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Money Pits

A list of cars that need a motza spent on them to get any sizeable power improvements...

By Michael Knowling

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Some people really make modifying a car hard for themselves. For some reason, there's a bunch of enthusiasts that toil away trying to make power with a vehicle of limited realistic potential. Yeah, sure, any car can have nitrous, a blower or a turbocharger thrown at it, but - in the real world - most people want to keep their expenditure to a minimum, but still end up with a car that'll plaster a smile on their face.

So, to potentially help save you some cash, we've put together this list of 'money pit' example cars and categories. We're not saying that these are bad cars - some are far from it - but they're cars where the cost of making them go harder simply isn't worth it. For less total cash you could buy another car and modify it for great results.

And yeah, yeah, we know that for every car that we cover there'll be someone who has built a blinding exception - but those are the exceptions..... and we're after the rules.

We'll no doubt step on a few toes, but here goes...

1. The Classics...

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At the time of release, the Holden Gemini was considered a very capable little car. Performance on offer was adequate (during an era of slow cars), packaging and styling struck a chord and handling was enjoyable - especially with the introduction of RTS (radial tuned suspension).

Yes, it's fair to say the Holden Gemini has become an Aussie icon. But can it easily be made into a performance car?

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Powered by a 1.6-litre G-series engine, the Gemini could cream the quarter mile in - on average - around 20 seconds. That's right, it did a 20-second quarter. Tuning potential? Well, it seems 'the thing' to remove all forms of muffling, add a new carb and an aftermarket filter. Woo-hoo! It's inevitable, however, that an engine rebuild will be required at some stage, so many people also shave the head, do some porting and slot in a bit of a cam. The cashed up guys drop in a G180 or G200.

While all of these mods no doubt help, there's no avoiding the fact that any mildly modified Gemini is still mincemeat for 90 percent of today's cars. Take a look around - most contemporary Corollas, Hyundais and all of the larger cars are far and away quicker.

Many people really need to change the way they think about Geminis!

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Let's face it, the popular rotary choices - R100s, RX2s, RX3s and RX4s - are now old enough to be put on display in museums.

Of course, there's no denying the efficiency of the Wankel rotary engine - granted, these are engines that respond well, especially if they're turbocharged. However, when it comes to more than doubling the power of these old cars, you really need to consider more than just straight-line go. These are machines with archaic suspension, vague steering and - in general - poor, cheap design. Sorry guys, but Japanese chassis technology 20 and 30 years ago was awful. If you haven't spent many thousands on suspension and brakes by the time you've supposedly finished your power-up project, you aren't driving a very safe machine!

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If you must have a rotary, it's much better to opt for the latest model RX-7 you can afford - the Porsche 944-shape Series 4 is a big improvement over the Ones, Twos and Threes. They might not be featherweights, but at least they're comfortable, well built, better handlers - and they're infinitely safer.

Incidentally, we've seen pictures of a crashed old RX and its two separated halves were not a pretty sight... Don't increase your chances of becoming another paint mark on the side of the road.

Though not yet a 'proper' classic, the atmo Holden VL Commodore is nevertheless in the same league as the Gem (though to nowhere near the same extent). Producing a lazy 114kW, you can hardly expect the mid-80s Holden VL Commodore family truckster to be a true-blue hauler. Certainly, the Nissan-designed engine is far-and-away superior to the ol' black 202ci six Holden offered in the VK - but, then again, almost anything seems like heaven compared to that mechanical monstrosity....

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Credited with 9.8-second 0-100 and 16.7-second quarter mile performance, the atmo RB30 engine and 5-speed combo was a big step up over 6-cylinder VB-VK models. However, most of the VL's weren't manual 5-speeds, and with the auto you're talking about times a lot slower... try 11.1 and 17.8 seconds. Today every contemporary Commodore and Falcon can out-gun the NA auto VL by a decent amount - and it's damn hard trying to tweak the atmo engine to play catch-up.

Start with the basics - exhaust and intake - and you'll get some fairly cost-effective gains. You might pick up - say - 15 percent more power than stock, but it's still not going to be enough to hose even a taxi. Very embarrassing. After that though, boy, take a look at what you're doing with your money. If you're playing around with a different camshaft, compression and other expensive power-up measures, you need to give yourself a shake and say, "Hey a VL turbo gives that sort of grunt in stockie non-intercooled form". Why bother farting about with the atmo engine if you don't have to?

