Not all modification is about big power. Sometimes, it's just about tailoring the experience to suit you.
Enthusiasts love modifying their cars, be they tuned-up sports cars with tightly wound engines, tasteful restomods with prices that'll shock you, or sturdy off-roaders built to tackle any terrain. A good build turns heads, breaks necks, and otherwise draws widespread appreciation from your gearhead friends.
However, not every car needs to be a build years in the making. Something like the humble Volkswagen GTI or Mazda MX-5 Miata can benefit from some simple "bolt-on" mods (modifications that require little effort to install) that don't chase power but enhance the overall driving experience.
The CarBuzz team has put together a list of simple modifications that almost every gearhead can enjoy, mods that will change the way you interact with your car and tailor it perfectly to make it a fun daily driver.
Here, we'll go into some pros and cons of each, with this article acting as an introductory springboard into the world of modifying your car.
As far as bang-for-buck goes, a nice shiny new set of wheels can totally change how you drive your car. On top of that, lightweight wheels will transform the way your car looks and handles. That's thanks to something called "unsprung mass." Basically, that's anything not held up by your car's suspension. Broadly speaking, any weight savings (or additions) you make to something unsprung, like a wheel or tire, will positively or negatively affect your car's handling.
This applies more to sports cars than off-roaders, but the logic stands. Less rotational mass in a wheel means less effort in steering, stopping, and accelerating. It also means the wheels can adjust to bumps in the road quicker, improving ride quality to a degree. It'll make your car faster without adding power. Plus, the cost isn't too terrible. A decent set of wheels here in America can run around $1,000. Or, you can spend thousands on some multi-piece BBS wheels that will shut down the local cars and coffee meet.
Pairing your new wheels with the right set of tires is equally as important. But tires are just rubber, right? Wrong. What good is 700 horsepower if all you're gonna do is slip?
Not all tires are equal, and different brands manufacture their rubber in different ways with different characteristics. Low rolling resistance tires may get you an extra couple of miles to the gallon, but at the expense of handling. A great set of performance tires - like the Michelin Pilot Sport 4S, will provide epic grip, progressive breakaway beyond the limit, and behave well in both wet and dry conditions.
It's almost impossible to overstate the role sound plays in how we interact with our cars. From N/A motors to forced induction ones, sound drastically changes how we experience our cars. One of the best ways to do that (and do so without waking the neighbors) is an intake. Basically, a more aggressive intake will allow your car to pull in more air. For a more in-depth breakdown, check this guide out. In short, think of the factory intake like a garden hose and an aftermarket one like a fire hose, if that helps. It likely won't net you more power without a proper ECU tune, but at least you'll have a nice soundtrack to cry to.
Jokes aside, intakes are usually fairly affordable. A nice cold air intake on something like our hypothetical GTI will easily fall under $1,000. Plus, on turbo cars, you'll get more of that lovely turbo whistle. However, they can be pricey too. A replica BMW M3 CSL intake will run you a cool $2,000 easily, and you'll need a tune on top of that to make your car run right after. People might knock intakes for being a pointless mod, but we'd argue that changing your car's sound is very important to how you experience it.
Speaking of mods that'll change how you experience things, a shifter upgrade is a great, albeit broad, category of modification. Even simply replacing your manual car's tired old shifter bushings will totally transform the way your car drives and restore an old car to the crisp shift it once had, while a new shift knob changes the most direct interaction you have with the gearbox.
But if you'd like something a bit more involved, there's always a short shifter.
A good short-shift kit raises the fulcrum of the shift lever, thereby shortening the distance you've got to cover between a given set of gears. If your stock shifter has five inches of throw from 1st to 2nd gear, a new short shifter may make that three inches.
It may not sound like much, but it's one of the most noticeable changes you can make to your car. A quality short shifter won't just reduce the throw but improve the precision of the shifts and the way they feel, even if it requires a little more effort between the gears.
Driving a manual car is about the experience, so why not make that experience as engaging as it can be?
The mod is totally reversible when you go to sell the car, and the benefits are quick, cheap, and easy to access. If you're asking us, this is the best mod you can do to your car on a budget.
Of course, this list wouldn't be much of anything without discussing exhausts. However, many folks can get the right exhaust setup wrong, leading to a droney car that does nothing more than sound bad and piss off your neighbors. Basically, buy the right exhaust for the right car. If you drive the car daily, the most chilled exhaust someone like Megan or AWE offers is probably the right answer. You'd be surprised how much the sound changes with even a slight update to the exhaust.
Broadly speaking, there are three flavors of exhaust: the cat-back, the axle-back, or the header-back exhaust. Header-backs start at your car's headers, while cat- and axle-back systems start at the catalytic converter or rear axle, respectively. Each will offer different benefits and come at different prices. Usually, an axle-back is the cheapest, and so on up the line.
Exhausts do many of the things an intake does. They help your car sound better and breathe easier. Different materials, like titanium, can also make your exhaust lighter, which has its own set of performance benefits. However, a good exhaust won't be cheap, especially if you get something custom-made from a reputable shop.
Most modern cars have height and reach adjustable steering wheels. But many enthusiasts drive older cars, and even some new cars don't have enough reach - particularly for taller drivers. That's where a steering wheel spacer comes in, bringing the wheel closer to the driver.
An ideal driving position has you sitting with your back about seven degrees back from the upright position. From there, with your arms outstretched, you should be able to rest your wrists on the top of the steering wheel, not your fingertips. Cars like old Mazda Miatas didn't have reach adjustment, and taller folk were forced so either sit too close to the pedals (knees up high and rubbing the steering wheel) or sit further back and struggle for control of the wheel properly.
An extender fixes this problem by placing the controls optimally, allowing you to go full lock with only an arm movement, not a whole body movement. This extra layer of control not only makes it more comfortable to drive, but means you're able to handle the car better at the limit.
We can't overstate enough how big a difference this mod makes.
While the points above are ones we unilaterally agreed upon, there were a few that missed the cut we feel are worth mentioning. No matter how powerful your car is, if the points you interact with the most feel flimsy, the entire experience can be ruined. The major driver touchpoints of a car are always worth improving.
Seats with good support and bolstering will make you more comfortable behind the wheel and give you more control at the limit. Likewise, a good steering wheel that doesn't slip around in your hands and doesn't feel too thin and flimsy will change how you interact with the car. Another small and oft-forgotten interaction point is the pedals. Standard rubber pedals wear with time and become slippery, but a set of rubber-studded aluminum pedals not only look good but grip better and can make heel and toe rev-matching much easier to accomplish.
Mods are a personal thing, but the basics we've mentioned here will likely change how you feel about your car, turning every commute into an enjoyable ride. That first mod will lead down a rabbit hole that'll consume your wallet and your spare time, so just remember to enjoy the journey.