Whether you’re weighing different trim packages for a vehicle you’re planning to buy or looking to add a little panache to a car you already own, there’s no shortage of high-priced upgrades you can make.
Many pricey modifications aren’t worth the money, but if you have the means, the right upgrades can make your car safer, give it better performance or just add an extra touch of cool.
Last updated: June 24, 2021
Performance All-Season Tires
When it comes to tires — they directly impact everything from fuel economy to handling and your ability to stop — you generally get what you pay for. Ultra-high-performance all-season tires can creep toward $500 each when you include mounting and balancing, but the average commuter will never drive fast enough or corner tightly enough to reap the benefits. On the other end of the spectrum are sub-$100 budget tires, which will give you functional tires, a break on the price and little else. In between are performance all-season tires, which will cost you a few hundred more than entry-level tires for a full set but will give you an undeniably superior driving experience across the board.
The term “all-season” is misleading. All-season tires are good at everything and great at nothing no matter where you live, but in much of the country, all-season tires are actually three-season tires. If you live in a region where winter predictably brings snow and ice, an investment in good winter tires should be considered mandatory. Made from a softer rubber and cut with deeper, more specialized treads, winter tires are so much better in the snow that, according to Popular Mechanics, it’s better to have a two-wheel drive with winter tires than all-wheel drive without them.
Stainless Steel Brake Lines
Standard rubber brake lines flex under hard braking and lend a mushy feeling to the brake pedal. When those rubber lines are supported with stainless steel mesh, however, they won’t flex during even the hardest stops and braking always will feel firm and tight, the way it does in performance vehicles. The good ones can cost $171, but you’ll reap the benefits every time you tap the pedal on the left.
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Adjustable Anti-Roll Bar
Sometimes called sway bars, anti-roll bars connect both sides of your suspension and keep the body of the car from leaning and rolling during tight turns by distributing the car’s weight more evenly across the suspension. Their benefits are especially noticeable on trucks, SUVs and other big vehicles, which can corner like a sports car when a sway bar is installed. They can be adjusted for your preferred level of stiffness. Expect to spend $300 on a good set.
Upgraded Shock Absorbers and Springs
Upgrading your springs and shock absorbers easily can cost $1,000 combined for the front and rear suspension. Since they’re out of sight, suspension components are often out of mind, but few systems have a more direct impact on your driving experience. Shock absorbers do exactly what their name suggests when you hit bumps or a rough road. They absorb shock, keeping your tires glued to the ground and reducing the up-and-down motion of regular driving. A new set, along with lower, stiffer springs, make for a noticeably more stable, well-cushioned ride.
Performance Suspension Bushings
Bushings are rubber components scattered throughout your suspension that provide cushion and reduce vibration and noise. When you upgrade to bushings built for performance, or even if you replace worn-out bushings that came with your car, you’ll enjoy much crisper, tighter steering and handling. Bushings are sort of like cartilage for the bones of your car and can cost $400 to $500 to replace.
Quick-Ratio Steering Rack
Quick-ratio steering racks are not available on all cars or even all versions of the same model. If a company makes one specific to your vehicle, however, a quick-ratio steering rack will add a sports car feel to whatever it is you drive. That’s because it shortens the turn ratio between the steering wheel and the wheels — small movements of your hands translate into big swings in the tires. Prices vary, but a kit designed for a Fox Body Mustang, for example, sells between $1,158 and $1,289.
Limited Slip Differential
If you drive one of the many modern cars that don’t come with a limited slip differential (LSD) from the factory, you might consider dropping $600 to $1,200 on an LSD upgrade. When a wheel loses traction, an LSD system will transfer power away from that wheel to the wheels that have good traction. This provides nearly perfect traction on the pavement and improved traction off-road while reducing wear on the car’s axle shafts and tires.
High-Quality Seat Covers
There are plenty of cheap seat covers for sale, many of which can be yours for less than $100 or even in the sub-$50 range. But if you can spring for highly-rated, well-built seat covers, you’ll enjoy features such as protection against water, mud and even oil, as well as quality craftsmanship, a sleek look, cushion backing, airbag tearaways and storage pockets. Carhartt covers go for around $300, depending on your make and model.
Apple CarPlay or Android Auto
Depending on your OS, an investment in Apple CarPlay or Android Auto can give even the blandest cars an instant boost of tech, automation and connectivity. Voice commands offer distraction-free driving and both systems provide enhanced navigation, hands-free calling and messaging, direct access to your personalized music library and mobile connectivity, all of which are projected through a user-friendly interface.
Now that you’ve got your fancy new CarPlay or Auto, you’ll want to enjoy it by springing for speakers that offer symphony sound right in your car. The Alpine R-Series, for example, offers high-res audio that can handle up to 100 watts with a $300 kit that includes two tweeters, two woofers and two external crossovers. You’ll get rich, true sound even with the top down at full speed on the highway.
