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From the Editor

9th April 2002

by Julian Edgar

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It may sound like heresy from the editor of a modified car publication, but I think that making a lot of modifications to your primary road car isn't a great idea. That's despite the fact that the modified cars that we feature are generally very heavily modified. But the cars that readers find interesting aren't the turbo cars with just a bit of boost, an exhaust and an intake.

Nope, people like to ogle cars with huge turbo swaps, intercoolers proudly standing out from the grille - or polished blowers bolted under the bonnet on the side of a mega-V8.

And of course for a complete fun toy, I have no problems with any of that.

But for an everyday car that can do the daily commute, get decent economy, provide both primary and secondary safety - well, I think that another approach is best. And what's that? Well, simply buy the very best car that you can afford and then just give it some effective but relatively minor tweaks. Of course, if you're so flush with cash that you can afford two or three or four fun cars, well, then the story is different.

But if you're the more normal 'Joe average', buying a good car and then spending (say) 10-20 per cent of the value of the car on modifications makes a lotta sense.

These sentiments are one of the reasons that we ran our contentious 'Money Pits' article. Our alternative title was 'Why Bother?' - and that basically sums it up. Why bother spending $10,000 on a $10,000 car? I can actually think of lots of reasons to do just that - excitement, interest, challenge, fun, learning, reward - but that's when the car is your second car.

A car for taking to the drags. A car perhaps for a hot Saturday night cruise. A car to shake out those work-day cobwebs one evening.

But in nearly every case that I can think of, spending this sort of proportion of the car's worth on your everyday car will give you a car that usually drives far more badly in normal conditions. You won't get your money back when you sell it, it is quite likely to be more dangerous - if it's still legal - on the road, and well, it probably will be a thirsty pig.

No, no - I know that's not always the case, but it is very frequently.

So, to come back to my opening point: after seeing literally tens of thousands of modified road cars, taking to hundreds upon hundreds of modified car owners, and being in many dozens of workshops, I think keeping modifications to a relative minimum on your main car is a very good idea.

Keeping it dead stock? Nooooo, I wouldn't go as far as that!

But let me flesh out the case with some examples. I'll make them personal - that way I know what I am talking about. Had a Subaru Liberty (Legacy) RS once. This was in the days BWRX (before WRX), and people knew little about the first really fast Subaru. And my mods? I lifted boost a bit (giving the car adjustable in-cabin control), put on a 3-inch exhaust, did an intake to the standard airbox, and at various times ran very sticky tyres. It's a little bit of a simplification but that car (in both my hands and the hands of the subsequent owner) did over 200,000km of quick action without engine problems.

And it was quite quick - nothing like the more radical modified Rexys of today, but certainly fast enough to show 95 per cent of other cars on the road the way home.

Apart from the in-cabin noise of the big exhaust, the mods had pretty well no downsides. It still drove normally, it got better-than-standard fuel economy, and it went around corners very well. Yes, a quite boring list of mods.... and a very effective end result. Why? Cos it was a damn good car to start with.

At the opposite end of the modification scale (and original car build quality!) was my Daihatsu Mira. With an engine from the Japanese-market turbo TR-XX model transplanted under the bonnet, the power jumped - and then I added a water/air intercooler, bigger injectors, a helluva lot of boost, new intake, new front brakes (again from the TR-XX), 2? inch exhaust, bigger turbo, rear sway bar...and so on. It was a ball of fun to drive, and the mods probably cost as much as the basic car.

But have it as my normal daily driver? No way.

For a start, it was off the road about one-third of the time - not usually with breakages, but with further mods being performed. It was extraordinarily dangerous - 0-100 km/h in the high sixes with crash safety just a bit better than a bicycle - and it was prone to odd habits. Like the time it wore out a lower balljoint and would change lanes in an instant at the slightest flex of the right foot. And of course it was completely illegal.

Great fun, a unique challenge - and I don't regret doing it for one moment. But the all-up expenditure (cost of the car and its modifications) was relatively small, and I had another car at the same time. In fact, for some of the time that other car was the very-slightly-modified-but-so-effective Subaru Liberty RS.

So what are the 'main road car' mods that can be very effective and cost little - and also have few downsides? Well, they're the simple ones. Take suspension.

How about trying this list:

  • Performance wheel alignment
  • Better tyres on the stock rims
  • Front and rear sway bars
  • Car-specific tricks eg offset bushes, anti-lift kit, subframe lock kits

Sure it's very easy to shrug because these are the ones seldom mentioned - a "performance wheel alignment" for Godsakes! But a good wheel alignment whacking in some geometry like neg camber and more caster can make an immediate on-road difference - and if your car already has these adjustment facilities, it'll cost you only about the same as a couple of tanks of petrol.

You want some more power? In a turbo car a manual boost control (we've covered three very good systems in AutoSpeed - do a site search), a simple exhaust and some intake mods will release around 30 per cent more in most cars. For under AUS$1000 for the lot, with very few downsides.

In a NA car? Exhaust and intake. But stay outside of the engine! Decide to go for a cam change, increased compression or headwork and you're talking huge labour costs, major engine management changes - and often quite dismal improvements. Especially on a dollar-per-kilowatt basis.

Are you happy playing with electronics? In that case you can do things for nearly nothing. An over-boost cut spoiling your fun? Well, for $1 you can overcome it. Like to improve the feel of your power steering? Again one dollar will do it. And basically, the more electronic systems in the car, the better you will be placed to make cheap modifications. Like the Skyline GT-R torque split controller, which makes a difference to power-on handling that can only be described as radical. (We've covered all of these in AutoSpeed.)

It's only human that people get on a path and then follow it with all their efforts. Trouble is, oftentimes it's better to think about where that path is going to lead and never get started on it. Picking another path can give you a far better ride.

So when I get an email from an earnest and genuine person that reads:

I own a Nissan Pulsar 1.6 (GA16DE). I've fitted a 2-inch exhaust with extractors, cold air induction, Unichip, enlarged throttle body, 18mm rear swaybar and a strut brace. I was looking at getting the head port and polished and wondered if you guys think that this would be worthwhile?

All that I can think is - why?

Why didn't someone say to this guy - hey, don't ever start modifying the slowest factory version of the car that interests you.

Hey, getting a motza of power out of a modern NA engine is going to be very expensive - sure that's where you want to go?

Hey, how much extra power have you gained and how much did each of those neddies cost you?

Hey, add up what you've spent, add to what you paid for the car, and think about what that could have bought you as a standard, better, car. Now add up what you intend spending over the next 12 months and think about where that could take that other, better, car.

I love modifying cars and I love dealing with people who modify cars. But honestly, it's always better for your normal road car to buy something just a bit more expensive than you can really afford, and then do just those simple, cheap - but very effective - tweaks. If you feel the need to go beyond those straightforward things, look at upgrading the whole car.

With any rational analysis, you'll end up with a helluva lot better car for the same money....

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