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If your car was built before 2010, and/or didn't come with LED headlights, adding some quality auxiliary lights would probably be a huge upgrade for late-night zoomies whether we're talking off-roading or rural canyon carving. Putting a pair of KC Hilites on my Civic Si started as kind of a joke, but it's been one of my favorite upgrades so far.
Forward lighting is one of those things that you don't necessarily think about if you only regularly drive one car. Especially if you don't drive at night much or do most of your driving in a densely populated area. In other words, you might be running weakening low-quality bulbs but feel like you can see fine at night because that's just what you're used to.
When I got my eighth-gen Civic a couple of years ago, I could tell its lights sucked right away—looking down the road at night reminded me of playing flashlight tag with my cousins in the '90s. First I tried to fix it for free by aiming the lights properly. That went a long way and should be the first thing you do if you have an older car and you're unsatisfied with its lighting performance. Then I trashed the pair of no-name halogen bulbs for a sweet set of Phillips Xtreme Visions (not the only good bulb brand, but a go-to for me) and got even more lighting performance.
But I do a lot of driving in deer country, in the dead of night, deep in the woods. I needed a hardcore lighting solution like what I'd seen on off-road vehicles ... but I didn't want to make my Civic look like some kind of safari caricature. That's what brought me to the KC Flex Era 3, which we'll get back to in just a second.
Lighting Myths Busted
Replacing halogen bulbs with LEDs is an annoyingly popular car mod. If you're thinking about doing this, please don't. If your car came with halogens and you or a previous owner put in LEDs, swap them out for the best version of the factory-recommended bulbs.
Lighting expert Daniel Stern has a great, permanently pertinent article explaining why "plug-and-play" LED and HID retrofits are always a downgrade from good halogens in factory light housings. I'll summarize quickly: Halogen bulb housings are built to reflect light from a halogen bulb. An LED simply projects light in a different, incompatible way. So while an LED "bulb replacement" may appear brighter by soaking a short distance with light, your long-range lighting (which is extremely important at speed) will almost invariably suffer.
Aux Light Selection
While aftermarket LED low-beam bulb replacements are trash, aftermarket LED auxiliary lights and self-contained lights (where the housing is designed for LED, like Holley's sealed beam replacements) have never been better. Baja Designs, Hella, Diode Dynamics, Rigid, Vision-X, and KC HiLiGHTS are all making some cool stuff with great lighting performance.
Two things that made me reach out to KC though: I love the unusual triangular design of the Flex Era 3, and the fact that this light is DOT-endorsed as a street-legal fog light.
Full disclosure: KC sent me this light kit for free when I described this blog post idea to its rep, and it is the official off-road lighting partner of our buddies at Donut Media.
Speaking of Donut, if you're starting to feel inspired and wondering if it's worth paying for high-end aux lights, check out their video comparing $90 to $2,000 lights. Or I'll give you the takeaway you were probably expecting: The cheap lights do OK, but expensive lights are awesome. If you appreciate quality but don't want to go crazy, I would recommend fewer, smaller lights from a high-quality brand than more no-name Amazon junkers.
And if you plan on using your lights on-road like me, I'd also recommend getting something with a DOT stamp and running it in a street-legal spot. Will you get a ticket for having an uncovered light bar above your windshield? Probably not. But you should take a few minutes to Google your state's regulations on aftermarket lighting before you plan your setup. Exact rules will vary a little depending on where your car's registered, but typically, aux lights mounted below the factory headlights are legit.
Installation and Fitment
I'm sure you've seen Tacomas, 4Runners, and Ford F-teenhundreds driving around bristling with aftermarket lights pointed in all directions. There are, however, right and wrong places to mount aux lighting for best results.
Things you want to be thinking about (besides legality) are aerodynamics, mounting security, ease of wiring, and having a stable base. I made a light bracket from a random piece of hardware store aluminum once for my Scout, and it looked awesome until I fired up the truck and the engine's vibrations made the road ahead look like a rave. Won't be making that mistake again.
