Bring Your Car Into The 21st Century With These DIY Upgrades

Whether you bought a new car yesterday or you're riding along in a decades-old banger, your vehicle of choice may not have all the modern capabilities you desire. A few simple upgrades can fix that, providing you with everything from a killer Bluetooth audio system to a smoother, more enjoyable ride.

Title image created by David Broderick. Other images by Hemi Truck Club, Arkon, Stocksnapper (Shutterstock), Matt Gilbert, and me.

I lease a relatively new car, but it's about as featureless as you can get. I can't do much to alter it since I'll lose those upgrades when my lease is up. Some of my friends own older cars that they can modify, but aren't really sure what they can accomplish and where their money is best spent. In both situations, our cars are a little bit crappy and could use an upgrade.

In this post, we're going to look at how you can add all the fun stuff our modern age affords without breaking the bank.

Get Better Tyres

Whether you have a cheap car or an old one, you probably don't have the best set of tyres by default and it's definitely an upgrade you should consider. While most tyres will get you from point A to B without much trouble, decent ones offer several benefits and weak ones can cause a number of problems. Because they are your sole point of contact with the road, they're one of the best upgrades you can make and the first you should consider. Here are the basic things you should evaluate when upgrading your tyres and the benefits they afford:

  • Get tyres rated for the weather you deal with most: Your tyres should fare just fine on a standard road, but they may not handle rain, snow, or other harsh weather quite as well. This is less of an issue in many parts of Australia, but it is something to consider in mountainous regions or if you're a 4WD fiend. Pick what you need based on the weather conditions you deal with on a regular basis.

  • Get tyres that last: If you're planning on keeping your car for a while, you should invest in a set of tyres with a long tread life. It's tough to measure a tyre's life expectancy, but its Uniform Tyre Quality Grading (UTQG) rating can give you a clue. This rating is based on tread wear, so you'll get more life out of a tyre with a higher grade. For example, a grade of 150 will outlast a tyre with a grade of 100 by 50 per cent.

  • Choose between high and low profile tyres: Most people will want high profile tyres. Although people tend to prefer the look of low profile tyres and may enjoy the better cornering they can provide, high profile tyres tend to be safer and handle better in inclement weather. Regardless of what you choose, however, be sure to buy a full set. You do not want to mix and match different tyre profiles.

Improve Your Car's Handling

Crappy cars generally do not handle well because they are, well, crappy. You want to feel that you're in control of your ride when you're behind the wheel, however, and you achieve that by improving your car's handling. This might sound complicated and possibly expensive, but it actually isn't. A few minor DIY upgrades can make a noticeable difference:

  • Sway bars: A sway bar is a suspension device that stiffens your vehicle's chassis. What does this do for you? It improves cornering without negatively affecting your ride, prevent your car's body from rolling during a sharp turn. Many newer cars come with sway bars installed, but if that doesn't include your vehicle you should consider installing them. They're fairly inexpensive and easy to install. (That process will vary depending on your vehicle, but here are some basic instructions.)

  • Shocks and struts: Shocks and struts not only make your ride more comfortable, they make driving much easier. If they didn't exist, your car would bounce around and you'd have a far more difficult time controlling it. They help keep your wheels on the road and increase braking effectiveness. While the shocks and struts already in your car probably do a decent job, higher performance models and improve your vehicle's handling. Furthermore, if they're old (more than 100,000 kilometres in use), you might want new ones anyway. You'll save a lot of money if you replace these yourself, but this is one upgrade you may prefer to leave to the professionals if automobile work isn't your thing.

Whether you own your car or lease it, these upgrades are relevant. Almost anyone can afford a sway bars and handle the installation. When it comes to new shocks and struts, people leasing their vehicles may want to skip this upgrade as you may well change vehicles before shock wear becomes a major issue.

Integrate Your Gadgets And Keep the Cables Organised

It doesn't take much to power your gadgets in the car, but organisation and versatility have a major impact on how well they work. You don't want your smartphone flying into the passenger's seat or to find yourself struggling with a mess of cables each time you hook it up. To prepare your vehicle for your gear you'll need the following items:

  • Two-Port USB Car Adapter: Presuming your car doesn't have USB ports of its own, you'll need a power adaptor. While one port might do the trick, an adaptor with two ports only costs a little more and offers you the ability to charge more than one device when needed.

  • Cables: You'll need cables for whatever you're charging, and you probably have a few already. If you want to use what you've got, you may encounter the problem of length at some point. Keep in mind this dead simple wrapping technique in case you need to shorten them to fit your car later. Retractable cables tend to work better, however, as you can adjust the length as needed and never worry about tangles..

  • Smartphone Dock: You can buy a variety of smartphones docks. It's possible to make your own, but that's actually illegal in most Australian states.

  • USB Hub or Battery Pack (Optional): If you have more than two gadgets to charge, you'll need a USB hub to expand your options. For a little extra juice in case of emergency (or just when you're not running your car), you may prefer a high-capacity battery with hub. If you go the battery route, make sure not to leave it in your car if you park outside in high or low temperatures.

