Chris is a full-time mechanic with backgrounds in public relations, communication, political science and automotive technology. He holds an M.A. from Rowan University and a B.A. from Susquehanna University in addition to a certificate in Auto Tech from Lincoln Technical Institute.

Jun 052014

To those of us possessing a passing understanding of the term “trilogy” it came as a bit of a surprise when Michael Bay confirmed that he was on board with and beginning development on a fourth installment of the Transformers movie franchise (though it appears someone has apprised him of that error). The result will defile movie screens later this summer and, no doubt, rake in obscene amounts of money (and it is entirely fair to note that some of that money will be mine).

Lost in this somewhat dubious future, however, is a little bit of history: 2014 also marks 30 years since the debut of the original Transformers animated series here in the U.S. We already know how Bay will commemorate the occasion: an orgy of violence and explosions, accompanied by a healthy dose of not-so-subtle implication that most of those watching don’t understand the true meaning of self-sacrifice and inner strength (traits which, by the way, we can apparently learn through close observation of John Voight), and topped off with a light sprinkling of gratuitous boob bouncing and casual sex references (the just reward to those young men who do know the aforementioned virtues).

To some of us, though, this is not the Transformers we grew up with. Through the relentless violent pounding of modern movie-making, the old sense of simple imagination has gotten lost since ’84. I could spend hours detailing each affront, but I would rather take a moment and talk a little, not about what is wrong now, but rather what makes those early cartoons so great to me, even as an adult.

It’s the cars, stupid

Let’s be honest here, despite the growth of the human element, everyone goes to see these movies for the Transformers themselves, and one thing we can expect from Bay’s next outing is a bevy of cool cars. Indeed, trailers show such notables as the Bugatti Veyron, Lamborghini Aventador and Pagani Huayra. Omnipresent, of course, are the GM vehicles — Bumblebee in concept Camaro guise, the Corvette Stingray, the Hummer H2, etc.

The downside is that all the vehicles featured are there because big bucks were paid to assure high visibility. Though there is undeniable cool factor, product placement still reigns supreme, especially in the GM-dominated Autobots. In the early/mid ’80s things were a bit different. The animators and toy designers behind Transformers wouldn’t have dreamed of designing one of their characters around an average (or even above-average) American car. This was partially because all the characters were conceived in Japan, but mostly because American cars in the ’80s (as well as the decades both preceding and following) were, for the most part, awful. Whatever the case, the Asian origins of the series didn’t preclude the use of several European models as character vehicles, nor the use of the much more interesting American trucks and military vehicles. One thing is for sure: the criteria had much less to do with who paid what to get their product drawn on screen — and that made the vehicle choices much more interesting.

Since I am a car guy, I have decided to celebrate 30 years of awesome by looking back at two of the lesser-known characters in the first two seasons (before things got… weird… on the vehicle front) and talking a little about the cars that made them come to life for me. Why focus on the also-rans? Well, everyone can identify the original Bumblebee in yellow VW Bug form, Hound’s Jeep, or the somewhat more obvious Dinobots. Beyond those, though, there are some remarkably curious choices for vehicles and characters here. At least, I think so anyway.

The mad scientist

WheelWheeljackjack — Lancia Stratos

The Stratos is an odd car choice for any character of any kind. To be fair, it enjoyed considerable success as a rally car in the ’70s, and its exclusivity and Italian heritage should combine to make it a desirable supercar alternative to Lambos and Ferraris of the time. The Stratos, however, was (and still is) known as much (if not more) for what made it quirky as what made it great. Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond of Top Gear rank it among the greatest cars made by one of their favorite automakers, for instance, but spend as much time talking about how uncomfortable it is, and how everything is in the wrong spot, as how wonderfully it handles and how pretty it is. By the time the first episode of Transformers aired it was also out of production for ten years, and becoming more obscure by the moment. An odd choice, then, for a fresh new show.

