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 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.

Mar 052012
 

It amazes me sometimes what people believe to be true. Even more so how they will cling to those truths, even in the face of clear facts and reasoned arguments. Indeed, when it comes to talking about cars I often find myself shaking my head at the stubborn dogmas that people hold on to.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in discussions on fuel economy.

With fuel prices and social consciences high, people are looking for any way possible to reduce their own usage of fuel, cut down on our nation’s dependence on oil from other countries, and limit the environmental impact of our cars. These are all both reasonable and noble goals. Unfortunately, many of the steps that are being taken are not really effective ways to reach them.

But don’t tell that to someone who believes he is saving the world.

Nevertheless, I have decided, dear readers, to share with you a few common misconceptions about driving, cars and fuel economy that I have encountered over my years of automotive enthusiasm. You can take my advice or leave it, of course. As long as I have succeeded in getting you thinking, I will be happy. 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 »