Old-school engine tuning of carbureted engines was really an art form. Changing the jets, adjusting fuel flow and air screws and playing with the choke to get the engine to run properly are quite different from today’s process of changing values and coding within the engine’s computer, which controls several performance aspects including electronic fuel injection, spark ignition timing and shift points.
Now we talk about old-school tuning on engine computers, which involved physically opening the case to remove a chip from the motherboard and replace it with an aftermarket version. Changing chips (or “chipping”) was limited to the programming on the chips themselves.
Changes in emission control requirements added a method for accessing the programming in most vehicle computers. The On-Board Diagnostic-II (OBD-II) connector found in vehicles from 1996 and later usually offers an option of “flashing” the chip or computer itself with new programming.
UNLOCK THE POWER
Why do tuners and programmers offer gains over results achieved with stock vehicles? Vehicle design engineers answer to many masters. They have specific fuel economy, emissions, durability, warranty repair, potential noise and other targets they need to hit as established by complicated government regulations. At the same time, the customers want power, performance, fuel efficiency and usually low noise in their vehicles. It’s a delicate dance to make all these factors come together in each model.
Aftermarket calibration of the vehicle’s computer can unlock some of the power that was lost in compromises programmed into the factory configuration.
Aftermarket tuners and programmers are particularly effective when combined with other modifications. The ability to change the calibration of the Engine Control Unit (ECU) allows you to take full advantage of the better breathing available from free-flowing exhaust and intake systems.
For turbocharged engines, both diesel and gas, more power is readily available by raising the boost levels of the engine. Most modern turbocharged engines are overbuilt and can easily handle more boost than they run at stock program levels.
Programmers that control transmission parameters can make changes to increase transmission longevity despite increased power and torque. Changes in line pressures and shift points can help protect automatic transmissions from the extra strain created by increased torque unlocked with performance programmers.
PROTECT YOUR INVESTMENT
Earlier versions of programmers increased power at the risk of increasing the wear on engine components. However, the monitoring systems built into today’s tuners can prevent this and other catastrophic failures that the engine may be subjected to while towing.
Towing is considered an extreme duty for your vehicle, requiring more frequent oil change intervals, and should prompt you to be extra diligent about maintenance. The extra load exerted on the vehicle — and the engine, specifically — means higher oil, coolant and exhaust gas temperatures.
If your trailer and payload weight are in line with the manufacturers’ ratings, all of the stock components have been tested to be safe for towing. However, having the extra safeguards available with many programmers can be an added benefit.
Some tuners take advantage of an auxiliary exhaust gas temperature (EGT) sensor — which is very useful, especially in diesel engines. If the EGTs reach dangerous levels, the programmer can defuel to reduce EGTs. It’s a good idea to try to keep EGTs lower than 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit while towing.
The design of the tuners can vary. The ability to choose different levels of calibration, including modes specifically designed for towing, is standard fare. Some simply reflash the computer and include no other interface. Others include sophisticated touch screens, wireless connections and data logging capabilities.
Some models allow on-the-fly selection for power to pull a mountain pass and then switch back to mileage mode at the touch of the screen or a button. Built-in display gauges and the ability to reset engine codes are among the most popular features truck owners look for in programmers.
Some tuners allow you to change the calibration of the speedometer to correct for larger-than-stock wheel and tire sizes, program a change in final drive of your truck and to change or remove the speed limiter from the stock computer.
If you don’t find enough tuning options in preset programs, look for programmers with custom tuning capabilities where a professional can calibrate specifically for your vehicle and your hardware modifications. Custom tunes are more useful for less common modifications or more extreme builds. Some have calibrations that are tested and designed to work with specific aftermarket intake and exhaust setups. Look for custom tunes for specific modifications that you can download.
When choosing a tuner/programmer, look at all the benefits and make sure it includes the features you want now and possibly need for the future. You’ll notice more torque for towing, which you can use to maintain normal speeds pulling hills or to pass those drivers with stock vehicles that have problems pulling grades.
Finally, be aware that the use of some engine program and tuning modification products can affect the coverage on a newer vehicle still under warranty. The engine-tuning products may also run afoul of state or federal DOT vehicle emission standards. It’s a wise idea to ask for specific information from the tuning-product manufacturer concerning warranty claims, emission certification and the like to avoid any unexpected surprises later on.
