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5 Cheap Ways to Increase Horsepower

You probably really enjoy driving your 1971 Datsun Sunny GL -- but wouldn't it be even more fun if it was just a little bit faster? (Courtesy of Nissan North America)
You probably really enjoy driving your 1971 Datsun Sunny GL -- but wouldn't it be even more fun if it was just a little bit faster? (Courtesy of Nissan North America)

Your car is fine. It's got a great stereo, and you've been driving it long enough that the seat has that perfect butt-groove going on. You've been pretty diligent about taking care of it, with regular oil changes and trips through the car wash. But wouldn't it be nice if it were, I don't know, faster? Maybe had a little oomph when you take off from a red light? Maybe, just maybe, your car could even pass another car while going uphill -- with a little tuning. We're not talking about making your car a queen of the drag strip; I mean, that's expensive. Or is it?

There are easily five things you can do to pep up your commute or turn in a respectable time on the quarter-mile, and it doesn't have to cost more than your mortgage payment to do them.

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This Focus, by Anaheim Calif.-based FSWerks, delivers plenty of performance upgrades -- including an FSWerks cold air intake. (Courtesy of Ford Motor Company)
This Focus, by Anaheim Calif.-based FSWerks, delivers plenty of performance upgrades -- including an FSWerks cold air intake. (Courtesy of Ford Motor Company)

This is the first thing just about anyone will tell you when you say you want to up your horsepower. It's kind of like those minty-fresh gum commercials with the ice swirling around, and the price is only a smidge more than a pack of gum. A kind of big smidge, but still. The idea is that cold air is more dense, so more air gets into the cylinders to mix with the fuel. More air means more combustion, and more combustion means more power, to the tune of a realistic 5- to 7-horsepower in a typical engine. This only works if the air intake is the limiting factor, however. If your engine is already sucking in big breaths of cool, fresh air, then try one of the other tricks on this list.

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The 2013 Ford Shelby GT500 has a 5.8-liter supercharged V-8 engine producing 650-horsepower and 600 lb.-ft. of toque -- and a new quad exhaust system. (Courtesy of Ford Motor Company)
The 2013 Ford Shelby GT500 has a 5.8-liter supercharged V-8 engine producing 650-horsepower and 600 lb.-ft. of toque -- and a new quad exhaust system. (Courtesy of Ford Motor Company)

No cats need be harmed in the increasing of one's horsepower (how did so many animals make it into this tip?). This means that you straighten the pipes from the catalyst in the exhaust tubing to the back of the car, at the bumper. "This will loosen up the entire system," said Jeff Zurschmeide, author of "The New Mini Performance Handbook." "It pushes the exhaust gases out easier." Getting those gases out ASAP means more room for more air and fuel, and more air and fuel means more power. Zurschmeide notes that "new catalysts are less restrictive than they used to be, and they're designed to work with the engine. They're not such a bar to performance anymore." If your car is, ahem, vintage, you might want to check out tip number 3.

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The underside of a 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302. (Courtesy of Ford Motor Company)
The underside of a 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302. (Courtesy of Ford Motor Company)

When cars were first required to have catalytic converters, manufacturers rushed to slap them into place. They didn't do one's performance any favors, though they did help the air we breathe some. It took decades for catalysts to improve, with even cars from the 1980s and 1990s getting gummed up in the converters. And if you added leaded gas to that equation? Well, you were lucky if you could make it up a hill. Try this: Swap an old catalyst out for a modern aftermarket high-flow number and feel the difference in the pedal. Do this along with a cat-back exhaust, Zurschmeide says, for the biggest bang for your buck. He also notes that it's illegal to remove a catalyst that's not broken -- and there are some hefty fines for punishment. Do not, under any circumstances, knock a hole into your catalytic converter with a wrench you happen to be holding, requiring it to be replaced, perhaps by a high-flow catalyst. You hear that? Do not knock a hole in it.

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The 2013 Scion FR-S (Courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A.)
The 2013 Scion FR-S (Courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A.)

Believe it or not, there are a bunch of tweaks you can make to your tires to increase the feel of power in your car. Zurschmeide suggests starting with a more aggressive alignment. Dial out the toe-in that manufacturers specify so that the wheels are pointed straight ahead for more straight-line speed. Swap out the regular tires for a set of shorter tires to increase acceleration. Sure, this will make your speedometer read incorrectly, but it's a small price to pay for a quick time off the line. You can always get a new set of light weight wheels to mount those short tires on, too, but be careful here if you're pinching pennies. A set of carbon-fiber wheels may lighten your load, but they'll lighten your wallet by far, far more.

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The Buick Regal's 2.0-liter direct injection fuel system including fuel rail and injectors, high pressure cam-driven fuel pump and the important E39 engine control module (cover removed) containing the "Viper" 32 bit microprocessor. (© General Motors)
The Buick Regal's 2.0-liter direct injection fuel system including fuel rail and injectors, high pressure cam-driven fuel pump and the important E39 engine control module (cover removed) containing the "Viper" 32 bit microprocessor. (© General Motors)

Reflash! Ah-aaaah! Savior of the universe! Reflashing your car's computer merely changes its programming regarding timing, fuel-air mixture and other horsepower-upping inputs. The benefit of a reflash, besides the added power, is that it can be undone if you need warranty work done or have to have your car inspected by the state environmental department. The downside is that it really only works if your car is turbocharged or supercharged; reflashing a normally aspirated engine will only get you an extra half a horsepower, Zurschmeide says. And as with some of the others on this list, it only nets a big power boost if the factory programming is the limiting factor for your engine. Swapping out the stock computer for an entirely new module could help -- but that, Zurschmeide says, "has a very high price of entry."

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UP NEXT

Will new motor mounts increase engine response?

Will new motor mounts increase engine response?

Is it possible for something as simple as new motor mounts to increase engine response in your car or truck? Find out at HowStuffWorks.


Author's Note: 5 Cheap Ways to Increase Horsepower

Back when I was looking for a Subaru Baja to buy for myself, I consulted a Subaru PR person I know and like very much about my impending purchase. "Don't get the turbo," was her only piece of advice. "It sucks up gas." So I got a normally aspirated engine, and I love my car.

Except ...

I'd really like it to go faster. I've thought about an aftermarket turbocharger, and I know the people who could do it. But -- and this may shock you -- being a writer does not make me a very wealthy woman. So I, like you, dear reader, am always on the lookout for a cheap way to make the Baja a little more bitchin'. I believe I have now found five ways to do it, and so have you.

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Sources

  • Aptuned High Performance. "Increase Horsepower on a Budget - 4 Easy Ways." Aptuned.com. March 9, 2011. (April 30, 2013) http://www.aptuned.com/blog/increase-horsepower-on-a-budget-4-easy-ways.html
  • Cars Direct. "Four Fast and Cheap Ways to Add Performance to Your Car." CarsDirect.com. July 8, 2010. (April 30, 2013) http://www.carsdirect.com/car-maintenance/four-fast-and-cheap-ways-to-add-horsepower-to-your-car
  • Zurschmeide, Jeffrey. Author of "The New Mini Performance Handbook." Personal interview, conducted on May 3, 2013.

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