Kumho Ecsta 4x – Review and Experience

After spending some time with these budget priced performance all seasons, I can finally write something about them. I replaced the set a few months early due to irreparable tire damage. Most of the ride / handling comparisons are against the Michelin Pilot Sport A/S+ tires, which where my previous set and generally well regarded high performance all season.

Overview 

The Ecsta 4x’s are a great value choice in this tire category (High Performance All Seasons). I say value because they were not meant to outperform the top brands, but to stand alongside at least a few of them. Performance is better than I expected. Grip is plentiful in the dry, and was surefooted enough in the rain (or whatever California considers inclement weather). The treadwear looks to be on track for the mileage. Ride quality is not as good as I thought it would be but certainly not bad.

Handling

The Ecsta 4x’s are a great handling tire. Turn in is crisp and grip is plentiful. Ultimate grip is shy of the Michelin Pilot Sport A/S+ that I had on previously, but for the money saved, I won’t knock off too much. I won’t notice it on the street. The sidewalls are very stiff and keep the tire from feeling sloppy. It’s a predictable tire. More on the stiff sidewall later. I have no problems with the tire in the handling department. It does what you ask. Weatherwise, I can’t comment on anything other than rain. They handle rain just fine and feel secure on a wet road.

Ride Quality

This is the area I will fault the tire. Ride quality is not as good as the Michelin’s or not great in general. It feels rougher and less refined on imperfect roads. The carcass at times feels like it has a spring to it that translates into a bit of a jiggle. It may be the sidewall stiffness. The ones I purchased were an XL designation tire with a 94W service description. Too much stiffness for the GTI. The XL version is not the one to get. The Michelin’s had stiff sidewalls but the ride did not suffer as much. Overall, not a bad ride from the Kumho’s but not great either. Refinement feels lacking. I initially wrote that the ride quality was better than the Michelin’s but extended time revealed otherwise.

 Treadwear

Treadwear was as expected. I replaced them a little before their time due to an irreparable puncture but I was satisfied by the mileage. I accumulated maybe 30,000 miles on them. I estimate that they could have lasted another 10k miles, but previous alignment issues left the wear uneven (not the tires fault) and at this point in the tires life it made sense to replace the set. If they hit 40,000 miles, I consider that satisfactory.

Issues

The mold that was used to make my particular set suffered from a weird line that ran across the tread. It looked like a crack but was limited to the surface. I didn’t consider it an issue as long as it didn’t get larger. I’ve seen other Kumho Ecsta 4x’s with this mold line/crack. I put a decent amount of miles into the tires and the crack was not an issue but it gives me pause about the quality control. It certainly added some road noise if anything. I looked at the lines during a recent tire rotation and they looked a little bigger larger. They didn’t cause any issues but it’s something that I would rather not have to worry about. It factored into my decision to replace the set.

Summary

I really wanted to like these tires because the performance side was great. Grip was good, handling was good, wear was good. However, ride quality was only so-so and could get jarring on expansion cracks and rougher patches. The tread crack (which was the same on all 4 tires) didn’t give me any issues but certainly didn’t reassure me of the quality of the tires.

My final verdict – The Kumho Ecsta 4x’s are a nice performance value but not as well rounded as Michelin’s offering. The money you save reflects in what you get. Performance is great but the ride quality suffers. More expensive tires provide good performance numbers and also provide good ride characteristics. The Continental DWS’ are an example set of highly regarded performance all seasons that provide a good balance of handling and ride characteristics. Tire Rack surveys show that there is a highly competitive field in the high performance all season market. With more competitors coming out with a better balance of ride and handling, the Ecsta 4x’s may come out lighter on the wallet but you’ll know know what you’re missing from slightly more expensive brands. As much as I wanted to like these tires, I cannot recommend purchasing a set.

Kumho Ecsta 4x – Quick Look

I’ve had a set of Kumho Ecsta 4x tires on for the last few months to replace my tired set (Michelin Pilot Sport A/S+). My old tires were badly cupped and incredibly noisy. It’s amazing how badly tires degrade over their lifetime, especially if the alignment is not spot on.

The Ecsta 4x’s are relatively new and there is not too much written about them but early reviews (mostly from Tire Rack) suggests that they are a good performance all season for people on a budget. The Tire Rack lists them as Ultra High Performance All Seasons. On the merit of pricing, I chose these over the category favorite, the Continental DWS. They were (at the time of purchase) slightly cheaper per tire and approximately 100-150 cheaper for the set.The Kumho’s are the stock size (225/45/17) with a 94w XL load designation.

