One of the great things about cars is that they're essentially blank canvasses, and through the wonderful world of modifications, you can pick and choose which aspects of your car you want to focus your efforts (read: money) on. Unfortunately for many poor souls, all that time, effort, and money goes into a hodgepodge of poorly chosen parts that ultimately make the owner look like a complete moron.
If you really want to make your car faster and improve performance, without looking like a spend-happy idiot, here's a helpful guide to get started. In terms of the bang-for-your-buck factor, every single one of these is absolutely worth the time and money.
1. Tires, tires, tires
Price: Anywhere between $150 and $300 per tire for a good set
Do. Not. Cheap. Out. On. Your. Tires. I cannot stress this enough. A good set of high-performance tires will help every single aspect of your car's performance, from accelerating to braking to cornering. If you live in an area where you have a prolonged winter, it's completely reasonable to have two sets of tires and wheels: one for the summer and one for the winter, each with rubber compounds optimized to their respective temperature ranges. Seriously, tires are that important.
2. Quality race seats and harnesses
Price: A few hundred bucks for a pair of each
You've probably never realized just how much effort you put into keeping your body in place every time you turn or hit the brakes. But when you're securely held in a supremely supportive seat, you'll be amazed at how much more accurately and quickly you can make adjustments to the steering, brake, and accelerator pedal.
3. LSD. No, not that kind.
Price: $500 and up
If your car didn't come from the factory with a limited slip differential (and relatively few cars do today), then it's likely being driven by just one wheel -- and whichever one has the least amount of traction, at that. A lot of people will spend double, triple, or quadruple the price of one good LSD on engine modifications that deliver ever-diminishing horsepower gains. Instead, being able to effectively use the power you already have will yield even greater results. Just trust me on this one.
4. Brake pads and stainless steel brake lines
Price: A couple hundred for quality pads, and between $50 and $150 for SS brake lines
See the fancy brake rotors in this photo, with the holes drilled into them? Don't buy those -- they won't make a difference. Getting a set of brake pads made for the type of driving you do, however, will impact the feel of your brakes quite a bit. While you're in there, change your car's rubber brake lines, which can flex and make the pedal seem numb under hard braking. By using a stainless steel set, the rigidity of the walls means you'll see a marked improvement in the way your brakes communicate with your foot.
5. A quick-ratio steering rack
Price: As low as a couple hundred, if you can find a good one in a junk yard
This won't work with every car, but it's worth doing your homework to see if another version of your car (i.e., a Mustang Cobra if you have a Mustang GT) came with a quick-ratio steering rack, aka, one that turns your wheels faster as you move the steering wheel. Or sometimes there's a company that makes one for your specific car. If you can do it, this will positively transform the way you drive and really make your car feel much sportier.
6. Replacements for the worn-out rubber pieces in your suspension
Price: Starting under $100, depending on how extensive you choose to go
Your car has a bunch of "bushings" -- i.e., little rubber pieces designed to absorb noise, vibration, and harshness in the suspension. They're soft, and they wear out over time, allowing key parts to move more than they should. That’s bad, and you definitely feel it even if you don’t realize it. Especially if your car is older, replace worn bushings with fresh, performance-oriented versions and your car will feel factory-fresh... at least in terms of driving.
7. An adjustable anti-roll bar
If you have no idea what an anti-roll bar (aka sway bar) is, don't worry about it. Just know that it connects both sides of your car's suspension and helps prevent body lean during cornering, meaning you keep the car's weight more evenly distributed among your tires. The main thing to keep in mind here is that if you have an adjustable bar, you can tinker with its settings until you're happy with how your car feels.
8. Good shock absorbers and stiffer springs
Price: You can get some cheaper parts for less, but expect to spend north of $700 here
Shock absorbers, by the very act of absorbing the shocks that come from driving over bumps, etc., help keep your tires planted firmly on the pavement. They also help control the natural up and down motion that springs are wont to do after they've been compressed, thereby making your car feel much more stable. Combine good shocks -- there's no need to go with fancy, adjustable versions unless you honestly know what you're doing -- with a stiffer and lower set of springs, and you'll start to see a sort of multiplier effect of all the good geometry you've been working towards.
9. A stripped-down interior
Price: Free, but you'll have to do some work
Legendary Lotus founder Colin Chapman once famously stated that his philosophy about cars was to "simplify, then add lightness." Make your car lighter, and you'll accelerate faster, brake shorter, and corner better. If you went to extremes and gutted it entirely, you could remove over 300lbs worth of carpet and extra seats, plus luxuries like your air conditioning and sound deadening insulation -- usually, it's literally made from blocks of dense tar. Of course, you'd have to explain to your passengers why they're freezing... if they can hear you over all the road noise.
10. Fix the nut behind the steering wheel
Price: Free at first, then you'll be paying for driving schools
No, your steering wheel (hopefully) isn't about to fall off. The nut behind the wheel is you. That's an old saying amongst drivers, and it doesn't mean you're crazy, just that the single greatest barrier between your car, and your car being fast... is you.
Grab a book on proper driving techniques, search the Internet, or click here, to start learning. It's a beautiful thing when a highly skilled driver in an average sports sedan outright embarrasses someone in a Viper who doesn't know what they're doing.
Improvements don't get much more cost-effective than that.