Shortly after we get our first car we want to make it faster. Usually, this urge comes about after we've been left in the dust by a more experienced driver in a much faster car. From that point on, our mission becomes clear - We've been bitten by the speed bug, and finding ways of going faster will be a lifelong passion and obsession.
Adding speed to a car can make it a lot more fun to drive, whether on the road or on the track. Even the most modest of grocery getter cars can benefit greatly from a few modifications, and there's no need to rob a bank to be able to afford some of the cheaper mods one can do.
We all want to go faster, but where should we start? How can we make our cars faster and what are the best ways of doing it? Not to mention, how do we get the most bang for our hard-earned bucks?
Every make, model and year will have different options for specific modifications but we’re going to go over the ins and outs for general speed upgrades and modifications that will work for most cars - and there's much more to it than just focusing on the engine and trying to squeeze out as many horses as possible, we do want our cars to be great all-around performers after all.
24 Hack: Fit Lighter Wheels
Wheel weight is part of determining the vehicle's overall ride, performance and feel, and that's why many new vehicles have replaced the less expensive rolled, stamped and welded steel wheels with cast aluminum alloy wheels. A good set of rims will not only make your car look cooler - it will improve your car’s performance through decreasing weight, as well as improving handling and braking.
Another factor is that the wheels are unsprung weight, meaning it's not supported by the car's suspension. It's also rotating mass, which is three times harder to accelerate that sprung weight, so getting some lightweight wheels can really improve performance.
23 Hack: Get Tires With More Grip
There's no point in increasing your car's power if you can't get it effectively to the ground, so it's time to get some fat and sticky tires. Tires won't just help you get more grip during acceleration, they will also improve cornering speeds and reduce braking distances.
Get a good set of tires and keep them properly inflated as well as checking the tread often and keeping them in top shape. Coupled with lightweight rims, the car will be much more responsive and fun to drive.
22 Hack: Upgrade The Brakes
Performance isn’t all about power and handling, you need to be able to stop and set the car up for corners efficiently as well. If your brakes aren't up to the task you'll be off the throttle and stomping the middle pedal much earlier than you need to with a good brake setup.
Basic brake upgrades, like better discs and pads, aren't all that expensive, giving you some significant gains on a budget. Taking things further, you can go for drilled and/or grooved discs. For those who want to get serious, a big brake conversion with massive discs and huge calipers should provide unbeatable stopping power. Don't forget the brake fluid and lines to get the most from your setup.
21 Hack: Upgrade The Suspension
Having sorted the brakes, wheels, and tires, it's time to make your car handle through corners as well. Upgraded suspension will stiffen up the car, and reducing body roll means improved handling and response.
There are several components that can be changed in order to achieve this. The usual place to start is by fitting a lowering kit. Those on a budget will usually go for a set of lowering springs, but for better performance, a full set of springs and dampers or a coilover setup is recommended. To reduce chassis flex you can add sway bars and tower braces.
20 Hack: Air Intake
Engines run on a mixture of air and fuel, so by providing the engine with more air, we can increase the power. Air intakes are essentially a pipe with an air filter fitted on the end, and they do exactly what it says on the box - let your car's engine intake more air.
The air intake will let your car breathe more easily, but it has to be fed cold air, as warm air will end up costing you a few horses - and we don't want that. An air intake on its own won't provide you with a lot of power, but it's essential if you plan on modifying the engine further.
19 Hack: Exhaust
Performance exhaust systems are known to most people for its notorious habit of making cars louder, but there's more to it than just the added noise. By upgrading the exhaust, the amount of restriction on the engine is reduced by easing the flow of the exhaust. Or in layman's terms; it increases performance.
A full exhaust system, from the headers to the tailpipe, will provide the biggest performance gains. A cat-back system is a bare minimum for any performance gains, anything less will just make the car louder without any significant power increase.
18 Hack: ECU Tuning
Basically, ECU tuning is a software update that releases factory restrictions on your car and improves performance. The biggest benefits are seen in cars with forced induction. Replacing the unit with a custom performance chip can significantly improve horsepower, speed, and fuel mileage
There are different ways of electronically tuning an engine. The most basic version is a piggyback system, also known as a tuning box. Flashing or replacing the standard chip is a better, but slightly more expensive way of doing it. For maximum tuneability, there are full engine management systems - which is mostly used on highly tuned cars to alter the programming regarding timing, fuel-air mixture, and other horsepower related inputs.
