New Life For Your Old Ride
Your well-to-do buddy from college just bagged another monster commission from some seriously lucrative fund management, while your promotion has been delayed yet another year. He drives home with a 420 horsepower Porsche, having paid the six-figure asking price in cash, and your 10-year-old, slightly dinged, very curb-rashed Audi A4 sits in your driveway begging for some much-needed performance TLC. Life is hard for you, and the pain is palpable. You’ve thought about getting rid of your car, but it still runs well, and it’s paid for. But you want more from it — better handling, better acceleration and the ability to enjoy driving it for at least the next few years.
It’s time to mod your existing ride and breathe some new life into it. No, we don’t mean getting a subscription to Performance Tuner and then transforming your car by slamming it, buying a new engine and festooning it with green paint and a spoiler the size of Moby Dick’s tail. You want to remain tasteful while improving your car’s drivability. There are numerous “under-the-skin” changes you can make to your car without paying through the nose and without looking like the latest addition to the Fast and Furious crew. Here’s eight affordable ways to make your current ride that much better.
Cold Air Intake (CAI)
Breathe Deeply and Repeat: Unlike a creepy, heavy-breathing caller on the other end of the phone, a cold air intake is a welcome thing — at least for driving enthusiasts. In fact, this may be the least expensive way to improve the power and efficiency of your car. It replaces your car’s standard air box and filter with a cone-shaped, long-life filter and an aluminum or plastic intake tube. All this provides more air to your engine, boosting the horsepower and fuel efficiency. Just make sure you mount it higher under the hood, rather than down low by the wheel wells. Sucking in any kind of moisture can result in the dreaded hydro-lock, essentially killing your engine. And, as with any engine-related modifications, just know that it could possibly void your manufacturer warranty and/or insurance coverage should something go awry.
High-Flow Exhaust and Headers
The Exhale Matters, Too: Bringing more air into your engine increases performance, but adding new headers and a better-flowing exhaust system allows waste gases to exit with greater ease, boosting your car’s oomph even more. A modern car’s muffler and catalytic converter exists to reduce noise and harmful emissions, but they also increase a car’s back pressure and impede the car’s ability to get waste gases out of the engine, thereby wasting power. Exhaust gas coming from the cylinder has to push all the other exhaust through the manifold pipes and silencers; this is what’s known as back pressure. Too much back pressure doesn’t just diminish a car’s available power; it also raises engine temperatures and makes the engine work harder, reducing fuel economy. Installing a new exhaust manifold that provides both smooth and equal-length pipe sections to exit gas from each of the engine’s cylinders, along with installing an exhaust system (not just a big muffler and tailpipes) that minimizes bends and increases pipe size, can have marked effects on your car’s performance. And, heck, if your beater also starts sounding like a German sports car, who’s to complain?
Engine Control Unit (ECU) Reprogramming
The Brains behind the Brawn: Your car’s ECU does the job of making sure everything is running smoothly. It uses actuators and sensors to adjust air-fuel ratio, ignition timing and idle speed to keep the engine’s performance hiccup-free. When it comes to fuel-injected or direct-inject engines, the ECU adjusts the air-fuel mixture as necessary. Reprogramming the ECU (or “chipping”) alters the mapping parameters to increase performance and, in some cases, enhance fuel economy. Reputable tuning shops can plug into your car’s diagnostic port to re-flash the ECU’s built-in software using a pre-programmed map, or you can do it yourself with the proper device. If you want to spend a little more, you can have a custom program uploaded to your ECU. All of this electronic wizardry can transform your car in little more than an hour. If you want to go so far as to combine it with the Cold Air Intake and the Free Flow Exhaust, it’s the triumvirate of bargain horsepower gains.
Upgrade Your Tires
Going Around in Circles: You can have all the power in the world under the hood, but without traction, you’re just a guy with good intentions. Having a good set of tires can make all the difference in how your car puts power to the pavement and handles turns. Instead of jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none all-season tires, aim for summer performance tires when winter is gone for good. Better rubber compounds and tread patterns that increase traction can transform how your car rides. Just make sure you keep an eye on tread wear ratings, wet weather traction capability and ride noise — all of which can ruin your experience if you’re not mindful.
Replace Your Spark Plugs
Clean Spark, Good Burn: Spark plugs don’t seem very exciting, but these tiny metal and porcelain doohickeys can work wonders if you find the right ones. The spark emitted by the plug serves a singular and vital purpose: to ignite the gas and air mixture in your car’s cylinder walls to generate power. A clean, hot spark ignites fuel and air better, and making sure you get the right plugs and change them regularly is key; these little bad boys get hot and can corrode over time. Copper conducts best but doesn’t last as long as platinum and iridium. For the best of both worlds — great conductivity and long life — aim for iridium plugs with fine wire centers. If you’re just out for the best conductivity and don’t mind changing your spark plugs every 20K miles or so, go with copper. But always aim for single-piece plugs, instead of two-piece. This way, they won’t break in half if there’s some fusion with the threading.
Install Sway Bars
Don’t Roll with It: So your sporty-like sedan has never been all that great at holding the turns, and most of the time it feels more Buick than Bavarian. Of course, you can completely replace your shocks and springs, but who wants to spend all that money? For much less, you can improve your car’s ability to manage the apexes by installing sway bars (otherwise known as anti-roll bars) in the front and rear of your car, thereby connecting the right side of your car to the left. The basic principle behind sway bars is that they’re designed to increase your car’s torsional rigidity, keeping the car firmer in the corners and enhancing proper weight transfer when turning. Just remember to buy them in matching pairs only (rather than mixing brands) and always install in both the front and the rear. Look for high-strength tubular steel, rather than solid bars that are too heavy and increase your car’s unsprung weight. Finally, don’t get them too large and too stiff, as they could make your car a bit twitchy under spirited driving. If you’re handy with cars, it shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours to install yourself. Otherwise, trust the professionals.
Install a Short Throw Shifter (Manual)
Shorter Is Better: If you’re one of the few men left on the planet who drive a manual transmission automobile (and enjoy it), you know that at least half the fun of driving comes from roping through your own gears. But most stick shift cars shy of a Mazda Miata or a Honda S2000 tend to have long throws, increasing shifting effort and shift times. Sure, they’re great for everyday driving comfort, but when it comes to more aggressive driving, a long shifter can be a bit of a wet blanket, and stock manual shifters often lack the precision of a short throw shifter. Upgrading to a good short throw shift kit will enhance your shifter’s feel and precision, and reduce shift times.
Replace Your Rubber Bushings with Polyurethane
The Devil’s in the Details: Unless you’re a car fanatic, you know absolutely zilch about bushings. We don’t blame you. Small, unseen and seemingly insignificant, they’re actually a key factor in how your car drives and feels. Bushings are found in your vehicle’s suspension system, where all kind of movements are isolated between metal parts, keeping vibration down and weight transfer in check. But stock rubber bushings break down over time and have a limited lifespan, especially when they come in contact with oils or lubricants and extreme temperatures. Rubber also has a tendency to have too much give. Replacing them with more rigid, longer-lasting polyurethane will result in a better overall driving experience, as well as smoother handling.