Factory seats suck, we all know it. There are exceptions, like the equipment in the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, but on the average, a supportive driving experience is not coming out of any factory vehicle. Imagine this, but don't actually try it: Take any beat down rental fleet domestic car, haul ass, pitch it around a tight bend, give the e-brake a quick yank, feel the ass hang wide and make a special note about your own ass hanging wide in the driver's seat.
Believe us, when you're wrapped in a properly supportive sport seat, you're connected to the Earth itself. When you're strapped down, rumbling tires become pumping legs, the steering wheel grows into darting hands, and the slivers of calm between quick neck-snapping gearshifts turn into strained lungs gasping for that last bit of oxygen. It's no wonder aftermarket seats, harnesses, and steering wheels can be found on everybody's Christmas wish list. But watch out, what you don't know could kill you, and we're not kidding about that at all.
From shows to races, our adventures have given us a chance to see the whole spectrum of car modifications. We've seen plastic PVC tubing "roll cages," seats made of cheaply formed plastics, and drift cars rocking cages where support hoops are made using bends that actually wrap around the shape of the dashboard. These are all perfect examples of what you don't ever want to allow into your car. These parts sell because they pack a "race inspired" look and also because, honestly, they're manufactured in five different bright colors. It's easy to get caught up in the rainbow of manufactured Alcantara, but you get what you pay for, and really, how much is your life worth?
We begin our investigation at the simplest of all starting points, your driveway. Before you even think about laying down Benjamins, pesos, rubles, or yen, think about what you already have. Modern automobiles are some of the most rigorously tested and regulated forms of transportation in production today. Crash tested and over-engineered by some guy with a PhD in a darkened laboratory clean room. Cars are built to pass the almighty Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) and the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) standards. Manufacturers spend millions of dollars a year building their cars to excel in these tests, the most surefire way to prove how safe a car really is. Honda has launched their new "Safety for Everyone" initiative, promising safety advances in their cars at all price points, covering anything from airbags to rollover sensors. Backed by the developments at their thirty-million dollar Advanced Safety Research Facility in Raymond, Ohio, and the omni directional crash test facility in Tochigi, Japan, Honda is just one of many OEM's that gathers massive amounts of data to make sure their safety equipment is up to par.
The popular 1997 Honda Civic LX possesses an "A" overall frontal offset crash rating from the IIHS, while the newer 2002 Mitsubishi Lancer LS comes packing a "G" rating, the best pick rating. We spoke to Janis Little, manager of product communications for Mitsubishi Motors North America, Inc., and she informed us that she was not personally aware of any aftermarket equipment that is tested to the same extent as OEM equipment. Even further, Little reminded us that doing mods such as replacing factory airbag equipped steering wheels, or dumping side airbag seats for aftermarket racing seats would void the factory warranty, another point on our readers' minds.
So with factory vehicles engineered to protect occupants, how can we change anything? What if we want more grip and better feedback? All is not lost, grasshopper. The key is to purchase products that are themselves rigorously testing and meet the stringent safety standards of the aftermarket world, those set forth by the Federation Internationale De L'Automobile (FIA), the SFI, and the TUV. If the harness or seat you purchase meets any of these sets of standards, you can rest assured that those parts have been tested and proven to perform under stress. Plus, you can doubly rest assured that a company that sends its product out for testing believes in its wares, and is taking the extra effort and cost to obtain approval. Buddy Club, provider of racing seats for our own Project Two-Face, has sent out its racing buckets for FIA approval and tells us the process is both arduous and costly. The FIA uses a catapult sled and dummy to crash test all competition seats. Mounted to the sled, the seat must be able to remain intact after a 20G minimum deceleration rear impact, 15G minimum deceleration side impact, and another 10G minimum deceleration rear impact. Be sure to always check that your approved seats or harnesses include up to date FIA, SFI, or TUV approval stickers. The lifespan of a competition seat is five years from the date of manufacture, and a harness should be replaced or reconditioned after every two years of use. According to the SFI, UV rays from sunlight can over time eat away at harness belt support webbing, reducing the breaking strength of harness belts to less than 20 percent after two years of outdoor exposure.
If you ever plan on running your car at any track (we wholeheartedly support any sanctioned performance driving), then be sure to check with the rulebook before you buy anything. The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) drag ranks require SFI ratings for window nets, seats, and harnesses, while the road course fans at the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) will accept belts with SFI or FIA certifications. To the best of our knowledge, no organization will allow the use of uncertified safety equipment in a true racing situation.
When purchasing performance seating, the first decision to make is if you want to build a streetcar or a pseudo-racer. According to Mike Morita, director of marketing for Sparco USA, the choice of reclinable seats versus full racing shells is subjective. The main differences influencing choice include: ease of entry, lateral driver support, comfort, and the ability to recline. Safety-wise, there should be no large difference from just the choice of shell versus recliner. A car's frame is designed as a "cocoon" of sorts, able to protect its occupants from injury, including side-to-side impacts as well as front and rear collisions. A car's safety zones should be able to absorb the impact of all but the most horrific of accidents and not suffer a crushed roof, split frame, or ripped door. In fact, we have personally witnessed a non-roll cage equipped Lancer Evolution VIII roll head over tail after a nasty off-track incident, and the occupants walked away shaken and stirred, but luckily, no worse for wear. Needless to say, don't try that with your buddy's Evo.