SOME OF WHAT’S AVAILABLE
Advanced Flow Engineering
The Scorcher handheld unit contains multiple tunes per application (performance, mileage, towing, etc.) that are matched to aFe Power performance intakes, exhausts and manifolds. Producing up to 157 hp and 180 lb-ft torque, aFe has partnered with Superchips to develop the exclusive tunes and is said to maximize all available power without sacrificing safety to the engine. The Scorcher Tuner amplifies fuel delivery and injection timing for increased horsepower and torque while the speedometer calibration resets for large tire and gear changes. This unit maximizes control of turbo boost and variable vane control, optimizes shift times and patterns for better placement of available power and will read and clear check-engine lights/codes. aFe; 888-901-7693, www.afepower.com
The AutoMind Programmer for the 2011-12 Chevy/GMC 6.6L Duramax LML diesel trucks features four tuning levels with the Super Sport setting allowing a rear-wheel power increase of up to 113 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque. This flexible, all-in-one programmer plus scan tool is Internet updatable and includes Economy, Work/Tow, Sport and Super Sport settings. It can display a host of critical engine functions and provides service-technician-type diagnostic capabilities with the ability to scan and clear vehicle trouble codes. Advanced tuning capabilities include adjustment or removal of the engine rev or top-speed limiter and the ability to calibrate the speedometer based on tire size or gear ratio. Banks Power; 800-601-8073, www.bankspower.com/am7
The Banks Power AutoMind Programmer for 2011-12 Ford F-150 EcoBoost 3.5L gas trucks includes four tuning levels: Economy, Work/Tow, Sport and Super Sport settings for a power increase up to 50 hp and 65 lb-ft of torque. Fuel economy improvement has been in the range of 5 to 7 percent. In addition to improving power and economy, the AutoMind is Internet updatable and can be used as a scan tool to read and clear trouble codes. Advanced capabilities include the adjustment or removal of the engine rev and/or top-speed limiter, speedometer calibration, cooling fan activation temperature and transmission shift point adjustments. Banks Power; 800-601-8072, www.bankspower.com/am6
Bully Dog Performance
The Triple Dog Gauge Tuner or GT is four products in one: a vehicle engine tuner, monitor, gauge and diagnostic device all in a single unit. The GT dramatically improves the utility of your vehicle by increasing horsepower, improving fuel economy and providing a comprehensive set of monitoring features and diagnostic functions. This product is incomparable to other tuning products because it has the largest feature set and the widest range of vehicle applications from a single product part number. Bully Dog also has a tool called Driving Coach that provides on-screen feedback systems to give driver-specific tips on how to improve driving habits in conjunction with their gauge/tuner to enhance fuel conservation while getting more efficient performance. Bully Dog Performance; 877-285-5936, www.bullydog.com
Bully Dog Performance
Bully Dog also recently introduced one of the company’s newest products at the 2012 SEMA (Specialty Equipment Marketing Association) Show, held last fall in Las Vegas, Nevada, installed in its slick black and red custom Hemi-powered Ram show truck. The Bully Dog GT for Hemi Plus is a powerful tuner that has applications for the latest 2011-2013 model-year Dodge Ram Hemis. It sports commanding features like multifunction vehicle monitoring and automated engine protection with audible alerts that will let you know when something important is happening with your vehicle. High customer demand for the product has kept Bully Dog’s engineers working on the development for more than 28 months, and it’s now available to consumers. Bully Dog Performance; 877-285-5936, www.bullydog.com.
