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You don’t need to own a top-level performance model to have a reliable car that can keep up with one. Underneath the wide arches and carbon bodywork is often a platform shared with every variant on the model line and heavily related to others from the same manufacturer. Standardized parts keep costs down by simplifying manufacturing, but they also present an opportunity for enthusiasts. For those wanting some fun from their lowly trim, the shared parts allow you to safely bolster performance without sacrificing quality or a warranty.  

You don’t have to buy the holy grail; just borrow some parts.

There Is Beauty In A Basic Model

Even the most basic model in every range has plenty to offer. It’s very likely a suitable means of transport for everyday life, with its only crimes being that it’s a bit boring and missing advanced features from higher trims. I say crimes as “underpowered and devoid of features” don’t have to be disadvantages. A lack of equipment generally means a lighter car, which helps with handling, braking, fuel efficiency, and acceleration. Reliability should be greater than the luxury-filled models, too, as (in theory) there’s less to go wrong. Add all of that up and throw in the fact it’ll have the lowest entry cost; the money you’ll save across maintenance and operation will be enough to support some modification. 

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Basic models can be blank canvases, and though buying a model with better equipment may be more accessible, there isn’t the same opportunity for personalization. That said, you don’t have to have a base model to take advantage of a given parts bin. Even those with the cushiest options can be tightened up with a quick dig through the greater chassis catalog. 

Factory Upgrades With OE, OEM, and Genuine Parts 

Parts interchangeability depends entirely on the manufacturer and model line, so opportunities may not be as easy to find with certain models as for others. Models with performance variants like the GTI, M3, and AMG have many parts to choose from, while larger SUVs have slimmer performance pickings. However, factory-designed parts have had hundreds of hours of testing and development in rigorous environments, so any improvement you can make will be worthwhile. 

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How you decide to rummage through the parts bin is up to you and the car you drive. Improvements don’t have to be the flashy big brake kit or larger turbocharger; often, some fresh bushings and more efficient cooling are just as effective at improving a given vehicle's feel and performance. But when you want to go a little overboard, there are proven catalogs featuring parts with hundreds of thousands of engineering test miles. 

BMW owners retrofitting uprated M3 control arms and stiffer anti-roll bars can drastically improve the chassis feedback in their high-mileage commuter. Robbing the turbocharger from the Golf R can make even the lowliest EA888 gen3 or EA211 evo a sleeper waiting to embarrass the big boys. Even swapping in the better-bolstered sport seats from whatever performance model can change the look and feel of an interior. There’s a limit to what’s in a respective catalog, but the opportunities within can make-or-break a vehicle and how it makes you feel. 

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Of course, quality is a significant factor here, as well. Enthusiasts of all makes trust aftermarket companies worldwide, but sticking with OE or OEM upgrades ensures quality is never in doubt. Major brands like Sachs, Meyle, Bilstein, Ate, and Bosch are just some of the parts suppliers who make those OE heavy-duty and high-performance parts, with many more covering OEM. The difference between them and genuine is nothing but some branding, so don’t be afraid to save a few bucks. When that's not possible, however, plenty of trusted aftermarket leaders are more than qualified to fill in the gaps.

How To Upgrade Your Control Arms & Bushings

Stamped or cast, steel or aluminum, rubber bushings or rose joints?  It’s those questions and more that you need to know before sorting out your arms.  “Control Arm” has become a blanket term for the suspension links connecting the wheel hub to the chassis. Whether you call them A-arms, thrust arms, torque arms, toe arms, lateral links, or wishbones, they let the wheel assembly articulate freely within a set range. Where they attach to subframes or knuckles, there are bushings—typically chosen for their ability to absorb some of the harsh forces the suspension is put through on the road. 

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European manufacturers love to send cars out with fixed camber and caster angles; it’s something of a passion for them. Die suspension ist perfekt!” they say, knowing that a few extra degrees of adjustment would do wonders. Replacing your standard arms with those that add negative camber and/or positive caster will do wonders for steering feel and response. For cars like the Porsche Boxster, swapping to a 2-piece GT3 arm with shimmed camber adjustability will allow a professional to dial in exact measurements, while an unadjustable OE F8X M3 arm will only add about a degree of extra negative camber for an F30 328i. Even without the adjustability, the increased camber angle will make a noticeable difference in feel and grip. 

