Original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts on your car are installed at the factory. Automotive aftermarket parts are not sourced from the OEM. Still, an entire aftermarket industry has been built around improving the performance and appearance of cars and trucks, inside and out. Whether you’re building a vehicle to match your hobby, want yours to perform better or desire a unique appearance, these are 25 of the coolest (and sometimes easiest) aftermarket modifications you can make.
Since you can’t do much else when driving but sit, comfort and style matter. Racing-inspired seats can make you feel more connected to your car, or they can replace worn-out seats or bench seating from an old model. You also might need them to meet certain safety criteria if you plan to compete with your vehicle. You can do this switch yourself, although it might also mean dealing with any warped or old seat-frame components at the same time, so keep that in mind before you start. Pricing per seat starts at around $130.
Monitoring your engine is about improving power, efficiency and overall performance, and the tuner/programmer does just that. It works with your vehicle’s computer brain — the electronic control unit — to give you the ability to control performance. You’re able to make adjustments (such as shift firmness), monitor (including vital signs) and sometimes even log data. The aftermarket knows we use our vehicles for different purposes, so there are units dialed in specifically for gas, diesel, towing, racing, off-roading and more. You shouldn’t need much know-how to add one — it’s pretty much about plugging the device into the OBD-II port to pull info from the brain. At the low end, you’ll probably see prices start around $130.
Safety technology is making its way into new vehicles as standard or optional equipment, but the aftermarket is also addressing the need. This includes blind-spot monitoring systems. They act as another set of eyes for those areas around your car where you can’t see while driving or when parking. Radar or sensors on the side and back of the car send an alert, and that could be a light coming on within your side mirror or an audible warning if a car is in your blind spot when you use your turn signal. This one is pretty complicated and best left to the pros to install. The system starting price is in the $150 range.
If your car is older than a 2018 model — that’s when the backup camera became a requirement — you’re not out of luck. The aftermarket offers these for assisting with seeing what’s behind you when parking or backing up. You can expect the camera to feature double lines to guide you into spaces and keep you apprised of distance from a wall or person. This is also helpful if you tow vehicles. Pricing varies based on resolution and size, but a backup camera/sensor system can be had for as low as $35. You can do this yourself unless dealing with wiring isn’t your strong suit.
Want your stereo to sound better? Add a subwoofer because it’s all about the base, right? You can find kits that include the woofer, amp and enclosure, or you can buy each separately. If words such as “RCA” and “output” and “wiring harness” are your jam, you probably won’t find installation intimidating. For just the subwoofer, you’re likely to spend around $50.
Front-end protection can spare the headlights, bumper and grille from destruction, be it a fender bender or an animal crossing. Aside from that, a grille guard adds a whole new look to your vehicle. It’s often a bolt-on piece of equipment, fitting directly into existing holes in your vehicle’s frame and requiring only hand tools to complete the work. You can find one starting at around $115. Tip: Check with your insurance company to see whether you can have a few bucks shaved off your policy if you have a grille guard.
High-Flow Air Filter
A high-flow air filter allows more air to reach the engine and that, in turn, could mean a slight bump in horsepower and torque as well as in fuel economy. An aftermarket air filter also is likely to last longer than your factory one and doesn’t need to be cleaned or replaced as often. A replacement air filter is a fairly straightforward installation, so you should feel confident tackling it yourself. Locate your car’s air filter box, open it, remove the old filter, replace it with the new filter and close the box. It’s one of the least expensive modifications you can make to improve performance, with prices starting at about $25.
The camshaft is a component of the engine, and its key job is to allow the opening and closing of intake and exhaust valves, which regulate the flow of air and fuel in and out of the engine. A camshaft’s star player is the lobes, which do the manual labor of opening and closing. Depending on the type of performance you hope to gain — say better drivability — a mild, aggressive or other style of camshaft might be the fix. Unless you’re fluent in all things engine, this is a job best left to a pro. The low end for camshaft pricing is around $200, and that doesn’t include the installation shop’s charge for labor. Also, when shopping, make sure you read the fine print and aren’t buying an OEM replacement but rather a performance cam.
