Today’s automakers build an incredible range of high-performance machines, from track-capable SUVs to ludicrously fast EVs. Yet there’s still something to be said about doing the job yourself. In a perfect situation, that’s the way to fine-tune exactly the car, so it’s exactly the way you want it. Do-it-yourself performance mods are also appealing if you’re like most real-world enthusiasts and working on a budget. Modifying a late-model compact car may be as close as you can come to buying a brand-new supercar.
Just remember that you may have to pay a sort of hidden cost with these upgrades since they typically void any warranty coverage you have on your vehicle. Here are four things you can do to boost your car’s performance without breaking the bank.
Heat Things up with a Cold-air Intake
Most car engines still get their power from burning fuel, and that process requires not just fuel, but oxygen, too. One way of increasing engine power is by adjusting the airflow, something that a cold-air intake can do. Cold-air intakes are designed to reduce air turbulence and draw in colder air. Colder air is denser air, which means it can hold more combustible oxygen atoms in the same space as warmer air. A cold-air intake helps the fuel burn more efficiently and creates more power.
The High-tech Approach to High Performance
When you install a cold-air intake system in a modern vehicle you have to be a bit careful. Modern vehicle systems are designed to be smart and adapt to temperatures to make the engine run efficiently. That could negate the boost you are looking for when you add a cold-air intake. The best way to address this issue is to replace the engine’s computer chip.
Also known as the engine control unit (ECU), this tiny chip is in charge of things like ignition timing, the engine’s air/fuel ratio, transmission shift-points, the car’s top speed and, in turbocharged vehicles, the amount of boost. Changing chips changes those settings so you can take full advantage of your engine’s capabilities.
Let Your Engine Purr with a Cat-back Exhaust
Despite their odd name, a cat-back exhaust actually doesn’t have anything to do with felines. When you replace everything in your car’s exhaust system, from the catalytic converter back, it’s called a cat-back exhaust replacement.
Cat-back exhaust systems have pipes that are wider, straighter and smoother inside than conventional setups, while their mufflers have fewer noise-reduction features. As a result, the engine can use more power for driving your car’s wheels and less for pushing the exhaust gases through the system. Cat-back exhausts tend to be lighter, too, and that’s as important for performance. Of course, the engine note you hear may be a bit louder than a “purr.”
Stiffen Your Handling with a Strut Tower Brace
Modifying your car’s suspension is a must for all-around performance. Improvements to shocks, struts and springs can help you stay in control when pushing your car to its handling limits. A particularly quick and effective option is installing a strut tower brace.
Most vehicles use Macpherson-type front suspension that is attached to the car by vertical struts. Because of that layout, the top attachment points for the struts are generally visible on the left and right sides of the engine bay. The brace, which is generally made from metal, goes across the engine bay and simply bolts on top of the strut-tower structures. It helps prevent the two sides of the suspension from flexing independently.
Don’t Stop Until You’ve Upgraded Your Braking System
If you put a lot of effort into increasing horsepower, you should also pay attention to brake power. Your vehicle weighs thousands of pounds, and the faster it goes, the more effort it takes to safely bring that weight to a stop.
A set of high-performance brake pads can cost under $100 and be installed in about an hour. The performance pads are made from different materials that are more durable and heat-resistant than their factory counterparts. This way they can better retain their stopping ability even under the added stresses of enthusiastic driving.
Changing your brake fluid is also a relatively simple way to achieve better stopping performance. With conventional hydraulic brakes, when you press the pedal, you’re pushing a special non-compressible liquid that multiplies your force to physically squeeze the brake rotors. However, stopping a car can build up a tremendous amount of heat. Brake fluid can literally come to a boil, which creates steam in the brake lines. Further, unlike the fluid, the gas created by boiling the brake fluid is very compressible. If too much accumulates in your brake system, pressing the brake pedal won’t bring you to a stop even when it’s pressed all the way to the floor.
A good performance brake fluid will have a higher boiling point and a chemical makeup with different compression properties than the regular stuff. It will help prevent the brakes from softening on you when you are out for a spirited drive and you’ll notice the difference in how the brakes respond to the pressure of your foot.