Stiffer bushings will do the same but for different reasons. The compliance from standard rubber bushes allows for slight changes in toe, caster, and camber under stresses greater than when commuting. You can feel this under hard cornering when either end feels vague or twitchy. A stiffer bushing allows less play and dynamic alignment changes for a more responsive and stable ride, albeit at the sacrifice of ultimate comfort. More often than not, the upgraded bushing is a firmer rubber or hydraulically filled type. They’re perfect for road use because they firm up the suspension without deleting the compliance we take for granted in road cars. However, in motorsport-like cases with the M3 and GT3, sealed spherical bearings are the bushing of choice.  

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They go by names like rose joint, Heim joint, pillow ball, and monoball, but they are all essentially the same. Instead of rubber or fluids, the spherical bearings are metal but freely articulating. With them, control arms can pivot to wherever they’d like within their given range without resistance but will lack any sort of compliance. As aggressive as that sounds, manufacturers regularly fit them to road vehicles, so it’s plenty streetable in suitable environments—think pristine, twisty mountain road and not metro New York.

Aftermarket arms and bushings are also an option but are much more serious. Without any restraints to work with, vendors like SPL, SPC, Tarret, RSS, and others offer motorsport-spec parts that take an expert to set correctly, a healthy budget to acquire, and regular servicing thanks to spherical bearings not designed to last your OE suspension interval. Sticking with OE parts or similar is your best bet for a practical, affordable, and livable suspension upgrade. 

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Beyond the control arms and bushings, dampers and springs are going to be your point of focus. However, those parts are often not interchangeable with between trims. Models like the M3 and GT3 can have different knuckles, strut mounts, and spring sizes—even the compression and rebound settings can be wildly different to counteract aerodynamic aids. The best solution to a soft ride is to find the parts designed for your specific chassis. From there, you'll be able to find all sorts of performance options from heavy hitters like Bilstein, KW, and Sachs.

How To Upgrade Your Brakes

Anything more than commuting in your basic sedan or SUV puts the brakes in a situation they weren’t designed for. OE pads are intended for highway commutes, traffic, and taking the kids to school, not trail-braking apexes, so pushing them beyond their designed boundaries is not smart. A more thermally-durable pad is the easiest and least expensive way to improve your stock braking system. They’re as common as any other pad and are made by Ate, Ferodo, Pagid, and Bosch, all brake experts that supply European manufacturer’s with their Genuine parts. In most cases, dust will increase, and the rotors will likely have a shorter service period by a few thousand miles. Just how much that all changes is down to the compound and its specifics, so be sure to research which is best for you

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Rotors are another easily replaced component. As with brake pads, their composition is meant for a specific heat range. If exceeded, the rotor can warp, deforming into an unusable shape. Preventing that means switching to a disc with a higher carbon content and/or improving your brake cooling. Increased carbon in the metallurgy enhances the rotor’s thermal resistance, allowing you to stop harder for longer. 

However, a good brake pad and rotor can only do so much for an inadequate braking system. Whether you’ve pumped up the power, plan on endurance racing, or drive a lower-trim SUV, bigger eventually becomes best. Once again, the shared platform benefits the base model as brake systems are some of the easiest to improve. Looking to a more powerful trim or a heavier model, there’s always a larger disc and caliper setup to retrofit. This is nothing new and the least expensive way to get a large pad and rotor friction surface for most models. However, some benefit from an optional performance brake kit, like that from BMW M.  

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The M-Performance brake kit for the F30 3-Series is a perfect example of one of these upgrades, as is any F30 and the F22 2-Series. VAG products have even more options thanks to badge engineering. Recent models can have Porsche Macan, Q5, or B8.5 RS5 calipers retrofitted without much fuss, while '00s-era vehicles can utilize the Brembo 17z/18z calipers from Touaregs and Cayennes. With any of these upgrades, ensuring you understand which rotors and pads are required is vital. 

Although far more costly than a simple pad and rotor swap, going larger with OE parts will leave you more room for other modifications. To get the same quality calipers and rotors from the aftermarket, you’d be spending more money to buy parts from the same people who already supply brake systems to automakers. 

How To Upgrade Your Engine

All engines are complex machines built with parts engineered to work in harmony. Throwing some of those out to replace them with “better” parts doesn’t always produce the best results, even if they are from the same chassis. In most cases, the best parts to swap are the ones that are “bolt-on,” preventing the need for opening the engine—like turbochargers!

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Smaller turbos provide fantastic low-end grunt and mid-range punch but will suffer in the high RPMs as they can’t flow enough. However, the low-end is what a commuter car needs, so grunt is prioritized at the sacrifice of peak horsepower. It’s a common practice with BMW’s N20, VW’s EA888, Volvo’s RN and RNC engines, and MINI’s N14/N18 engines following it, among many others. Luckily, all those models have larger OE or OEM options that will drop in without modification and substantially improve performance. 

