Suspension changes accompanied by a new wheel and tire package are one of, if not THE first group of upgrades that 95 percent of the enthusiast crowd will gravitate toward when working on a new project. It's typically DIY-friendly and can be performed in your home garage with basic hand tools. Well, for the most part.
You've seen dozens of basic suspension how-to articles over the years, and as you scan your noggin for something ... anything out of the ordinary that you recall from one story to the next, you're probably drawing a blank, followed by a shoulder shrug. Trust me, I get it. This particular car, at least for myself, was a bit more complex than expected. Truth be told, I've only dirtied my hands on a few '90s-era VWs in the past, most of my garage experience spent under the bellies of various Japanese vehicles. The suspension upgrade process on the 2016 Volkswagen GTI used in this article required quite a bit more work than those cars.
Before we get into the parts and install, a little history on the car itself. Sarah, the car's owner, is admittedly not a hardcore car enthusiast. She is, however, a repeat Volkswagen owner, having driven a Jetta before moving onto a 2012 Golf TDI. The GTI you see pictured was something she aspired to eventually, but it wasn't on her immediate to-do list. That is, until the TDI she owned was wrapped up in that little emissions-related dilemma that plagued countless VWs. With the dealership making an offer to buy the car back, it gave her the opportunity to apply that money toward this beauty which remained completely stock, except for the Yakima roof-rack that had been collecting dust in the european car storage locker. Being an avid BMX enthusiast, she's certainly put it to good use.
With a few parts available to us, we had to find a newer model Volkswagen and, well, with Sarah sitting about 12 feet away from us, and her bone-stock GTI right out front, it was the perfect scenario.
The original 18-inch wheels on Sarah's car were the first to go as she wanted to move up to 19s. Regarding styling, she liked the idea of a matte black finish and a mesh-style design, both of which are in line with TSW's Sebring model. Available in 17- to 20-inch options and in multiple bolt patterns (also available in a silver finish), it features a sort of three-dimensional feel with dual, split five spokes that overlap one another for a unique look with sharp, exaggerated edges. Even at its stock ride height, Sarah's GTI looked noticeably more aggressive with the Sebring wheels installed.
Of course, to make these work required a new set of tires and that's where Falken's 235/35-19 Azenis FK510 came into play. Being their latest gen., ultra high-performance tire, Falken designed the FK510 with a focus on absolute performance and grip. It's said to handle itself extremely well in wet weather, but since we haven't seen a drop of rain in months we didn't have the chance to test those claims. However, in terms of dry handling, the "ultra high-performance" designation is certainly deserved. The new hybrid undertread materials combined with the latest 4D Nano Design technology makes for an exceptional summer tire. Distinctly quiet and mild mannered while cruising surface streets and freeway roads, we headed to a local "back road," and by back road we mean a desolate street with a few sweeping turns probably intended for 18-wheelers to pass one another through the blossoming business park without issue.
After work hours, we made quite a few spirited passes and the weight of my right foot increased substantially when falling upon the brake pedal to get an idea not only of the FK510's control and ability on the road, but also to get a feel for the car prior to adding the suspension upgrades that were planned. And control it did—the Falkens remained stout and confident throughout the morning, offering to take more abuse without any issues. After the romp in our makeshift test area, the FK510s seamlessly transitioned back to their mild-mannered feel as we headed back to the office. Comfortable, quiet and forgiving—three things make perfect sense for a car like Sarah's GTI, while still having the ability to transform back into a stiff performer at a moment's notice.
To hold the new wheel/tire package in place, we picked up a set of Mevius lug bolts from Wheel Mate Performance. The cold forged SCM435 hardened steel construction means they'll last for years and though they're available in chrome neon and blue neon options, Sarah opted for matte black to blend in with her new TSWs.
There are plenty of suspension options available for this vehicle that range from mild to wild, and from inexpensive to overpriced. In Sarah's case, she wanted a mild drop and of course didn't want to completely sacrifice her ride quality. With that said, we reached out to Eibach Springs in Corona, Calif. For over six decades the brand has developed and produced suspension upgrades for old and new vehicles intended for street, weekend track days, and full-blown motorsport competition. Fortunately for us, their R&D and production facility is less than an hour east, and they invited us over to install their PRO-KIT springs and ANTI-ROLL-KIT sway bars.
With the car up in the air and the wheels pulled off, the crew started by unfastening the sway bar end links and the brake line clamp and sensor plug prior to working on the stubborn front axle nuts...
..a feat that required a breaker bar and some grunt to snap free. And even after removing the nut, the axle wasn't at all cooperative and required some extra "massaging" to break free.
The entire assembly is then separated from the axle and the retaining bolt behind the rotor that cinches the bottom of the factory shock is removed so the knuckle can be separated and gently laid flat. Before letting go, double check to make sure the brake line has enough play to avoid pulling it apart. If there's too much stress on the line, grab a set of straps or zip ties to prop the assembly up and relieve any tension, though you should be good if you removed the retaining bracket.
Up top, the ends of the plastic cowl were carefully pried up to expose the shock's upper hardware. Remove them, and as you get close to unscrewing the last one, grab (or have a friend grab) the OEM shock and spring combo as it will drop right out once released.
