If you’ve followed our humble little blog since we revived it earlier this year, you likely know that we’ve been focused on budget builds, affordable enthusiast cars, and DIY jobs to reduce your cost of ownership. Now, our next few articles will be a bit more performance focused rather than price focused. This week, it’s all about the ECS hand-picked favorites for upgrading your Volkswagen. Whether it’s a GTI, Golf R, GLI, or even a Tiguan, our Volkswagen team have picked out their top recommendations for making your VW more fun.
First things first, this will be a fairly high-level overview of our performance suggestions. Not all of our suggestions will apply to every VW, but this should serve as a good template for what you can do to improve your VW of choice. Obviously, the more popular models, like the GTI and GLI, will have more performance-oriented upgrades available, but don’t let owning a different VW stop you. We’ve included links to the comprehensive top-picks for most of the VWs we offer upgrades for at the end of the article. If you just want to scroll down and see what we have for your car, go for it!
Nothing is more smile-inducing than the feel of a boosted VW four-banger making way more power than it should. VW is almost synonymous with goofy, “just-because,” fun in the car scene. Whether it’s a shaved, tucked, and fitted show build or just a claptrap with an oversized turbo, it’s almost impossible to not enjoy more power in these lightweight little economy cars. Let’s dive into our favorite upgrades to get you to your power goals.
Arguably the first and most popular upgrade on the list is the cold air intake. Whatever your stance is on the “performance” benefits of installing a less restrictive intake, no one can argue how much they clean up the engine bay and make a hearty induction noise. However, the fact remains, a well-engineered cold air intake does offer performance benefits. You may not see more than a couple of extra horsepower with an intake by itself, but they do open the door to more performance from the rest of the upgrades on this list.
A true cold air intake is exactly what it sounds like. By now, you probably don’t need an explanation, but here it is anyway. CAIs, ideally, partition the filter element where intake air is induced into the intake itself. With a well-sealed heat shield, like we designed for our intake systems, you can see dramatic intake air temperature reductions. Drawing in colder, denser, air inarguably gives your engine an improvement in efficiency.
Speaking of efficiency, another benefit of a truly well-designed air intake is the increase in both the flow rate and flow volume of air. The more air we can cram into the engine, especially a forced-induction engine, the more fuel we can add safely to produce more power. That’s pretty much it. With our intakes, we flow-bench and temperature test our designs to ensure dramatic increases in air and decreases in temperature for optimal performance. Here, check out some of our data showing just what our intake systems can do.
With optimal performance in mind, another of our favorite upgrades for making big power is an upgraded intake manifold. Obviously, this only makes sense if you plan to run a larger (or MUCH larger) turbo than your engine originally had. But if you want big power, you’ll want to do that anyway (hey, it’s next on our list).
The formula for more power is the same throughout; add air, add fuel, ignite, and make power. With a bigger turbo and more efficient intake, the intake manifold itself can become a restriction point and rob you of potential power. With a larger plenum volume, more efficient runner designs, smoother porting, and provisions (where they apply) for the possibility of multi-port injection, nitrous, and/or water-meth, improved intake manifolds offer both inherent advantages and the potential for more versatility to achieve your performance goals.
Unfortunately, there aren’t quite as many engines that the few companies who design these improved manifolds support. However, if you have anything MQB-based, you definitely have options. A bit of shameless self-promotion here, but we offer upgraded fabricated aluminum manifolds for the MK5, MK6 and MK7 that offer extreme potential. Of course, you will want to think big when it comes to your turbo choice to get the most out of what our manifolds can do.
Ah, the fun bit. If you’ve never held a big honkin’ turbo that you were about to install after receiving it in the mail, you definitely need to experience that joy at least once in your life. Especially if you have plans for stupid power from your VW. Fortunately, turbo technology in the past decade has brought so much competition to the market, we’re seeing truly affordable big turbo kits become more common. Even eBay brands that used to be a guarantee for big power…for a single pull before catastrophic failure… aren’t that anymore. With the rising availability of at least viable turbos, many reputable manufacturers are now offering competitive options.
Look at the K04. If you’re upgrading a MK4 GTI 1.8t, the K04 has been a time-tested bolt-on power-adder. But you were either forced to find one in a junkyard or to spend big bucks for a factory replacement and all the necessary bits to install it. Now, we’re able to bring full kits, including the turbo, to market for reasonable prices. HPA and Frankenturbo have plenty to do with that affordability for the VW market. In a gesture of appreciation, don’t let all their hard work go to waste. You know you want a ridiculous, tire-smoking, Mack Truck sounding VW. If you want power, and to get the most out of the larger manifold we suggest to get there, you’re going to need a big turbo.
