The sky – and budget – is the limit when modifying a vehicle to suit you By Jeff Yip

Whether it's a shiny new car showing just three miles on the odometer or a workhorse pickup that's racked up 103,000 miles, finding a vehicle that's precisely the way you want it is often impossible.

 

But why settle? You can always primp your ride. American consumers put in lots of time and effort to keep up, pretty up, toughen up or speed up their vehicles. The Auto Care Association, which represents independent businesses that repair vehicles or make, distribute and sell parts, accessories and tools, estimates that U.S. consumers spent $256.2 billion on their passenger cars and light trucks last year.

 

When it comes to accessorizing, there's a universe of options ranging from mild to wild. Here are just a few examples.

 

Custom wheels

We're pretty sure the Romans were personalizing their chariot wheels. Fast-forward to the 21st century and you'll find serious beauties like the VX1 by Forgeline Motorsports. The one-piece, split five-spoke wheels are machined from a single forging of 6061-T6 aluminum for lightness, stiffness and fatigue strength. Available in 18-, 19-, 20- and 21-inch diameters, the VX1 design bakes in plenty of room to clear the massive brake calipers used on ultra-performance machines.

 

Who pops for wheels that can retail for $1,785 apiece? "Somebody who's trying to improve their vehicle or set themselves apart from their neighbor," said David Schardt, Forgeline's president. Pointing to Porsche's latest-and-greatest 911 Schardt adds, "The wheels that come on the new Porsche GT3 RS are great looking. But some owners want their car to look different than the next one and when you spend $200,000 on a car, five or six thousand dollars for a set of wheels doesn't seem unreasonable."

The VX1s tip the scale at about 22 pounds each, which Schardt said will shave about 10 pounds off a showroom-fresh Porsche GT3 RS (www.forgeline.com).

 

Grille guards

Grille guards are a hot item for pickup trucks because they're practical, provide protection, and in many owners' eyes, make the truck look tougher.

"It helps protect the vehicle and, most importantly, the people in it," said Joe Condit, director of business development for Ranch Hand, maker of a popular line of grille guards and other truck accessories. "You'd be amazed at how many unsolicited testimonials we get on a weekly basis." He said the praise typically includes a photo of a slightly damaged guard and that nine times out of 10, with a grille guard there's no damage to the truck. Deer, of which Texas has a few, are often the culprits. "If you're buying a $70,000 to $80,000 pickup truck, you're going to want to protect it," Condit said.

 

And all that steel structure is not just about cosmetics. Grille guards help make life easier for working ranchers by allowing them to push open fences from the convenience of the driver's seat, said Condit. Ranch Hand's grille guards are $549 and can be installed at the company's Houston Truckfitters retail store for $85 (www.truckfitters.com).

 

Lifted trucks

Another customizing trend stands out even more. We asked Scott Balke, owner of Boggy Creek Off-Road, a shop in Webster that specializes in trucks, what's up with raising a pickup that already sits high - like your typical four-wheel-drive full-size truck - six or eight inches higher.

 

"You would think a lot of these people go off-road or mudding, but mainly, it's a fad," Balke said. "It's the in thing. The owners like the look."

The hugely popular 6-inch lift, all around, runs from about $2,200 to $2,600 for parts, labor and wheel alignment at Boggy Creek. But Balke, whose team averages 14 lifts for retail customers and new-car dealerships each week, is quick to point out that there's a right way and a wrong way to lift a truck.

 

Boggy Creek uses ReadyLift 6-inch kits for raising and leveling to retain the truck's integrity, ride and safety. "They don't change the suspension geometry," Balke explained. "We keep the factory springs and factory control arms and you don't wind up negatively affecting the turning radius."

 

The ReadyLift kit doesn't require wheel spacers, which Balke said can cause large tires to rub against the vehicle's fenders or frames. And there's another, potentially more serious, down side. "Anytime you use a spacer you are extending the wheel further out from the hub. And if you don't use a hub-centric spacer you lose a lot of the strength. A lot of spacers are manufactured overseas and many of them are not hub-centric and the truck's weight can end up riding on the wheel studs instead of the hub, as the factory intended."

The ReadyLift 6-inch kits include a five-year/60,000 mile warranty that also covers any factory drivetrain component if it is somehow damaged by ReadyLift's setup.

 

Balke added that the kits from ReadyLift also let owners stick with their stock wheels, which preserves the factory appearance and the customer's cash. Many truck owners, however, elect for bigger custom wheels, making 325/50R20 tires very popular in this segment (www.boggycreekoffroad.com).

