Sure, it was a last minute request and I was clearly the backup option, but what the hell, I agreed to help a mate out. Because in most situations helping friends is the right course of action to take.
Sometimes the satisfaction of lending a helping hand is the reward, but in this instance, I think the task itself would prove to be more rewarding. I’d just agreed to spend an evening navigating from the passenger seat as Steve blasted his way through darkness in his Subaru Impreza WRX at the Whiteline Tarmac Rally Sprint.
It was a win-win situation: A good deed was done, the WRX survived unscathed, and a great night of racing was had by all.
More importantly, for this particular tale, a chance introduction between mutual friends quickly escalated from casual banter about why my rally-bred Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX was left parked at a rally event, to planning how Project Nine could be used to perform some back-to-back suspension testing over the two remaining Whiteline Tarmac Rally Sprints for the season.
I agreed and two rallies were attended, but they deserve their own story.
At the time the challenge was laid down my poor old Evo IX still retained its completely stock suspension, and that’s exactly how I ran it during the first rally sprint. The second round saw a few changes made to the underside of the vehicle.
What was changed? I’m glad you asked…Activating Grip
Before we press on, this is probably a good a time to introduce our international friends to an Australian (and New Zealand) aftermarket household name. Locally, Whiteline has been the benchmark for aftermarket performance and 4×4 suspension and bushes for longer than I can remember. However, I still remember beaming with pride after installing a set of Whiteline strut braces front and rear in my very first project car, an Aussie-delivered R31 Skyline. The company has grown in leaps and bounds from then, and today it’s an absolute authority in both the racing and modified street scenes.
I spent the majority of my time driving to Whiteline’s Australian HQ fondly reminiscing about my old R31. Yes, my memories are tainted by the rose-coloured glass of nostalgia, but the feelings from the time that resurfaced were pure. I was excited to relive a similar scenario by activating grip in a real sports car.
I mean, if Whiteline’s strut braces could promote enough trust and confidence to have me drive flat-out in a hotted-up but thrashed family car, I couldn’t wait to navigate an enhanced Project Nine through some fun roads.
Before I could knock on the front door and enter the office space, a familiar face ushered my Evo into the workshop where work would commence immediately.
Apparently, we had a big day ahead of us and Russell and his team meant business.
I’d spoken with Russ a few times since the event; he was familiar with how my Evo handled in its current form, and also with the project’s ultimate goal of being something balanced between a reliable daily and a capable weekend warrior. He assured me he had a perfect recipe for tightening up the boat-like handling of my aging Evolution.
We laid the parts out under the car to roughly where they’d be located. Say hello to a new, fresher, and tighter front end.
Today we’d be improving grip by replacing both the front and rear sway bars with thicker (26mm versus 23mm), more rigid units, the rears being adjustable. New bushes, saddles, brackets, and lateral locks were also included in the kit.
And the complete package to be installed in the rear end.
Sway bars (AKA anti-roll bars or stabiliser bars) play a significant role in the performance of a car’s suspension and handling balance. They work by connecting the left and right wheels on the same axle together. This is usually through drop links attached to short lever arms on a long bar, called the sway bar. The sway bar acts as a torsion spring and transfers load from one side to the other, allowing the load to be carried by two tyres rather than one. This has the effect of reducing body roll by increasing the suspension’s overall roll stiffness independent of the actual coil springs’ spring rate.
Adding a more robust sway bar increases roll resistance through cornering; the reduced weight shift, in turn, reduces inside tyre-lift during cornering. I don’t imagine that we’ll need a diagram to illustrate how four firmly planted tyres provide more grip than three when you find a wheel lifting off with body roll. It makes perfect sense on paper, but would it be noticeable behind the wheel of a slightly modified car? We’ll find out soon enough.
Additionally, the chunkier sway bars are an effective way to offset the factory bias towards understeer that most cars have, into a more neutral feel when pushing your car to its limits. Again, by resetting the car’s handling to a more central bias you’re encouraging more traction and more grip throughout more extreme cornering. It also has the knock-on effect of being more fun do drive and more confidence inspiring.
In addition to the sway bar kit, Russ recommended fitting up Whiteline’s front bump steer correction and front steering arm correction kits.
