The Easiest Ways to Add Horsepower to Your Car

fast car shooting flames

In the early 2000s, Volkswagen had these great commercials that featured this little evil totem and this mythical idea of “Your Fast” because they know that we car people want to go more faster. We want horsepower! Unfortunately, going fast requires money, and let’s face it, even if we had the money we’d probably have to buy something boring like health insurance. At least, that’s what I’m told I’m supposed to do. 

So, how do you get more power on a budget? Well, we made a list of ways that you can add horsepower to your ride for cheap, and maybe even for free. Free power? Yes, please. 

Full Service

full car service

We have to start off with something super basic. It’s the first step you should take if you want more power. Really, it’s the first step you should do if you buy a car, or have owned a car for a while, or even just want to help someone out. I’m talking about a full engine service.

A full engine service involves replacing filters, doing an oil change, and radiator service. If you have an automatic, make sure the ATF is topped up. Check those plugs, wires, and distributor caps if you’re old-school, plus any maintenance that you’ve been putting off.

You see, every year that you drive your car, stuff is atrophying and getting worse, just like your brain after your 10th hour binging on Netflix. And all those little things add up, and suddenly your car is making 15 less horsepower than it did a few years ago. 

The solution? Do all the scheduled maintenance. It might seem obvious to some of you, but if you’ve ever been to a coffee shop meetup and walked around the visitor parking, you know that there are a lot of car enthusiasts that have been neglecting the basics. Plus, you have to do a full service if you want to do anything else on this list. There’s no point in tuning a car that’s losing half its power to a bad coil pack.

Look, all I’m saying is that you don’t want to be that guy asking people in the forums how to add power to your car when you can’t even be bothered to change the damn oil. Learn to do the maintenance yourself too. You’ll save money and you’ll gain a much better understanding of your car.

Then, once you feel a little more comfortable, feel free to take a look at the forbidden aisle in your local NAPA Auto Parts. You know, the one with all the chrome where the cone filters hang out. While you’re there, consider picking yourself up a less restrictive intake.

Upgrade Your Intake

cold air intake
LM Performance

Let’s dispel the myths first. A cold air intake is not going to make you fast. You aren’t going to slap a new pod on your motor and have a 10-second car. What you will get is a better throttle response, a bit more low-end power, and that beautiful cold air intake sound. Plus, it will really clean up all that garbage under your hood.

Modern air filters sit in big plastic boxes, and while they aren’t as restrictive as the internet wants you to believe, they take up a lot of space and look awful. Swapping the stock system for a clean aluminum pipe really makes your engine bay look good.

Now, a good cold air intake will set you back a few hundred dollars because you really should stick to name brands like K&N, AEM, and BBK. Those cheap eBay filters might look alright from a distance, but they usually include cheap, awful air filters that will actually rob you of power instead.

Again, you’re not going to get a lot of power, just a little, but I personally think the sound is worth the upgrade. How else are you going to let people know that you have upgrades?

Speaking of things that are more about the sound than the power, once you upgrade the air going in, you’ve got to upgrade the exhaust going out. 

Upgrade Your Exhaust System

cat back exhaust system

There’s a lot of components to an exhaust system. Right out of the engine, you have the manifold or headers that go into a catalytic converter, then finally to a muffler. If any one of those components is really restrictive, it’s robbing you of power. Even worse, it’s robbing you of that sweet, sweet engine noise.

The simplest and cheapest upgrade is called the “cat back” system because it starts at the catalytic converter and goes back. Who would have guessed? Usually, it’s just a resonator and muffler connected by some pipe, but you can get a few extra horsepower by ditching a restrictive muffler, and you’ll definitely get a few extra decibels of music.

A cat back system usually won’t break the bank, making them perfect as an entry-level mod that you can do to your car. The best thing to do when choosing a cat back system is to hop on YouTube. It’s pretty much a guarantee that someone has uploaded a video with your car and a custom exhaust, that way you can pick the one that sounds the best. And, let’s be honest, that’s really what it’s about.

Next on the list of exhaust mods is a high-flow cat. The problem is that, depending on where you live, you may get in trouble for doing this. And the truth is that modern catalytic converters aren’t very restrictive. You should like the Earth, you presumably live on it. And if you’re looking for cheap horsepower, you don’t make enough for a cat delete to help you anyway.

Finally, we have headers. And again, depending on where you live (I’m looking at you California), you may not have very many options. Stock exhaust manifolds can be really restrictive. The manufacturer has to balance noise, comfort, heat, and performance. But since we don’t care about anything other than power, we can sacrifice all that other stuff and maximize flow by installing better headers. Plus, nothing completes the look of a motor better than a set of good headers.

