Tweaking horsepower:

Making slow cars faster

By Jeffrey Fazio
Special Sections Writer

Sports cars and muscle cars are not for everyone. Chances are that if you are a true horsepower junkie, you own a little hot rod and probably already know a thing or two about getting more horsepower (hp) from it.

But what about the rest?
What about those car buyers whose egos are in check? The ones that look at a car's gas mileage, cargo space o r price before they would ever consider its horsepower? Are they to be left sitting at the bottom of a Penn Street bridge on-ramp hoping for enough power to merge onto the West Shore Bypass?

The good news for them is that the tricks for making fast cars faster also works for their cars.
Chris Rado, a professional import drag racer and owner of World Motorsports, Muhlenberg Township, pointed out four simple parts to upgrade to add horsepower to imported vehicles: intake, exhaust, spark plugs and an ignition box -- all of which can be installed by the average person with a set of basic tools.

Jeff Hart, assistant manager in training at Advance Auto Sales, Muhlenberg Township, expressed a similar plan of attack for the domestic cars, but added spark plug wires and throttle bodies to the list of upgrades.

The first step, Rado explained, is getting more air into the engine. The simplest and cheapest way to do this is by swapping out a factory air filter for a freer-flowing element like a K&N air filter. Just by dropping in a different filter you may gain two to three horsepower.

If there is a desire for even more gusto, a full intake system can be purchased. Rado explained that a full intake will replace the original manufacturer's equipment (OEM) filter, piping and air box, offering as much as eight additional horsepower.

Once the amount of air going into the motor is increased, the next step is getting that air out faster. Rado pointed out the need for upgrading exhaust systems during the quest for more power.

"A small increase in exhaust pipe diameter will benefit any import. Adding just an exhaust tip offers no performance advantage whatsoever and could possible hurt you (your performance). It also makes your car sound like a dying lawnmower, which no one likes," Rado said.

"A full exhaust is key to gaining horsepower," said Hart.
"Even just getting a cat back and you'll see gains."

Hart went on to explain that a full exhaust includes headers (or manifold), pipes, catalytic converters and mufflers all the way back to the tips. A "cat back" exhaust usually includes only the pipes and muffler after the catalytic converter.

Spark plugs are another place the average Joe can get some extra muscle from their cars.
Rado suggested using copper or iridium plugs over the platinum plugs that manufacturers usually suggest. Copper and iridium are better conductors of electricity than platinum and will result in a stronger spark. Rado pointed out that the only real benefit of platinum plugs is longevity. They last three to four times longer than the copper equivalent.

Hart explained that each domestic car responds differently to a variety of spark plugs, so he recommends experimenting. He said a lot of American-made cars perform well with the Delco or Autolite plugs.
Rado and Hart both agreed that an ignition box was also a worthwhile upgrade in the quest for more power. This does require some basic electrical knowledge to install.

Hart explained, "The addition of an ignition box, like the MSD 6AL, gives more voltage to the ignition (bigger spark) which results in the fuel burning faster giving more horsepower."

When adding an ignition box and performance spark plugs, Hart also recommended upgrading the ignition wires on a domestic car. He expressed that a thicker spark plug wire will provide more spark and better power.

In contrast, Rado, warned against the use of aftermarket spark plug wires on imported cars.
"There is no advantage to aftermarket wires," he said. "I use the stock Toyota wires on my Celica (his current race car) that puts out over 1,200 hp and I used the stock Honda wires on my 1,000 hp Integra (his previous race car)."

Hart added throttle bodies as one last place to look for a bit more performance. He explained that some cars can benefit from a larger throttle body. Installing a larger throttle body allows more air to enter the engine and complements intake system upgrades.

One last warning Rado offered was in reference to aftermarket pulleys. Some companies offer lightweight pulleys for quick and easy horsepower. The idea behind a lightweight pulley is that they reduce the rotational weight in an engine which allows the engine to spin faster and easier.

The problem, Rado elaborated, is that these pulleys replace the harmonic balancer that is part of the OEM pulley. The harmonic balancer plays a significant role in balancing the engine.
"They may give you a little horsepower, but at the risk of engine longevity," Rado added.

In looking for aftermarket parts for a car, Hart advised, "Look at a bunch of companies. The most expensive is not necessarily better. A lot of pricing is off of name brand."
So if your vehicle struggles up a hill while bicyclists muscle past or the average trick-or-treater crosses the street before you do, realize there are options for putting more zoom in your broom.