17 Hack: Service And Maintain Your Vehicle
If you want your car to keep performing the way it's supposed to, you need to service it regularly, including changing the various fluids and filters, as well as replacing the spark plugs.
For those who own cars with tuned engines, it could be a good idea to bring your car to a reputable tuner at least once a year. By doing this, they can check and adjust fuel pressure, ignition timing, and the mapping to keep your car running at peak performance. Even cars that seem to be running just fine can sometimes be in need of adjustments to perform optimally.
16 Hack: Replace Mechanical Parts
Older cars use mechanical parts that draw power from the engine, but the good news is that these can be replaced with electric ones. Replacing a mechanical fan with an electric one will free up a few ponies, but it will make the alternator and battery's life harder, so you might want to consider upgrading those parts as well. Mechanical fuel pumps are another part that can be substituted for an electric part.
You might not see a huge increase in power from these modifications, but it's a start and it's a fairly inexpensive way to get a little extra power.
15 Hack: Cams
A camshaft is basically just a metal shaft with lobes placed along its length. Each lobe opens and closes a valve - with the size, shape, and placement of the lobes determining the engine's performance potential and at what rpm range the engine will make the most power and torque.
While an aggressive cam will offer the most horsepower, it will be high in the rev range and the engine will often run rough and lumpy when idling. For most, it's a better alternative to go with a cam that offers a stronger mid-range as it's more usable in an everyday car.
14 Hack: Headwork
Once power increases from other methods have been taken to a certain level, head porting and polishing can be done to maximize the power output. There are small restrictions and rough patches in the cylinder head from when it was cast, and these tiny imperfections hinder the air flow and create turbulence. By removing these restrictions we will get a smoother intake and exhausting of the system, which translates into more power.
There are many areas within the cylinder head that can be improved by shaving off material and make them smoother, such as the inlet and exhaust ports, valve throat pocket, valve seat, and combustion chamber.
13 Hack: Increase Displacement
It's generally not cheap, nor easy to increase the capacity of your car's engine, but it is a great way to get more power and torque. There are some cars where you can swap in a larger bottom end from models with bigger engines, making it kind of a partial engine swap, but in most cases, the way to achieve it is done by rebuilding the engine with a new longer-stroke crankshaft to increase the swept capacity of the engine.
The main disadvantage is that some stroker kits can make your rev limit slightly lower, but since the new stroker crank is often stronger than standard means the safe rev limit can actually be higher.
12 Hack: Carburetors
Of course, this only applies to older cars, as newer ones have ditched the old-school carburetors in favor of modern fuel injection. The carburetor mixes the air and gasoline into a vapor to be burned inside the engine, and of course, it can be upgraded.
You can upgrade your barrels, so let's say you have a two-barrel carburetor, you can then upgrade it to a four-barrel. You do have to install a new intake manifold as well, but by doing this you'll be adding speed.
11 Hack: Nitrous
Once you’ve done the basic engine tuning, things start to become more expensive, especially so on naturally aspirated engines. But there is one thing that can give you huge power gains for a relatively small amount of money; Nitrous.
When nitrous is injected into the engine with the corresponding amount of extra fuel, it will give an immediate boost in power. There's a reason nitrous is used "on demand," if you spray too much into the engine you risk blowing it up. That being said, most production cars can easily take a 25-50hp increase via nitrous.
10 Hack: Engine Transplant
A heart transplant will remove the patient's old heart with a stronger one, and that's exactly how an engine transplant works as well. Rip out that old, wheezy lump of metal and replace it with a bigger, more powerful unit.
Some engine transplants are relatively straightforward, especially if the car was offered with the engine you plan on fitting in the engine bay, making it almost a drop-in replacement. Other's will take some more work, especially if you want to use one from a different brand. The only limitation is your imagination, but it can transform your car and sometimes it even cheaper than tuning your existing engine.
9 Hack: Forced Induction
There are two different ways you can add forced induction to your car: turbochargers and superchargers. It's not uncommon for cars to be sold with these straight from the factory now, as they allow smaller engines to produce the same, or more, power than a bigger unit, with lower emissions.