Upon closer inspection, though, it is the perfect vehicle choice for the Wheeljack character. Wheeljack is quirky — he speaks with an accent that is an odd mix of Minnesota and New England, but his mouth doesn’t move. Rather, his jowls light up in time with his voice. He is, however, probably the most capable Autobot — part scientist, part mechanic, part inventor. While not a doctor, he is usually called on to repair the others, and is even knowledgeable enough to construct the Dinobots with the help of his companions. His lab on Cybertron is the stuff of gearhead dreams — full of spare parts and experiments in various states of completion. As the bio on his action figure package states, though, he is “his own worst enemy. Often injured while experimenting with new weapons.” His personality pairs well with the Stratos, then: equal parts bemusing quirk and technical marvel.

The narcissist

TracksTracks — C3 Chevrolet Corvette

Hm. Didn’t I just get done talking about how the makers of this show would never use an American sports car? Yep. And more to the point, by the end of its run the third generation Corvette was one reason why many so doubted America’s ability to build a quick, sporty car anymore. There were probably copyright issues with using the then-brand-new C4 ‘Vette, but if you’re stuck depicting an older model, why not one of the truly cool ones? The original Stingray, for instance, would have brought a better vehicular personality, in my opinion. Why choose what was, even then, the weakest Corvette offering ever? In fairness, in the context of time, the late-model C3 was undoubtedly viewed differently than its reputation now. Still, this is a vehicle choice I never understood given how many other options there were for this character.

And the Tracks character is certainly one that demands its fair share of discussion. He is narcissistic and vain to a fault. Those traits alone, when combined with the American car body, point to a certain bias on the part of the character developers. However, the addition of his Boston Brahmin accent, obsession with his own decorations and pretty finish, and his inability to relate to fellow Autobots led to an ongoing debate regarding his perceived sexuality (an assessment that is not helped by the fact that he randomly sprouts wings and flies around, some might say, like a fairy). That’s probably reading a bit too deep in to what is, ultimately, a character in a children’s cartoon, and most “reputable” online sources conclude that there really is no obvious evidence, one way or the other. It is fair to say, however, that Tracks is a startlingly multifaceted character for such a secondary role — probably more multifaceted than the vehicle form he so admires in the storefront reflections as he drives past.

Those are just the first two that spring to mind for me. There are certainly others (I didn’t , for instance, take on any of the Decepticons). I’d be interested to hear yours.

This post originally appeared on Frankasaurus.

Feb 062014

To anyone that knows me, this was inevitable. For all the great things the 850 does — its quirky personality, its stubborn reliability and its Swedish comfort — there are three key things that it is not:

1. Nimble
2. A stick
3. Even remotely quick

Now, I admit that I knew all this coming in and chose this project anyway. I chose it for all the things it was not and accepted it as such. I also admit that I enjoyed it, and continue to do so, for all of those reasons. But as I said, anyone who knows me knows that this car couldn’t be my only automotive love for long and they are correct. I need something a little more from my cars and the 850 could never fill that role.

Don’t think that this is another sad farewell, though. No, this was a labor of love for me and I had so much invested that it only made sense that I treat it as such. As of this month it is my wife’s daily driver and she loves it for many of the same reasons I do, especially the seats. I am a little sad that it never got to see the challenge I had planned for it, but I am pleased that all my work won’t go to waste and it will live a long and healthy life with us.

Speaking of the work, this is probably the closest I have ever come to being “done” with a project. I know I didn’t get to chronicle it all, but I will leave you with a list of everything I did to it, including all the parts I installed. Some of it will be familiar, some was completed since my last update. If you have any questions, feel free to ask away in the comments.

