Last week, we covered the first steps you should take with a new project car or build. The focus was on setting your project up for success with maintenance on the front end so you can enjoy upgrades worry-free down the road. Well, this edition of Tuned In Weekly is all about the fun stuff and the order of operations to help make the most out of your build in terms of performance benefits on a timeline that makes sense.
Coilovers / Cup Kit
In our last article, we advised that you wait and decide what suspension you want for your car before you replace any blown struts or worn-out strut mounts. This is a good idea since, if your goal is to improve the looks and performance of your car, a high-quality cup kit or a decent set of coilovers will replace all those worn-out bits at the same cost or incredibly close. Many coilovers include upper strut mounts, too, which replace a common wear item with a better-performing version, oftentimes with camber/caster adjustment included. For those that don’t, or for those who prefer a cup kit to coilovers, our coilover and cup kit install kits offer all of those supporting parts so you can throw fresh new stuff in with your brand new suspension.
Sway Bar / Mounts / End Links
Perhaps the most noticeable improvements to the suspension on any car, besides coilovers, are sway bar upgrades. Bigger adjustable sway bars give you the ability to fine-tune your handling characteristics while drastically reducing your body roll through the corners. This improved handling and traction will help your project car take corners more aggressively while providing a much-needed increase in rigidity by replacing possibly worn-out end links and sway bar mounts. You can tune out understeer and oversteer to suit your driving preferences while adjustable end links allow you to locate the sway bar where it doesn’t contact anything even in an extremely lowered vehicle.
Suspension bushings like those found in the control arms, thrust arms, trailing arms, and even the rear subframe are wearable parts. If you found that many of these bushings or ball joints are ready for a replacement during your initial inspections and maintenance, there’s no better time to upgrade than when it’s time for maintenance. Upgrading to stiffer bushings, like polyurethane or even Monoball spherical bearings, won’t add too much noise, vibration, or harshness even for a daily-driven car. You’ll regain all of the factory-fresh tightness in your suspension and have a more responsive feeling car as a bonus.
Lines / Fluid
Whether it’s time for a fluid flush or you need a fluid that will hold up to higher temperatures, it’s suggested that you flush old brake fluid every two years. Even if the previous owner claims the brake fluid is fresh, you should still go ahead and perform this service either way. It’s also an excellent time to upgrade your brake hoses with stainless steel lines, like our Exact-Fit Lines, for a better pedal feel and brake responsiveness.
Calipers / Pads / Rotors
You might have just replaced your pads, rotors, or even calipers with the brake service you should perform early on with a project car, but if you haven’t, or you’re waiting for an excuse to upgrade, this is your chance. Like suspension and bushings, a performance brake upgrade will also serve as maintenance service at the same time. Our Assembled by ECS Performance kits pair more competitive pads and rotors with everything else you need for a brake service and upgrade. For more aggressive braking performance, we also offer two-piece rotors for certain applications and a range of big brake upgrades from names like StopTech and Brembo.
Wheels / Tires
One of the best visual improvements you can make, especially with a lowered car, is a new set of wheels. Honestly, this will come down to your style preference and fitment goals, but after you’ve upgraded the suspension, drivetrain bushings, and brakes, wheels and tires will help make better use of all that extra traction and handling performance. For an OEM+ look, ECS Flush Kits offer better fitment with OEM wheels that you can wrap in more competitive tires for better traction without compromising the factory look of your car.
Seats / Harnesses
Depending on how serious you plan to be with your build, seats, and harnesses might be a good idea, particularly if you plan to spend any time on the track. Factory seats, in general, aren’t designed to hold you in place or accept harnesses safely, with few exceptions. Even if you don’t plan to spend too much time on the track, bucket seats from Corbeau, Sparco, Recaro, and others can also add a much-needed interior improvement. This is doubly true if your factory seats are torn up, ripped, and fading.
Roll Bar / Strut Tower Bars / Harness Bars
If you plan to run harnesses, unless you choose the SCHROTH quick-fit harnesses, you’ll need a harness bar at the least to safely attach them. Many vehicles have off-the-shelf harness bar, half cage, and even full bolt-in cage options available that are designed to add rigidity and safety on the track. If you plan to drive without a helmet and harnesses on the street, though, we’d advise against a full cage. You don’t want metal bars anywhere near an unprotected cranium.
Steering Wheel / Hub
Similar to the seats, a steering wheel and aftermarket wheel hub make both a visual improvement and safety improvement to your interior. A smaller diameter wheel that sits in a much better position with better grip on the wheel can be a major benefit on the street or track. Just make sure you pick something rated for performance driving rather than something that ‘looks the part.’ Don’t skimp out on something that could be a hazard if it fails while doing something it wasn’t meant to do!
Fire Extinguisher / Mount
Every project car and competitive racing vehicle should have a fire extinguisher and mount. Most sanctioning bodies require it, but it’s just a good idea to keep one handy even if you never plan to track the car. Rennline offers fire extinguisher mounts designed to fit with many typical roll cage tubes that mounts a fire extinguisher for quick access in case of emergency. If you do anything to your interior, it should be the addition of a fire extinguisher.
Finally, for the interior, a phone mount is key. If it’s a project car, it’s likely from an earlier era than your smartphone. That doesn’t have to be an inconvenience, though. Rennline also makes ExactFit Phone Mounts designed to perfectly integrate with your interior and magnetically secure your phone or even a lap timer device for easy monitoring and hands-free use. One of the best ways to seamlessly merge your smartphone with your project car is a mount that works, doesn’t obscure your vision, and is easily accessible without moving your hand too far from the wheel. Rennline’s mount is the perfect example of these qualities in action.
