Welcome to part 2 of the cheapest factory performance that money can buy: Dodge Neon. If you missed the opener:
To re-cap, this is what we're all looking for: a cheap trick. This is a first-generation Dodge Neon. It is one of the stiffest and lightest of the vehicles carrying the bacon engine ( refer to part 1) and was chosen, primarily, for one additional attribute: It's cheap. I gave up a bit of all three factors for a coupe body with a sunroof, but to me the cost was worth it. It is still plenty of what I wanted.
With some research and past experience, I was able to turn the baconator up to 11 using mostly factory parts from Mopar. This caveat is the clutch that really brings this build together. All of the major components passed through similar quality research and control facilities and processes. These aren't aftermarket parts from who-knows-where.
This mutt of a power-train is comprised of a 2.4L iron block assembly from a Dodge Caravan with first-generation SRT-4 pistons and connecting-rods being forced around by a first-generation SRT-4 turbofold, topped off with the original 2.0L aluminum cylinder head from the neon. These pieces simply bolt together like a Lego kit from heaven. It's so very beautiful... just not at first glance.
This is how it looked during "testing." The air filter is from something long forgotten, as I found it, but looks like it might be off of a bull-dozer or maybe a swimming pool... who knows. The catch-can was made up of a few random pieces of PVC, and the boost controller was designed by yours truly at True Value. This was my first turbo build, but not my first engine build. I knew to expect some teething issues. The first problem I noticed was that boost seemed to spool very quickly and then leak off at a noticeable rate. I didn't know it at the time, but it turned out to be caused by excess oil vapors that were getting in to the boosted air intake tract and letting pressure seep out around the pipe connections.
See the dark spot on the bottom of the air tube, before the rubber fitting? Yeah, that's the oil... It was fun to drive like this, but I knew the car still wasn't right because it was acting ridiculous.
The turbo would spool surprisingly quickly if you floored the throttle. Full boost was slammed on by 2650 RPM and it felt like being hit by a tidal wave and thrown out to sea. The boost spike forced air out of any orifice or passage that it could find, opening any weak points immediately, allowing the increasingly velocious air to pass through the opened spaces. When the torque hit - it spun both tires furiously at any speed under 100 mph, in any gear, and hurtled you onward in a clap... until the boost would die off a bit and the wave of horsepower rose from underneath the initial charge and continued to push you as the chassis caught up to the tires. Shift. Repeat.
(In case you missed part 1:
If it sounds like shit tons of fun, it was, but it was wasting a lot of power and putting excessive stress on the drive-train. Also, the erratic boost made tuning the car a nightmare.
I couldn't really understand what the car was doing because I couldn't separate how it was making so much torque down low from how lethargic it felt beyond 4500 RPM. I simply wasn't experienced enough with forced induction at this point. I had never tuned a car or looked at a volumetric efficiency table before this. I downloaded a base tune for the Mega-squirt I was using (V 2.0) for fuel and timing control in order to get the car as close to firing as possible. After the first start was worked out, it was just mountain roads and data logging, trying to get fuel on the safe (rich) side of proper performance.
With boost acting so erratically, I decided it would be a good idea to see if I could find a cheap place to get the car on to an actual dyno. A quick Google search turned up GodSpeed tuning, just 40 minutes from home. After a few pleasant e-mail exchanges I had an hour of time booked for sixty bucks a few weeks in-advance. At the time I thought it was a good deal, and then the day actually came.
I sweated out the waiting period something like a kid near Christmas. My experience on the day was even better. The owner/operator was a guy named Bart Grande. He seemed to have a bit of off-the-wall experience, including being a builder on Monster Garage with Jesse James.
"Front-wheel-drive cars in the winter time, gotta love it," Bart exclaimed, as we stood in his garage shivering while we waited for the lumbering furnace to bring the place back up to an inhabitable temperature. I offered to lower the garage door and let it rest on the roof of the car while the place warmed up. I only paid for an hour, but I ended up doing more runs than I can remember over about three hours as Bart's enthusiasm for performance was delighted by something so silly. If this car has the power to do one thing - it's to win you over.
If you've ever had your car to a dyno day or to a shop on your own, then this experience may be old hat. I hope not. This was my first time and easily the best automotive experience I've ever had outside of driving the car. The process went like this:
I pulled the car up on the top center of the "drum" and held it there with the brakes. It was then ratchet-strapped to the ground for safety. This should have held it in place during its run. Depending on what type of setup you have and on the capability that your shop has, your car is then hooked up to an external electronic monitoring program tied in to the dyno. We ran Boost Pressure, RPM, and AF/R logging along with the power results.
I then got the car moving on the drum so that the operator (Mr. Grande) could synch his RPM readings with those of my tachometer. In my case, we ran the car at approx. 40mph for a few additional minutes until the moisture from the snow was completely gone from the tires.
Driving on a dyno for the first time is a weird experience. The driving sensation was foreign. It's an odd feeling to use the car to move an object that is not the car. After about seven or eight minutes of seat time and just as I was starting to feel accustomed to the oddity, the prep time was over. It was time to go - for real. Bart walked over from the booth, eyed my tread with an approving nod and leaned in to my open driver's window.
"Run it up to 2,000 RPM. 4th gear."
"Eyes on the tach, when you like it, eyes on me - I'll give you the signal and just go"
"Just floor it. Hold it as long as you want. When you're finished, get off the gas and get it in to Neutral. Don't touch the brakes, don't shift up, don't do anything else."
He walked to his control station and put on his headphones. It was just me and the car, now. I made the final shift from third to fourth, stabilized my foot with the read out on my dash until the tachometer was bouncing as close to 2,000 rpm as I could possibly achieve - then shifted my gaze.
Bart raised his hand, made a fist, and threw it towards the ground.
I followed his hand like a tree of drag lights without hesitation. As soon as boost came on, the car lurched forward and to the left several inches. The man's aloof, but focused gaze with which I was momentarily locked instantly turned to horror as his eyeballs grew to the size of dinner plates. You could've probably fit a thanksgiving turkey on each of mine.
The car lurched, but it seated under the pressure and pinned itself to the drum at this point. I didn't let off. This all happened so fast that my actions were just reflexes to Bart's face, but he looked calm as quickly as he looked freaked out, so I never lifted. Part of the reason was that I knew the car just pulled harder than it ever had and I was insatiably curious about what the result was going to be. I wasn't disappointed with the numbers.
I knew the torque curve was going to be bad, but I had no idea just how bad. The homemade boost controller that I was using malfunctioned and caused boost to spike to 21psi... more than the car was intended to run. Horsepower just never built to potential as the boost dropped off pretty quickly. It was still fun as hell
"391 ft. lbs. of torque that thing just made. I mean I've had kids with Civics in here that run 3 or maybe 8 psi and make 200-220 Horsepower. I knew it was gonna do somethin', but I didn't know it was gonna do that. It pinged like crazy, though, didn't you hear that?"
After Bart and I both pulled at the ratchet-straps until we were were certain that hernias weren't far off, we got back to it. After screwing with the boost and the tune for a while I ended up leaving the shop with a smaller spike and a car that was no longer detonating, but the same ugly curves and erratic boost.
A great experience over-all, but it left me knowing that I still had a lot of work ahead of me if I wanted the car to breathe at higher RPM... So, O.K. We know what the numbers are and now we can really see them. We've broken some things:
We've learned some things. It's time to make some changes under the hood:
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xmarkedspot is Jesse Alan Shaffer, former Director of Information Technology and Network Analyst for Pittsburgh Technology Management, current starry-eyed-schmuch-trying-to-be-a-writer in NY, NY. @xmarkedspot