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.

Apr 082012
 

Last week I talked a little about what makes tires so important and I gave a few suggestions for enthusiasts who need a year-round performance tire.

Now that we have traction covered, it’s time to start doing something with it. I know the most popular thing to talk about would be adding power, but in reality the second most important part of driving is being able to slow down and stop. It’s not as glamorous as ripping engine sounds and neck snapping acceleration, but braking is what keeps you from wrapping yourself around a tree, making sure you can experience all those other good things more than once. That being the case, let’s take a look at what goes in to stopping a car.

Disc Brakes

Since we are talking about higher-performance applications here, I am going to focus only on cars that use disc brakes. If you car uses drums in the rear, then there really aren’t that many upgrade options for you anyway, other than to swap in a disc setup. Just make sure the drums and shoes are fresh and the wheel cylinders function properly and you should be fine.

A disc brake system is simpler than most people think. As your wheels spin, so does a big metal disc (rotor) inside each of them. When you push on the brake pedal, two pads squeeze either side of that rotor, causing the friction that slows the wheels down. Most carmakers use a compound in their pad material that is designed to create minimal dust, make no noise and still stop the car effectively. Upgrading is both simple and inexpensive.

Pads

Changing to a higher performance brake pad is the most effective upgrade you can make to the stopping system of any car. Small changes in the material and composition of the pad compound usually results in dramatic improvements in the initial bite of the pad and its resistance to fade. The trade-off is in increased cost, increased brake dust and likely some increase in noise as well, depending on what compound you choose. Since a fast car is pretty much worthless, though, if it can’t stop, it is worth the minor compromise.

I have used several pads on my cars over the last ten years or so. Some have been worth the money and some haven’t, and there are a wide array of options. While track pads offer incredible bite and very long endurance, they often require heating before they will work properly and don’t function well in a daily driver environment. The majority of drivers will want a high performance street or, for those who do occasional motorsport, a street/track compound pad. These will assure that the car can stop in any condition and shouldn’t put a large hole in a modest budget.

Of all the pads I have used, these are my favorites:

Image courtesy of TireRack.com

Hawk HPS This was one of the first pads I tried when I was first learning about cars and, though I have been through probably half a dozen others, it is still the one I keep coming back to. They feature excellent bite while still offering long life and relatively quiet operation (although I have had sets that squealed loudly when not installed with new rotors – more on that in a moment). I have found them to be an ideal option for someone like me, who drives in a spirited fashion on the street and also autocrosses occasionally. They are not the cleanest pads in the world, but if you wash your car regularly, that won’t be a major issue. They are an excellent value as well.
More information can be found at http://www.hawkperformance.com/performance/hps.php

Image courtesy of BuyBrakes.com

EBC RedStuff Though the next two pads are both from the same company, they have different strengths. The RedStuff pad from EBC seeks to be a bit more high-end. It is a high-performance compound that produces low dust and low noise as well. It is designed for heavier, high-horsepower cars, though, and may not be available for smaller, lighter applications. It is also slightly more expensive than some other offerings. However, the return for your money is impressive. EBC claims that RedStuff pads can increase braking efficiency up to 30% and my own experience with them has been highly favorable. They live up to the company’s claims of low dust and noise and the decrease in stopping distance is noticeable. They may take longer to bed in to the rotor than a softer compound, but the result is worth the patience. Mine have worn like steel as well. If you have a heavier car, this is the pad for you.
More information can be found at http://www.ebcbrakes.com/automotive/redstuff_brake_pads/index.shtml

Image courtesy of BuyBrakes.com

EBC GreenStuff Where the RedStuff pads cater to a specific audience, GreenStuff is EBC’s standard high-performance street pad for everyone else. The 2000-series, which is slightly different than the compound used for the GreenStuff truck and SUV pads, is designed for sport compact applications and what EBC calls “premium street driving.” I have found them to be competitive with the Hawk HPS above in both performance on the street and price, but the GreenStuff pads create less dust. The Hawks, though, were a little more reliable for me in an autocross environment. Your experience may vary.
More information can be found at http://www.ebcbrakes.com/automotive/greenstuff_brake_pads/greenstuff_brake_pads_2000.shtml

Rotors

To be honest, as cool as slotted, drilled and dimpled rotors look, they are not necessary for most cars. The vast majority of cars, even those that see some autocross use, don’t need the kind of serious heat dissipation that these features offer. As such, those on a budget are best off simply replacing their rotors with a solid, brand-name part. The pads will still bite as they are designed and the lack of ridges and edges on the rotor surface will go a long way to increasing your pad life as well. In the event that the rotors do warp, a solid rotor can be cut with a brake lathe, saving you money on replacement. I have had success using factory rotors with aftermarket pads for years. If you are looking for an alternative, though, Brembo also makes an excellent solid rotor at competitive pricing.

If you decide that your brakes really do have to look that cool or that heat dissipation is going to be an issue for whatever reason, I have one piece of advice for you: don’t cheap out. While you can find inexpensive drilled and/or slotted rotors on eBay and the like, you might as well go to Pep Boys, buy the crappiest rotor off the shelf and make some holes with your trusty Craftsman drill. A good pair of slotted/drilled rotors is going to be pricey, which is why I made the point I did above, but if you skimp here you will regret it later.

I don’t have specific suggestions for slotted or drilled rotors, but Powerslot, EBC, Brembo and Hawk make a variety of products and all have excellent reputations. Shop around and see what suits your needs for looks, performance and price. Just be prepared to spend a little more.