Project Volvo 850 base sedan — list of work completed

IPD odometer repair kit
IPD dash light repair kit
Alpine head unit
Integrated Sirius radio
Driver side window regulator
Volvo electronic ignition switch
Volvo keyless entry remote

IPD black egg-crate grille
Junkyard power antenna module
Custom rear trunk
Lamin-x yellow fog light treatment

Driver front caliper
Front pads & rotors
Rear pads, rotors and mounting hardware
Complete front coil assembly (IPD third party springs, Monroe struts, Volvo genuine XC90 spring seats, all hardware)
Heavy duty front sway bar links
Third party front lower control arms
IPD rear overload springs
KYB rear shocks
Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires

IPD upper engine torque mount bushing
Third party lower transmission torque mount
Transmission fluid drain/fill
Rebuilt passenger side driveshaft
Replaced driver side driveshaft
Volvo spark plugs, distributor cap, rotor and wires
Volvo fuel filter
IPD PCV breather repair kit
IPD 90-degree thermostat
Coolant drain/fill

And, just for old time’s sake, at the time of this writing I have just been informed that the “Check Engine” light is on. Guess she just wants my hands on her. The best projects never really do end, do they?

Apr 112013

There really is quite a lot going on in my life right now, from both an automotive and personal perspective. Some of it is good, some of it is frustrating and, just your luck, some of it involves my trusty Volvo. Before we get in to the meat of this particular update, though, we have to cover some familiar ground: fixing crap that broke.

Tuning it up and making it (more) civilized

As I mentioned previously, a general tune-up was definitely on the menu and, with tax return season in full swing, I found myself with the ability to buy it all in one convenient chunk. I am pleased to say that the 850 now sports new ignition cap, rotor, spark plug wires and spark plugs. It also has a shiny new fuel filter underneath. Though there were some adventures installing that last bit, everything is now back in one piece and running as intended.

At least, it should be. For some reason, however, I seem to have actually lost fuel mileage. Since this thing was never a fuel-sipper to begin with that concerns me. Hopefully it will be resolved by the next update.

In any case, I also decided that I would take a trip to my local scrap yard and pick the carcass of another, less-fortunate ’97 850 sedan so that I might resolve some of my car’s more irritating quirks. I didn’t score any rare finds, but I did come away with some goodies. Long story short: the passenger side visor no longer reminds the person next to me of its presence by tapping them on the head, the power antenna now goes both up and down (all the way!) and I was even able to get the fuel line bypass valve that was the source of the fuel filter “adventure” I mentioned earlier. Best of all, though, I came away with an OEM Volvo 15″ wheel that I can use as a full-size spare. This last item will make sense shortly.

The door checks are still crap, the front struts are still noisy and the passenger rear window appears to be off its track, but at least some stuff got fixed, right?

Finally, I had the car aligned. At first I tried doing it myself, but the alignment machine at my job doesn’t even work right on the Hondas it’s used for half the time. My 16-year-old Swede befuddled it to no end and, after several failed attempts to make the steering wheel level, I gave up and took it to someone with a bit more experience and better equipment.

Completing the look

Volvo 850 fog light

Before the Lamin-X film.

Although the HID lights and IPD grille look great, the car still didn’t seem complete to me when I looked at it. It took me a while, but I finally put my finger on the last piece of the puzzle: the fog lamps. One of the other guys at work had just picked up a Mitsubishi and put yellow Lamin-X film over his fog light lenses. As soon as I saw it, I knew what I was missing. Fortunately, he was in a sharing mood and, since the lamps are tiny on the Volvo, he didn’t even have to share much.

The difference is subtle, but, to me at least, dramatic. It finally looks exactly like I think it should.

Volvo 850 fog light laminex

With the Lamin-X applied

On to the challenge

Oh, bloody hell; despite my best intentions, I still managed to spend nearly 600 words talking about fixing broken stuff and making upgrades. I promise the rest of the article will be about something more interesting.

As you may recall, when I got back in to this car, I decided to give it (and me) a goal. The challenge I have in mind is, like many of my automotive endeavors, Top Gear-inspired.