The logic follows, then, that with more power and a bigger turbo compressing more air, you’ll need a way to efficiently cool that compressed air before it’s introduced into the engine. In turbocharged cars, the turbo compresses air, which is great for shoving more of it into the engine, but a side-effect is that all that air smooshed together heats up. That’s molecular friction, baby. To cool that air, modern forced-induction platforms use intercoolers, generally in an air-to-air configuration, which bring those charge air temperatures back down. Remember our colder air formula when we addressed intakes? Same thing.
Now, with that bigger turbo, you’ll want to increase both the volume of the intercooler and the efficiency of the charge piping that funnels that air. If we were to make a list of top modifications to your turbo’d VW (wait a second… that sounds REALLY similar to what we are doing right now…) we’d put an upgraded intercooler kit high on the list. Honestly, all you need is an intake, intake manifold, big turbo, big intercooler, and a software tune to effectively double your horsepower. So, naturally, take a look at our affordable intercooler and charge piping upgrades for your VW that we’ve developed specifically to meet a perfect middle ground between quality and affordability.
Blow Off Valve/Diverter Valve
Who doesn’t love the iconic PSSSH of unused charge air venting to the atmosphere? (Or recirculating into the intake system). We certainly do, which is why we suggest that at the least, you run a DV Spacer to bring some of that air dispersion noise into your life. But for real performance improvements, an upgraded BOV or DV is precisely what you need.
There also seems to be some confusion around what a BOV/DV actually does and why you would want to upgrade yours beyond the awesome sound. A BOV does exactly what it sounds like; it “blows off” excess charge air when the throttle is closed. Take your gearchange as the perfect example. When you let off the throttle to disengage the clutch, you are not drawing any more charged air into the throttle body. But it’s not like that charged air you’ve built up before the throttle plate was closed can hang around waiting for the throttle plate to pivot back open. All that air has to go somewhere and the faster it does, the faster you can rebuild that charged air (or boost for those of you wondering) and create positive pressure, more power, and blast through the RPM range to the next gear. Efficiency is the name of the game. With a DV or BOV that offers an improved functionality over the stock unit, you’ll be able to expel that unused air, keep stress off of your throttle body, and build that boost back faster.
Additionally, DVs can sometimes be a failure point, especially in aging engines. The little diaphragm inside wears out and can eventually become a boost leak. Think about the charged air as “contents under pressure.” As soon as there is a low-resistance path for that air to take, it’s gonna do it. An area of high-concentration naturally wants to escape across whatever barrier is containing it to the area of low-concentration to equalize the pressure. That’s just physics, my guys. With a leaky DV or BOV, pressurized air (boost) is going to want to escape through that leak and rob you of power. If you’ve noticed a drop in peak boost over the past few thousand miles, chances are your DV is to blame and it’s time to upgrade.
Ok, not the most exciting things in the world, but coil packs are important! Delivering consistent spark, especially under high-boost situations, is extremely important to make power and make it safely. In VWs, coil packs are known to fail as they age. Additionally, the stock coil packs have a tendency to deliver inconsistent spark, which can be un-good for the longevity of your engine.
Upgrading coil packs when you replace your spark plugs with a set of APR performance coil packs will help maintain stronger, consistent, spark and allow you to enjoy your VW with less worry that misfires will plague your experience.
And finally, you’ve heard me say it many times before, but a software tune is the bow that ties the performance package together. All the upgrades to your engine are missing their true potential without a matching tune that uses everything those upgrades have to offer. Software tuners, like COBB and Integrated Engineering, offer off-the-shelf solutions for a plug-and-play tune that will happily work with your intake, exhaust, intercooler, upgraded manifold, and more for an easy performance and efficiency increase from your engine.
This list is, as I said, by no means exhaustive. But it is exactly what we’d recommend for you to start with if you’re looking for big power from your Volkswagen. With these bolt-ons, you’ll be significantly closer to your goal and can start finding where your real weak points are to begin improving your VW’s performance across the board. Speaking of which, next week will be the second part to this little article and will focus on non-engine performance parts we think every VW deserves. For now, have a look at the full list for your car linked below to see just what our VW team suggests for your build.