In the world of car ownership, there are generally two schools of thought: there are those who think of their cars no more fondly than they do their toaster ovens—they consider their car an appliance, and have no intent to modify or upgrade it, just as you and I would never consider modifying or upgrading our toaster oven to enhance its performance.
On the other hand, there are the folks like us, who think of our cars as more than just a means of transportation. We understand that our cars can serve as a medium through which fun can be had, and a platform upon which modifications and upgrades can be made to increase performance and realize a legitimate improvement. There are few things more gratifying than that first drive after performing an upgrade and immediately noticing the improvement. In this article, we’ll go over some of the car upgrades and modifications that are most likely to foster that feeling of instant gratification. In other words, here are some car upgrades that are actually worth it.
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to insert a quick rant before we talk about why wheels are a worthy upgrade. First and foremost: you cannot buy new rims, you can only buy new wheels. The term “rim” is used to describe the face of the wheel that we see when looking at a car, while the term “wheel” describes the rim, the mounting surface, the barrel, etc. So, you can say “Nice rims!” but you cannot say “I just got new rims.”
Okay, rant over, back to our regularly scheduled programming: upgrading to aftermarket wheels can be beneficial in two different ways. The first and most obvious improvement that you’ll notice is an aesthetic one. Nothing changes the look and overall visual theme of a car more than a nice set of aftermarket wheels. OEMs tend to stay reserved in their wheel designs, going with smaller sizes for improved comfort, and more tame rim designs to appeal to a wider audience. In the aftermarket, however, you can choose a more aggressive size (both width and diameter) and a design to more directly suit your preferences.
The other area where you can see an improvement with aftermarket wheels, depending on the wheels you choose, is in the handling department. If you choose a wheel setup that is lighter than the stock wheels, you’ll notice that the turn-in is sharper and that the car will generally feel more nimble. This is because the weight of the wheels and tires is unsprung, meaning that it is not supported by the suspension. Unsprung weight, very generally, has a proportionally larger effect than sprung weight, so dropping just a few pounds off the wheels can make a big difference. There’s also the benefit of lower rotational mass, but this isn’t a physics article and I’ve already gone into too much detail on wheels (sorry, I’m a sucker for a nice set of wheels) so let’s move on.
Going hand in hand with aftermarket wheels is a quality set of performance tires. Good tires, in my humble opinion (which happens to be inarguably correct), are the single most important modification you can make to a car, and I talked more about why in this article. It doesn’t matter how much horsepower your engine makes or how aggressively you’ve modified your suspension, if you don’t have the right rubber between you and the road. Good tires provide more grip, more stable handling and cruising, and as long as you stay away from true track tires, more grip on wet roads.
However, performance tires are typically for summer only, and lose all of those benefits when the temperature drops below 40° F. For this reason, many people run a set of summer wheels, which are wrapped in high performance summer tires, and a set of winter wheels (stock wheels work well for winter duty) wrapped in snow or all-season tires. The tire pictured above, for instance, is Michelin’s Pilot Sport 4S Max Performance Summer Tire, which is only recommended for use in temperatures exceeding 40° F. I run these tires myself in the summer, and can personally attest to them being excellent. They are a great option for someone looking to upgrade to a higher performance set of tires.
Modern engines leave very little control to the mechanical devices that make them up. Older engines had a distributor to control ignition timing, and a carburateur to control air to fuel ratio, which are both mechanical parts. Modern engines, however, have an engine computer that does both of those jobs along with hundreds of others (these engine computers go by a slew of different acronyms: ECU, DME, ECM etc. For our sake, we’ll stick to the most widely used one, ECU).
The parameters that the ECU controls are typically set from the factory to maximize are fuel efficiency and reliability. This means that there’s plenty of room to gain power with absolutely zero hardware modifications, and the process through which this is done is known as tuning.
Generally, there are two ways to tune an engine: a piggyback tune and a flash tune. A piggyback tune is a small device that plugs into a sensor in the engine bay, like the Mass Air Flow or Mass Air Pressure sensor. It intercepts the input signal in real time and manipulates it by telling the ECU, for example, that there is not enough boost pressure being generated—thus tricking the ECU into generating extra boost pressure.
A flash tune, on the other hand, is typically done by plugging a computer into the OBDII sensor of the car and loading a completely different “map” or set of parameters onto the ECU. A flash tune will alter ignition timing, fueling, boost pressure (on turbocharged cars) and other parameters to a more aggressive setting than stock in order to generate more power from the engine.
Flash tunes are typically more expensive, but they also tend to generate more power and be more reliable than piggyback tunes as a function of their more complete control over the engine.
So, now that you know what it is, allow me to explain why tuning is an upgrade that is very much worthy of spending your hard-earned dollars on: it’s fast, easy, and has the potential to generate a very significant increase in the amount of power your engine generates, especially on cars with a turbocharger.