Back in season 16 Jeremy raced a Jaguar XJ from the easternmost point in England to the westernmost point, on the shortest night of the year, against God himself. In the end, Clarkson beat the sun, but it was close. I found it to be one of their best mini races, both in concept and execution. I decided I would have to do something similar.

Since I live in New Jersey, though, it will have to be different in several ways. First, even at its widest points, I can easily cross the state in a couple of hours and, second, with an extensive and efficient highway system, covering all 170 miles north to south would be embarrassingly easy as well. I believe I have a solution to both problems.

Like Clarkson’s, my challenge will take place on the shortest night of the year (June 21). My goal will be to start, at sunset, from the northernmost point in the state and, over the course of the night travel first to the easternmost point, then the westernmost point before ending at the southernmost point before the sun rises again. The catch? I won’t be able to use any interstate or toll roads (now you can probably see why I wanted a full-size spare).

Volvo 850I have lined up a navigator and taken the time off from work. The Volvo is (in theory, anyway) tuned and ready. The plans are being laid out as we speak. This should be interesting.

Jan 292013

If there is one thing that the CRX project taught me, it would be: when dealing with an older car, expect the unexpected. The 850, though mostly reliable, has proven to be no different.

The Brakes

Even though it passed its first road test, I still had some concerns. Most notable was the annoying shrieking sound the brakes made for the first ten minutes of every drive. Although both the front and rear pads still had plenty of meat, all four rotors were gouged and the pedal vibrated whenever I pressed it. Any of them could easily have been the cause of the noise, but I my discerning ear said the fronts were the primary culprit. I decided to go with the best inexpensive pads and rotors I could find. With those procured, I pulled the car in to my service bay and, almost immediately, things started to go badly. When compressing the driver’s side caliper, I noticed fluid coming from the piston seal.

I should note here that I have done dozens of brake jobs over the last couple of years and never had a single problem with a piston seal. When my personal car is in my bay, though? Naturally, that would be the first. Since calipers for a 15-year-old Volvo aren’t exactly falling off the shelves at 6:00 on a Friday evening, the 850 sat for the entire weekend. Come Monday, though, it was back on the road and, to my agreement, quiet.

For the first day, anyway. Continue reading »

Jan 152013

As you may recall, in the last installment (the introduction to this car) I stated outright that I chose a 1997 Volvo 850 non-turbo sedan as my next daily driver because it has character. It has been quite a while since I wrote anything — on this site or otherwise — so I assume that most of you came to the conclusion that I was so embarrassed by this assertion that I gave up on auto writing altogether, leaving Gearheads Anonymous to go the way of Google Buzz (remember that? Yeah, didn’t think so) or the Chrysler Crossfire.

What actually happened was that I got my finger caught in a rather unpleasant situation involving a timing gear that resulted in several fractures. I have since recovered, but found it difficult to find the motivation to get back to writing. The reasons varied, of course: I couldn’t think of a good topic, I was too tired after work, things needed doing around the house, etc. The result, however, was inevitable. Without care and attention the site stalled and even my contributors lost interest. It has been just about three months since the front page of this site has seen any new material and more than three and a half since I did an update on this project. Continue reading »

Sep 282012

It has been a while since I wrote a Car of the Week piece and I found myself missing it a little. Chuck has done a great job and his car choices have been excellent. I have to keep my finger in the proverbial pot, though, no?

As is so often the case, my inspiration for this week comes from a car I encountered on the trade-in lot. Most of them are boring, but every once in a while something genuinely interesting (and even rare) shows up. This week’s Car of the Week showed up last month and its mere presence prompted me to want to read more about it.

1981 Porsche 928


 As I said above, the appearance of a white 1981 928 on the trade-in line at my family of dealerships created a little itch in the back of my mind. The 928, though it was intended to replace the 911 as Porsche’s flagship, never quite lived up to sales expectations. The formula was a winner on paper — front-mounted V8, rear-wheel-drive, near-perfect balance — but Porsche buyers, it seems, just weren’t ready to accept anything but the 911, in looks or design.