Other vehicles that fall into this classic category include Datsuns, RWD Corollas and Celicas, Ford Escorts and Galants/Lancers.

2. Cheapo Newies...

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Yes, the Mitsubishi Lancer/Mirage is good value. Yes, the Mitsubishi Lancer/Mirage can look good. Yes, the Mitsubishi Lancer/Mirage remains slow unless you've spent half the value of the car on a turbocharger kit.

If you drive a Lancer and you've got it covered in spoilers, 'please consider' how much you're dragging down those people that've invested in a new Evo 6.5. If you think a loud exhaust and Unifilter will transform your 69-86 factory kilowatter into a machine that deserves any traffic light respect, you're outa your tree.

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This is - let's be honest - a budget car. To give it performance comparable to a contemporary performance car, you'd have to spend - at least - 7 to 10-ish grand on a forced induction kit. And then you've gotta work out how you'll get the increased torque to the ground. That gearbox is only designed to handle up to 161Nm, remember?

Oh, and a few years later you'll be trying to work out why you're trying to sell your modified car at half what you've spent and nobody's interested...

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We shouldn't pick purely on the Mitsubishi product, though. You can think of the Hyundai Excel and Accent and all Daewoos in the same way. In short, don't buy a cheap new model car and plan to "get heaps" out of it - buy something a few years older but with more performance.

3. Performance Orphans...

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If you want to drive something 'different', sometimes your options are limited. Take, for example, an import VG20DET Nissan Maxima. Yes, being a factory turbo, this car will respond to basic exhaust, intake, intercooler and boost changes. After that though, you're stuck. Nothing much is known about the VG20 (though there probably are similarities between it and the VG30) and parts will be very tough to find. Don't bother trying to look for a Blitz intercooler or a complete Trust exhaust to suit - not anywhere out of Japan anyway.

The early model V6 Magna is one of the least modified cars in Australia - you can't help a bad reputation that hung over the all the cars. Sure, those V6 models are a decent car - but if you're the first one out there modifying it, be prepared to do everything on your ownsome. And so pay for it. Nobody will know about the optimum compression ratio, the best cam, what extractors do for power - or anything else much.

Other vehicles that fit this category include Jaguars, Mercedes, Seats, Audis, Citroens, Saabs, Volvos - the majority of the Euros. The problem is, not many people have the knowledge - or parts - to back these vehicles in modified form here in Australia.

4. Tuned Factory Cars...

VTEC Hondas are probably the vehicles that best fit into this category. When the factory has already cranked 118kW out of a 1.6 (Civic VTi-R), 125kW-141kW out of a 1.8 (Integra VTi-R and Type R) and 142-176kW out of a 2-litre (Prelude VTi-R and S2000), there aren't many obvious avenues for more power. The factory's already taken them!

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With a highly tuned factory car such as these, it's not uncommon to bolt on a bigger exhaust and actually go backwards in power. That's why, for a real improvement, some fit an aftermarket turbo kit. But it's very expensive.

Another too-good-already vehicle is the tough little Suzuki Swift GTi. Producing 74kW at 6700 from its 1.3-litre mill, over the years there's been much experimentation with intake and exhaust - most achieving next to bugger-all. Cams have been played with, but - again - it's moving to forced induction that yields the biggest gain. But is it worth it when you can pick up a late-shape GTi for as little as $6500? Best to leave it as a fun, everyday 9-second 0-100 km/h buzzer.

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Mitsubishi's MIVEC FTO fits into both the tuned factory cars and the orphan's category. Granted, the 2-litre V6 MIVEC makes good grunt - 200Nm at 6000 rpm and 150kW at 7500 rpm - but it'll be tough to find more. Chances are with a high revving engine such as this, you'll need an increase in torque. So yet again, you're torquing a turbocharger - and that won't come cheaply. Not only will a turbo conversion be expensive, but just as with any substantial power-up, you could be pushing the the factory gearbox well past its limits.

Any atmo engine that makes high specific hp is tough to get more grunt out of. Not impossible, mind, but plenty expensive. And do you really want to spend a heap of dough that yields pathetic extra-power-per-dollar figures?

5. 'Povo' Packs...