Generally, the first actual engine performance upgrade most folks perform is a cold air intake. A performance intake both sets you up for future engine upgrades and offers a mild power benefit on its own. While it won’t be much without a software tune and other supporting mods, an intake like our Luft-Technik intake line will still provide lower intake air temperatures, better flow, and more induction noise to enjoy during a spirited drive.
In forced induction engines, the turbo inlet connects the intake to the turbocharger’s cold induction side. This can often be a point of restriction that will negate any benefits of greater flow from an upgraded intake. This should be addressed either at the same time as your new intake or shortly after that upgrade before any future modifications are made. We have ECS and Turner Motorsport turbo inlets for applicable vehicles designed to pick up extra power when paired with a cold air intake. Of course, some intakes include piping all the way to the turbo, which negates the need for a separate modification, just make sure the intake you’ve chosen does or doesn’t include it before purchasing a turbo inlet.
In turbocharged engines, the charge pipe can be the next source of restriction that stands in the way of improved engine performance. A better-flowing charge pipe will help free up that restriction and deliver a greater volume of air to your throttle body. These can be upgraded for use with a factory intercooler, or purchased along with an intercooler upgrade that we’ll talk about next.
Intercooler (where applicable)
The intercooler acts as an air to air (in most cases) heat exchanger to reduce intake air temperatures after that air has been compressed by the turbo. Compressing air causes it to heat up due to the molecular friction, which needs to be cooled again before entering the engine so it can be as cold and dense as possible to accept the most fuel it can for the biggest explosions. Upgraded intercoolers can be purchased to work with your factory charge piping or upgraded charge pipes for even better performance. Think of an intercooler like giving yourself access to boost season weather year-round.
Similar to the intake side, your exhaust is another source of air restriction. Engines are just air pumps, after all, and the more efficiently they run, the more power they can produce. The faster you can expel spent gas, the better your engine can perform. At the least, upgrading your exhaust from the catalytic converter back (cat-back/CBE) will free up some extra power and offer better engine and exhaust noise as an added benefit. In light of recent EPA restrictions, straight piping cars for road use is not legal in any form, but there are high-flow catalytic converter options that can offer some benefits. However, modern catalytic converters are about as free-flowing as cats can be, so you may not see too much benefit from a high-flow cat. A performance downpipe, however, can be a huge improvement and is often required for upgraded software. If you want the best performance possible, an upgraded downpipe and cat-back exhaust will be your best bet.
They won’t technically add power, but upgraded coil packs and spark plugs better suited to the performance potential and ignition for your engine can mitigate potential detonation or misfires under high boost. This is critical for maintaining consistent performance, which is preferable to unpredictable issues that can arise from spark plugs and coil packs that aren’t capable of operating efficiently under harder conditions than they were designed to endure.
Your ECU, or DME as it can be called, is your car’s brain. The computer and software mapping that governs your computer is responsible for taking all the information from every sensor in your vehicle and acting on it. The factory engine software is fairly intelligent and can adapt to your demands from the car, but it isn’t capable of knowing when upgrades are performed that allow it to make changes to your fuel delivery or ignition timing outside of what the factory components are capable of doing. That’s why a software tune, like APR, COBB, Burger Motorsports, Malone, IE, and other tuning companies offer, is critical for taking advantage of all your performance bolt-on upgrades. The upgraded software is designed to allow your engine to make full use of those upgrades by allowing the ECU to know what its new limits are. On their own, especially with turbocharged or supercharged vehicles, a software tune can add significant power. With supporting modifications that the tune accounts for, you can experience some substantial power gains. A perfect example is Turner Motorsport’s Stage 3 N55 Performance Software that offers up to 110hp and 174tq increases for N55-powered BMWs with supporting modifications. Software is the single best upgrade to perform, especially once you’ve added a few bolt-ons to raise that performance ceiling.
In most engines, the turbo will not be a source of limitation even with bolt-on upgrades like an intake, intercooler, exhaust, and engine software. However, if you’re trying to find the absolute limit of your engine’s capabilities, there are quite a few options for improving performance drastically with upgraded turbos. Anything from factory-sized upgraded turbos with better bearings and compressor wheels to larger frame turbos and even big single turbo upgrades are available to meet your horsepower goals. The bigger the turbo, the more air it can compress. However, the more power your engine needs to produce to generate positive boost pressure and the more lag you may experience depending on your turbo’s size and engine’s capabilities to spool it up. Popular upgrades for turbochargers include stock location upgrades like K04 turbos in the 2.7T found in the B5 S4 or Vargas ‘Game Changer’ turbos that mount to the factory N54 twin-turbo locations. These allow you to upgrade with minimal changes to other hardware for the easiest big power solution. Without diving too much in the weeds here, we suggest either building your car around the turbo you plan to run, or setting your engine up to prepare for a bigger/more efficient turbocharger on the front end so you don’t have to undo any work down the road.
There are more common upgrades than we discussed in this short list. You can dig into fuel upgrades, bigger intake manifolds, engine internals, drivetrain upgrades like flywheels, clutch discs, and pretty much go down the rabbit hole of actually building a car, but if you’re reading this, then you probably are looking for more information on where to start with a fresh build. This road map is an efficient order of operations for basic bolt-ons that will help you make the most out of your project build and grow incrementally. Even if you only make one upgrade at a time, each on this list is placed in an order that will allow you to experience real improvements and satisfaction from money well spent. If you want us to write even more in-depth on either upgrades we didn’t cover in this article or upgrades we touched on briefly, let us know! You can always leave a comment or send us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org and you might find yourself or your question in a future edition of Tuned In Weekly.