My 98 Daewoo Nubira, that rusty, crusty old car my middle school students and I transformed into a competent track rig four years ago, has finally passed from this mortal coil. A chunk of concrete, set at the perfect height to go under the bumper, snag the rear subframe and twist it beyond repair, sealed its fate. Fair well to the most anti-social yet frumpy car of my life. Fair well to a formerly non-descript econo-box that handled better than any street tire car I’ve ever driven. Fair well to engine oiling problems, a non-existent aftermarket, a rapidly dying third gear syncho, electronics possessed by Satan, overmatched brakes and insufficient chassis rigidity. Fair well to the most fun automotive science lab I’ve ever had the pleasure of driving.
Now, stepping into the Daewoo’s grease stained parking spot is a car nearly as frumpy, but not quite. Like the Daewoo, when it ventures on track, its four doors and spacious trunk will look pretty stupid next to all the sports cars. Like the Daewoo, it comes with deluxe fake wood trim (WHY GOD WHY DO PEOPLE PAY EXTRA FOR THAT UGLY CRAP?). If everything goes to plan, it will become even more lethal when the time comes to kill giants. Ladies and gentlemen, might I present to you the pinnacle of automotive performance … a 12 year old, 1.5L Hyundai Avante!
LIVING WITH THE HYUNDAI
From the standpoint of getting me from my job to my other job to my other, other job, this is the nicest car I’ve ever owned. It’s got the first functional air conditioning I’ve had since 2005, there’s a six disc changer in the trunk, the seats and carpets are immaculate, there’s central locking and a remote that makes the headlights blink whenever I want and it even has traction control. Why a midsized sedan with 104 hp needs traction control I can’t really figure out, but whatever.
The headliner is perfect, the rubber seals on all the doors are supple and smooth and keep out the rain. The clock doesn’t randomly decide to lose 5 hours. It’s quiet and the sound system is nice. It has yet to launch me headfirst into the roof. So much nicer for commuting …
It occurs to me that my standards for comfort and civility might be insanely low and that you should probably just ignore my opinions in this department.
As far as the driving experience, I’d guess the Avante gets to 60 mph in about 10 seconds. Not horrible, but hardly fast. The engine is so much smoother than the Daewoo D-Tech engines it’s like comparing truffles and paving stones. Despite the small displacement, the DOHC Alpha pulls strongly from 1,300 rpm and doesn’t run out of breath until 6,000 rpm. The revs hang for a second after some high rpm shifts, but that’s just a minor annoyance. The transmission is great. The effort is super low, the synchros are buttery smooth and the gates are easy to find. It’s like a slightly longer throw Miata whenever I’m heal and toeing.
The handling is surprisingly competent as well. I had expected the grinding, heavy-feeling dreariness you normally get in cars with big sway bars and soft springs. However, due to the Avante’s nice roll axis inclination, light weight and relatively stiff shock valving, it’s actually kind of sporty. Don’t get me wrong, the limits aren’t very high and it won’t do anything but understeer, but it always feels like it wants to play.
This brings me to the two things I don’t really like about the car as it sits – the brake feel and the steering feel. The brakes are sufficiently large discs front and rear and they have plenty of stopping power, but they feel like crap. There’s a big squish on the top of the pedal where nothing really happens. Then it stiffens up, and then I can feel things in the vacuum booster flexing. I’m hoping some better pads will help out here. If not, I might be swapping on aluminum Tuscani calipers.
The steering isn’t as bad as the brakes, in fact it’s better than the Daewoo’s, but it’s still too light and not very feelsome. At least there’s no dead spot on center like a lot of early 2000s Hyundai’s. I might just be stuck with this, unfortunately.
The first thing I’m doing on this car is solving the surface rust on the sills. Korea loves to salt its roads and there are basically zero KDM cars that don’t need some TLC on the rust-proofing front. There is a little rot under both front doors and the start of something over the rear wheel arches. Thankfully, the cancer is in the early stages and has yet to metastasize.
After that, I’m going to prepare the car for TT100 class time trials. I’ll be running against other 1.5L class, naturally aspirated cars and thus shouldn’t be at a huge power disadvantage like I was in the Daewoo. Also, since the minimum weight in pretty high (1150 kg) in TT100, there’s no point in gutting the car. As such, I will probably focus first on the suspension. Unfortunately, getting a good setup is going to be a lot harder to do in the Avante than it was in my Nubira.
My Daewoo had incredibly aggressive geometry from the factory. In the front suspension, the lower control arms were much higher at the chassis than at the ball joint. This had a number of good effects. First, whenever the suspension compressed, the lower control arm got closer to parallel with the ground and thus longer relative to the car’s fender. That’s a fancy way of saying it caused the compressing wheel’s camber to go negative. Since cornering compresses the outside wheel, that’s a very good thing indeed. It’s a big part of how I got away with 1.5 degrees static camber on a nose heavy front driver without beating up the tires.
The Daewoo’s second geometric virtue was it’s roll center. The distance between a car’s roll center and it’s center of gravity creates a lever. The longer the distance, the stronger the force causing the car to roll in a corner. Because the Daewoo’s control arms were higher at the chassis, it had a very high roll center, only a few inches beneath the center of gravity. This geometric anti-roll allowed me to run no swaybars and relatively soft springs. As a result, my Daewoo absolutely murdered people in bumpy corners.
