As far as car modification goes, one major aspect has changed the game: the increasing prevalence of technology and turbochargers. Combined, they make Engine Control Unit (ECU) tuning not only easier but substantially more potent. Simply by flashing new engine maps, plug-and-play tuners can dramatically increase power, throttle response and more. Not to mention for a fraction of the price of bolt-on hardware. However, there are a few key things you should know before getting started.
Know Your Engine’s Limits
This one is the most important of them all. Finding a well-respected, professional quality ECU tuner is not difficult. Typically around the $400-600 neighborhood, they may not be cheap, but the power gains they make available would cost significantly more via bolt-ons. Plus, tuners offer multiple maps, custom setups and are (almost universally) completely reversible. In essence, they allow you to open your engine’s potential.
That’s a blessing but can very, very quickly become a curse. Cranking up the boost on your stock Focus ST can be safe BUT only to a certain extent. Pushing the limits of the turbocharger can result in a host of problems, from premature wear (minor) to engine failure (not so minor). At almost any big car meet you’ll run across teenagers running “Stage 2” WRXs and acting like Ken Block. That’s all fine, until the stock pistons, operating at 15 PSI above stock, decide they don’t like being in the engine anymore.
To avoid any catastrophic issues, all that’s required is doing some basic homework. Hop on reliable forums and see what others are running successfully (and reliably). It’s also a great idea to reach out to a nearby professional shop and hear what they recommend. This is one of those areas where basic common sense can also go a long way. For example, the naturally aspirated FA20 engine in the FR-S/BRZ/GT86 runs a compression ratio of 12.5:1. Even for an N/A engine, that’s pretty high. Ramping things up even further with an aggressive tune could lead to trouble if care isn’t taken.
Know your powertrain’s limits, seek advice from well respected professionals and use some basic common sense. That alone will help you achieve a more powerful, way more enjoyable and safe engine tune.
Beware of Warranty Issues
If your ride still has a substantial amount of warranty left on the engine, it might be advisable to wait to tune until it’s gone. True, there absolutely are tuning programs that allow you to revert to stock. Unfortunately, as tuning becomes increasingly popular, dealers are becoming better at detecting when ECU flashes have been used. Here’s a classic example:
Teenager buys a used WRX with 120,000 miles. Teenager gets an Accessport and ups the boost way, way beyond what is recommended on an already shaky boxer engine. Engine decides it no longer wants to be an engine and grenades. Teenager reverses the tune, takes his ‘Rex to a dealership and pleads ignorance. As cases precisely like this example become more common, dealers are becoming more aggressive about discovering flashes, tunes, etc.
By waiting for the warranty to go, you get the most coverage you can for the engine and then can tune away guilt free (within reason). Moderate tuning while under warranty can be done successfully, just don’t be too surprised if your dealer discovers something is up.
Don’t Rely Only On Software
ECU tuning is an awesome way to get the max potential out of your engine. Pair a quality tune with basic bolt-ons, and the ceiling can be raised even higher. Simple modifications like a (quality) cold air intake and exhaust system can dramatically increase the effectiveness of ECU flashes. In fact, we recommend starting with a solid intake and exhaust system before even heading for a tune. With that approach, not only will performance increase, but any added strain on the engine will be reduced. Plus, as if any of us need one, it’s a great excuse to order more car parts.
By keeping these three areas in mind, you’ll probably be surprised by how much safe potential your engine has without a huge investment in bolt-ons. Feel free to blame us if that results in your daily driver tuning into a beast of a project car.
Photo credit: COBB Tuning