AI Security Car Cam
Dashcams offer peace of mind in case of an accident or a police encounter, and there are plenty of decent ones for less than $100 — much less, in many cases. But when you incorporate artificial intelligence — AI — with high-end features such as anti-theft beacons, crash assistance, GPS location and parked/off AI surveillance, you get much greater peace of mind. Owlcam, for example, has one of the best AI video protection systems on the market for about $350.
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Many automakers offer aluminum wheels on high-end trim packages for one simple reason. They’re expensive — as much as seven times more expensive than their steel counterparts. There’s also a reason for that. Aluminum is a superior metal in this particular application. Aluminum wheels are much lighter, which means cars that have them get better gas mileage. They also exert less inertia when they spin, which means it’s easier to stop and puts less strain on your braking system. Although they’re more expensive upfront, aluminum wheels can offer lower ownership costs over the life of the vehicle.
Fog lights rarely are standard equipment, and although they’re only necessary for bad weather conditions, they’re incredibly useful — and safe — in limited-visibility driving conditions. They emit light from a bar-shaped beam pointed toward the road at a sharp angle, illuminating the ground immediately in front of the car without reflecting light back at the driver off of dust, rain, heavy snow and, of course, fog. You can expect to spend just shy of $200 to as much as $450 to have them installed.
Lots of vehicles are now available with onboard Wi-Fi. If yours isn’t one of them, you can keep your passengers happy with a fairly simple upgrade. There are several options. An OBD II device from Verizon or AT&T, for example, will cost more than $100, and car routers can cost between $200 and $600. You’ll also have to pay for a data plan, but the result will be a better, more reliable connection than you’d get with a Wi-Fi hotspot.
As with onboard Wi-Fi, backup cameras now are fairly common but hardly standard for most models. That doesn’t mean you can’t upgrade to the technology that gives you eyes in the back of your head — or at least sensors and a camera in the back of your car to guide you in reverse and help you park without unnecessary bumps in the back. You can buy a good hardware kit from Amazon for about $140. Installation from Best Buy costs the same.
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If Money Really Is No Object…
There are options that can make average cars extraordinary — extraordinarily safer, better in terms of handling and performance or just plain cooler. Other automotive upgrades, however, are so outrageous, so expensive and dripping with so much luxury that they’re out of reach to even well-heeled commoners. Meet the exclusive options that were designed with royalty in mind.
Rolls-Royce Starlight Headliner
The Starlight Headliner feature places a miniature galaxy inside your already incredibly posh Rolls-Royce Phantom. Fiber optic lights are set into 600 to 1,200 perforations in the interior leather, and when the Starlight Headliner feature is activated, the “stars” twinkle to life. Completely customizable to make each galaxy as unique as the rich people who drive Phantoms, each individual light can be adjusted to the driver’s liking — dim enough for mood lighting or bright enough to read under. The out-of-this-world option costs $12,925.
Bentley Flying Spur Champagne Cooler
If sedans are more your thing, the Bentley Flying Spur starts at $200,000 — “starts” being the keyword. Options add up quickly, especially considering that many upgrades come with five-digit price tags. Among the options is the Mulliner — that’s Bentley’s custom bespoke upgrade shop — Champagne cooler. The built-in bubbly fridge costs more than $10,000, installed.
Ferrari 812 Superfast Matte Livery Paint
A 2018 V-12 Ferrari 812 Superfast will run you $610,000 with a standard factory paint job. If you want to upgrade to matte livery paint, however, you can add $67,850 to the price tag. A carbon fiber steering wheel is an additional $12,220. In the market for an airbrushed shield to decorate the fender? You’ll have to cough up $23,070.
Porsche Panamera Turbo S E-Hybrid Ceramic Brakes
At $460,100, the 2019 Porsche Panamera Turbo S E-Hybrid 4D Coupe isn’t exactly modestly priced. It’s a notorious speed demon, but all that power is hard to slow down, which means you might want to add ceramic brakes to the package. If you do, the price jumps by $20,980.
Tesla’s Ludicrous Speed
In 2015, Tesla announced an awesomely named option called Ludicrous Speed. Available on high-end Model S packages, it promised to reduce zero to 60 mph acceleration to an astonishing 2.8 seconds — but it came with a $10,000 price tag. In 2017, a Model S P100D with Ludicrous Speed broke Tesla’s own promise and became the fastest production car when it hit the mark in a record 2.275507139 seconds.
Rolls-Royce Gold Spirit of Ecstasy
Maybe with the exception of Jaguar, Rolls-Royce lays claim to what arguably is the most instantly recognizable hood ornament in the automotive universe — the Spirit of Ecstasy flying lady emblem. It’s usually made of polished stainless steel, but if you want to upgrade to a 9-carat gold-plated edition, you can do just that on the Wraith, Ghost and Phantom models from 2004 to the present — but it will cost you $16,203.
Lexus Kiriko Glass
Kiriko is a traditional Japanese glassworking technique that involves cutting grooves by hand into glass to reflect light in stunning patterns. Lexus paired with Asahi Glass Co. to develop its latest top-of-the-line interior trim package, which includes Kiriko glass on the interior doors and elsewhere in the cabin. It’s all part of the Executive Package, which adds $23,000 and change to the cost of a Lexus.
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