The Avante is going to be harder. As you can see, the front control arms are almost perfectly parallel to the ground, any lowering at all will cause huge problems. First, with the arms higher at the ball joint than the chassis, compressing will cause dramatic positive camber when cornering, which is exactly the opposite of the desired effect. Second, it will very quickly send my roll center underground, creating a huge lever and encouraging large amounts of body roll. In the short term, I simply cannot lower the car without ruining the handling.
But I have a plan. Almost anything that will bolt to a Tiburon or Tuscani chassis will also bolt to an Avante. This means it’s easy and cheap to find used coilover systems from race teams. I’ll be installing Tech Pro adjustable shocks, threaded coilover bodies and 9 kg/mm springs on all four corners of the Avante. In order to avoid the geometry problems described above, I’m probably going to run at stock ride height.
Beyond that, I’d like to get control arm angles more in line with what the Daewoo had. The first step will be camber bolts. These eccentric bolts are usually used on crashed cars to correct camber. However, I can also adjust them to move the chassis side control arms up relative to the frame rails. This will probably not give me more than half an inch adjustment, but I think it will be noticeable in terms of tire wear and front end grip. Eventually, I will combine these with some hard to find but available Tuscani extra long ball joints to lower the wheel side control arm attachment points. With those modifications in place, I feel comfortable I can return to my preferred no swaybars setup.
I tried such a setup on the Daewoo and got very good results. Without swaybars, the suspension is truly independent. As such, the car handled bumpy corners very, very well. Further, swaybars convert the energy that would otherwise be causing roll into weight transfer. Compared to a car with only springs, a car with swaybars will be working it’s outside tires harder and reducing the total mechanical grip available to the system. In my experience with the Daewoo, this effect was pronounced. Compared to the lowered, big swaybar running competitors, I could usually achieve cornering speeds typical of one tire level up. If I was running all seasons, I could corner as fast as a competitor running max performance street tires. If I had max performance street tires, I could keep up with the guys on r-compounds. I think I can achieve the same results with the Avante if I’m creative.
After the suspension, I’m going to try refining some of the aerodynamic techniques I tried on the Daewoo. First, a flatbottom. On the Daewoo the flatbottom had the positive effects of increasing my top speed about 7%, increasing my fuel economy by up to 15% and creating noticeable downforce in the front. It had the negative effects of vibrating against the exhaust to create an extremely annoying drone and trapping heat next to my power steering pump, which promptly killed it.
Power steering pumps shouldn’t be a problem with the Avante, since Hyundai saw fit to install the pump next to the cam cover. However, the vibrations will be a problem and the flat bottom will trap heat from the exhaust especially. As such, I plan to install a two-piece flatbottom with a cutout to clear the exhaust. This will cost me a little bit in ultimate aerodynamic efficiency, but should pay off handsomely in terms of retaining my sanity going down the highway.
Eventually, I will grow bored with 104 hp. As such, I think the Avante presents an excellent opportunity for me to build my first engine. Since I’m cheap, there aren’t going to be many custom parts I can’t make myself. So, in order to explain my planned engine build, we first need a little history lesson.
The Alpha was Hyundai’s first inhouse engine design. It came in 1.3, 1.4, 1.5 and 1.6 liter displacements. The 1.3 and most 1.5 liter engines were SOHC with 12 valves. All of the 1.4 and 1.6 liter engines were DOHC 16 valve designs. I have the relatively rare 1.5 DOHC, which is practically identical to the 1.6 in performance and was only created for tax-dodging purposes.
Anyway, Hyundai produced a turbocharged version of the 1.5L SOHC engine in the Scoupe Turbo. These little engines had low compression pistons, turbo manifolds and early style connecting rods. They have proven themselves very tough under boost. They are also, with the exception of rods and pistons, identical to the normally aspirated 1.5L SOHC engines.
So you’d think it would be a simple operation to swap the rods and pistons out of a turbo Alpha into my engine, strap on boost and experience infinite joy – but it is not so for two reasons. First, the early rods in those turbo engines are actually weaker than the rods used in later style, naturally aspirated Alphas. Secondly, those low compression turbo pistons do not play nicely with the 16 valve heads.
Since I want the reliability and easy sourcing of OEM parts, I’m going to be doing a lot of junkyard mix and match. I plan to buy a naturally aspirated 1.5 SOHC from the scrap yard. These run about $200 in good condition. I will then go nuts on the head. I plan to port match the intake side, reshape the combustion chambers and then port the living hell out of the exhaust. Combined with an OEM Scoupe Turbo exhaust manifold, later style rods and the OEM Scoupe Turbo pistons, this provides both a safe compression ratio and a wide variety of possible turbos to bolt straight on. I’m looking very hard at the Garrett GT25s that came bolted to Ssangyong SUVs. All together, this should provide 160-180 hp at 15-ish PSI, look nearly factory, give very good torque and not be much more stressed than a stock Scoupe Turbo. Oh, and with the suspension stuff and some nice tires, it should also be an absolute monster in the canyons.
I think this is going to be fun.