Remember, the recliner mechanism on a streetcar, stock or otherwise, is not supposed to fail and allow the driver to fall backwards, away from seatbelt restraints or airbags. There may have been cases where a seatback has failed, allowing a passenger to fall backwards and away from a rapidly crushing roof, but these situations are rare. OEM's have spent millions designing airbag and seatbelt safety systems that work with the occupants' upright in the stock designated position. Sparco designs aftermarket safety equipment that gives improved support and durability while driving, but everything they manufacture is designed to work together as a system. As can be seen in a Sparco equipped World Rally Championship car: seats, harness belts, steering wheels, and a roll cage are intricately engineered to all function together as one package. Be very careful and try to avoid arbitrarily throwing in pieces of safety equipment from different unproven manufacturers merely for grip.
Morita and Sparco USA warn our readers to be careful with their purchases, as not all seat construction is the same. During testing, Sparco has seen other brands' Taiwanese knock-off seats deform at 2g's of force, while Sparco's units have gone up to 15-28g's. To reiterate the point again, Sparco USA also repeatedly advocates the purchase and use of products that are homologated to meet certified FIA or TUV approvals.
Even with certified, quality components, it's up to the user to determine proper usage. When it comes to installing a slick, new suede covered deep-dish racing wheel, don't forget about what it is that you're loosing. Seatbelt restraint systems remain the primary occupant safety system, preventing passengers from bouncing around the cabin or flying out the window altogether, but airbags have really invaded the market. In fact, dual frontal airbags are easier to find on new cars than power windows or rear windshield wipers. Mandatory equipment on all new cars made since 1999, airbags are a secondary restraint system, in place to prevent belted drivers from hitting interior panels with their faces. As estimated by the NHTSA, the combination of airbags and seatbelts reduce the risk of serious head injury by an extra 20 percent over seatbelts alone. But remember, this is all considering airbags combined with stock three-point seatbelts. When using an airbag-less racing wheel, aftermarket manufacturers assume you will also be using a helmet and four-point or greater harnesses on a closed course. You'd be surprised by how much the human body can stretch during high-g deceleration. It is very possible to put your face into a steering wheel when used in conjunction with factory belts. There's a reason why even quality manufacturers like Sparco sell items bearing the disclaimer, "For off-road use only"
Harness belts are very popular add-on items, but the dangers in improper harness mounting often go unheard. If improperly mounted, spinal column damage, compressed vertebrae, crushing of the seat, or tearing of the harness itself could take place. One of the biggest keys to properly mounting harnesses is the angle of mounting and operation. Harnesses lap belts should be installed with an angle between 45-55 degrees above the seating surface, and shoulder belts should be between 5 degrees below and 30 degrees above the driver's shoulder. If the shoulder belt angle is too low, spinal compression during an accident is likely to occur, while if the belt angle is too high, belt slip is likely to occur, allowing the occupant to move forward, face first into the steering wheel. Diagrams and images displaying proper harness mounting angles as well as correct looping methods for installation are available on Sparco USA's website.
While it is possible to just mount your belts, thread them through your racing seats, and go hit the road, that method leaves far too much risk on the table. Proper shoulder harness belt angles should be maintained through the use of support bars. Harness bars, sold by vendors like Sparco USA, I/O Port Racing Supplies and M1 Development, are not designed to significantly add any sort of chassis stiffness. Rather, they are primarily in place to ensure proper harness mounting angles. Mounted directly behind the driver's shoulder level, harness bars are a solid method to ensure proper harness mounting at all times without having to install a roll cage. The only downside is due to the solid construction and placement within the cabin, passengers should not be riding in the backseat of any harness bar-equipped vehicle because of the danger of contacting face to harness bar. That's right, your Civic just became a two-seater.
If you can't hold rear seat passengers anyway, why not just move up to a full 56-point roll cage, right? If only it was that easy. A roll cage with a rear cross bar has the same capability as a harness bar to properly position the angle of shoulder harness belts, but there are other issues on hand that draw the distinction between using a roll cage, a roll bar, or a harness bar. Obviously, the biggest difference between the three lies in roll over protection. A harness bar is not designed to support the roof in any way during a roll over; its only function is to ensure proper harness mounting. Resting one step up from a harness bar is the roll bar, available from such vendors as Autopower and Kirk Racing. Offering rollover protection, but lacking the forward hoops and door bars that a full cage provides, a rollbar is the usually the choice for street-driven track monsters.
Required by many road racing organizations and mandatory in the NHRA drag racing ranks depending on e.t. or trap speed, roll cages are not for the average street car. A full cage will provide greater protection from deformation of the cockpit during crashes, but there are inherent dangers from installing a full cage in a streetcar. Roll cages are supposed to be made from metal tubing, and in the event of an accident, if you hit your head on roll cage tubing, it's not going to be a pretty sight, especially for the coroner. By now, ideas are forming in your head and you think, "What if I cover my cage tubing with heater insulation? It looks like roll cage padding." Not so quick smart guy. Even genuine roll cage padding is designed only to absorb the impact of a helmeted skull, not your bare face, it won't make cage tubes soft enough to safely hit in an accident.
Take a look into your average World Challenge racecar, there's a full precision bent roll cage, FIA approved seating, properly mounted safety harnesses, a racing steering wheel, fire extinguisher system, nomex racing gear, and a quality helmet for the driver. Every area of safety equipment is designed to properly function together as one, and only by properly thinking ahead and balancing what you install will you stay safe. It may seem like in today's frantically dangerous world, the only way to be 100 percent safe is to put on your racing suit and helmet, strap into your caged, racing seat-equipped Corolla and go pick up some drinks from the supermarket. While that method is admittedly the safest way to go about commuting in our increasingly Mad Max-like world, it doesn't have to be that hard. A good seat and a properly mounted harness is an easy install with the right parts, and the results can be instantly felt everywhere you drive. Properly equipping your ride for grip and safety isn't a difficult thing at all, you just need to keep your head on straight. And that, my friends, is something done a whole lot easier if you keep yourself in one piece.