How to Bring Your Car into the 21st Century with a Few DIY Upgrades
Whether you bought a new car yesterday or you’re riding along in a decades-old junker, your vehicle of choice may not have all the modern capabilities you desire. A few key upgrades can fix that, providing you with everything from a killer Bluetooth audio system to a smoother, more enjoyable ride.
I lease a relatively new car, but it’s about as featureless as you can get. I can’t do much to alter it or 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 in either situation and without breaking the bank.
Get Better Tires
Whether you have a cheap car or an old one, you probably don’t have the best set of tires by default and it’s definitely an upgrade you should consider. While most tires will get you from point A to B without much trouble, great 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 tires and the benefits they afford:
- Get tires rated for the weather you deal with most: Your tires should fare just fine on a standard road, but they may not handle rain, snow, or other harsh weather quite as well. Fortunately, certain tires come with special features for better use in specific weather conditions. If you live in rainy Seattle, a wet weather tire will help. If you live in Minneapolis, you may want to consider a snow tire. If you live in Los Angeles, however, you don’t really need anything special for the weather. Pick what you need based on the weather conditions you deal with on a regular basis.
- Get tires that last: If you’re planning on keeping your car for awhile, you should invest in a set of tires with a long tread life. It’s tough to measure a tire’s life expectancy, but its Uniform Tire 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 tire with a higher grade. For example, a grade of 150 will outlast a tire with a grade of 100 by 50%.
- Choose between high and low profile tires: Most people will want high profile tires. Although people tend to prefer the look of low profile tires and may enjoy the better cornering they can provide, high profile tires 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 tire profiles.
For more on choosing the best tires for your car, check out Edmund’s Tire and Wheel Guide.
Improve Your Car’s Handling on the Cheap
Crappy cars generally do not handle well because they are, well, crappy. You want to feel like 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 but 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 likely do a decent job, higher performance models and improve your vehicle’s handling. Furthermore, if they’re old (around 50,000 miles 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. Most anyone can afford a sway bars and handle the installation. When it comes to new shocks and struts, people leasing their vehicles will likely want to skip this upgrade as their mileage allotment often won’t exceed 50,000 miles.
Integrate Your Gadgets and Keep the Cables Organized
It doesn’t take much to power your gadgets in the car, but organization 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 adapter. While one port might do the trick, an adapter with two ports hardly costs 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. Most any retractable option will do the trick, but this multi-headed cable will provide you with micro-USB, Apple 30-pin, and Apple lightning cables in one so you’re ready for most popular devices.
- Smartphone Dock: You can buy a variety of smartphones docks, but nothing has worked quite as well for us as the one you can make out of a binder clip. It takes about 20 minutes to make and costs you pennies (if you don’t already have the materials lying around).
- 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 got everything together, 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:
- Attach your smartphone car dock to a centrally-located air vent. If you built the recommended binder clip dock, you can just squeeze the clip open to attach it. Some cars have closely-spaced vents and docks won’t attach to them so easily. Instead, 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 a few areas in your car. Most vehicles have at least one decent place you can mount a dock. If not, consider purchasing a model that installs directly into a cup holder (or adapting the binder clip dock to do that instead).
- Run the cables from the car power adapter 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. painter’s tape won’t leave a residue but it isn’t exactly inconspicuous due to its bright blue color. You’ll have an easier time concealing masking tape, but after removing it you’ll need to spend a few minutes removing any minimal traces of residue. If you decided 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.
- Where possible, pin the ends of the cables that attach to your devices onto the car with the aid of additional binder clips. The size of the binder clip you’ll need will depend on the width of the surface to which you’re pinning. If you made the binder clip dock, you can actually run the cable head(s) through its binder clip head instead.
- Attach the USB ends of your cables to the car power adapter. 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 organization guide.
Upgrade Your Car’s Audio Inputs
Crappy cars tend to 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 adapter. These clever adapters 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 adapter 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 adapter to allow the input of any device. You have two bad options: modifying your radio to accept an auxiliary input or 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. (Seriously, FM transmitters aren’t that bad but we find they don’t work well unless you spend most of your time driving somewhere with few radio signals). 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 adapter 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 adapter, 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 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 any app can provide. Here’s what you’ll need:
- Tablet: Although it goes without saying that you’ll need a tablet if you want to mount a tablet in your car, the one you pick makes a difference. Most cars won’t provide a ton of space to mount a tablet, so you’ll want to go with the 7” variety. Android not only offers far more options but they cost less and provide a better feature set for the car. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 Wi-Fi costs only $180, and the LTE version (Verizon) only $280. Google’s official Nexus 7 costs $300 but only offers HSPA+ (3G-ish) speeds. If you already have a mobile hotspot (or can tether your smartphone) you can just purchase the Wi-Fi version of your favorite tablet and provide a data connection to it that way. All the aforementioned tablets come with a GPS radio built-in, so as long as they have a data connection or pre-downloaded maps you can easily use them for navigation purposes. Alternatively, you could buy an iPad mini, but you’ll need to cough up $459 just for the base model with LTE as you cannot buy a Wi-Fi model with a GPS radio.
- 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, so a binder clip won’t cut it here. A gooseneck stand that mounts to your seat, on the other hand, won’t cost you much and requires little effort to install. (Some people prefer the tablet in the dashboard, however, 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 Organized” 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 cellular radio (and a data plan to accompany it, as described earlier), a mobile hotspot, or tether your existing smartphone.
Once you’ve got everything together, just follow these very simple steps:
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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 adapter. 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 formerl) crappy car into the 21st century without breaking the bank.
Title image created by David Broderick. Other images by Hemi Truck Club, Arkon, Stocksnapper (Shutterstock), Matt Gilbert, and me.
(via Mr. Reader)