
Benefits: Improved visibility
Difficulty: Easy – Medium
If you have regular halogen bulbs, you are missing out from improved driving safety. High Intensity Discharge (HID) lamps are lights that operate with a secondary electric amplifier along with a bulb charged with a special gas to make it illuminate brightly. When I replaced my halogens to eBay-sourced HIDs, I instantly doubled my visibility of the roadway, which is critical when driving in rural areas. The effort to replace them is fairly easy, but you should take care to secure the ballast to your vehicle and protect it from water exposure.
You get the choice of color temperatures, so you don’t always have to look like a high-end (or cheap) import car. I selected 5500K, which gives a slight bluish tint to the white light, which was what I wanted. One drawback is that HIDs may produce too much light and fail to focus it in any one direction. You can opt for projector-based (focused lenses) HIDs for a more refined lighting experience.
- SPARK PLUGS & WIRES
Estimated cost: $40 – $80
Benefits: Improved fuel economy
I wouldn’t exactly call this a “mod” because it’s a part of regular vehicle maintenance, but you can make a big difference just by replacing your spark plugs and their wires. Spark plugs wear out over time as their conductive elements erode away and force your ignition coils to do more work to produce a “hotter” spark. Wires also make a big difference due to electrical resistance and insulation to causing interference. The cost for this is modest and can be easy to do on your own (except on Fourth-Generation Camaros), so it’s a worthwhile “mod” once every 50,000 miles.
Since we’re on the subject of performance-driven maintenance, it’s a good idea to replace your fuel filter. Often, this is forgotten about through the regular course of fluid and filter changes. A dirty fuel filter will force your fuel pump to operate less efficiently and impedes the overall fuel economy of your car. At the price of $6 – $12, you can justify changing it once every 15,000 miles (or every fourth oil change).
A word about manufacturer’s warranties
You can safely upgrade your car without voiding the warranty. By law, vehicle manufacturers must prove that your modification caused such damage to occur to your car or that the part was in need of service at the time of replacement. A degree of common sense is applied here. For instance, if you swapped out your stock air box for an aftermarket cold-air intake, it’s plausible that the warranty covering your Mass Airflow sensor is void because you changed the adjoining part (also that MAFs are sensitive to touch, shock and contaminants in the air).
In short, modify your car safely and prudently. If you care a lot about your manufacturer’s warranty, just ask the service adviser at your dealership if doing X will void Y’s warranty. Most of them will probably sell you on the brand’s in-house upgrades – or will simply look the other way if it’s not extreme. Review the terms of your warranty to understand what duties you have and what limitations apply.
Again, by law, for a dealer to deny warranty service, they must have proof that your modification materially damaged your car or that it was broken at the time of replacement. In 99.99% of the time, these changes won’t hurt your car and are completely able to be returned to stock. Keep your receipts!
Listen to your car community to find the right mods
In these seven recommendations, these are pretty wide and not too specific to any one application. However, I strongly encourage you to research forums for your vehicle and read up on relevant posts curated by others. Enthusiasts tend to be after the same goals you are: improved performance, lower costs and maximum reliability. Checking around on forums and even YouTube videos will help you become more informed on how to take your car even further.
This post is a part of my 60 days of blogging. Read more about #60DOB.
Photo credit: AmericanMuscle