Now, if you're doing this at home, you're probably not going to have a nice spring compressor like Eibach just sitting in the corner of your garage next to your Christmas decorations storage bin.
Not a problem. You can release the spring safely using a set of spring clamps, which you can find for a very affordable price at Harbor Freight and they'll look something like this.
What you don't want to do, ever, ever, ever...is place the shock against a wall to absorb the impact as your release the retaining nut. This photo was taken to show the WRONG way to do it. It doesn't matter if you put the spring away from the wall, or against it while using an open-end wrench, it's a terrible idea and you can get seriously injured. This was something that many did in the past and I was surprised to hear that some still do things this way. It's definitely not worth the risk. Pick up a set of clamps or rent them for a few hours and you're good to go...safely.
With the bump stops out, you're going to cut off about an inch and a half to accommodate for the new ride height. Then it's put back on the factory shock, the PRO-KIT spring slides into place and is compressed while the main nut is tightened before putting everything back together up front.
This is how it should look prior to putting the wheel back on.
Out back, the fender liner is removed to get to the hardware that holds the rear shock assembly to the chassis. However, on the passenger side, unless you have a magic attachment you're going to need to remove the canister that partially blocks that hardware.
Support the rear arm, remove the retaining bolts that hold the shock and connect the arm to the rear assembly, and slowly lower your support to separate the shock.
This should allow more than enough room to reach in and remove the stock spring and once the upper bolts are removed, the entire shock can be pulled from the wheel well.
The shock is completely removed in order to grant you access to the bump stop, which you'll need to trim, similar to the front. Once cut, reassemble and bolt the shock back in place as well as reattach the emissions canister.
The new Eibach PRO-KIT spring is set in place and the support is pushed back up in order to line up the holes in the arm with the shock eye and assembly.
Here you can see the difference between the stock and Eibach modified ride height. Though this is prior to the car fully settling, the wheel to fender gap has been closed up and Sarah is still able to get up and down driveways and over speed bumps like a civilian, while reaping all of the handling benefits of the PRO-KIT.
In order to install the front sway bar, you're going to need to remove quite a few bolts just to get to the stock piece. A few sensor plugs are unclipped and the work begins.
For security, a set of straps are attached to the tie rods and anchored to the newly installed Eibach springs to avoid having the entire front end drop out. The idea here is to loosen and lower the subframe enough to get access to the stock bar and its mounting points so that it can be removed without having to completely pull the subframe.
The included Eibach polyurethane bushings get a healthy helping of lubricant (also included) to avoid noise and extend service life.
Also included with the kit are these billet blocks for a solid flat surface to mount the new sway bar to.
While that was going on, Eibach's Ryan Hoegner took us on a trip into the production area to see what the springs and the sway bars look like before they end up in your hands. That giant roll of spring steel you see pictured is eventually formed and cut to size for each application before being treated, powdercoated and meticulously looked over by quality assurance before they're packaged and sent out.
Sway bar production starts with a pile of steel alloy, solid or hollow, depending on application.
Here, the bar ends are individually heated
Then stamped and drilled
And finally, they're treated to a porous finish that will allow the powder coating to adhere properly for a lifelong finish.
Back in the R&D Garage, the exhaust is supported before partial removal in order to allow enough room to unbolt the stock sway bar's brackets and end links and remove the bar entirely.
Installation on the front and rear sway bars are of course the reverse of what you just saw, and once complete should look like this prior to buttoning up.
The wheel and tire package was fairly mild with Sarah's GTI and there were no signs of rubbing initially, even with the speed bump test that Eibach conducted. However, a few days later and there was a slight rub when she would encounter large dips on the freeway so we brought the car to Sportcar Motion in San Marcos for some wiggle room.
Sportcar Motion made its name in the Honda/Acura world with multiple time attack vehicles under their belt along with a slew of longtime customers that include drag, road race, street car, show car builds and everything in between. And while they don't see a large number of European cars come their way, they're more than capable of performing all types of basic maintenance, performance upgrades, fabrication, and more.
The GTI was only rubbing in the front so with one side propped and the wheel removed, the fender liner was partially pulled back and the fender heated up.
The roller attaches to the hub and the fender's inner lip is carefully rolled in and upward.
A slow, gradual process, with enough effort the fender rolling allowed for the additional clearance needed for the new wheel and tire package.
With the car on the road, the benefits of using Falken's FK510 seemed to be that much more impressive with the new suspension upgrades. The car left Eibach with a proper alignment so we expected it to track straight and on the street, hands off the wheel (but not behind our backs, relax) the car was dead straight while giving the gas pedal some prodding. Corner to corner, the very first thing you notice is just how responsive that initial turn in is now with the upgraded springs and tire improvement and as you travel through the turn, the expected waves of body roll that were acknowledged in stock form have been tightened up considerably. Best of all, the car's ride quality wasn't thrown out the window, even on the unforgiving surface streets and unpredictable freeways that at low speeds (thanks I5 traffic!), tend to reveal just how stiff that suspension set up really is. Eibach touts its PRO-KIT as being the best of both worlds in its improved handling and real-world usability and not surprising, they nailed it with their GTI application.
If you think that working at an office where automotive media is being produced automatically grants you access to cool aftermarket parts, you're wrong. Unless of course, you're Sarah, and you happen to be at the right place, at the right time, with the right car—then you're golden.