Now that the engine is opened up a bit, it’s time to really take advantage of the better intake and better exhaust. See, this is supposed to be all about building power, and so far we’ve made the engine look great and sound great with an intake and header, but we really aren’t making that much more power. That’s where the next step comes in. And we’re really sorry, but there are no shortcuts. You will have to take your car to a pro, because doing a dyno-tune requires a dyno, which you definitely don’t have.


dyno tuning
Mass Acceleration Motorsports

Before we go further, just stop. Stop looking at “performance chips” or garbage flash tunes. Don’t waste your money. First off, you’ll only save like $200, and you might blow up your engine. You know how much power a blown motor makes? None. So, do it right and take your car to a dyno shop and have them tune it for power.

See, your car’s engine has a brain, a computer called the “engine control module” that calculates the amount of air, fuel, and timing your motor needs to stay efficient. From the factory, cars come programmed to balance power, efficiency, and comfort. You’re probably noticing a trend and can guess what comes next. We want to tune out the comfort and tune in the power.

A dyno-tune at a shop can be as little as $400 if you bring the staff a box of donuts, and they already know all the tips and tricks to make the most power out of your ride. To give you an idea of just how massively a good tune can boost your power, a box stock 335i (the German Supra we talk so much about) has about 300 horsepower. Flash the ECU and tune it up a bit and you can be looking at 400. That’s a 100-horsepower gain for just messing with a computer program.

Yes, you will have to save up a bit of cash to do a good tune, maybe cook some pasta instead of eating out and watch some Ideal Money videos. And if you make enough extra cash, you might even be able to afford gas for your newly tuned ride. 

There are DIY systems out there, and the most famous is Cobb. If you ever hear one of the Subaru bros going on about their Cobb access port, just know they are talking about a way to tune their car in their garage and not a weird obsession with corn. Those are a bit cheaper, but not really, because you still need to dyno your car for the best tune.

Before we get to the last, craziest step, we have some things you can do that will make you faster, even if they won’t add any power. And they’re just as important, if not more important, for performance. We’ll call them “honorable mentions” since they don’t technically increase horsepower.

Honorable Mentions

stripped car interior

The first honorable mention is weight reduction. How fast your car can go is determined by a simple equation. To go faster, you either need more power or less weight. So it’s simple, remove weight and it’s just like making more power. There’s really no limit to the amount of car you can remove, from a simple carpet and interior delete to a full-on go-kart-like cage that replaces the body. The best part is that it doesn’t cost anything to remove parts In fact, sell the old parts on Craigslist and you might make money. That’s an ideal way to go faster.

The next honorable mention, which is probably the most important thing you could possibly do if you actually care about going fast, is to buy good tires. You don’t need to go for the Potenza RE-71Rs, but a decent set of shoes will improve your braking, handling, and acceleration more than any cheap engine mod will. You can test it out on Gran Turismo if you don’t believe me. 

And finally, if you’re really serious about going fast, you need to upgrade the bad connection between seat and the steering wheel.

All the power, weight, and grip in the world won’t actually make you fast, though, it’s all technique and knowledge. My suggestion is to go get a bunch of time at the go-kart track. It’s cheap, and the penalty for making a mistake is just a few bruises, instead of having to explain to your significant other that your insurance is going up again. 

Alright, no more honorable mentions. Let’s talk about the craziest and cheapest way to make your car more powerful. Just be warned, it’s not for wimps. It will require doing hours of research and a lot of elbow grease, but the results can be really satisfying. All you have to do is head to your local junkyard.

Hit the Junkyard

junkyard car parts
Popular Mechanics

Here’s the plan: chances are your car shares components with a car that’s faster, or can be adapted to fit parts from a car that’s faster with some ingenuity. So, the first thing you have to do is a ton of research. You have to know everything about your motor so that you can buy the right used parts for cheap. Coincidentally, if you used the Ideal Car Strategies, you probably already did that.

Here’s how you have to think: say you have an older Civic with the B16, and you want to add a bit of power, right? Well, the B18C high-flow exhaust header will bolt right to it, so you just need to find a wrecked Integra and pull the parts off of it.

It doesn’t have to be from a junkyard, by the way. Craigslist, eBay, and your weird uncle’s garage are also great places to find used parts. Just make sure you not getting ripped off because, if you shop around a bit, you might be able to get an amazing deal, especially if it’s a person on Facebook that doesn’t know what kind of gold is under the hood of their old commuter.

See what we meant by having to do a ton of research, though? You have to know how to speak the lingo. But, at the same time, you could save thousands of dollars while building an awesome engine.

And here’s one last secret we’ll leave you with: turbos can go on any car. If you’re feeling particularly crazy (like us), there are a lot of cars that have turbos and superchargers that no one expects like the Toyota Previa minivan, which is supercharged, or the turbocharged Mini Cooper S, which are plentiful in junkyards. The Roadkill guys even added the turbo from a Ford F-250 to the Rotsun.

So, all you have to do is find some junk and you have everything you need to add forced induction to your car. Just something to think about. 

Brad Danger
Mr. Danger loves cars, finance and living the Ideal Lifestyle!