Turbos and superchargers can be added as aftermarket parts, and give you more power by forcing more oxygen into the engine. It won't be cheap to have it done properly, but it can produce massive amounts of power. Just make sure the rest of the engine, as well as the transmission, is strong enough to handle it.
8 Hack: Transmission Parts
Altering the gearing can give you a higher top speed or quicker acceleration, depending on what you want. For most people, the acceleration is the most important - and this can be improved by lowering the gearing, either with a close-ratio gearbox or low-ratio diffs. The top speed will be lower though.
A lighter flywheel will help you rev quicker, however, if you go too light the car can be a hassle to use as a daily driver. If you're just looking for a cheap and easy way to change gears faster, a short throw shifter could be just the right thing.
7 Hack: Increase Downforce And Reduce Drag
More downforce and less drag will make your car faster. But more downforce usually means more drag, not less. Finding the optimum setup does take some testing.
While increasing downforce can result in a lower top speed, it also means you can keep a higher corner speed. Wings and splitters are the easiest ways of increasing downforce.
Reducing drag is a little more complicated. Front air-dams are the most effective, but definitely not the prettiest modification.
Any body kit that hasn't been developed specifically for motorsport won't do you any favors. Air tunnel developed aero kits used on performance versions of your car are probably your best bet.
6 Hack: Make It Lighter
Have you ever noticed how much more sluggish your car is when it's fully loaded? This is especially noticeable in small cars with smaller engine displacements. So, other than refusing to give people lifts and not carrying things around in the trunk, what can you do about this?
Make it lighter! Replace body panels with carbon fiber or grp parts, get rid of that massive sound system, rip out the back seat, carpets, spare wheel, and air con. Go as extreme as you want, and you'll have a car that accelerates faster and handles better - as well as improved gas mileage.
5 Doesn't Work: Fitting An Exhaust Muffler
As we have already covered, aftermarket exhaust systems can improve the performance of your car. But, there's a science behind exhaust systems - get it wrong and you won't reap any of the benefits of having a performance exhaust.
Just fitting a "performance" muffler really won't do anything but increase the noise. Sure, your car will sound faster, but the performance will be the same. And now you'll have the authorities giving you hassles as well. It's just not worth it, especially when you can get a used cat-back system for the same money as a quality muffler.
4 Doesn't Work: Big Wheels
Aftermarket rims are probably the most common car modification out there. We've already covered how lightweight wheels can improve a car's performance, so guess what happens if you fit heavier rims.
Fitting too large rims is the most common "mistake" people do when modifying their cars. Sure, big wheels with very low profile tires look good, but they do absolutely nothing to improve performance. In fact, the car will need to use more power just to rotate them, meaning acceleration will be slower than for a standard car.
3 Doesn't Work: Short Ram Air Intake
Simply put; a short ram intake is the cheaper little brother of the cold air intake. Whereas the cold air intake sucks in fresh, cold air from under the car, the short ram intake is placed in the hot engine bay.
At least you do get that cool induction noise by fitting a short ram intake - but unless it's shielded from the heat of the engine and radiator, it will suck in warm air and actually end up killing some of the horses living in the engine.
2 Doesn't Work: Body kits
Body kits can make a car look awesome, who hasn't drooled over some curvacious wide-body monster? Unfortunately, a body kit won't do much for your car's performance. Most of them are just made to look good, things like downforce and drag haven't been taken into consideration when designing them - at best, you might save some weight since they're made from fiberglass.
There are some body kits out there that can help reduce drag or increase downforce, but they are of little to no use for driving at legal speed and will only be useful on a track.
1 Doesn't Work: Bad Rear Wings
Here's the thing: there is a huge difference between a "spoiler" and a "wing." They have different shapes and do different things.
A rear wing is shaped like an upside-down airplane wing and it deflects airflow upward to generate down-force on the rear of the vehicle. Higher downforce and drag means your car will be slower, not faster. You don't want a wing, you want a spoiler.
A spoiler is basically an obstruction to localized airflow that improves the overall airflow around a vehicle. Basically, you're adding a barrier to a region of undesirable air behavior so the air will flow somewhere else.
Sources: Fast Car, Pistonheads, Carponents