Whether you just purchased your first car or have decided to start modifying your daily driver, you have an overwhelming sea of questions laid out in front of you. What upgrades do you pick? What brands can you trust? How much is this going to cost? Will any of it make a difference? Even if you have been making changes to your current car or have done some upgrades to other vehicles in the past, that doesn’t mean you have a clear-cut path to make the best and most impactful improvements to the blank canvas of a car you have now. It’s certainly true that all cars are different, but it can also be said they are effectively the same, as is the formula for making your daily driver something that speaks to your enthusiast nature and looks, drives, feels, and conveys the message you want everyone to receive. We’re going to help you out with that today by outlining our list of the best upgrades you can make to your daily to keep it capable as a commuter but individualized and more engaging as an enthusiast’s car.
With anything, you have to have a plan before you begin. Car modification is no different. However, just because you have a plan doesn’t mean it’s the right one. It has become popular to make your car so low it’s underivable, to run unique and expensive wheels, to push the upper limits of engine performance, and affix carbon fiber to every possible corner of cars in the enthusiast scene. While there is nothing wrong with that path, for a daily driver, it isn’t necessarily the best idea. You need to retain function. So how do we achieve the look and feel we want without compromising the original intentions of your daily driver?
It’s simple. Don’t think about ‘how much power will this add,’ ‘how much I can improve my handling,’ or ‘how flashy something is,’ You need to think about establishing a theme and making upgrades that flow together to create a whole picture, that tells the whole story, of what you want from your car. Our formula is lowered ride height, more aggressive wheel fitment, better exhaust tones, and distinguishing visual changes. You can take an extreme or mild approach to this formula and yield unique results, more or less, it just comes down to your preferences and budget. Remember, this isn’t about building a time attack monster or auto-x champion. It’s just about making your daily driver look and feel the way that makes you happy. Don’t worry so much about measurable performance benefits in this venture, just worry about what works, what appeals to you, and what fits your budget.
While there are three approaches to lowering your vehicle, not all are equally best suited for a particular need. In this case, with a daily driver build list on a conservative budget, we are only focused on two methods. Again, one might be better for you, which we will cover, but neither is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ in terms of dropping the ride height of your car. It just depends on what you want, what you need, and how much you have in your budget. There is a third option, air suspension, that has several merits for a daily driver, but we think based on our three criteria it is not right unless you just absolutely want air suspension, which we will discuss.
If you want the most cost-effective way to drop your car’s ride height, it can oftentimes be a quality set of lowering springs. Lowering springs offer the benefits of low cost, predictable ride height drop, and no settings or math you need to work out to achieve your desired ride height. Lowering springs are becoming incredibly popular again, especially in cars that have dynamic suspension. With these advanced suspension systems, you can control the damper force much the same as you would with a set of coilovers. In this case, if you know you just want a fixed drop in height and to retain all the factory functions of your dynamic suspension, lowering springs are the best choice for you and also the least expensive.
However, if your car is second-hand (or third, fourth, fifth, etc.), you will want to know in advance if you need to replace the shocks, struts, top mounts, or other suspension components before installing lowering springs. Lowering springs are more aggressive and can shorten the life of your factory suspension components in some cases, which might mean you quickly blow out your shocks/struts or experience other failures. In that instance, it might be more practical to choose the next option for a cost-effective option that offers the benefits you need.
Our Best Picks for Lowering Springs:
While generally more expensive than lowering springs by themselves, coilover systems offer some key benefits not found in simple spring upgrades. Like we said, if your car is older or your suspension parts are due for replacement, coilovers are more cost-effective since they include shocks/struts with paired springs designed to work in tandem with your vehicle. Some systems include the top hats, some require you to re-use your existing OEM mounts. In that case, we suggest you replace your top mounts with new ones to have the longest service life possible without needing to replace anything shortly after your installation.
Coilovers also offer ride height adjustment by design. This means you can set your ride height where you want, be it all the way down, or just slightly lower. Depending on what you want from your coilovers, you can also choose sets that include camber adjustment, damper force adjustment, and independent ride height/spring preload adjustment. If you have specific settings in mind, the more adjustability you have, generally the better off you are. However, this is not the case for everyone. If you want a predictable and adjustable drop without the need to spend hours perfecting the ride quality, preload, alignment settings, and more, then we suggest picking something fairly straightforward out of the box for a simple drop in ride height from a complete system.
Our Best Picks for Coilovers:
Ok, as we said, air suspension is likely not the best for a daily driven car, but that doesn’t rule it out entirely. Air suspension is the most involved installation process, requires you to often drill holes in your car to run air lines, is the most expensive by a long shot, and demands the most maintenance over the life of the system. You have to take into account your climate, as you may have to drain your compressor tank of water (a byproduct of pressurizing/depressurizing air,) deal with frozen lines, or inconsistent air bag pressure. You also might need to worry about punctures and corrosion of the lines/bags/hardware in areas that use salt during winter months. Air suspension generally will demand more upkeep to maintain the integrity of your system.
Not only that, but you also need to know what is involved in setting up your car with air ride. There are a few options in terms of manufacturers, and a few choices they offer in terms of tanks, compressors, management systems, and more. We have a helpful article here that outlines what you need to know about Air Lift Performance systems that will also apply to other air suspension setups. If you are dead-set on living life on air, we suggest you read that before you commit to a purchase. Again, there is nothing wrong with air suspension on a daily driver, we just tend to think the ‘path of least resistance’ is best in something that sees a lot of road time, especially when that involves a large portion of your modification budget.
