If you could only make five upgrades to your daily driver, whatever the car, what would they be and why? This interesting take on the desert island game was something a friend and I discussed the other night. The conversation panned out in a way that made me seriously think about the expert opinions we’ve developed here through experience at ECS. Naturally, that inspired me to take that information and deliver it to you, the Euro car community, as something to chew on. So, without further ado, this is our list of the five upgrades every daily driver deserves if they were the only upgrades you ever performed.
Wheels and Tires
The tires are the things on your car that make contact with the road, as Phish so eloquently put it in their song Contact. What that means to us car enthusiasts is simple (another great Phish song, FYI.) That means the majority of your grip, handling, and ability to transmit power to the ground comes down to the characteristics of your tires. These characteristics are affected by treadwear, tire compound, tread pattern, tire size, and temperature ranges, among other super complicated physics equations.
While a daily driven car doesn’t need some R-compound tires to perform well on the street, those all-seasons aren’t doing it any favors. The best thing you can do to improve the overall performance of your car is select a set of tires that is dedicated to performing their best in the conditions you drive the most. For us up here above the snow belt, that means a set of dedicated high-performance summer tires and a set of snow or all-terrain tires for the cold months. Even if you aren’t in the snow belt, it may be a good idea to have a backup set of all seasons for winter driving, as the lower temperatures may still fall below the ideal range for your summer tires to perform the way you want.
Naturally, this requires two sets of wheels. Whatever you want to run in the winter should be put on your stock wheels, both for convenience and cost purposes. Your ‘performance’ tires then deserve a set of wheels that improve the look of your car and the available traction surface of your tires. Wheels and tires will come down to preference, but one of the best things you can do in terms of appearance and performance for your car is to find that perfect set of wheels and dedicated performance tires to improve your daily driving experience.
With a good set of tires, one of the limiting factors in pushing your car harder comes down to brakes. While it is popular to add a bunch of power before upgrading the brakes, the best order of operations is the reverse. Remember, brakes allow you to take better advantage of the performance your car already has. Reducing braking distance and increasing the amount of time you can stay on the throttle will allow you to maintain more speed through the same section of twisty roads than more power will.
Like wheels and tires, pads and rotors will come down to preferences and the conditions you experience most. You don’t want to go with some racing setup, as you’ll never be in the proper temperature ranges to take advantage of the increased stopping power. Nor will you want to stick with economy pads and rotors, as you may well find your spirited drives quickly overheat them and you experience brake fade too quickly. The middle ground here is key, find rotors that offer the most surface area, best cooling, and lightest weight over stock versions and choose pads that have an extremely high initial bite force and fairly flat temperature curve that can handle street driving as well as some performance driving. HAWK has an extremely helpful chart that explains the temp ranges of their pad compounds, but you can generally find that information from any brake manufacturer.
Sway Bars / End Links
With the tires and brakes improved, your next area of focus should be suspension. Unfortunately for all you scene kids, our suggestion isn’t lowering your car but instead upgrading your sway bars, sway bar bushings, and end links. Technically, this is three upgrades all in one, but most kits include the bars and bushings at minimum, while some kits like our ECS Sway Bar Upgrades can include adjustable end links with Heim joints in place of rubber-sealed ball joints.
The reasoning behind our preference for sway bars instead of springs or coilovers is simple: reducing body roll without affecting suspension geometry means you’re taking full advantage of the handling capabilities of your car without any negative effects. Lowering your car can have adverse effects, like changing your roll center, camber, caster, and suspension travel. While these downsides can be mitigated with supporting modifications, most folks just want to go low for the looks and then complain that their car doesn’t handle the way they want anymore. With sway bars, you gain the advantage of actually reduced body roll through the physically stiffer bars as well as the ability to adjust the fulcrum point (where the sway bar connects to the end links) to either increase or decrease the sway bar’s effect on your handling. You can tune understeer and oversteer in or out with upgraded sway bars and will experience significantly improved cornering, especially when paired with proper brakes and tires.
They may not add the looks that lowering your car does, but you’ll likely see more handling benefits and more driving enjoyment with just sway bars when compared to just lowering springs or coilovers.
Finally, something that adds power! Performance software tunes, we’re talking out-of-the-box pre-written piggyback software and chip tunes here, optimize the efficiency of your engine mapping for the most power safely achievable from your engine. Most tuning companies offer software upgrades for even completely stock engines to benefit from some additional horsepower and better HP/Torque curves, especially with forced-induction engines.
We know it’s less appealing to tune your car first before adding engine performance mods but remember: this is if we can only do five upgrades, what do we pick. We suggest software over any single bolt-on performance engine mod simply because you’ll see the biggest improvements to power and efficiency per dollar with a tune. You may not be able to see the software doing its magic like you can an intake or an intercooler, but you’ll certainly notice the difference in power and drivability that you won’t get with a bolt-on part. If you had to pick one performance engine modification and no others, performance software is the way to go.
Wrapping things up, we can’t leave one fan service upgrade off this list. As enthusiasts, one of the most depressing things is seeing a cool car, especially one that’s modified, and then not being able to hear it. It seems manufacturers have finally come to understand that, too, as even factory exhausts on popular performance cars like the new MK8 GTI and G80 M3 have some pretty hearty notes right off the showroom floor. However, even these exhaust systems can leave something to be desired. No matter what the car is, a good cat-back exhaust can do wonders for driving enjoyment.
You may pick up a horsepower or two with a performance cat-back, but the real reason to make the upgrade is to give yourself that hit of serotonin when you stop on the go pedal. A throaty, aggressive, and appealing exhaust note from even an otherwise stock Audi, BMW, or VW can make a world of difference when you’re simply commuting or taking a spirited drive down a back road. After all, it’s about enjoying your car more. We can’t think of a better way to feel like you’re in a completely new car than hearing a well-tuned exhaust note sing you the internal combustion chorus.
Fortunately, we don’t live on a deserted island and aren’t restricted to picking just five upgrades for our favorite car. That said, if you were to only make a handful of upgrades, or are on an extremely tight budget, this list is perfectly suited to giving you the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to performance and driving enjoyment. Even if you plan to heavily modify your car, or have already started to upgrade it, this list represents the five best areas to improve across the board. Whatever your build plans are, the upgrades on this list provide an extremely appealing foundation and will offer you the biggest improvements you can feel from the driver’s seat wherever you take your car.