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Opinion: First Five Modifications for the New Tuner

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In my last article, I mentioned the multitude of differing opinions available on the Internet regarding the direction drivers new to tuning and modifying cars should focus their initial attention. While I already gave my brief opinion on the matter—that driving skills should be the paramount focus—anyone with the tuning itch won’t be satisfied with that answer. As such, below are the five most important modifications for the new tuner to focus on, ranked from first to fifth.

It should be noted that this is merely my opinion, and should not be taken as gospel. As individual drivers figure out what they like, and what area of driving they want to focus on, their priorities might differ from mine. My list is a blanket answer than any car can benefit from, with a focus on enthusiastic street driving and introductory autocross experiences. An example of differing priorities; someone focused on straight line speed for highway pulls or drag racing could benefit from power mods such as camshafts, nitrous, and the like, which you will notice are absent from my list.

  1. Make it Yours

I know I have previously said that the first thing anyone should do is learn their car. But I get it, really. No one will truly be satisfied with such non-visible efforts, no matter the tangible benefits. Because of this, the first modification any driver should do is simple: make it yours. Ideally, this is a modification that does not affect performance, and is more of a personal taste, or visual modification. In my own Fiesta ST for example, within two weeks of owning it I had deleted the symposer with a Mountune Symposer Delete kit.

carbon-fiber-shift-knob
A future modification I have planned, which could have easily been done first to ‘make it my own’.

These modifications can range from the extremely simple to the slightly more complicated. On the extreme end of the simple side, a shift knob—like pictured above—could be swapped in, or even a sticker slapped onto a window to make a statement. Slightly more complicated modifications which can be done to make a car a unique statement, including visual modifications, both internal and external (although hopefully not in the same vein as the car pictured in the header).

wing-risers
A visual modification I have planned, which also could have been done initially to set my car apart without affecting performance.
  1. ‘Drivers Mods’

Here it is, that which I called the most important first step for tuners, and while it is not first on my list, it is pretty dang close. When I say the term ‘drivers mods’, I am using the term as a broad statement on the general relationship the individual driver has with their unique example of a car. Somewhat oxymoronically, ‘driver’s mods’ don’t actually have to be physical in nature, and for the most part aren’t. Generally, one can tick this box—so to speak—by driving a few hours or hundreds of miles with the sole intention of learning the dynamics and quirks of the car. This can range from learning heel-toe shifting techniques, getting used to the steering ratio/rack, and many more small details. While this can be accomplished on a public road, a great place to start is a local autocross event, where other drivers aren’t a concern.

autocross
While daunting, autocross is a great place to learn how to drive in a sporting manner, with most ‘old timers’ more than happy to share their knowledge. Just make sure to find an autocross group which isn’t super competitive.

There are some instances when a physical modification will be required to satisfy this step, due to downright terrible initial dynamics. An example can be found with my Fiesta ST, which had an impossible pedal position when it came to heel-toe shifting. While I may have been able to teach myself some sort of wonky technique to compensate, I instead chose to utilize an existing, cheap, easy to install modification which would permanently alter the pedal positon. After installing the modification in the first two weeks, the dynamics were vastly improved, and I could focus on learning my car.

real-combined
The spacer I utilized, from Active Shift Designs.
  1. Tires: Remember the Rubber

One of the easiest, most all-inclusive upgrades any vehicle can receive are better tires. While most new drivers will be tempted to overlook the tires on their vehicle in the pursuit of a more glamourous modification, there are not many other modifications which will have so many effects. When purchasing a new car, most drivers will opt to wear down the OEM tires over a few thousand miles, however purchasers of used vehicles may be faced with worn, used tires. Drivers in this situation are advised to replace their tires simply due to safety sake, as a worn tire can suffer degraded handling and safety characteristics.

worn-tires
While the worn tread looks drastically different, when not side-by-side with a new tire, it can seem normal. Always have a professional check your tires.

On top of the safety concerns, different tires do different things. Generally, car manufactures are concerned with safety and economics over performance, much to the detriment of enthusiast driving. As such, putting a higher-performance tire on can improve the performance of almost any car. These improvements will cover many different areas, including braking, road handling, acceleration, and more. These can be further improved by ensuring you pick a tire suited to your atmospheric and environmental conditions, a task best accomplished by consulting with a local tire expert (i.e. shop). While an expensive modification, and a non-permanent one (as tires wear down), this is certainly a modification which is well worth it.

different-tires
A very-general over view of the different tire types. Generally, enthusiasts will lean towards summer rubber.