The Next Step

Another inexpensive option is adding a set of stainless steel braided brake lines. Where rubber lines expand and contract every time the pedal is pressed and the fluid is forced through them, a stainless line holds its form, allowing a more linear flow of pressure to the calipers and pads. The driver gets improved pedal feel and the brakes become more efficient. This upgrade requires that your brake system be bled, though, so it is a little more involved than simple pads and rotors. I would recommend this only be done by someone with experience or a professional.

There really is no need to go beyond any of the above changes if your car is driven on the street and doesn’t see a large amount of track time. The next step up would be a “big brake” kit. Such a system replaces the entire caliper/pad/rotor system with much bigger pieces, dedicated to high-performance stopping. Big brake kits are expensive (figure on spending over a grand for the front and again for the rear, at least) and are likely to change the dynamic of your car. They may look cool, but the investment is not worth it, in my opinion, if the car is not a track machine.

Next time: Handling

Apr 012012
 

Most people see their cars as little more than transportation from one point to another. Most people, therefore, buy a car that suits their needs and then simply use it until, for whatever reason, it no longer does. Chances are if you’re reading this site, you are not one of those people. People like us look on our cars as an extension of ourselves. To us, driving is not simply sitting in a seat and directing a machine, but an interaction between driver, car and  road. We are enthusiasts. We demand more from our cars and, as such, we are usually looking for ways to make them better at the things we use them for.

There is a vast world of options when it comes to upgrading a car. We all know of someone who has spent the kind of money on his car that would buy a small house. We also all probably know someone who has, in pursuing their performance goals, so changed the nature of his or her car that it isn’t comfortable to drive on normal roads anymore. Whether any of that is worth it or not is all in the eye of the individual, but suffice it to say that most of us do not have the luxury of devoting that much income (and time, for that matter) to such pursuits, even if we do consider them worthwhile.

What, then, can those of us with high expectations and reasonable budgets do to make our cars better performers without compromising their drivability? That, as it happens, is my specialty.

Over the next four weeks, I will take one area of improvement at a time and discuss relatively inexpensive upgrades that will change the nature of any car for the better while keeping it completely roadworthy and road legal. I will also discuss my favorite options for each.

To begin, I will focus on the most important part on any car:

Tires

As I said, no single part on a car is more important than the tires. They are (hopefully) the only part of the vehicle that touches the road and, therefore, the source of traction that is necessary to acceleration, handling and braking. They are also the single most important factor in all three of those categories. For whatever reason, though, many people overlook them when making upgrades — probably because they aren’t glamorous and can seem expensive if one doesn’t appreciate their functional importance.

Tires usually have to handle a variety of conditions on a road-going car. The average driver encounters a wide range of weather over the life of a vehicle and the tires have to be able to maintain contact with the road in order to keep things moving in the right direction. Thus, we have all-season tires. Since all-season tires usually represent a compromise in performance for their improved year-round functionality, the ideal solution is to have two sets of tires; one for summer and the seasons where light rain is the worst natural offender, and another for winter and other times when foul conditions prevail.

But since most of us don’t have the budget or space for two sets of wheels and tires (or even just two sets of tires, really), we come to a question that represents considerable angst for an enthusiast: how can I get the best possible performance from all-season tires?

Fortunately, tire technology has come a long way over the last several years and a carefully chosen set of high-performance, all-season tires to replace the cost-saving rubber installed by the factory can completely change the dynamic of a car.

Here are my three favorite options for making sure a car sticks to the road in any condition. All offer excellent performance at very reasonable prices.

Image courtesy of TireRack.com

Continental ExtremeConact DWS This is what I currently use on my car. In the dry it handles as well as any tire I have ever owned, maintaining confidence-inspiring grip at impressive speeds while still remaining quiet and comfortable on highway cruises. Where it really shines, though, is in bad weather. The ExtremeContact DWS is, without question, the best performance tire I have every used in poor weather. That may sound like a bold statement, but I have talked to other owners who feel the same way. If you want a tire that can take a beating in spirited driving, but still carry you through the winter, look no further.
For more information on this tire, check out its TireRack product page.

Image courtesy of TireRack.com

Bridgestone Potenza RE970AS Pole Position This tire is the evolution of the previous RE960AS Pole Position, which I used for a number of years before going with the Continentals. While I don’t have any direct experience with the RE970, the 960 was a great tire. It had excellent grip in the dry and was very good in the snow and rain. The set I had also wore like steel, making it a good value as well. I expect that the RE970 has taken those strengths and improved upon them. From what I have read, that appears to be the case.
For more information on this tire, check out its TireRack product page.

Image courtesy of TireRack.com

BFGoodrich g-Force Super Sport A/S I used this as the primary tire on my CRX autocross project and it was totally unflappable in any condition. Until I got the Continentals above, I viewed these as the best high-performance tire for occasional bad weather. In moderate temperatures, it even showed considerable strength as an autocross tire. The only area in which it showed any weakness was during autocross events where the temperature was over 90 degrees, when the outer edges began to show significant wear. As a street performance tire, though, there are few better suited.
For more information on this tire, check out its TireRack product page.

Hopefully that helps you as you consider upgrading your car on a budget. Remember: no choice is as crucial as your tires. Take your time and don’t cheap out. You will be happy in the end.

The Next Step

For those with a slightly larger budget, as I mentioned above, the ideal option is to have two sets of wheels and tires: one for foul weather months, and one for more hospitable months. As with anything, there are a wide array of options for both wheels and tires. What you decide will depend entirely on your intentions and your budget. If you only drive on the street, for instance, you will probably want a wheel that doesn’t bend very easily and a tire that has enough tread to handle some rain. If you are planning on tracking your car, though, that will change your criteria.  Again, careful analysis of your budget will tell you what you are capable of purchasing. Take your time and think it through, then make a decision.

Next week: Brakes.