Just because it wasn’t a “real” Porsche doesn’t mean they didn’t sell any, though, and the owner of this example clearly knew how to treat a rare, fast car. Despite its 31 years, the odometer showed only 60,000 miles. The interior and exterior looked like you might expect — well-loved but well-cared-for. It was, in short, a cream puff and it was totally unsurprising when someone showed up with a trailer and happily towed it off the lot. After a brief several weeks of exposure to the elements it has undoubtedly resumed its role as garage queen extraordinaire.

I have to admit, I was VERY tempted to see how much it would cost me.

About the Car

Porsche introduced the 928 in 1978 and it ran in various trim designations and with several engines all the way through 1995. It was one of only a handful of Porsches ever produced with an engine in the front. Although it never replaced the 911, it did set a number of impressive performance benchmarks. Porsche, for instance, claimed that the 928 was the fastest production car available in the U.S. in 1984. With a claimed top speed of 146 mph, that was hard to argue.

By the ’90s, though, even though the styling was still unique and edgy (says me, anyway), the 928 was getting long in the tooth. Rather than redesign it, Porsche decided to cease production. The 928, then, went from the 911′s successor to another single-generation Porsche to garnish and augment the long and glorious run of the one “true” Porsche.

Long live the king.

Other Resources

Porsche 928 Owners Club
Resources for New 928 Owners A one-stop shop for 928 communities
Wikipedia: Porsche 928 (to be taken with a grain of salt, of course)

Some photos in this article were freely sourced from Google. If you take issue with usage of any image, please contact me and I will remove it.

Aug 292012

If you were hoping my next project would be another autocross car, I am afraid you are about to be disappointed. Life, as it so often does, has taken me in a different direction.

With the CRX gone, I decided to focus all of my motorsports efforts on my other, less talked-about car. To do that, though, I needed a way to keep from putting miles on it while I saved the necessary funds. I needed a daily driver.

Since I work at a car dealer I see no shortage of cars that come on to our lot as trade-ins and lease returns. They range, as you might expect, from “one pothole short of the recycling heap” to near-perfect, “my owner got bored with me after two months” examples. As you might also expect, they sport price ranges to match. Clearly I would need to set myself some criteria. After much consideration, I decided the car must:

– Be $2000 or under
– Be cheap to insure
– Get good gas mileage
– Be in good physical and mechanical condition (with the understanding that the $2000 budget would limit just how good)
– Be interesting

Though they are not in any particular order, this last point was especially important to me since reliable, efficient cars also tend to be catastrophically dull. Just because I want to make my motorsports-focused car more exciting doesn’t mean I want to be bored to death the rest of the time. I guess I just like cars with character.

That combination of criteria, however, proved difficult to come by. A few cars came and went that might have sufficed, but none was interesting enough for me to drive every day.

The lone exception was a 1994 Honda Prelude that, despite looking a bit rough on the outside, seemed to need nothing more than a little TLC. At first glance it met all the criteria.

Upon closer inspection, though, it needed more than a little TLC. The engine and transmission were leaking oil at a rate that would make the Exxon-Valdez blush, there was shipwreck-level rust on the under-side and, to top it all off, the exhaust fell off while the car was on the lift for inspection.

Not, then, quite the peach I was hoping it would be. Needless to say, I passed on that opportunity and two weeks later my patience paid off.

I should preface by saying that I began my automotive career as a technician for a Volvo dealer before becoming a product specialist for Volvo Cars of North America. Since my parents bought one when I was growing up, Volvos have always fascinated me, for whatever reason. Though I have allowed my career to take me in a different direction, the Volvo brand has always been one I think favorably toward.

As I found it on the lot.

So when a 1997 850 sedan appeared on the trade-in lot, I was understandably intrigued.

