The Build Sheet
As enthusiasts, most of us experience a strong desire to extract more performance from our car. Whether you find driving bliss on a track, an autocross course, a local back road, or a dirt trail, the basic principles of building for performance are the same: add power to go faster in a straight line, lose weight to go faster everywhere else.
Unfortunately, common modification lists like the one below contribute more to appearances than actual performance.
Cold air intake
ECU tune with a pops and crackles option
I won’t blame anyone for using a list like this, because these things do alter the driving experience. If that’s what someone is after, I really can’t fault them. If performance is what you want, though, the build sheet might include a few items you didn’t expect.
Let’s take a quick, introductory look at a few things you’ll want to consider.
Yes, a big turbo 2JZ will give you speed, but it’s not the first solution I’d recommend.
Make no mistake, I’m not saying the path to happiness doesn’t make a stop under the hood. If your car is turbocharged, the combination of an ECU tune and a less restrictive downpipe can make a huge difference in power, but those changes can require additional upgrades to function properly. Naturally-aspirated cars typically require a more mechanical solution, so you’re probably better off covering the rest of the items on this list before breaking the bank on engine internals.
For most cars, a basic remap can wake up a stock engine quite nicely. Manufacturers often leave some performance untapped in the pursuit of mild manners and emissions levels. If you want to instill some more character, go ahead and get that aftermarket intake and muffler; just don’t expect much in terms of power increases.
I put power first to get it out of the way. It’s what comes to mind first, it’s valid, and it’s fun. That being said, we’ve all either seen or heard of a powerful sports car getting passed on the outside by a Miata. To keep up with drivers like that, you’ll need to change the way your car interacts with the pavement.
You generally won’t find as much information on weight loss as the other modifications on this list, and for good reason. Shedding weight in a car is an expensive endeavor. Track cars can afford to sacrifice things like bodywork, air conditioning systems, and interior elements, but daily drivers will need to lose weight by replacing existing components with aftermarket ones. This means removing steel in favor of aluminum, or aluminum in favor of carbon fiber. While incorporating these materials is effective, most of us will find the benefit isn’t worth the cost.
The most efficient thing you can do is reduce unsprung weight (anything not held up by your car’s suspension). Rotating mass disproportionately affects handling, so lighter wheels are one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce weight.
This massive brake caliper is a thing of beauty. Luckily, you don’t need something this extreme (or expensive) to make your car stop well.
A major component of speed is actually found in braking zones. If you can scrub speed more effectively, you can stay on the gas longer. Performance braking systems offer not just stopping power, but increased feel and decreased fade. At the top of the food chain, high-dollar kits from Brembo, Wilwood and Stoptech can absolutely transform a car. Upgrading brakes requires balance, so before bolting on pizza-pan-sized rotors and giant calipers, make sure your master cylinder, brake lines, and tires are up to the task to avoid costly overkill.
In most cases, a set of high-quality brake pads and fresh brake fluid will make a worthwhile difference. Given their bang-for-the-buck (and contribution to everyday safety), they’re one of the best investments you can make.
Staying the Course
The observant driver will know this car means serious, serious business without ever popping the hood.
Of course, neither engine nor brakes can help you if the rubber you’re rolling on can’t grip the road. Tire selection depends on many factors, and it’s critical that you get it right. If you’re using the same tires for daily duties and track use, prioritize public road safety and choose a tire that works well in a range of temperatures and road conditions (not to mention, one that satisfies the DOT). If you’re fortunate enough to have a dedicated set of track tires, it’s still important to match them to your intended use and priorities. I’ve actually seen a car go from spinning out to passing the field in a matter of minutes as weather conditions evolved to suit their tires.
Once you can stop well and have plenty of grip, consider how the weight of your car shifts as you ask it to accelerate, decelerate and change direction. This is where suspension components come into play. Some are expensive, like the coilover kits mentioned so frequently in online forums. Others are relatively affordable, like upgraded shocks or sway bars. You get what you pay for, but there’s no need to choose between your stock setup and a top-shelf set of Ohlins. A modest performance-oriented component is likely to improve handling over OEM parts in most cases.
Remember that your car isn’t the only thing getting pushed around when you drive quickly. Seats that fit you properly and a harness that keeps your focus and energy on the task of driving don’t do much for the spec sheet, but they will absolutely yield better lap times. Recaro, Bride, Sparco, and other performance brands are fantastic. If there’s not room in your budget for seats, you can still improve your own stability in the car with a clip-in harness like those from Schroth for a fraction of the cost. Just be advised that it’s virtually impossible to talk your way out of a speeding ticket while wearing a race harness.
The Best Modification Available
I’ve saved the best for last. The biggest improvement you can possibly make to your car is upgrading the nut that connects the steering wheel to the driver’s seat. Each of us is the hero of our own story, but if Randy Pobst or Lewis Hamilton could trade places with you and improve on your lap time, your car is not the limiting factor. Performance driving schools can make you better in every aspect of car control, and identify skills you can improve on your own. If you need a free alternative, there are plenty of resources online–this website included. Ask your local hot shoe for tips, or approach someone at cars and coffee. You might even make a friend in the process.
As always, quality practice is key. Make every drive a learning opportunity. The stop sign ahead? That’s a perfect opportunity to practice heel-toe downshifting. See a nice bend in the road? Even a passenger can visualize the optimum line, and imagine how things like road crown and uneven pavement would affect handling at speed.
The truth is, the quest for performance is an endless venture. There are tried and true methods, but no perfect build sheet. Just do as much research as you can to make sure your time and money are being spent wisely, and remember to have fun. Isn’t that what speed is for, anyway?
Scott is a lover of motorized fun, whether on four wheels or two. A child of the 90’s, he has a particular soft spot for hatchbacks and believes all aging cars deserve a second chance at life. Scott works as a freelance marketer for Dingo Productions in Fort Worth, Texas. If he’s not behind a camera or a computer, he’s probably chasing down new coffee shops with his wife or throwing a frisbee for his dog.
The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.