Their cars are just a means to an end for some drivers, a way to get from Point A to Point B, while others look for a driving experience and ultimate safety. Car upgrades appeal more to the latter. You can purchase a brand new vehicle that offers one or more of these bells and whistles, or you can add them to wheels you’ve owned for a while, in some cases for less than $1,000.
Read More: Leasing a Car vs. Buying a Car
Top Safety Upgrades
Numerous upgrades are designed to keep you safe on the road, and this can be an important consideration if you drive a lot or in high-traffic areas. Backup cameras are particularly popular if you drive an SUV or truck where the cab is farther off the ground than with sedans. The camera gives you a view of what’s going on back there under your tailgate or beneath your rear bumper when you put your vehicle in reverse. You can often add a backup camera as a DIY for under $100.
You can add on a blind spot warning device that will effectively yelp – or at least vibrate the steering wheel – if you’re about to change lanes but another vehicle that you can’t see is lurking behind you. Lane departure warnings and assistance will alert you if you drift out of your lane, or even correct the situation for you, automatically steering your vehicle back to where it belongs.
You can typically purchase these upgrades aftermarket on your own, but you might want to have a professional install them for optimum effectiveness and safety if wiring isn’t your strong suit. Backup cameras have been mandatory on new vehicles since 2018, so you don’t have a choice as to whether to add this one if you buy a new car.
Read More: 9 Safety Features in Cars
Headlight Upgrade Options
It’s critical to be able to see where you’re going, but fog lights go a step further than headlights. They make sure other drivers can see you in adverse conditions, including dust, snow or driving rain.
Then there are adaptive headlights. They’re designed to adjust left or right if the road ahead of you is about to curve so you can more easily navigate in the dark. This can be particularly helpful if you are a daily driver and frequently find yourself driving in unfamiliar areas.
Upgrades That Improve Suspension
Suspension upgrades can help out older and less expensive vehicles. A car's suspension tends to relax over the years, and new economical vehicles don’t tend to go all-in on this feature in the first place. It’s a simple matter of taking your vehicle to a mechanic or garage and having its struts, shocks and bushings replaced. You’ll no longer ram your head against the ceiling when you hit a bump, and fuel efficiency will improve as well.
Your suspension bushings are most likely made of rubber if your car is an economy model. Consider talking with a knowledgeable mechanic about the advantages of upgrading to polyurethane.
Those Wheels and Tires
Good tires contribute to a more pleasant driving experience and upgrade your vehicle's safety as well. Some are actually designed to eliminate road noise – another nice feature if you drive a lot. Snow tires can be a must if you live in a northern clime. They’re made of a softer grade of rubber that increases grip in adverse conditions.
As for those wheels – not the rubber that surrounds them – aluminum versions are particularly popular. They’re sturdier, corrosion-resistant, and more visually appealing if you care about that sort of thing. Lighter wheels tend to improve handling.
Brakes That Will Stop You on a Dime
Good brakes are another safety feature that can’t be overlooked. Stainless steel brakes are designed to last longer, something to keep in mind if you’re purchasing a car that you anticipate owning for a while. They also offer firmer support for a faster and more efficient response.
Ceramic brakes are another option, although this upgrade is generally reserved for pricier new cars like Porsches. They have the added advantage of handling high speeds well, although enjoying this feature might bring a bit of ire from your local police department.
Technology can play a part with brake options as well. You can upgrade to an automatic braking feature that will kick in under emergency conditions, such as when you’re in danger of driving headlong into a concrete obstacle, or worse, a pedestrian. Your brakes will automatically engage when sensors or cameras detect an impending collision.
Several manufacturers plan to make automatic brakes mandatory on all new vehicles beginning in 2022, but there’s a downside here, too. Some of these new systems have been recalled due to unexpected braking when the road ahead is clear.
Upgrades for the Ultimate Driving Experience
Now that you and your passengers are safe and comfortable, you might want to consider some options that simply make it easier and more pleasurable to take the wheel.
One of the most popular is the dash cam, and these can range from simple recording devices that can memorialize situations, such as when you’re involved in a fender bender through no fault of your own, to mini-computers that will send you an alert if trouble is afoot when you’re not even in your car. Some even include GPS tracking devices if your vehicle is stolen.
A heads-up display attaches to your dashboard to let you know information such as how fast you’re driving, how your fuel efficiency is coming along, or how many miles your destination lies ahead. Sure, your speedometer tells you your speed, but you have to look down to see it.
Then there are options that help you keep your hands on the wheel while staying in touch with friends, associates and loved ones, either long distance or in the backseat. Bluetooth connectivity provides hands-free phone communication through your car’s sound system. In-car cameras attached to the dash can keep an eye on your young ones in the seat behind you so you don't have to turn around and take your eyes off the road when they're squabbling.
Most of these features can be surprisingly inexpensive to add on to an older car, and you might even be able to install some of them yourself.
Are Upgrades Worth It?
Upgrades can inexpensively improve your ride if you don’t want to or can’t afford to buy a new car. You can improve your car's performance and enjoy a superior driving experience without breaking the bank on brand new wheels. But will you get your money’s worth? That depends on several factors.
Some superior safety features can actually add to your car’s value, or at least preserve its value when these options become mandatory, such as automatic brakes and backup cameras. Black Book can help make the decision easier. It reports “take rates” on various upgrades, indicating how many buyers opt in for various features. A take rate of 60 percent means that six out of 10 buyers want that particular feature. So your vehicle’s resale value can be adversely affected if it doesn’t have that option.
- Compare.com: Cheap Car Upgrades Under $1,000 for Used Cars
- MarketWatch: 7 Ways to Upgrade Your Old Car With New Car Technology
- Hotcars: 14 Expensive Car Upgrades That Are Worth the Money
- Car and Driver: Best Cars to Customize – Everything You Need to Know
- Erie Insurance: Top 12 High-Tech Car Safety Upgrades to Consider
- Car and Driver: Weighing Your Options – How Equipment Choices Affect a Car’s Resale Value
- TRED: Car Upgrades That Are Actually Worth It
Beverly Bird has been writing professionally for over 30 years. She is also a paralegal, specializing in areas of personal finance, bankruptcy and estate law. She writes as the tax expert for The Balance.