There are quite a few cool things about aftermarket exhaust systems. They usually have a less restrictive design and are more efficient than a factory setup, providing more horsepower and torque, better seat-of-the-pants feel and a new, throaty sound. A plethora of options exists for exhaust systems. For pricing here, we focused on a more complete aftermarket exhaust system, with pricing starting around $250 for piping, muffler and other items needed for installation. If you’re comfortable as an automotive DIYer, a bolt-on replacement system should be straightforward.
This is a popular upgrade for classic cars and race cars, but how about this as a cheaper alternative to buying a whole new car if your engine dies? Not that a crate engine is a cheap aftermarket upgrade. Pricing can easily start at approximately $2,000 and just as easily hit $15,000. But you’re getting a complete, assembled, ready-to-drop-in engine. And yes, the name comes from how it’s packed. Unless you have access to an engine hoist — and know how to use it and have other mechanical knowledge of how an engine works — this swap should be left to a professional.
Cold Air Intake
This is not the same thing as an air filter, although it kind of is. The cold air intake has an air filter and a bigger intake tube, allowing for cold air (and more air) to be pulled in by the engine. It’s a simple matter of cold air versus hot air, and a cooler engine with better airflow performs better than one in a hotter, less airy environment. You can do this yourself in probably about an hour with basic hand tools. It’s also a relatively inexpensive kit to add, starting at around $150.
The radiator is part of the cooling system, which helps to dissipate engine heat. The radiator’s purpose is to introduce hot coolant to cool air. When there’s a fail, you end up with overheated coolant, and it all goes downhill from there. Clogged, leaking or inefficient are all bad words when it comes to the radiator. If you’ve been building a high-performance engine, this is a particularly important upgrade to make. What the aftermarket has done is introduce a number of twists on the OEM radiator, such as more fins, stronger designs and advanced technology, all in the name of better cooling and durability. If you don’t mind draining coolant and removing things such as the fan, then you can skip the assist from an installer. Radiators cost $170 and up.
There are various reasons to upgrade your steering wheel. Aftermarket offerings run the gamut, from a thicker grip and leather materials to bigger or smaller than the one you’ve already got. A new wheel could result in quicker steering or less input, and also improve your car’s appearance. You can find them starting as low as $50. Look for DOT-approved models if you’ll use your car for street driving. You could do this installation yourself, but if you have an airbag-equipped car, make sure you do your research, then decide if your skill set is such that you can deal with the workaround so that you don’t accidentally deploy the airbag.
Spray-On Bed Liner
DIY or pro? That’s probably the most important decision you need to make before deciding to layer your truck’s bed with a spray-on protective coating — people sometimes rip out the carpet and do the interior floors, too. There’s a big cost difference between the two, so you might find there’s also a big quality difference. The DIY kit might include a spray gun or roller, and then it’s just a matter of making sweeping motions to apply. If it’s uneven or messy, that’s on you, so having it done by a specialty shop might make for a happier ending. You probably can find a spray can for as low as $15, though DIY kits can cost $100 or more. If you turn to a pro, don’t be surprised to get an estimate of $500 or more. Tip: Consider going with color instead of the predictable black.
Pickup beds are convenient for carrying loads and giving you easy access to cargo. But they don’t exactly hide your goods or protect them from the elements. The aftermarket offers various types of tonneaus, from soft rollup to hard lid, plus sectionals, snapping and locking devices. Pricing starts around $300, and installation ranges from quick and easy to a few hours in the driveway. Basic hand tools should get the job done.
When we say running boards, we’re including steps, tubes and rails — or any aftermarket product of similar purpose to help with egress and ingress. The taller the vehicle, the more challenging that becomes. Another bonus to having running boards is that they act as body armor against rocks and obstacles off-road and debris on the road. Adding a step can be a lifesaver for accessing a truck’s bed. Plus, it’s a quick-and-easy addition that a DIYer should be able to handle. Running boards, tubes and rails are more difficult and involve drilling into sheet metal. For about $50, you can find a basic step. Expect to spend at least $200 for running boards.
Roof Cargo Carrier
It could be the “Sophie’s Choice” of automotive life if you’re dealing with limited interior space: Bring people or cargo? By using the roof as storage space, you don’t have to sacrifice people (unless you prefer having an excuse to do so). Rooftop cargo carriers come in soft or hard form; as a rack, a basket or enclosed; and as low profile, skinny or wide. Some even have locking characteristics. All should install easily, aside from any assembly required beforehand. They start at about $20 for a bag style.
