Three Universal Steps To Improve Any Car’s Handling

No matter the car, improving these braking and grip categories will improve overall performance.

byPeter NelsonJun 17, 2022 3:00 PM
Three Universal Steps To Improve Any Car’s Handling
Peter Nelson / Andrew Collins
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In the grand scheme of aftermarket tuning, it's easy to get caught up in the mindset that you must buy a bunch of aftermarket parts to improve your car's straight- or twisty-line performance. For handling, you might throw your hard-earned funds at aftermarket sway bars, shocks and springs, or even a set of coilovers. The idea behind all of these parts is that more control means better handling and weight balance, and therefore better grip. In actuality, there are some basic universal steps to improving grip that are more cost effective and have far more apparent upgrades over just firming up your ride's, well, ride.

Not much beats giving a car a performance alignment, improving its braking capabilities, and upgrading its tires to a stickier compound. Especially on cars that already come from the factory with good chassis dynamics, sporty damper tuning, or other likable traits elsewhere, like low curb weights, enthusiastic transmission gearing, or sprightly engines (shout-out to my old Mazda 2).

It should be said that while some of these performance improvements have trade-offs, they also boost overall capability and increase overall safety on the road in any scenario.

Improving Grip

For the price and simplicity, not much beats a good set of tires. Luckily, enthusiasts have a lot of options in the 100-400 treadwear range of summer-rated tires to choose from at a wide variety of price points.

In fact, to zero in on affordability, there's a lot of value in the 280-320 treadwear range. These tires are for summer only and are not as track-centric or high-wear as a 180-200 treadwear street-legal track tire. They offer solid grip in the dry and wet, wear a tad slower, and above all maintain good daily comfort. Comfort, meaning they're not loud and do not have super stiff sidewalls. Plus, due to their treadwear rating, they'll last a lot longer than their stickier circuit-loving relatives.

From personal experience, I really dig the 300 treadwear Michelin Pilot Sport 4S and 280 treadwear Yokohama Apex V601. I've had a few press cars that come from the factory with the Michelins, and they're very grippy yet quiet and comfortable. I got to experience the Michelins in the ultimate scenario, too: on track at Monticello Motor Club mounted up to the 2022 Toyota GR86 Premium trim. These tires felt so much better than the 86's base Michelin Primacy HP meats, not just in grip, but also turn-in and overall confidence. One of the worst on-track experiences is feeling some very pronounced squidginess in the tires under hard braking and cornering, and the Pilot Sport 4Ss had almost none of either compared to the annoying Primacies.

I've got the Yokohama Apex V601s on my BMW 128i. Before I tuned and aligned my suspension, these were good on the street and OK on the track for a couple of laps. Now, with a good alignment dialed in, they're very good on twisty roads, and I'm hoping they will feel a lot better on track.

Then, there's the 340 treadwear Continental ExtremeContact Sport. Conti boasts that this tire was developed by professional racecar drivers (which performance tire hasn't?) and that it's the preferred tire of ROUSH Performance and the BMW Performance Driving School. I was lucky enough to attend the latter and wheel an F82 BMW M4 Competition on track with these mounted up for a previous employer, and they were quite good. This is after getting acquainted with many 200 treadwear meats during regular SoCal track day attendance.

Even the Most Modest Performance Pads Make All the Difference

There's a lot to discuss when it comes to brake pads as consumers have so many brands and compounds to choose from. And if they happen to own a very tuner-friendly chassis, like the first or second-gen Toyobaru, the choices are absolutely endless. It should also be said that good brake pads are bolstered by quality brake fluid such as Castrol React SRF or Motul RBF 600.

On the mild side of pad choices, there's a lot of good value. They'll be stronger and hold up to heat better than OEM pads, they won’t dust as much as more serious choices, and they’ll exhibit far less noise. There's nothing worse than cruising down the street, pressing the brake pedal with racing pads mounted up, and it sounds like you're dragging a massive steel pipe underneath the car.

From my own personal experience, Hawk's HPS and HPS 5.0 and G-Loc's GS-1 are great options, and even do well in cooler temperatures. I used to daily HPS pads on my old Mazda Protege in the Midwest, and they were great all year 'round. I recently spoke to SoCal driving instructor and time attack competitor Kevin Burke about why upgrading brake pads and tires are key moves.

“As you upgrade tires to increase your grip, you must upgrade your brake pads and fluids," Burke said. "More grip requires more braking energy, which causes more heat, and heat is the enemy! Better brake pads and better fluids help combat the heat and will net you a more consistent pedal throughout the session.”

Another major benefit of good pads is improved modulation. Brake modulation is the ability to accurately control the brake rotors' clamping force. More modulation means more control and allows you to smoothly balance the weight of the vehicle better across the chassis under acceleration, cornering, and braking. Ross Bentley is one of the top authorities in performance driving and explains this further on Speed Secrets.

A Good Alignment Goes a Long Way

Alignments seem to be touchy subjects, in that tire wear is paramount and any amount of toe-out or toe-in will cause the car to go careening off the road as soon as the tread meets a highway expansion joint. Alright, maybe not that extreme, but there's one universal rule that applies to performance alignments: Be prepared for increased tire wear.

The more aggressive the alignment, the faster the tires will wear out, which means more frequent tire rotation is crucial. It depends on miles traveled and intended use, but generally more negative camber and zero toe or toe-out will wear tires faster than having them aligned to factory spec, which is usually based on optimizing treadlife as much as possible.

Every chassis is different, too. BMW owners commented in one of my previous blogs about my 128i, that BMWs can see a lot of negative camber and still exhibit pretty slow tire wear. Another commenter reports that the Mazda 5 came from the factory with a lot of rear negative camber, which leads to above average wear for non-drive tires in the rear. I think there are two overarching trends here: Know what kind of factory alignment your car has and be aware of what fellow enthusiasts say works well for that vehicle when you start thinking about adding negative camber or directing more toe in any direction (if at all).

To achieve a good balance between OEM and performance, I received one of the best pieces of advice when I started autocrossing nearly 20 years ago: Ask the alignment technician to give you as much negative camber that's within spec. Not only will this save you from getting questionable looks from your local everyday tire shop, but it will also keep tire wear within factory guidelines, thus maintaining more conservative wear and possibly also keeping everything kosher with any warranty concerns.

The benefits of adding more performance to your alignment are sharper turn-in, more cornering grip, lighter and/or more eager steering, more stability (on either or both axles), and dialing out understeer. The downsides are faster tire wear, a decrease in fuel economy, and some dartiness or tramlining on the road and highway. But for $60-$150, depending on the shop you go to, this could be one of the best bang-for-your-buck changes, ever.

All Three Help Each Other

Better tires, brakes, and alignments go a long way to improve a car's grip, handling, steering, braking, and control. They all work well with one another, too. Practically speaking, a good alignment makes the most of a good summer tire's contact patch under cornering, while good tires and brakes work together to decrease a car's stopping distance and provide more feedback. 

It depends on the chassis, but upgrading all three could potentially cost less than just one set of coilovers, or even one set of aftermarket springs and shocks. These are also great incremental mods for boosting performance driving skills, too. If you found yourself overwhelming the brakes on track during a track weekend, go back next time with better pads and fluid and see how it feels. Although these mods might be a bit invisible from an aesthetics standpoint, their benefits are massive.