Ecsta 4x (stock photo)

So far, I’m liking these tires. They are quiet and quite competent in the handling department. They may give up a bit of response to the Michelin PS A/S+ but the difference is not worth the price premium for the Michelin’s. The Ecsta’s seem to like a little more pressure than the Michelin’s in the corners. Stray too far from the stock pressure setting and they feel a little sloppy. So far, I’ve settled around 35.5 psi front and rear. Your preferences will vary depending on the setup. Ultimate grip seems very similar and Ecsta’s also ride nicer than the Michelin’s.

More impressions to come after a little more seat time. I am curious to find out how they are in the rain.

Koni Sports (Yellow) Damper Update

Per Tire Rack’s experience, the Koni Yellows feel like they have broken in some. My set has almost a month and a half of daily driven time now. Koni states that there is no break-in period but it certainly feels like the dampers have gotten smoother in their operation. After a month and a half of driving on them, they are absolutely great. Smooth body control and excellent ride quality.

I have now settled on 1/2 turn of adjustment on both front and rear dampers. They are just about perfectly dialed in for the type of roads that I see in L.A. I’ll save the discussion about rebound adjustment for an upcoming post.

Koni Sport Dampers (Koni Yellow) – Review

Front Struts

Overview

The Koni Sport dampers, also popularly known as the Koni Yellows are a line of dampers intended to provide enthusiasts with more performance oriented ride and handling characteristics. They come with a lifetime warranty for the original owner. They are one-way adjustable dampers (rebound) to allow for matching with different spring rates. While the MK5 has pretty good body control stock, it is missing a little bit of extra rebound damping. The rear can get bouncy sometimes and the body can pitch quite a bit on choppy sections of highway. Big hits can take a little longer than I’d like to settle back down.

The problem I have with the stock dampers is that comfort can suffer from the lack of rebound. It makes rough roads a little softer but the choppy highway ride is what is really uncomfortable. It’s undesirable from the driver’s seat, imagine how much more for the rear passengers!

Replacing just the rear dampers made a big improvement in ride quality and control. Koni’s have a very smooth engagement and it makes the suspension feel a lot smoother in operation, despite their performance intentions. I installed the rears one night and did the fronts another day.

Koni Yellow Construction

Koni manufactures a variety of different damper types. They do monotube, and twin-tube hydraulic or low pressure gas. They usually reserve the monotube variety for higher spec racing dampers. You’ll find a lot of discussion regarding whether twin-tubes or monotubes are the better construction type. Theoretically, a monotube is better. Compared to a twin-tube, monotubes generally exhibit faster reaction time, less vulnerability to heat and can be installed in a variety of positions. If the body is damaged though, it will affect the performance of the shock or possibly take it out of service. In practice, and especially in a daily driven car, either one can be made to work well. Here’s a link to an excellent site that everyone should read: Autocross to Win – Shocks.

The Koni dampers for the MK5 are of the twin-tube variety. Bilstein, one of the largest producers of monotube dampers, also makes an excellent damper for the MK5 but I didn’t choose them for a specific reason. The quick response of a monotube can degrade ride quality quite a bit. A twin-tube damper has a slower reaction time, leading to a more progressive increase in the damping rate. This progressiveness is what gives the Koni’s their excellent ride quality. If you track your car, the Bilstein’s will handle better than the Koni’s but they won’t blow them out of the water either. If you do a little of both or want an upgraded damper for the street, the Koni’s would be my choice.

Install

I’ve taken apart the suspension so many times that it’s easy for me now. The rears take about an hour for both side (replacing just the dampers). The front struts took me about 2 1/2 hours. The first time I tried to install springs and dampers on my car, it took me all day. There are several excellent suspension install DIY guides, I won’t try to make a better one. Here’s a good one-DIY Install. There’s nothing different about installing the Koni Yellows. The dampers will come with plastic washers, just be sure to place them between the damper and the bump stop. This keeps the bump stop from damaging the top seal. The Koni Yellows also come with a much larger location tab for the front struts, you may have to move the strut spreader to get the body to drop down into strut holder. A 1/4″ ratchet extension can work as a strut spreader in a few cases.