 

Smartphone mounts

You don't have to be a coffee hound to appreciate cup holders. The only problem is that those easy-to-reach recesses often wind up being "home" to our mobile devices.

Why not reclaim that space for your favorite beverage and add a sensible, professional touch to your car or truck's cockpit with a vehicle mount for that mobile-device?

We are fond of PanaVise, which offers a range of phone mounts that should do the trick whether you drive a heavy-duty pickup or a supercar. The company's been at it since 1981, when it came up with a mobile-device mount for Fed Ex. We're impressed with the manufacturer's PortaGrip line, which is well designed, attractive and sturdy.

 

One of our favorites is the model 15509, which sports a telescoping arm that easily extends from its fully retracted 14 inches to 18 inches. A ball mount lets the driver swivel the phone to an optimal angle and a quick release button makes removal a snap. The PortaGrip 15509 ($60, Amazon or direct from manufacturer) can handle mobile devices ranging in width from 2.25 inches to 3.75 inches. PanaVise's clever split-ball head also lets you orient your phone screen to "portrait" or "landscape" mode.

 

The whole contraption can be moved to another vehicle or taken down and tucked away, out of sight, by flipping a lever to release the suction-cup mount. And the engineers didn't use just any wimpy mount. The 15509 sticks to the job at hand with a mount that's big - as in the diameter of a large coffee mug (www.panavise.com).

 

Any black vinyl tops in the house?

Power suits are black. Executive cars, ditto. So it should come as no surprise that from Beijing to Houston, movers and shakers like to roll in black vehicles.

Keeping black "black" has always a priority - and occasional problem - for auto enthusiasts. Years in the grueling elements or getting wax or some other concoction on the trim can all play a role in black trim fading or becoming discolored.

 

Griot's Garage's, a retailer that serves car fanatics, has just introduced its Black Shine Trim Restorer. Griot's said its new elixir brings back the black beauty of hard plastic, rubber and vinyl bumpers and trim pieces and holds up to rain and car washes. The $15 product includes an application pad that's got a sharp angle on one end that will make detailing easier (www.griotsgarge.com).

 

Run-flats ready for prime time?

We'll end on another black note, literally and figuratively.

It was a dark and stormy afternoon. Almeda Road just south of the Medical Center was packed with commuters heading home. Through sheets of rain, we spied a beautiful silver Audi A6 shuffling painfully ahead. Its right rear tire was so shredded, pieces of tire were sticking out from the wheel well. And the Audi's only contact with the road at that corner was its expensive (and once beautiful) alloy wheel. A lousy time and place to pull over and change a tire.

 

If there is a spare.

While we were sleeping, many car manufacturers have taken away the spare tires. And we're not just whining about the full-size spare and wheel. It's becoming more difficult to find even a compact "donut" emergency tire.

Doing away with a spare saves weight, space and costs. Automakers look for every ounce to cut to meet government-mandated fuel efficiency goals. So they use a can of injectable "fix-a-flat" or run-flat tires.

 

But not all damage is fixable, which can leave us at the side of the road. In the dark. Maybe in pouring rain. And perhaps all too close to two- or four-legged predators.

Bridgestone's solution to that scenario is DriveGuard, its newest run-flat tire. Though drivers have blasted run-flats for ride harshness, being too heavy and (adding insult to injury) being significantly more costly, some automakers install run-flats on virtually their entire lineup of cars. Bridgestone seems to have largely overcome the early run-flat negatives through technical advances, sidewall "cooling fins" and a proprietary sidewall tweak. So if you have, say, a BMW, you may be able to switch out the original run-flats for DriveGuards.

 

Note that these are touring tires and not made (at least yet) for ultra-high performance applications. But that hasn't stopped some drivers from replacing the performance tires that came on their performance cars with DriveGuards and raving about the tamer, quieter ride.

 

Bridgestone is so confident consumers will show its "extended mobility" tire some love, it's aiming DriveGuards at mainstream vehicles that didn't even come with run-flats. Engineered to run for at least 50 miles at up to 50 mph after taking a puncture and losing air, the all-season tires must be used on vehicles equipped with tire-pressure monitoring systems.

 

We'll let Consumer Reports, a bastion of objective evaluations, have the last word. DriveGuard, the magazine reported, "worked well and seems like the perfect choice for anyone who doesn't want to change a tire on the side of the road." (www.youtube.com/watch?v=FgqzH6wEREo).

 

To read online story visit Houston Chronicle at http://www.chron.com/cars/article/The-sky-and-budget-is-the-limit-when-6790239.php.

 

 

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