I decided to simply mount my KCs where the factory Honda fog lights lived, though that ended up being pretty complicated as I had to fit a triangular shape into an ovular hole. We did a whole write-up on the fabrication involved, which you can check out here.
Using a combination of custom-made parts, I ended up with a somewhat-clean solution I'm proud of. The lights are stable, easy to aim, and would be way too annoying to un-bolt for a casual thief.
KC Quality Impressions
The build quality on the KC Flex Era 3 lights, and all the wiring parts they came with, feels great. The kit includes absolutely everything for a plug-and-play installation, including a switch and relay, that doesn't require any splicing or soldering—just attach to the battery, attach to ground, plug three wires into the switch, and one big clip to each light.
Making your own light wiring harness is not hard, but it's not a task I particularly relish. Having a pre-wrapped and pre-cut wiring kit is something I'll pay a few extra bucks for.
The housings on the lights themselves are gorgeous. Robust and heavy, they feel like car parts unlike the bargain-basement Harbor Freight and Amazon lights which feel like toys.
Finally! The "but do they actually work" section. Yes, the illumination is clean and long. And I haven't even talked about the coolest function on these bad boys yet—the first setting is a street-legal fog beam, but they've also got a high beam. So now I've got decent headlights with high and low beams, and incredible fog lights with their own high beam. The down-road lighting is spectacular, and while the fogs are great in foul weather and in particularly dark areas, the KC high-beam is incredible on lonely mountain roads.
I'd thought about doing some kind of ditch light near the bottom of the windshield to spot for animals in such scenarios but decided not to because it looked pretty goofy. I'm glad I didn't bother—these things soak the trees and give me plenty of critter-catching illumination. You've got to pay attention though, and kill the KC high beams as soon as you see headlights headed your way. Otherwise, you're about to be playing chicken with a completely dazzled driver.
The only real downsides to these lights are that the included switch isn't illuminated, and they're expensive. Otherwise, I'm all about them. The Flex Era 3s are small enough to be put on sporty road cars, unique enough to catch your eye, provide excellent lighting performance, and come with a good wiring kit.
Light Demo Pictures
Though it's frustrating and counterintuitive, photographs and videos are not good demonstrations of light performance. What the camera spits out and what your eye will see in real life are not the same—almost any lighting comparison pictures you'll see online will not be entirely "accurate" per se.
That said, of course, I had to try and illustrate what these lights can do. Here are a few comparative photos taken with a Canon point-and-shoot, on full-automatic, with no retouching. You have to take my word that the KC supplement looks better in person than it does in these images.
Dark Road Comparison
Dark Road with Sign
Value for Money
Now for the other question most people will be asking: "Are Flex Era 3s worth it?" The kit I'm demoing here is $450 plus shipping. It will be worth it to some, but not others. I'll help you decide.
The short answer is yes, if you genuinely want to dramatically improve your nighttime forward visibility, I'm convinced that these are categorically superior to cheaper options.
If you just want to add lights to your car for fun or looks, no, save your money and get some cheap ones.
But heed, youngbloods: cheap aftermarket lights can end up being more of a downgrade than you realize. Many appear super-bright a few meters ahead of your car and then fizzle out. So while you might think they're helping, they're killing your long-distance vision which is far more important.
If you're on a tight budget and want to improve lighting, first make sure your factory lights are aimed correctly, and then get the brightest bulbs you can afford from an established brand like Philips, Sylvania, or Osram. Just note that they won't last as long as cheaper bulbs—brightest-burning, shortest-lasting, that's just how it goes with filament bulbs.
KC Flex Era 3 Product Specs
Specifications Per Light
- Wattage: 40W
- LED Source: CREE® LED
- Amp Draw: 3.4A @ 12V
- Voltage: 9V-16V
- IP Rating: IP68
- Dimensions: W - 3.6" x H - 3.5" x D - 2.6"
Performance Per Light
- RAW Lumens: 3,672 lm @5000K
- LUX @ 10 meters: 300 lx
- Candela: 29,553 cd
- Beam Distance (Meters): 385m
- Beam Pattern: Combo