To the casual observer, the car had some pretty concerning issues: the transmission wouldn’t come out of park, the headlights didn’t come on and it had ABS and traction control error lights. To someone who has spent any time with these cars, though, this is a familiar symptom list, since all of those systems run through the ignition switch. Simply replacing the electronic portion of that switch would remedy all of it.

Outside of that, the odometer didn’t work and the car needed a new driveshaft (the result of a torn CV boot), a new tire and an upper engine mount. All are common problems and all are both easy and inexpensive to fix.

Believe it or not, this car checked all of the above boxes for me, even the “interesting” one. Most people see Volvos (especially the older ones) as dull, boxy things. But I have always found the 850 to be a handsom car, if not ravishing, and from its odd door handles to the mad-cow-like sound the engine makes under load, it has plenty of quirky personality.

Given all of the supposed issues on this example, the dealership had given the owner next to nothing on his trade, so the price was right as well.

Finally home and all cleaned up.

So, this marks the beginning of a project I will refer to as Swedish Rocket. Since it is a non-turbo car with an automatic transmission, that is a charitable description of it, to say the least. But since it’s also 15 years old and (at best guess) over 110K miles, I do plan to take a more tongue-in-cheek approach to it as a project.

With the car home and cleaned up the next step is to make it roadworthy.


Jun 152012

Astute readers of this site will probably note that I have had some difficulty keeping Car of the Week a truly weekly piece. Some of that is laziness on my part and some is actual schedule and personal conflicts. Whatever the case, though, in the coming weeks we will be trying something new. Astute observers may also have noticed that Gearheads Anonymous has also gained a few new writers over the last month. So far they have only been contributors of individual opinion pieces, but that is about to change. Next week, for the first time, the Car of the Week will be written by someone other than me.

This does not mean that I am not going to do them at all anymore, but if several people are writing them my hope is that some variety and a sense of freshness is injected in to the process. Want to write one? Use the contact info in the “About Gearheads Anonymous” tab above. I’m always happy to have contributors.

This week, though, I have for you a car that brought Honda back to its roots in the U.S. market:

2007 Honda Fit


By 2006 the “small” Honda Civic had grown in size by 10 inches and 600 lbs over comparable Civics from the late ’80s and early ’90s. The Civic, in fact, was about the same size in 2006 as the midsize Accord was in 1990. The Civic is not unique in this, though. Most cars in the U.S. market have grown at a similar rate. It is startling to take a moment and consider, though. Sure the Civic still gets good gas mileage, and it is still smaller than the Accord, but it has lost some of that small car feel that made it so enticing in years past.

With the Fit, Honda sought to bring that feel back to American car buyers. Though it had been on sale for several years in Europe and Asia (under the Jazz name), 2007 was its first year in the U.S. and it made a splash. Where Toyota’s Yaris felt and drove as cheaply as it looked, the Fit immediately earned a reputation as a quality small car.

It did all of the things those early Civics did — got great gas mileage, handled well and looked good without looking outrageous — and managed to stay small without being spartan. Only one engine option (a 109 horespower, 1.5-liter four cylinder) was available, paired to either an automatic of five-speed manual. The car itself (which was only available as a 5-door) could had in either base or “Sport” trims. Both were priced well below $20,000.

The Fit, then, checked all the right boxes at just the right time for many American consumers. It will probably never outsell the Civic, but to me the Fit is the more interesting car. It does more with less, which is an equation that has always appealed to me.

About the Car

The Fit was introduced to the rest of the world as the Honda Jazz in 2001 and 2002 but, as I said above, did not hit American shores until late 2006 as a 2007 model. Different regions of the world get different engine options, but here there was only one: the 1.5-liter gasoline engine.

The Fit ran in that form until it received a substantial update for the 2009 model year. The body was redesigned, but retained its 5-door wagon layout. The sole engine option remained a 1.5-liter four-cylinder in the U.S. Other regions got a hybrid option, but Honda decided that a Fit hybrid would compete with its new Insight and existing Civic Hybrid models, so it was not offered to American buyers.

