The stage-zero process on my new-to-me 2010 Volkswagen GTI began the moment I got it home. Actually, you could say I started baselining the car on the way. It was immediately obvious that the car desperately needed better tires; the previous owner installed some bargain specials, not at all suitable for the car’s high-performance nature. A mild vibration and steering wheel shake at highway speed told me something was amiss in the front end, perhaps the cheap tires were exacerbating the issue. Either way, I made full use of the factory open differential to accelerate the farewell of the Acceleras that were wrapped around my 17-inch Denver wheels.
Those of us versed in car modification know about how most mods are (idiotically) partitioned into “stages.” Stage 1, stage 1+, stage 2… stage 5… it doesn’t really mean anything besides being shorthand for how heavily modified a car is. And it sounds cool, I guess, so some people get really into the idea of racking up “stage numbers.” But no matter how much you plan on modding your car, you’ll want to focus on getting a nice and solid “stage zero.”
Stage zero just means getting your car sorted as the factory intended, which apparently, nobody believes in. “My car is misfiring” says Dude One. “Get it tuned, brah” says Dude Two. Dude One gets car tuned, car explodes, and the collective sigh of the car world whispers away in the dead of night.
Image: Chris Rosales – New shoes!
First things first: I got new tires. If and when you’re looking to upgrade a car you just bought, new shoes is a great place to start. Tires affect every aspect of your vehicle’s performance, so one might argue it’s the best place to start. I went with Firestone Firehawk Indy 500s; $521 installed. They’re an excellent budget summer tire with great refinement, grip, and alert steering. Tires, whichever you choose, are a must-do item for your new car. Unless whatever you bought came with the tires you wanted, tires will make the biggest difference in how you enjoy your car. Annoying road noise? Bad steering feel? First step: the tires! With that said, new tires did not solve my wheel shake, so I dove deeper.
The infamous wheel shake of the Mk6 VW platform is well documented across Golf and Jetta forums alike, with multiple potential causes to the single issue. Anything from wheel bearings, tie rods, strut mounts, or even the rearmost front lower control arm bushing might have been my problem.
Image: Chris Rosales – The bushings, with some added geometry correction.
Immediately, I was under the car inspecting my suspension bushings much more closely than I had before, and found those very lower control arm bushings severely deteriorated. Every car has a whole lot of rubber bushings holding its steering gear together. As the vehicle ages, so does this rubber. And once its integrity’s compromised you’re going to start loosing responsiveness.
Instead of getting OEM replacements that had a similar amount of voids in the rubber (for reducing harshness and vibration, with the downside of wearing out relatively quickly) I ordered a set of Whiteline elastomer bushings. They aren’t as stiff as polyurethane, which are sometimes favored for responsiveness but can give a car a harsh ride, but require zero maintenance. They also substantially improved directness in the numb Volkswagen steering, not just by bushing, but by subtle geometry changes. Added caster and reduced anti-dive changed the feel of the car as a whole.
A few days later, I had them installed and 80 percent of the vibration and wheel shake seemed to be gone, but it persisted very slightly. Around the same time, I went for a drive in the Malibu canyons on my new tires and promptly wrecked a driver-side wheel bearing. The tight and twisty Tuna Canyon Road was clearly too much for the 129,000-mile old stuff. It’s incredibly disconcerting to be driving spiritedly down SoCal’s very own single-lane downhill draped over a ravine, and hearing a dull (but loud) HNGRHHH from the front of my car. Soiled my pants? Never.
Image: Chris Rosales – Wheel bearing out.
Frustration building, I ordered a new wheel bearing, and a tie rod kit just for safe measure. As soon as the wheel bearing was handed to me by the UPS man, I installed it in 20 minutes, and voilà, the shake was gone! I still needed to book an appointment with the steam cleaner for my drivers seat, however.
For now, the new tie rods await a much larger project I have planned. But at this point, it’s time to drive and enjoy my newly smoothened and refined GTI. That is, until the next thing breaks. At any rate, my stage zero was effectively achieved. I have a lot planned for this car, and I’m excited to share the process of building my lil’ egg into my ultimate expression of a Mk6 GTI.