Getting more from your car

Tuning vehicles is both a big industry and a form of artistic expression

Home road Getting more from your car
Getting more from your car

Many car buyers see their purchase as the finished item; all it needs is an ornament to hang off the rear-view mirror. But for others a new vehicle is a blank canvas on which to work mechanical magic in search of better performance – whether quicker acceleration or improved fuel efficiency. For them, tuning cars is usually about extracting more power from the engine for a better time from 0-100kmph or a higher top-speed capability. 

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Car tuners will often start with a relatively unsophisticated offering from Ford, Volkswagen or one of the other volume carmakers. There is usually plenty of potential in cars built for reliability to yield relatively big rewards in terms of performance for anyone prepared to sacrifice a bit of durability. In addition, there is the appeal of turning a mass-produced vehicle into a special version with unique, cool features that will stand out in any car park.

But owners of more sophisticated machinery are not immune to the temptation of a little car tuning either. They want to unlock the extra horses that the racing version of their Ferrari or Lamborghini, for example, is able to put down on a race track. It may be more difficult to squeeze additional power out of already well-tuned sports car engines, but the principle is the same – only the most highly-strung of motors cannot be persuaded to give a little bit more.

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Long history
Car tuning by buyers dates back to the dawn of auto sales. The first cars – and motorcycles – were crude creations that needed mechanically savvy owners to keep them running, And few tinkerers, when they are under the bonnet or facing an engine laid out in tiny parts on the kitchen table, can resist making improvements.

“Blueprinting” is one way of doing it – a painstaking process of making sure an engine conforms precisely to its design specification by checking and matching its components more closely than volume manufacturing allows.

The next step is improving on design – and there, even something as simple as smoothing a roughly-cast inlet port to allow air a less turbulent path into the engine can give surprisingly large results at the driven wheels.

But even before tearing the engine into small pieces, it is possible to replace ignition or other parts with components from the many companies that specialise in making products aimed at better car performance. One popular tuning trend at the end of the last century was to bolt on a turbocharger – forced induction is a simple way to raise power, though the perfect turbo installation also includes changes inside the motor. The latest trend in tuning is “chipping”, or remapping an engine’s electronic brain. Such an upgrade is usually at the expense of fuel economy but can easily boost performance by 35 per cent.

“There’s no substitute for cubes”
A more radical alternative is to drop in an engine with a larger cubic capacity – if the size of the chosen powerplant allows. “There’s no substitute for cubes”, as the US car tuners’ mantra goes.

But tuners also need to make sure that the rest of the vehicle is up to the newly-enhanced standards of the drivetrain system that connects the transmission to the axles. This is not an issue for those starting with thoroughbred machines such as a Porsche or Maserati, but most cars can benefit from fine tuning of their suspension, brakes, wheels, tyres, and even the way the car cuts through the air, to improve road holding and performance.

There is also scope to reshape the inside of the car in the chase for quicker acceleration or higher speed. A full package of improvements might well include a lighter, stripped-back interior and a carbon sports seat for the driver. Weight is the enemy of performance and most tuners are happy to spend more for items that weigh less – even though cutting out one meal a day might be a cheaper way to achieve the same reduction in car-plus-driver overall mass.

Unsurprisingly, manufacturers have noted the multi-billion-dollar car tuning market and tried to bring some of that financial action in house. Many carmakers have a few hot models in their catalogue – Mercedes has its AMG cars, BMW has its M line, Audi the RS series. What is most impressive is the way these factory customs have so often managed to bump up the power while maintaining the luxury.

Power comes at a price
But there can be negatives. Cars that are tuned for track competition may be temperamental in stop-start traffic. Firmer suspension may improve on-the-limit handling but lead to a drastic loss of ride comfort on potholed city streets. A problem for many, once they have started down the tuning road, is knowing where to stop – finding that the best combination of components is always the next one. 

And projects can easily end up going too far. A 900hp snarling V12 engine in a tiny hatchback. Twin highly-tuned racing motors in a Lotus 7 lookalike. A high-revving 175hp motorcycle engine in a Smart car. However unlikely an engine swap or state of tune, someone has quite possibly done it already, and there may even be a kit available to make it easy to replicate.

But for many that’s the fun of the whole experience. Playing with the details to end up with a tuned car that is tweaked a little, or a lot. In the process of design and development, the change from an ordinary car into a highly-individual vehicle, owners can end up with a badly assembled bunch of expensive components – or a work of engineering art on wheels.

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