A limited-production electric Fit (or Fit EV) is currently scheduled for the 2013 model year, but no additional major changes are expected to the model line in the next couple of years.

Other Resources

Fit Owners Club Unofficial Honda Fit and Honda Jazz forum
Wikipedia: Honda Jazz and Fit (to be taken with a grain of salt, of course)
Car & Driver long-term road test of the 2007 Fit

Some photos in this article were freely sourced from Google. If you take issue with usage of any image, please contact me and I will remove it.

May 202012

You know what really annoys me? Someone who tailgates in a straight line, then falls about a mile back when the road curves even a little bit, then blows by when it straightens out again. Indeed, as any real car guy (or girl) will tell you there is a large distinction between having a fast car and being a fast driver. A fast driver knows how to do more than simply plant his/her foot in a straight line and then hang on for dear life. Rather, a fast driver respects speed and knows when to apply it. They also know how to approach a bend properly and go through it in such a way that the car stays balanced. In short, a fast driver understands and respects what makes a car go fast.

So, obviously the biggest problem in that original equation is the moron behind the wheel. But what if you are not a dolt? What can you do to make your car handle better and with more confidence, to match your abilities? To do that we need to take a look at my favorite part of any ground-based vehicle: the suspension.

In simplest terms, the suspension works to keep a car stable and all 4 tires in good contact with the road when going over bumps and around turns. Suspension systems on modern cars are just that — systems that are designed around the chassis so that every part works together seamlessly. While this provides consumers with some truly amazing cars right from the dealership, it does present some challenges when upgrading. Because everything is designed to work together a certain way, making a single change in one area can have a dramatic effect on the car. For instance, simply changing out the springs may lower the stance and stiffen things up, but may also result in a harsh ride and unpredictable handling.

On the other end of the spectrum, simply slapping on a front strut tower bar might look cool, but without additional stiffening in other areas of the chassis, it will be pretty useless. In other words, unless you are going to address the whole system, it is likely you will either waste your money or ruin your car (or both) by simply throwing random parts at the suspension.

But fear not. There is one area where a simple inexpensive upgrade can change the dynamic of a car for the better without the above consequences.

Sway bar(s)

The front and rear sway bars (also called anti roll bars or something similar) work by providing a stiff linkage between the left and right side suspension systems. By giving stiffness here, the amount of body roll a car experiences when cornering is dramatically reduced.

Like the other suspension systems in a car, the sway bar sizes are carefully considered to provide the desired balance. Most manufacturers make this balance pretty docile from the factory to accommodate a wide range of drivers.

How you go about rectifying that will depend on your car and how you use it. For me, simply changing the rear sway bar for a larger diameter unit completely changed the way it handled at every speed. My car, though, is a relatively big, heavy front-wheel-drive Acura. A different dynamic exists for a rear-wheel driven car and again for one that drives all four wheels. Research is the key here. There is likely to be a lot of knowledge out there about your specific car on the internet. Chances are good you will be able to come up with your ideal setup after reading what others have experienced.

In the broadest sense here are a few suggestions based on my experience:

Factory upgrades This option won’t apply for every vehicle, but for many there are already options out there from the same company that made your car. Believe it or not, I have gotten some of the best results by simply using factory sway bars from another similar model. The Honda Civic and Acura Integra, for instance, share many parts and sway bars are frequently interchangeable. For my CRX (a DX model) I simply added a rear sway bar from an Si model. If budget is an issue for you then upgrading this way is easily the best option — if the parts are out there. If not, you will have to go to the aftermarket.

Image courtesy of Progress Group

Progress Now, I have to admit, because of my success using factory pieces as upgrades I have embarrassingly little experience with aftermarket sway bars. I do know one thing, though. The Progress adjustable rear sway bar was the best $140 I ever spent on my car. It eliminated the soft feeling in the rear of the car and as a result made the entire dynamic of the car more confident in virtually every situation. Obviously, your results will vary, but if you’re looking at upgrading your sway bars, this is a great place to start.