Lowering a vehicle changes the roll centre, the point at which the car pivots or rolls during cornering. It’s possible to influence the front and rear roll centres independently, but it is usually the front that is compromised the most on a lowered car. Simply speaking, it’s the intersection of all the pivot points in the suspension system when viewing the car from the front or the back down the length of the car. With the lower control arm pivot pointing down towards the floor, it’s no surprise that the front roll centre can often be much lower than the centre of gravity, especially on cars that have been lowered considerably. This is bad news and can mean that even a car with stiff springs can be subject to high levels of body roll.
Whiteline corrects roll centre geometry using specially engineered ball joints and tie rod ends. Raising the front roll centre results in a substantial increase to front roll resistance and a significant reduction in suspension compression of the outside front wheel during cornering.
It is amazing what a simple geometry change can make to the driving experience. DIY guys beware though – you may need access to a press to fit the new ball joints into the arms.Install
With most of the tech talk and explanations dusted it was time to get up close and personal with the underside of my faithful steed. Changing the rear end sway bar and links is the simplest job, so naturally, we began under the rear end.
Heavier duty brackets were fitted to the chassis while the original bar and links were removed.
Along with the thicker bracket, a set of super-beefy links were also employed to ensure there’s enough strength to handle the additional forces at play as the suspension resists the chassis rolling.
Lateral locks prevent sideways movement in the bar.
And before too long, I’d say in under an hour, the entire rear end was installed and ready to unleash its potential on some twisty roads. I was wondering what the initial rush was for.
“The rear end was just the warm-up, Evo front ends are a nightmare,” one of the boys cheerfully informed me as Russ, John, and Kristiaan began preparations to drop the entire subframe from the Evo. Originally, I’d just assumed that with some very experienced maneuvering the front bar would somehow slide out.
Talk about being tad optimistic.
If the Whiteline boys were having a bad time they sure fooled me. Between the two qualified mechanics and their male model, they seemed to whizz through the procedure with speed and efficiency. I’ll let you guys decide in the comments which of these guys wasn’t trained on the tools.
With part of the exhaust and complete subframe removed, extracting the original sway bar still required a certain level of finesse.
Once the disassembly was completed, fitting the new bar and linkages was simply a case of repeating the steps in reverse. The only noticeable speed bump in the process was gaining access to a particular steering kit bolt which required some creative spanner-work to loosen off and refit.
Project Nine was in one piece again. The final step was to roll the Evo onto the alignment rig for a quick nip and tuck before I’d be given the green light to attack some corners with a spirited drive.
Up she goes. As it turned out, the alignment was still quite good and only required a few minor adjustments.Test Drive
Not wasting any time, Russ went outside to warm up his 2012 Subaru Forester while the Evo was rolled off the hoist. Some curvaceous B roads nearby were waiting. Of course, I needed a little convincing to get outside and play with my new toys.
See, Subaru and Mitsubishi can coexist and even get along. Foz fans may have noticed the few subtle JDM additions that give the game away, but I’m told people are surprised when their sports cars struggle to maintain pace with what essentially looks like a mobile washing machine.
Despite its practical appearance this Forester is no slouch and capable of more than carting groceries around – its enhanced turbocharged 2.5-litre EJ25 providing more than 200kW (268hp) at all four of its 19-inch RAYS wheels.
And as you’d expect given Russ’s occupation, the entire underside has been slung with as many Whiteline bushings, control arms, and sway bars as possible to enhance the handling. They coexist with a set of Whiteline MaxG coilovers.
The Forester may have looked like a fridge while I was hot on its tail, but trust me, it definitely handled like a sports car through those tight bends.
If I was still running my original setup, I feel as though I would have struggled more to keep pace. My first few corners were slow and cautious; my concentration was torn between the road ahead and a hyper-awareness of any small changes in the handling or steering.
Ride comfort remained unchanged over dips and bumps – the real difference was noticeable when flying around corners at pace. Project Nine remained flat. My days of scraping elbows and feeling like flipping were over.
As the afternoon sun began to glow more brightly closer to the horizon I found myself pushing harder, digger deeper and going faster. As my speed increased the reply from my new Whiteline setup remained constant; more.
I was defeated. The new bars and links handled flawlessly during everything during I felt comfortable throwing their way on such unforgiving roads.
The new trick would be finding the limits one can push to before the car snaps away from underneath me. But these public roads with very little to absolutely no run-off were not the right place to test those limits.
I guess I’ll just have to wait for the final Whiteline Tarmac Rally Sprint round for a real opportunity to find Project Nine’s limits, and we’ll get to that very soon.