Our Best Picks for Air Suspension:
Once you’ve sorted your suspension choice, you should turn next to wheels. The two biggest improvements to the way your car looks and the way you enjoy your car are wheels and a drop. There is a lot of discourse online about ‘wheels and a drop’ being a build or not, but frankly, that’s because it makes such a huge difference in your car’s appearance. A proper set of wheels on a respectable ride height can make any vehicle, no matter how fancy, sporty, or expensive it is, look incredible. It’s for that reason, the first two things you should do are choose suspension that lowers your car to the desired height and pick a set of wheels that speaks to your style while remaining inside your budget.
Effectively, wheels are just math. It’s not as hard as it sounds. You need to know the diameter of the wheel you want to use, the width of the wheel, and the offset of the wheel so you can improve the fitment of your car without going too aggressive. For the least costly and most OEM+ look, you can also simply choose wheel spacers to give a meatier look to your car.
However, we’ve made it even easier for you. While you aren’t going to achieve the most aggressive fitment possible, that isn’t the goal with a daily driver. You shouldn’t have to do a bunch of fender modification to run a set of proper wheels and a lowered ride height. By selecting your vehicle on the ECS Tuning website, choosing the category Wheels, and subcategory Aftermarket Alloys, everything we have already confirmed will fit is listed there. In many cases, we have your specific vehicle on those wheels photographed so you can see what they will look like and how they will fit on your car.
It is also important you check forums and find either fitment guides and/or pictures of what wheel size specs other enthusiasts are using without fitment issues. Don’t just buy the first set of wheels that appeals to you: find out what will fit, how it will fit, and pick the set that you like the best after determining how they will look on your car, especially with a drop in ride height.
Our Best Picks for Wheels:
Again, we’d like to reiterate that the point with a daily driver build list isn’t to make the most power but to be enjoyable to drive and engaging in both appearance and driving experience. We think an aftermarket exhaust system, ideally a cat-back exhaust, is one of the pieces to that puzzle.
When you choose a header-back or turbo-back system, whichever the case may be, you are not only incurring much larger costs and strain on your budget but also risking the car becoming too loud for driving every day. You don’t want drone or excessive cabin noise, otherwise, you may become tired (exhausted lol) driving the car every day or on long trips. With a cat-back system, you can have some of your engine’s volume increased with a pleasant, yet aggressive, exhaust tone but will not blow your eardrums out. Take it from someone who has a ‘straight piped’ car. It’s fun from time to time, but driving every day is out of the question. I would like to keep a bit of my hearing.
Exhausts are like wheels, at least, in this case. They will come down to your preference in looks and sound, which means, you need to do some research. Our in-house designed exhaust systems are all videoed and compared to stock so you can hear and see what you should expect with an ECS exhaust system for your car. Other companies and enthusiasts offer the same. We encourage you to check out our YouTube channel for video references and other channels for exhausts that interest you to ensure you like what you hear (and see.)
Our Best Picks for Exhaust Systems:
Ok, here is where things can begin to truly fall down rabbit holes. Depending on what you want from your daily, be it a better driving experience or better looks, you have several options for one or two cost-effective upgrades. We’re going to break it down between looks and feel and make suggestions there. We advise you to pick one or the other starting out based on what is most important to you, especially if you are doing all the upgrades we’ve listed here today at once.
For those who are more concerned with how their car looks rather than changing how it feels to drive, we suggest two simple visual improvements. A front lip spoiler and a rear trunk lip spoiler. Neither will be overly aggressive or flashy, but they won’t be unnoticed, either. The front lip will accentuate the vehicle’s stance, especially lowered, and give a more aggressive appearance to that part of your car. A rear lip spoiler will offer motorsport-inspired looks without being ‘too ricey’ like a big park bench wing. Just some subtle changes that flow with the existing lines of the car and stretch it out a bit, especially if they are carbon fiber, can make a huge difference in the look of your car and tie the ‘modified daily’ theme together nicely.
Best Visual Upgrade Options:
If you want a bit more power or a more engaging driving experience over aggressive looks, three upgrades offer the best ‘bang for your buck.’ For more power, software upgrades make a massive difference. You can expect moderate performance gains from software tunes that will liven up your otherwise stock car more than just about any single bolt-on upgrade will by itself.
Best Software Upgrade Options:
If you just want to improve your driving experience, we suggest either an aftermarket steering wheel or a short shift kit/shift knob (for manual transmission vehicles only.) These are the parts of your interior that you engage with the most, so making them more enjoyable will significantly change how much you enjoy driving your car. If the point is to want to drive it all the time, upgrading your steering wheel or shift setup will do just that with ease.
Best Steering Wheel Upgrade Options:
Best Short Shift Kit Options:
With just a few subtle changes, you can take your completely stock daily and transform it into something representative of an enthusiast. Of course, this is a basic list and the upgrades follow a ‘cookie-cutter’ formula, but that doesn’t mean your build has to be a copy/paste example of everyone else’s. Use creativity in your choices of parts, style of wheels, and visual modifications, and the formula can look as unique or as uniform as you want it to. Just remember; be yourself and don’t ‘overbuild’ your daily driver. If you follow this list, you’ll be well on your way to an impressive daily driver without compromise to function, usability, or comfort.