The Next Step

If you have made this change and you still aren’t satisfied with your car’s handling, it is time to get out your wallet. From here on in quality parts will start to add up quickly.

And they start with a complete suspension setup. For most modern cars this means a full coilover kit with stiffer, adjustable springs and upgraded dampers (also possibly adjustable). Going this route means that you will be buying a system that is designed to work together with itself and is further designed to fit in your car. Piecing together a system can have its benefits as well, but the risk of mixing parts that won’t jive is much higher. Either way, expect to spend anywhere from $600 to $2000 depending on the quality of the parts, the features and the level of adjustability.

There are also myriad options for additional chassis stiffening beyond the sway bars. Anywhere the chassis flexes you can probably add a bar to keep it from doing so. Just keep in mind for all of this that the stiffer you make things, the harsher the ride will get. It is easy to get swept up in making a car handle like it’s on rails only to find out at the end that it’s virtually unusable on the roads. The simplest way around this is to do your research and make sure you spend enough time thinking about it before you take the plunge.

Next time: Finally, more power.

May 112012

Hmm. It would seem I missed this segment last week. My apologies for that, but sometimes life just gets in the way. In any case, Car of the Week is back. I spent a considerable amount of time going to college graduations this past week, so I decided that this edition should feature a car that I was a fan of during my own college days. One of my favorites from those early days of the new millennium was…

2002 Mazda Protege ES


As I said in my review of the Mazda2, I drove the ES model Protege in 2002 in order to find out if Mazda was really serious about their “Zoom-zoom” marketing strategy. The answer, I found, was a resounding yes. It handled great, had decent pep, and gave you all sorts of stuff standard that the Civic only offered as options — alloy wheels, fog lamps, trunk spoiler, etc. It was a lot of car for the money and, fair or not, it became the benchmark by which I continue to judge every Mazda I drive.

The ES of this model year featured a 2.0-liter inline-4 that produced 130 horsepower. It could be had in auto or stick, but the one I drove was equipped with a 5-speed manual, naturally. The ES also got bigger wheels, stickier tire, stiffer suspension and a plethora of audio goodies.

With a decade between now and then I still look back fondly on that test drive. By today’s standards the Protege is a little under powered for a vehicle at the top of its model range, but by any other yardstick it is still a competent car — economy, handling, cost, etc. Though not quite as legendary as the Civic or Corolla, the Protege has exhibited decent longevity as well and high-mileage examples can still be found running strong.

Over the course of that decade, Mazda has built upon the standard it set with cars like this, giving us a number of offspring like the 3, 6 and aforementioned 2, all of which represent great value to go with the high level of entertainment. I don’t know that this Protege was the actual starting point, but for me at least, it represents the point where Mazda started to perfect the balance between value and fun.

About the Car

Mazda’s 323 was a mainstay of the ’80s and its evolutionary sibling, the Protege, became a similar force in the ’90s. The first car to wear the Protege badge hit U.S. shores for the 1990 model year and the name ran until 2003, when it was replaced by the 3. In that time it went through three body styles (1990-1993, 1994-1998 and 1999-2003).

As I said above, the Protege was always known for providing an excellent balance of fun, value and economy. By the end of its life, though, Mazda had imbued some seriously sporting aspirations, culminating in the turbocharged Mazdaspeed edition. The addition of a turbo bumped the power to 170 and the suspension was further tweaked to match. Though it was short-lived (just a year), it was a remarkable indicator of just how far the Protege had come since its inception.

Other Resources

Club Protege (enthusiast community for the Protege) (enthusiast community for the Mazda3 and Protege lines)
Wikipedia: The Mazda Familia line (including the Protege) (to be taken with a grain of salt, of course)
Road & Track review of the ’01 Protege ES

Some photos in this article were freely sourced from Google. If you take issue with usage of any image, please contact me and I will remove it.