Brakes: Safety First (Fourth?)

I have always been surprised by how many people overlook upgrading their braking system. I understand that slowing down isn’t as fun as going fast, yet the importance of the action of braking was always very clear to me. Simply put, without proper brakes, bad things tend to happen. For drivers starting out with a non-performance model, this is often one area which is most lacking. Much the same as tires, improving your vehicles brakes will have more dramatic effects than helping you slow down. Having better brakes will allow greater confidence while driving, allowing drivers to spend more time focusing on the act of driving rather than surviving.

Generally, there are two ways to increase your brakes provided safety bubble. Many aftermarket companies have complete replacement brake systems.

brake-upgrade
Drum brakes on the left, are generally not as great for performance as discs are, pictured on the right.

While an expensive, more complicated option, for older cars this is often the best choice, as it alleviates future headaches by solving all the issues at once. This is especially true for cars with drum brakes, because while drum brakes work perfectly fine, they do not dissipate heat well, resulting in less than optimum performance under enthusiastic driving.

A second, cheaper option, is to upgrade the components of your already existing brake system. Generally speaking, for factory performance models, or even simply newer car models, this is a viable option. When a car has a decent 4-wheel disc brake system, proper pads, lines, and fluids can transform it from decent to impressive. This is the direction I am going with on my Fiesta ST, which features a brake-based torque vectoring system. This system, shared by many modern cars, utilizes brakes to control wheel spin, mimicking a differential. While effective, this does put more responsibilities on the braking system, and such an upgrade as I have planned will enable harder driving, more of the time.

bolt-on-brakes
Such a large system for such a tiny car. This one is supplied by Mountune.
  1. Suspension: Bro or No?

The final step for baby-tuners out there is the one that carries the most risk: suspension. Modifying a cars suspension is a veritable minefield of potential problems, yet if done properly can be one of the most satisfying modifications on the whole car, both visually and dynamically. The potential problems that can stem from improperly modified suspension can usually be found driving around most neighborhoods here in the States: the Honda Bro.

stance-life
The tow truck, the natural resting grounds of the Honda Bro.

The Honda Bro is someone who modifies their car’s suspension in the extreme: they slam it to the ground, camber the heck out of the wheels, and generally disregard rubs and creaks. While this is not the proper way, all the traits they generally seek—lowness, camber, etc. etc.—are desirable traits to consider when modifying a car: if done in moderation.

If this sounds complicated, it is because it is. This complication makes it easy for even the most dedicated modifier to ruin their car, either by having tire rub, uneven wear, or simply not improving the dynamics in the ranges hoped for. As such, my main recommendation to new tuners when it comes to suspension upgrades is this: keep it simple. The Internet and magazines will have you believing that coil overs are the end-all answer to suspension modifications. For the most part, I believe the opposite is true, especially with minimal experience. The main benefit coil over suspension kits provide to modifiers is the adjustability they provide. For someone who is entering the suspension modifying world, this is the opposite of what is desired. Rather, proper research into a proven spring/damper set will have more tangible effects, with less chances for an individual to ruin the dynamics of the car.

spring-comparo
Not only are the performance springs lower, they also feature a progressive design near the bottom, showing improved design effort.

While independent research can often net a great spring/damper combo, many manufactures offer pre-fabricated sets. For instance, Bilstein makes the P14 kit for my Fiesta ST, which utilizes their dampers and shocks, and Eibach springs, which the dampers and shocks were designed to work with from Day 1. This system of letting other, professional, people do the suspension engineering for you, not only serves the new modifier, but many ‘old-hats’ stick with pre-made/set systems.

car-example
This image demonstrates that a lowered car does not have to have decreased usability, or even appear to be modified at a glance.

No Power, What Gives?

Here at the end of the article, it is apparent that I don’t advise any engine modifications or power adders, which may have made some people mad. There is a very simple reason for this: they only cause headaches. Generally, adding power to an engine requires some form of modification to the engine. Doing so—whether it is a tune, an exhaust, or even a camshaft—can affect both drivability and reliability. Rather than risking such an effect, it makes more sense for new modifiers to instead focus their intentions on the platform surrounding the engine, i.e. the rest of the car. Doing so also enables future engine modifications to be done with the knowledge that the rest of the car has been beefed up correspondingly as well. Not only does this make a safer, more reliable car, it best ensures a balanced build: the most important factor when modifying a car, in my mind.

Please ask any questions or share any complaints down below, and remember to share the article with your friends and like it!

Stephen Hyden View All

I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.

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