Having a lightbar brings many benefits to the driving experience, especially if you hit the roads less traveled or travel roads that are poorly lit. A lightbar provides improved vision over headlights alone, illuminating a wider expanse of the road and a greater distance ahead. You can go with a bumper-based lightbar, place one at the windshield or stick it on the roof. It’s not a difficult installation to tackle, but it does vary based on how it needs to be wired up. You probably can find a lightbar for as little as $60.
Adding new wheels is a great way to have your car represent your personality. You might find yourself overwhelmed by how many options are available from the aftermarket as the designs are endless. It also means pricing is endless, but you could step up to a change for around $100 per wheel at the low end. If you’re looking to improve performance, consider a complete wheel-and-tire package, which could improve handling and cornering. If you don’t own a jack, torque wrench, impact wrench and the like, don’t try this at home.
If there are a lot of aftermarket wheels, the same could be said for tires. No matter what your need, the rubber exists, and tires can completely alter how your car rides, especially when combined with new wheels. The aftermarket has really dialed in tire technology, so when you look at the tread pattern, sidewall and other parts of the tire, they sure do tell a story: commuter, grippy, racer, rugged terrain, towing, snow, all-season, sportiness, mud and so on. You’re probably looking at a minimum of $100 per tire. Before you can mount tires, they need to be balanced by a tire shop.
Traction aids go by different names: limited-slip differential, open differential or locking differential, and there are variations within those (spool, automatic and more). A differential is basically a gearing unit that sends engine power to the wheels and allows for a differentiation in wheel speeds on that axle. For example, a limited-slip differential would aim to limit the power being sent to the wheel losing traction. Differentials can be extremely helpful to off-roaders and overlanders, but they’re also good on pavement. Some vehicles already might have a differential of some kind from the factory. This is best left to a skilled installer, so you’ll need to factor that into your budget. For the differential itself, you’re likely looking at a starting price of about $500.
Your factory brakes are just fine, engineered specifically for your vehicle’s engine and suspension qualities, weight and so on. But stepping up to aftermarket performance brake pads or rotors could mean shorter stopping distance, consistent pedal feel and longer pad life. This is even more crucial if you’ve made any other modifications, such as adding performance parts that increased power, or you’ve swapped to bigger tires and wheels. Prices start at approximately $60 — that’s for pads. You can change the pads and rotors yourself if you have jack stands, a floor jack and a brake tool, for starters, and have a level of comfort wrenching on your car.
An anti-roll bar also can be called a sway bar or stabilizer bar, and it’s a component of your suspension system. It improves handling by reducing body roll, such as when you’re cornering or going over bumps in the road, and can help with traction. Both front and rear sway bars are available from the aftermarket and you can do the bolt-in work yourself if you’re confident with things like jack stands, tire removal and a pry bar. Pricing begins around $85.
If your current manual transmission shifter is worn out, or you simply want a sportier, crisper, quicker shift feel, an aftermarket short shifter (also called short-throw shifter) may be the solution. It cuts down on the time between shifts, thereby improving acceleration and deceleration times, and it’s also an appearance upgrade. It’s not a difficult installation to do yourself since you’re essentially swapping one for the other, but you could need tools such as a ratchet and sockets to remove the factory shift lever, and you possibly will need to disconnect electrical harnesses. Pricing starts at approximately $30.
Lifted/Lowered Suspension Kit
Installing a lowering kit gets you that “low rider” look, plus it could improve the car’s performance since the car will have a lower center of gravity and its aerodynamics will change. Lifting the suspension, meanwhile, equals more visibility, more ground clearance when driving over obstacles off-road and the ability to fit larger tires.
Both alterations have various levels of installation complexity — you may need to change the brake lines and/or add a longer driveshaft — and require an understanding of the domino effect. Otherwise, go pro installer. Lowering kits start at around $150, while lifting kits cost $40 and up.
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Photo Disclaimer: Please note photos are for illustrative purposes only. As a result, some of the photos might not reflect the modifications listed in this article.