Power is harder to find on a normally aspirated car, but not impossible. Your best bet is to look for some kind of improved intake manifold or larger throttle body for better flow. The more air you can get in, the more power you make. However, doing so will likely affect where and how the engine makes power. Gaining top-end power typically means sacrificing mid-range, and that’s tough to earn back. Either way, you’ll want to find an aftermarket tuner to remap your engine computer to take advantage of the new parts. Doing so will provide more gains and potentially improve the fuel economy. 

The only other easy OE upgrade to make is in the ignition system. Whether you add more compression, fuel, or air, the ignition spark needs to scale with it. The standard upgrades are a colder plug and a more powerful ignition coil, which produce a stronger spark and better thermal dispersion. Audi R8 ignition coils are a common choice for VAG engines, and their popularity has led the aftermarket to create retrofit kits for older BMWs, too. Exact ignition specs differ between automakers, so exactly when you’ll need to bolster the ignition is dependent on the engine and its OE equipment. The best way to determine your engine needs is by consulting a local tuner or builder familiar with your own. 

How To Upgrade Your Cooling & Reliability 

Heat is the enemy of an engine. Yes, they need to operate at a specific temperature, but much more than that, and the engine could face severe damage. Coincidentally, heat is also the enemy of plastic, with which most modern engines are filled. It’s lightweight and cheap to produce, but that doesn’t make it any less prone to failure. Now that turbochargers have become the norm, there’s more heat in an engine bay than ever, so you may want to look for improvements. 

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Auxiliary cooling systems are regular equipment for almost any upper-trim model with a V8, big horsepower, or potential towing duties. In cases like the F30 3-Series, additional cooling was available via a third radiator as part of the M-Sport package. It’s very similar to what the Mk7 Golf R comes with, and both are retrofittable to their respective lower-trim models. Even Porsche has a third radiator kit available for all of their sports cars, knowing that the track conditions they’ll see will require it. The potential downside to these is that they need extra airflow. Both BMW and Porsche use unique cooling ducts (and bumper for BMW) to provide the required airflow to the cooler. Other models may not be so lucky, so you’ll have to find ways to direct the air you need. 

For those without auxiliary coolers, a new radiator can be just as impactful. As we know, plastics and heat aren’t the best of friends. Metals are far better because they won't crack and provide much better heat dissipation. That’s why OE supplier CSF has infused many of those designs with their proprietary tech to create the ultimate drop-in upgrades. With unrivaled “B-Tube” Technology, CNC machined fittings, thicker cores, and all aluminum construction, you’d have to do something wrong to get a cooling system to overheat with an aftermarket CSF radiator. Unless you do some serious towing or regular track events, these are likely a bit overkill, but without the risk of cracked plastic end tanks, they could just be the fail-proof fix you’re looking for. 

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The same goes for any air-to-air intercooler and its charge pipes. The plastic end tanks and tubing are adequate for an automaker but leave reliability and performance on the table for any enthusiast. As experts in all things cooling, CSF also offers larger, all-aluminum intercoolers to handle the extra airflow provided by larger turbos and more boost. Non-plastic intercooler piping is more dependent on make-specific aftermarket companies, but those still have proven track records among enthusiasts.

Of course, there are other areas where you can remove plastics. A must for any N20/N26-powered BMW is Rein’s Aluminum “Mickey Mouse” Flange. Connecting the radiator hose to the cylinder head’s coolant outlet, the original plastic BMW piece is famous for crumbling when old, leaving you stranded. Outside of the cooling system, metal oil pans and underbody trays make great replacements for originally plastic pieces—ask us how we know. Roadways are too unpredictable these days, and we can all benefit from as much protection as possible. 

Which Upgrades Will You Choose?

In the end, the modification path simply isn't a necessity. Barring major defects by the manufacturer, you should only ever need standard replacement parts. But where’s the fun in that? For often not much more than the original parts, you can add some character, bolster reliability, and revive your ride quality just by digging through the parts bin. Whichever way you choose, we have you supported with all of the Genuine, OE, and OEM parts you could possibly need. Happy wrenching!


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Written by :
Christian Schaefer

Car and motorsports-obsessed writer/editor for FCP Euro's DIY Blog. Constantly dreaming of competing behind the wheel or searching for another project. Owner of a turbo Subaru Forester and a ratty Porsche 914, neither of which are running.


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