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 »

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.

Mar 052012

I guess this update is a bit late in coming, but quite a lot has been changing for me of late, so writing about this stuff has taken a back seat for a while. In any case, as you can probably tell from the title, I have sold the CRX and returned to a single-car way of life. It remains to be seen how well I will be able to autocross my daily-driver, but for now let’s take a step back and see how I got here.

Continue reading »

Mar 052012

This project car update was originally published August 22, 2011.

When last we left Project CRX, I was twiddling my thumbs, waiting for the South Jersey Region of the SCCA to get their collective act together and find a place to host events this year. With no encouraging signs forthcoming (and since the weather was nice) I decided it would be a good time to do a tune-up.

The car had other ideas.

I finished most of the basic stuff without issue, but when I went to take the valve cover off to adjust the valves, the top of one of the studs came with it. The best that I could determine was that the guy who did the last tune-up over-tightened it and stretched the threads. I decided not to take any chances and replaced all of the studs. Not one to lose an opportunity, I also decided to repaint the valve cover while I waited for the parts to come in.

By the time I had finally gotten everything cleaned, adjusted and put back together, we were in to the late May heatwave that had all of South Jersey (and most of the East Coast) grumbling about air conditioning and electric bills. Apparently the car found the conditions to be especially disagreeable because the first time I drove it, I got home and the radiator burst.

While my face was under the hood.

I was starting to wonder if the CRX had developed a vindictive streak — I couldn’t get it out on course, so it was finding other ways to amuse itself. Expensive ways. Continue reading »

Mar 052012

This project car update was originally published August 2, 2011.

As you may recall, 2010 didn’t end as I had hoped for me and the CRX. Bad weather, family obligations, an enlarged ego and unfamiliar territory all conspired to make my autumn a bit of a disappointment from a motorsports perspective.

So that means there was nowhere to go but up, right?

That’s what I decided, anyway. So, with that in mind, I set about planning how I could improve for 2011. Continue reading »

Mar 052012

This project car update was published on November 3, 2010 on my original WordPress site.

A long time has passed since I wrote an update on my ongoing CRX project, and for that I apologize. For the most part, that has been because I don’t have much to report, although graduate thesis concerns have played a major part as well.

This article, then, will be something of a comprehensive wrap-up of the 2010 portion of the CRX project, and a look forward to what I am considering for 2011.

When last I wrote, the addition of a set of Hoosier R6 tires had both made the car a class winner and enlarged my head quite a bit. My ego received further enhancement when, at the following even in July, I trounced my rival in the blue EP Civic Si, beating him by nearly 2 seconds in my fastest lap. I began to believe that, in its current state, the CRX and I were pretty much an unbeatable combination in South Jersey. Continue reading »

Mar 052012

This project car update was published on July 9, 2010 on my original WordPress site.

When last we talked about the CRX, I had made some minor changes and was pleased with its all-around performance, but frustrated by my inability to coax it to its first auto-x class win. The limiting factor, I had decided, was the all-season tires I was using.

Some would argue that, in most cases, the only part that needs to be fixed to make a car go faster is the one located between the seat and the steering wheel. And while that is true (and I could undoubtedly pick up time by improving myself) I could see, for lap after lap, just how close I was to beating my competition.

I have the rest of my life to hone my driving skills; I wanted to win now. Continue reading »

Mar 052012

This project car update was published on June 28, 2010 on my original WordPress site.

The following is a conglomeration of two pieces, originally written in April and May of this year. In an effort to get back on a current timeline sooner, I decided to combine the two. This meant I had to eliminate some parts and the result is a bit dry. With the return to the current timeline, I promise that any new updates will be written in the old, more friendly style.  —Chris

In the last installment I introduced you to my latest project, the 1991 Honda CRX, and gave my early impressions.

Not long after, I got my first opportunity to see what the car could really do, as auto-x season opened in South Jersey on April 11. I decided to treat the event as a true shakedown and run the car without any changes, with one exception. I switched my wheel and tire combo to the 14-inch steel wheels and BFGoodrich g-Force Super Sport T/A tires that I had bought for the rusty Civic. Continue reading »

Mar 052012

This project car update was published on June 15, 2010 on my original WordPress site.

Last August I bought a Civic.

It was a 1993 CX hatchback model, and I bought it for several reasons: I had a long commute to work, so I wanted a car that would get good gas mileage. I wanted a car that I could take out to the occasional autocross (which I will refer to as auto-x from here on in) and maintain a decent level of competition. Most of all, though, I wanted a project—something that I could tinker with endlessly and see the results, hopefully without breaking the bank.

The Civic, then, would seem like an ideal car, right? I mean, it is inexpensive, there are enough parts available to fill warehouses, and it’s a competent chassis for amateur racing. It sure seemed like a slam-dunk to me.

Then I discovered the rust. Continue reading »