On turbocharged cars, an engine tune’s primary function is to increase boost pressure (and other parameters to compensate for the bump in boost), which is sure to make an immediately noticeable improvement on power and acceleration. On cars with superchargers rather than turbochargers, a smaller supercharger pulley will be needed to increase boost, and then a tune is required to adjust other parameters accordingly. On naturally aspirated cars, the benefits of a tune are less dramatic and less pronounced, but still worth it for those looking to get everything they can out of their car.
Right off the bat, it’s important to mention that upgrading your exhaust, assuming you do so legally by retaining the catalytic converter, is typically not going to net you any serious power gains, and that’s OK. A modified exhaust is beneficial in its ability to transform the driving experience of a car by providing real auditory feedback. It will allow you to hear the engine work much more clearly by removing the restrictive factory exhaust in favor of a freer-flowing aftermarket one.
There are a few different classifications of aftermarket exhausts to choose from, and they are classified based on how much of the exhaust system you are replacing. To start, there’s the full exhaust, which replaces every single piece of piping from the heads to the tailpipe. This would be a very aggressive system for a street car, not to mention illegal because you’ll remove the catalytic converter, which is a piece of equipment necessary to meet emissions requirements. Next, there’s the header-back exhaust, which retains the factory header, and replaces everything else. Still very aggressive, still illegal, let’s move on.
The first realistic option for the average consumer is the cat-back exhaust. This will retain the factory catalytic converter, meaning your car will still pass inspection, but it will replace everything after that. This will free up a lot of bottled up sound, and will net you a small bump in power, depending on what kind of car you drive.
Finally, there’s the axle back exhaust, which replaces everything after the rear axle—i.e., just the muffler. This will still provide a significant improvement in volume and quality of sound, but will provide little to no power increase. It’s also the cheapest option and in my opinion, the best for the everyday driver. So depending on what you choose, an exhaust upgrade can be a relatively small or relatively significant investment, but any option will surely be a marked improvement over stock, and will certainly prove to be worth the money as soon as that first post-install startup.
Shocks, Springs and Coilovers
When people think about upgrading their car, they tend to focus on aesthetics and engine stuff, overlooking the suspension entirely (most people want to be fast and loud, not planted and flat, right?) However, upgrading suspension components can be incredibly rewarding in its ability to make your car feel much more nimble, stable, and flat through corners.
For most people, what they want from their car in the handling department can be achieved by simply upgrading the springs and shocks to performance versions, or swapping out the springs for coilovers. Swapping out just the springs for upgraded ones while retaining the stock shocks will dramatically improve body roll, in addition to (in most cases) lowering the car for better aesthetics.
Shocks will help to control bounce and improve higher speed stability, but won’t make a huge difference without being paired with springs. Coilovers are the best though most expensive option, and they replace the springs in favor of an adjustable coilover with which you can customize stiffness and ride height. Coilovers are almost always paired with a matching set of performance shocks, as well. For most people, a simple spring upgrade will do the trick, though all the items listed above are most certainly worth it if you’re looking to improve your car’s handling abilities.
Big Brake Kit and Suspension Bushings
As I’m sure you were able to tell by the title of this subsection, the last two items have been grouped together, and I’ve done this for a reason. A big brake kit (BBK) and set of suspension bushings are only worth it if you’re really serious about getting the most out of the car, and/or plan on tracking it. They are not modifications I would recommend for the everyday street car or for the casual car-modifier. With that being said: they most certainly are worth it for those who plan to track their cars, and here’s why: the average car’s stock brake system is designed with parts longevity and a safe amount of stopping power as the top priorities.
Aftermarket brake kits, however, are designed with face-ripping stopping power and fade prevention as the top priorities. So, the stock system is plenty for street use, but for track days, a BBK is certainly a worthy investment, as it will allow you to brake later, and it will fade less than the stock system after a long session. Similarly, stock suspension bushings are perfectly fine for street use, though upgraded suspension bushings are certainly a worthy investment for track-goers.
Suspension bushings are present at different joints in the suspension, and are designed to absorb road impacts. Stock suspension bushings are typically made of rubber, which flexes under pressure to improve comfort. So, some people choose to upgrade to polyurethane bushings, which compromise comfort, but improve sharpness and eliminate unwanted suspension movements, giving the car a tighter feel on the road or track.
Closing Remarks: Learn YOUR Car
Now, having just expressed which modifications and upgrades I believe are truly worth it, it’s important to realize that not all car makes and models are the same. In fact, they are all very different, so not every upgrade will have the same effect on different cars. Because of that, I hope that this article will serve as a jumping-off point for you as you start to research what is right for your exact car.
Online forums are a great place to find out what tune, exhaust, or coilover kit is best for your car. The benefits described here will be generally universal, but for deciding on what brand or combination of upgrades is best, look to the forums. Happy researching, and happy upgrading!