Once you've assemble everything, putting it into your car doesn't take too much work. While every car looks a little different and may require minor adjustments, these general steps should get you set up in no time:

  1. Attach your smartphone car dock to a centrally-located air vent. Some cars have closely-spaced vents and docks won't attach to them so easily. In those cases, you can often install them on the side of the cupholder space between the driver's and passenger's seats. In the event none of these options work, experiment with other areas.
  2. Run the cables from the car power adaptor to the area around your smartphone dock. When using standard cables, you'll want to tape them somewhere mostly out of site so they don't tangle and catch on something under the seat or anything else in the car. If you elected to go the retractable cable route, you don't need to bother with any tape because you can just retract them to their starting positions and forget about tangles.

  3. Where possible, pin the ends of the cables that attach to your devices onto the car with the aid of binder clips. The size of the binder clip you'll need will depend on the width of the surface to which you're pinning.
  4. Attach the USB ends of your cables to the car power adaptor. If using a hub or battery, first plug it into one of the power adapter's ports and then plug the cables into the hub or battery.

Once you have everything in place, you can dock and plug in your devices easily. For more tips, check out our car tech organisation guide.

Upgrade Your Car's Audio Inputs

Crappy cars often have crappy audio inputs, limiting you to radios, cassette tapes, or a CD player at best. Each situation has a few upgrade options. Here are the most common situations and their solutions:

  • Your vehicle has a radio and a tape deck: When you have a tape deck in your car, you can essentially add an auxiliary input by purchasing a cassette adaptor. These clever devices solve your problem easily, but tend to add a bit of unwanted noise to whatever source they're adapting. If you don't want this added noise consider modifying your radio to accept an auxiliary input. You'll lose your radio, but you can always plug one in if you really want to. With either solution, you can also use a Bluetooth adaptor to achieve wireless audio streaming.

  • Your vehicle has a radio and a CD player but no auxiliary input: Congratulations! You're in the worst category of them all. Although the CD player came after the tape deck, you can't buy a simple adaptor to allow the input of any device. You have two bad options: modifying your radio to accept an auxiliary input or using an FM transmitter to override your radio signal. When modifying your radio you lose your radio. When using an FM transmitter you lose your mind because they're so awful you'll likely find yourself smashing it with a hammer in a matter of weeks. If these options don't suit you, an aftermarket stereo system could be the right choice.

  • Your vehicle has an auxiliary input (and whatever else): Why are you reading this section? If you have an auxiliary input, just plug your smartphone, iPod or whatever else into it and start listening! Of course, if you'd prefer a wireless option you can use a Bluetooth adaptor for that.

Despite all of these options, an aftermarket stereo system will provide you with the best experience. If you simply want auxiliary input or Bluetooth audio you'll get by just fine with an adaptor, but if you want something seamless you'll need to actually purchase an aftermarket system and upgrade your car (which, depending on your skill level, you may be able to do yourself).

Add A Tablet To Your Vehicle

If you really want to take a leap into the future, add a tablet to your vehicle and harness the power of a mobile operating system like Android or iOS to aid your driving needs. The advantages of a car-mounted tablet include turn-by-turn navigation on a large screen, streaming music (or at least an easily-access local music collection), videos for passengers, and pretty much anything else an sapp can provide. Here's what you'll need:

  • Tablet: The tablet you pick makes a difference. Most cars won't provide a lot of space to mount a tablet, so you'll want to go with the 7" variety. Android offers far more options, costs less and provides a better feature set for the car. If you already have a mobile hotspot (or can tether your smartphone) you can just purchase the Wi-Fi version of your favourite tablet and provide a data connection to it that way.
  • Car Tablet Mount: Mounting a tablet to your car requires a little more precision than a smartphone as we're dealing with a larger and heavier device. A gooseneck stand that mounts to your seat won't cost you much and requires little effort to install. (Some people prefer the tablet in the dashboard, which takes a little extra work. If that's your cup of tea, however, check out this project.)

  • A USB Power Cable: Your tablet came with one of these. Since you're installing it in your car, you can just use the cable it came with. Read the "Integrate Your Gadgets And Keep The Cables Organised" section above for tips on managing this cable and providing it with power.

  • A Data Connection (Optional): If you have an offline GPS app for your (Android) tablet, you won't need a data connection. If not, or if you want the data connection for other reasons you'll either need to purchase a tablet with a SIM card slot (and a data plan to accompany it), a mobile hotspot, or tether your existing smartphone.

Once you have everything together, just follow these very simple steps:

  1. Connect the Gooseneck Mount to the Passenger's Seat: While different gooseneck seat mounts with vary, the instructions tend to be pretty similar. Loosen the bolt on the passenger seat track, slide the gooseneck mount base underneath the bolt, and then tighten the bolt again. You want to do this on the passenger's side if you want the tablet to face the driver. (Some mounts also include a floor bracket for a more permanent and stable installation, but this is not required. Consult your mount's installation instructions for more information.)