The inTune from Diablosport is a color touch screen OBD-II flash programmer that installs performance programs onto your vehicle’s computer. Using the inTune’s preloaded performance tunes, you can increase your fuel mileage and power delivery whether towing, driving around town or on the highway. The inTune comes with programs to make your vehicle achieve its maximum performance and efficiency. It also features adjustable parameters to calibrate for additional performance modifications. InTune delivers an enhanced user experience with easy-to-understand menus controlled through a color touch screen, automatic USB updates via the Internet and a broad range of vehicle support options coupled with a host of vehicle specific features, all at an affordable price. Diablosport; 561-908-0041, www.diablosport.com
Diablosport’s Trinity features full reflash/reprogram capability, advanced data acquisition and customizable gauges — all displayed and controlled on a color touch screen and housed in a slim, custom-styled, easy-to-use device. As Diablosport’s flagship device, it is the only single handheld device on the market that comes preloaded with tunes for gasoline and diesel vehicles from Ford, GM and Ram, all under one part number. Other features include programmable shift lights, gauge display, virtual drag strip and data logging. Combine all this with full support for custom tuning in gasoline, and it could be the last tuner you’ll ever need for your vehicle. Diablosport; 561-908-0041, www.diablosport.com
The Evolution CTS in-cab monitor and digital gauge display is a full-color, high-resolution 4.3-inch touch screen device. The CTS has all the features of a Edge CS but also comes equipped with a video-in port allowing users to connect to the Edge’s backup camera (sold separately including night vision and locking license plate mount) or any compatible off-the-shelf backup camera or video source. The CTS ships with a universal suction-cup mount from Arkon and is also compatible with all Edge custom dash pods (sold separately). MyStyle software allows the user to choose from a variety of Edge custom backgrounds or simply upload an image. Edge Products; 888-360-3343, www.edgeproducts.com
The Max Energy E-Con Economy Power Programmer from Hypertech is designed to offer better fuel mileage and more power, but without the added cost of other high-performance features that may not be utilized. The E-Con is programmed with Hypertech’s Max Energy Tuning, optimizing fuel and spark curves to increase horsepower and torque at wide-open throttle and fuel economy at part-throttle. Hypertech customers report 2–6 mpg gain and a substantial increase in horsepower and torque. For an additional charge the E-Con can be upgraded to a Max Energy Power Programmer via the Internet to include all Max Energy features for that vehicle. Hypertech; 901-382-8888, www.hypertech.com
The Standard Xcelerator series tuner was specifically designed to provide better throttle response and shifting characteristics and add big power without the need for expensive fueling and air upgrades. It provides five power-tuning levels of additional horsepower and torque (40-225 hp depending upon model). The best part about the PPE Standard Xcelerator is that it will optimize a stock engine’s performance, especially for those who have added items such as a free-flowing exhaust and a cold-air intake system. Another advantage of the PPE Standard Xcelerator is that if you eventually want the benefits of the Hot or Hot+2 Xcelerator models, then it is possible to upgrade the software. Pacific Performance Engineering; 741-985-4825, www.ppediesel.com
The PPE Economy Xcelerator tuner for the GM Duramax diesel is designed for owners who are looking for a mild horsepower and torque increase. This unit offers three horsepower settings (40, 90 and 120). Torque values are raised to 200 lb-ft from stock. The Economy Xcelerator also has the same features as other Xcelerator units in that it provides the user with the ability to adjust items such as speedometer corrections, transmission tuning with online updating and DTC code clearing. This unit is perfect for individuals with stock engines who are looking to get that little something extra out of the Duramax. Pacific Performance Engineering; 741-985-4825, www.ppediesel.com
The SF3 Power Flash arrives preloaded with dyno-proven tune files that increase horsepower and torque.
Programming with one of SCT’s performance or fuel-economy tune files is as easy as 1-2-3. Simply plug the OBD-II connector into the OBD-II port, select the preloaded tune file using the simple-to-navigate menu, and within minutes the SF3 programs the vehicle. The SF3 Power Flash device backs up your factory PCM program during installation, should you ever need to return your vehicle to the stock PCM program. Restoring your vehicle to the stock PCM program is as easy as selecting Return to Stock from the device menu. SCT Performance; 407-774-2447, www.sctflash.com
The Flashpaq from Superchips gives the Ford EcoBoost an improved towing and performance experience. Increases in horsepower, torque and drivability are delivered through enhanced throttle response and multiple dyno-proven power levels. For 91 octane performance, the Flashpaq gains 54 hp and 68 lb-ft torque while the top towing level offers gains of 50 hp and 53 lb-ft torque up to the OEM maximum load. Transmission shift points and firmness are optimized for each tuning level. Spark advance options range from -4 to +2 degrees. Flashpaq allows you to change the speed limiter, gear options and tire options. The EcoBoost Flashpaq is designed to be cat-back-exhaust compatible. Superchips; 888-227-2447, www.superchips.com
Stock gasoline engine programs allow for the range of octane ratings the engine may encounter, whether by owner choice at the pump, regional restrictions or the occasional mistaken fill with a lower octane. If you know that you can consistently fill your tank with high-octane gasoline, you can retune the engine and gain a significant improvement in power. Enjoy the power but be sure to watch that octane level.