Be sure to check that both rear dampers are adjusted to equal positions. The rears require disassembly to adjust and you don’t want to remember after you’ve put everything back together. Set them at 1/4 turn from full soft for a few hundred miles to let everything work in. The fronts are externally adjustable, set them at 1/4 turn from full soft to let them break in as well. The reason for setting them a little off full soft is that the adjuster sometimes jams if left for a long time in the full soft position. I’ve never personally seen it but have heard a few stories regarding this.

Side Note

I don’t have a photo, but I stood the Koni Yellows up next to the stock front strut. To my surprise, the spring perch is maybe 1/2″ lower or so, nothing drastic. I don’t see it mentioned anywhere but i’m positive it is different. It’s a slight difference but it is noticeable visually. Works out perfectly for me because my front end sat slightly higher visually. I really wish I had taken a photo.

Driving Impressions

These dampers are much better than the original Sach’s dampers. Sach’s makes great stuff but remember that OE dampers are spec’d to a price point. At the softest setting, the ride quality is better than stock, like buttery smooth. I don’t see how people would find the ride quality at full soft to be worse than stock. Bumps are absorbed with little drama and then the chassis settles back down. Roll is much smoother due to the higher rebound damping rate. Turn in is a lot more predictable and less upset by rough roads. The car feels lighter on its feet with the added chassis control. In terms of driving, these dampers offer improved dynamics with no cons.

What is the Correct Rebound Setting?

The correct rebound setting depends on the spring rates and driver preference. Koni provides the rebound adjustment to match spring rate and also to adjust for wear. Although there is an optimal setting, there is enough leeway back and forth for a driver to adjust the damper to personal preferences. As such I’m only going to say that you want enough rebound damping to control the spring after hitting a bump in the road. You want the chassis to take the bump, and then settle down after reaching the ride height. I’m oversimplifying this only because I can’t tell you what the best setting is.

The softest setting is the Koni recommended setting for stock springs. I find it very comfortable but body control is still messier than I would like. I ended up at the 1/2 turn setting for the rear. Better than stock comfort and ride control. You’ll be surprised by how large a factor the rear dampers are in terms of ride feel and handling. Having them correctly dialed in makes the car feel a lot more stable. Get the rear dampers dialed in first and then adjust the front rebound control to taste.

Remember that you are not attempting to stiffen the car with dampers. You are matching the rebound control with the spring rate. Springs and sway bars control how far the body rolls, dampers control the rate of roll. Rebound settings that are far too stiff will cause the suspension to jack down and not rebound after bumps. Stiffer than required rebound settings can lead to weird handling (washing out, sudden oversteer/understeer) and poor comfort. Rebound settings that are too soft result in less than optimal body control. Body control will feel somewhat loose.

Overall

If you are generally happy with the MK5’s handling and would like to improve on it, upgrading the stock dampers is an excellent choice. Tires and dampers make drastic improvements to the already competent MK5 chassis. You’ll be hard pressed to improve the handling further within a budget. Stiffer springs will destroy ride quality and lower springs will compromise the suspension geometry. I am on stock springs with the Koni Yellows and I feel that this is the perfect daily drive suspension. The slightly lower Driver Gear springs would make for a nice visual change and slightly improved roll control (slightly stiffer) but minus the wheel gap, the stock springs with Koni Yellows are an excellent combination. Very fluent in the corners and comfortable. The suspension geometry and travel are all kept within their optimized ranges. I’ve never been more in love with the way the car handles. After a few hit and miss suspension updates, I think I have finally found the perfect setup for my needs.

They are available from a variety of vendors. Check out the vendor list at the top of the site. Koni had an amazing sale on these last year but as of now they are around 600 dollars.

Shorter OEM Bump stops (Euro Bump Stop)

118mm Rear Bump Stop - Part Number 1K0 511 353 N

 

The bump stops in most modern day Volkswagens (and plenty of other cars as well) function as supplemental springs. If you take a look at the picture above, you’ll notice that the bump stop is designed to get progressively stiffer. The narrower nose section is significantly softer than the larger ribs in the middle. When carrying a heavy load or during aggressive driving, the nose contacts the shock body and the sections collapse. As more sections collapse, the spring rate of the bump stop progressively gets stiffer and the combined spring rate increases. The rear bump stop usually has more travel to deal with than the front (from weight change resulting from baggage or passengers) so the length is about double that of the fronts. The system is finely tuned and handling changes can be made by simply altering the length or stiffness of the stop.

