Let’s face it: Vehicles off the assembly line aren’t what they used to be. Gone are the days when the common man could afford a GM muscle car straight out of Detroit that had some serious horse behind it.
But just because the glory days of American muscle are behind us doesn’t mean you can’t have a serious performance vehicle. In fact, tuning up your wheels is easier than ever thanks to contemporary plug-and-play design.
We sat down with Paul Willard, an automotive master technician with more than 20 years’ experience, to score these six tips for souping up your ride.*
“Most people still think loud engines are cool, even if they say they don’t.”
Air Intake Valve
Install Time: About half an hour
Tool Required: Socket set, screwdriver, pliers
Performance Gains: 5 to 10 horsepower
Rough Cost: About $150.
Swapping the air intake valve isn’t always an option. “Some states have tougher emissions standards than others,” explains Willard. But it’s one of the easiest and fastest changes you can make to your car for a little extra oomph. “You car is basically a big air pump,” says Willard. “The more air you can get through it, the more horsepower you’re going to get.” What’s more, it’s also going to make your car louder, something he supports.
Performance Chip and Tuner
Install Time: Ten minutes
Tool Required: Usually none
Performance Gains: 25 to 30 horsepower
Rough Cost: Between $400 and $500.
It might surprise you to find out that you can change out the chip on your car easier than doing just about anything else. Then you control it with a diagnostic tuner. Sound complicated? It’s not. “In a lot of cases it’s just plug and play,” says Willard. You might need tools to access the chip itself, but often you don’t. From there, you can tell your chip to sacrifice fuel efficiency for performance, or about a dozen other things. “If you’ve ever played a video game you can make it work real well,” Willard quips.
Install Time: One-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours
Tool Required: Basic hand tools, a floor jack and jack stands
Performance Gains: 10 to 15 horsepower or more in some cases
Rough Cost: $500 to $1000 and on up.
Futzing with the exhaust goes back to the concept of your engine as a giant air pump. “The more air you can move through your engine without starting a fire, the better your car is going to run,” says Willard. If you have a classic car, this isn’t going to be an easy task, but for newer (especially Japanese) vehicles, it’s just bolted on. There’s no need to remove axles. Willard points out that most cars on the market are made for the market at large, and the market at large wants fuel efficiency and quiet. But when it comes down to it, “most people still think loud engines are cool, even if they say they don’t.”
Install Time: Seven to eight hours
Tool Required: Basic Hand tools, torque wrench, gasket scraper, fuel line disconnect tools
Performance Gains: 75 to 150 horsepower or more
Rough Cost: $3,000 to $8,000.
While it’s easier than ever to install a supercharger (you won’t have to cut a hole in your hood like in the days of yore), Willard suggests that you pack a lunch. “If you’ve never done this before, it’s not for the faint of heart.” Still, it’s like you just added a second engine to your engine. Yo dawg…
Install Time: Between 90 minutes and two hours
Tool Required: Basic hand tools, jack and jack stands and a lug wrench or breaker bar
Performance Gains: Whoa to match your go.
Rough Cost: Starts around $500, goes to the sky.
“You need to make sure your brakes work really well when you add a lot of horsepower,” says Willard. This isn’t easy, but changing the brakes isn’t as hard as it used to be. “On newer cars, especially imports, you don’t have to do as much to take them off,” Willard observes. Bottom line: Whether you do this job yourself or enlist a pro, your upgraded car needs upgraded brakes.
Install Time: Two-and-a-half to eight hours
Tool Required: Basic hand tools and a torque wrench
Performance Gains: 25 to 50 horsepower
Rough Cost: $200 to $700.
Camshafts do something that the factory never intended for the car to do. They change how often and for how long the valves are open. “Most new cars have some kind of variable valve timing,” says Willard. This is basically what Honda’s V-TEC and others are doing to increase performance. Just one problem: You’re going to drastically increase emissions, which, again, might put you on the wrong side of your state’s DMV.
Which raises a broader point: Whatever you do to your car, make sure that it’s still street legal. “You still have to be able to get plates,” Willard points out. And remember that each upgrade opens the door to another. “As you begin your path to financial destruction— sorry, I mean vehicle modifications and upgrades—you start with a small upgrade and end up getting a new engine.”
So, whether you live life a quarter mile at a time or not, be careful and have some cash on hand.
*Editor’s note: Making these changes may void your warranty. Check the paperwork and know the consequences before proceeding.