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.

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