Bump stops are usually cut when the suspension is lowered too free up some travel. If you lower the MK5 too much, you end up riding on the bump stops and the ride becomes very hard. Not fun. By cutting the stops, you gain back some comfort but end up with a huge, sudden increase in spring rate when you do contact the bump stops. You lose the progressive nature of the uncut stock bump stop. Not exactly a good thing when you’re in the middle of a turn and you hit a mid-corner bump. Spring rate goes up a lot and it can upset the chassis of the car.

If you are using the springs from the later model year GTI’s with the lowered ride height or lowering springs with a mild drop (Eibach Pro-Kit), you might want to consider using the Euro bump stops versus cutting your existing ones. It’ll help preserve the progressive ride characteristics that the factory designated. The US GTI comes with 133mm rear bump stops and 70mm front stops. The Euro spec ones are 118mm for the rear and 55mm for the front. If you compare the two side by side, it’s like taking off one of the middle ribs.

The part numbers are :

Front: 1K0 412 303 F
Rear: 1K0 511 353 N
I already have the shorter front stop but was still running on the 133mm rear stop. I purchased the 118mm rear stops from urotuning.com to allow the rear a little more travel with the lower 2008 and up suspension.
A little unrelated but Urotuning sent me two different bump stops. One was the original part and the other is the Febi OEM equivalent. They feel the same but are two completely different colors. It’s giving me ocd. Urotuning assured me that they are the same though.

Ultra Racing Chassis Mid-Brace

Ultra Racing Mid-Brace (Part Number: UR-ML4-1193)

Sometime last week, I had the unfortunate luck of witnessing a pretty nasty accident on the nearby 5 South. There was a pretty large amount of debris and I didn’t see some on the roadway and ran right over it. It dislocated my downpipe, took out both the chassis mid-braces and scratched up a few of the plastic bits. I had to remove the mid-braces to straighten them, as they were bent and were actually what caused the exhaust to dislocate. Holding them in my hands to straighten them, they are not very strong pieces at all. They’re made of thin gauge steel and I can’t really imagine them doing too much, unless they are constantly in tension.

Compared to stock brace

Being slightly obsessive about replacing damaged items, I used the opportunity to buy a mid-brace from a company called Ultra Racing. I don’t really know much about them other than they are a Malaysian based company. They have a large number of products for many cars but I mostly chose them because their bracing looks like it might actually do something. GT Spec has a set of replacement aluminum bracing but it is a two piece design compared to UR’s design.

Installation is very easy, eight 13mm bolts and you are done. Fit is really spot on. The stock braces required a bit of pulling but I don’t know if that is because of prior damage related to the accident. This particular brace, part number UR-ML4-1193, is actually for the MK6. The MK5 has its own design for the mid-brace but I don’t like it as it attaches with only 4 bolt points as opposed to all eight of the stock pieces. I think the MK5 design has another UR brace that is supposed to attach there as well. The MK5 and MK6 share the same basic chassis and braces designed for the MK6 look better overall. The MK6 brace fits just the same.

Anyway, its all bolted up. Clearances are great, nothing rattles and it should be infinitely stronger than the flimsy stock braces. I bought it for $150 on Ebay. It shipped from Malaysia but got here in about a week and a half. That’s quick!

Koni Yellow (Sport) Dampers – Quick Look

If you have read any of my earlier posts, maybe a year or two back, I used to have a set of Koni Sport dampers on my car. At the time they were paired up with Neuspeed springs. I didn’t really care much for that combo because I hated the Neuspeed springs. They are soft and being progressively wound, they made the handling hard to predict. The Koni’s were used and I later found out one of them was leaking. I sold that set off and went back to oem.

The oem dampers are decent at what they do but they feel a little underdamped, especially at the rear. So I installed a set of new Koni’s and paired them with the stock springs. The result? Daily driving ride height with excellent damping. Body motions are much better controlled and the ride actually feels smoother. Chalk that up to the damping characteristics of the Koni’s. Koni’s (twintube construction) are typically less harsh in initial response (compared to monotubes). What’s nice about the Koni’s is that they are rebound adjustable and you can adjust the damping response to whatever spring rate you’re using.

I came across a surprise when I measured the stock damper against the Koni Yellow. The Koni’s spring perch is maybe 1/4″ or 1/2″ lower than the stock spring perch. I can’t really understand why, but the front certainly does look a little lower. Works perfectly for the slightly lowered 08+ and up springs. The front is a tad high compared with the rear and this setup brings them almost even.

A more detailed analysis and pictures are coming up after I spend more seat time with the setup!