  2. Place the Tablet Holder on the Gooseneck Mount and Adjust: In most cases, the piece that actually holds the tablet will need to be attached separately. Do that, then adjust its clamps to fit your tablet.

  3. Put the Tablet in the Holder and Connect It to Power: Slide your tablet in, connect its USB power cable, and then connect that cable to your car's USB power adaptor. If necessary, power on your mobile hotspot or tether your smartphone to provide a data connection to the tablet.

Mounting a tablet may seem daunting, but as you can see from the instructions it's pretty simple. It provides a lot of useful features — just don't use any of them while driving!

Enjoy The Future

With a few simple upgrades, you can make your car function and better-integrate your technology without making major modifications or spending a lot of money. While these upgrades won't rival an expensive vehicle with all the bells and whistles, you'll be able to bring your (soon-to-be formerly) crappy car into the 21st century without breaking the bank.


Comments

    Wait... wait a damn minute.

    "...high profile tyres tend to be safer and handle better in inclement weather".

    That is just absurd. Under-inflation, especially of a wide-contact-patch tyre, will lead to aquaplaning. Stretching a 205-cross section tyre onto a nine-inch rim is also stupid.

    Similarly, having high-profile tyres can result in poor handling (at the limit the sidewall will flex to the extent that it will touch the road in extreme cases) but will also improve ride quality by the same flexible sidewall soaking up bumps and shocks.

    In terms of tyre advice? Don't worry too much about tread life; you'll get years out of most good road tyres as long as you're not an idiot. Tyres can, and will, go off. Get the best and stickiest tyres you can. When you miss that truck or bike or car by a matter of centimetres, you'll thank yourself.

    To reiterate: they are THE most important part of your car. Start there and work up – brakes and suspension next, then move on to power et cetera.

      The "profile" of a tyre is the diameter, not the width, ie the second number. As a rule when you increase rim size you decrease profile and increase width. People should NOT go changing their profile on it's own as not only is changing the rolling diameter too much (Rim size plus tyre profile) illegal, but it alters your speedo reading.

      The bigger your rim, the shorter your sidewall, the less flex and more shock is transferred to the car, however as a lower profile has a smaller sidewall, the tyre must be wider to hold the same air, which improves handling as well.

      If you dont want to buy new wheels, all you can change is the width by a minor amount. for example my VX came with 205/65/15 tyres, but can handle 225/65/15 for increased grip

        Profile is not diameter.
        the profile number is a %

        the speedo gets calibrated for a given rolling diamater - it calculates speed based on rpm of gearbox output (and therefore wheel rpm) and on the rolling diameter of the tyre.

        for the tyres you mentioned :
        (205x.65)x2+25.4x15 = 647.5mm OD
        (225x.65)x2+25.4x15 = 673.5mm OD

        which means your speedo is now incorrect.

        What you really want to do is for a given rim size (i.e. 15") as you go wider you lower the profile so that the OD remains the same.

    Actually, I have to disagree with the FM transmitter being an awful option. I picked up a Belkin one that plugs into your cigarette lighter, has a button to find the best frequency, and the option to save two frequencies. Even if it's an operating station in the area I'm driving through, it doesn't affect the audio at all, except for when I clumsily knocked the plug out! It also has a USB port so you can charge your mp3 player of choice while playing. Well worth the $60 I paid for it!

      When I had one I also found if you put down your antenna you would still pick up the transmitter but not other channels. My ex had her antenna broken off and got no radio, but her transmitter worked flawlessly.

    Stick to leasing cars, cause your no motoring expert.

      Stick to learning English, as you're no spelling expert.

    I wish I had the confidence to go diving into the innards of my car's electrics.. if I did, I would certainly install some cool gadgets like reverse camera, sensors, and a car blackbox dvr..

      +1 for this. I'd love to install a dock for my Nexus 7 and use that as my in-car entertainment unit, as right now I have my stock Ford Fairmont radio and a Motorola FM / Bluetooth device.

      Problem is, my car's radio is below eye level (down near the gearstick) so it wouldn't be of much use.

    As someone who owns "Whenever you need somebody" by Rick Astley on cassette tape, I'm happy with tape.

    ...

    Have the Australian road rules changed? I thought using a computer (touchscreen / tablet / etc) whilst driving was illegal on Australian roads? Similar to mobile phone usage...

    Last edited 17/06/13 3:36 pm

      Lucky for you, this is a US article! therefore Australian roads rules do not apply!

    Sway bars should not be toyed with by the stupid. They DO affect the ride quality, they DON'T stiffen the chassis, and the incorrect application of them can make wet-weather handling spectacularly fun/dangerous.

      Not just wet weather handling, mess up the sizing/stiffness of the bars enough and youll be spinning out of control in no time.
      if you dont know what you're doing, get a specialist to do it, or just DON'T.

    Smartphone Dock: It’s possible to make your own, but that’s actually illegal in most Australian states.
    No it isn't. You can make as many as you want in whatever style you want and it's perfectly legal. Using them is a different matter, though I very much doubt you'd be booked for using a decently made one (bulldog clips etc. need not apply!).

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