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The late '80s/early '90s BMW 3 and 5-series aren't exactly buckets of bolts, but - if you don't get a high-spec version - you'll find it that much more difficult to get them to perform. Starting with the compact 3-series, BMW released a 318 (we'll ignore the 316!), 318is, 320, 325. Other models have also been released, but these reach into a higher price category.

Certainly, the pick of this crop is the 325i, which kicks out 141kW to deliver a brilliant power-to-weight ratio. Don't settle for anything less than the 325i, though - the basic 318i made a pathetic 83kW and the 320i made 95-110kW. That means the 325i (which is available in either manual or auto trans) has a 28-69 percent power advantage over the lesser models - and that's a very expensive whack to make up!

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In the larger 5-series, you can affordably buy a 520i, 525i or 535i/535is. The 520i has 110kW (using the same 2-litre engine as found in the 320i), the larger 525i makes 125-141kW, while the larger-still 3.5-litre pushes out 155kW. Teamed with a 5-speed manual, these latter babies are easy 8-second 0-100 runners.

For both the 3 and 5-series BMs, it will cost a fortune to endow a low-spec vehicle the performance of a better model. Of course, you have to draw the line somewhere - not many of us can afford M-vehicles - but it's w-a-y cheaper to buy the big-engine'd model than it is to extensively fiddle a low-spec engine.

Other low-rent models to steer away from are base model FWD Corollas, base late-model Hondas, 3.0-litre TH-on Magnas (go for the 3.5) and all non-turbo variants of cars were also available in factory form with the puffer. The money that you think you're saving for the lower spec model will do you no favours if you want to run hard.

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Subaru's Impreza - in WRX form - has become one of the most popular performance cars of all times. For some reason, though, lots of people spend money slapping a big exhaust and intake onto their 1.8-litre atmo Subie. Why? Maybe it's because the WRX is a tad too expensive, but - no matter how you look at it - it's money down the drain. Who's gonna want to buy an Impreza with WRX try-hard mods?

Save the money you'd spend taking the 1.8-litre's power output from 76 to 155kW and buy the real deal - the WRX. And don't bother weighing up the cost of dropping in a turbocharged engine further down the track - you won't get the 'proper' driveline, brakes, suspension and more. Not to mentioned the decent resale.

Insurance? Well if you don't tell porkies, your highly modified lower spec model is gonna cost you probably as much as your factory hi-po car anyway...

And our buying suggestions? W-e-l-l, wait a few issues and we'll tell ya!

Forget It All!

It could be easily argued that many of the cars I have owned and modified are great examples from this story in how not to do it.

My third car - a '77 BMW 3.0si - was expensive and rare. The cost of the factory parts used during my engine build would stun anyone, even in the dollars of those days. My tiny Daihatsu Handi with the 660cc turbo TR-XX engine transplant - back then, it was AFAIK the only such combination in the country. But I still modified it lots.

The JE Camira that I owned and modified - people tweaking those cars were so rare that I had the cam especially ground for it. The Subaru Liberty RS - when I had the 3-inch exhaust fitted, it was so long ago that no-one was familiar with the flat-four exhaust note. (The WRX didn't even exist then.) In fact, lots ribbed me about how it sounded like an overgrown Volkswagen. My '95 Audi S4 - one of only 20 in Australia and even in these times of worldwide web information exchange, still a rare car to modify. My current '98 LS400 Lexus - I bet no-one else has modified the power steering to give it less assistance.

In fact I doubt if I'll ever own a car that this story would lead you to buy - one that is common, and commonly modified.

But I can very easily understand the points that Michael Knowling is making - cos there are heaps and heaps of people who don't realise that making their own way is likely to be expensive and difficult.

Who don't realise that starting with the slowest model in the line-up is madness.

Who don't realise that if you're buying a very high specific power factory car it is gonna make it damn' difficult to get more power.

Who don't realise that just the cost of a good paint job on an old car is likely to set them back several times more than the car itself cost... and perhaps even more than the whole car will be worth after they've finished.

But, hey, if you realise all of that... and then decide to go do the opposite, that's fine. But, like me, you won't be complaining when no-one stocks any off-the-shelf go-fast parts for your car, when you're trying to pull more power outa something already doing pretty well, and when workshop peoples always have to ask a second time what sort of car you have - then get shifty eyes when you query them as to whether they've modded one before...

Julian Edgar

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