In today’s ultra-competitive automotive world where fuel consumption, horsepower, and emissions are paramount, modern vehicles are controlled by computers in order to meet these opposite and conflicting demands. And presiding over the multitude of separate computers on any vehicle is the ECU (Engine Control Unit) – sometimes called the ECM (Engine Control Module).
This central control computer analyzes data from all other sensors such as current throttle and brake pedal position, overall speed, exhaust temperatures, outside temperature, air intake flow rate, vehicle fluid temperatures, transmission load, and much more. It also records these parameters in order to study and adapt to an individual driver's style and match their level of aggressiveness in driving.
Analysis of these factors is rapid and ongoing by the ECU. To achieve an optimum mix of power and economy, the ECU routinely adjusts engine settings such as air/fuel mixture, ignition pulse width (timing), idle speed, automatic transmission shift points, and much more. The greatest achievement of computer controls is that these and any number of other engine running factors can be adjusted to an almost infinite number of settings. Before ECUs, engine factors were mechanically set and extremely limited in variability, because any dynamic running changes had to be performed by manual devices.
Even though today’s ECUs allow huge flexibility, most automobile manufacturers limit their ECUs to a fixed number of settings in order to deliver the most satisfying results to the majority of carbuyers – buyers who see automobiles as an appliance to get from point A to point B, and who have no particular interest in gobs of power or extreme mileage.
Outside of these “common ground” settings, all vehicles built in the last several decades already contain the built-in ability to produce more power or go further on a gallon of fuel. All that’s needed to tap into those bonus wells are some simple electronic adjustments to engine parameters. Enter superchips – otherwise known as “performance tuners”. Superchips are also be referred to as “programmers” – a term that may include units which track and modify certain engine parameters without increasing power output.
In the scope of this article, we'll look at what performance tuners do, how they do it, and the range of choices available in the performance tuners and programmers section of our website.
What Power Tuners Do
Aftermarket performance tuners can adjust parameters to increase engine power and torque. For example, the ECU determines the quantity of fuel to inject into your engine based on input from a number of sensors. If the throttle position sensor is showing that you're pressing the accelerator pedal further down, and the mass airflow sensor shows that more air is being sucked into the engine, the ECU will then inject more fuel into the cylinders.
Power tuners give a “boost” to your vehicle’s performance by enabling you to adjust the settings for the ECU. Once that’s done, even higher levels of fuel can be injected – more than the factory settings provided. But this additional power that’s created must be managed properly in order to prevent engine-damaging “knock” and undue stress on automatic transmission components.
If you’ve got a turbocharged engine, sending a modified signal to the ECU telling it turbo boost pressure is below target values will cause it to raise the boost pressure to what it thinks is the correct value. Unchecked, this can cause errors in fuel mixture and ignition timing – which can cause power losses and raise exhaust and catalytic converter temperatures. To compensate, the ECU will incorrectly call for a richer air/fuel mixture. This will usually result in check engine fault codes, and it will shorten the life of expensive catalytic converters.
To avoid these woes, power tuners are capable of recognizing these problem areas and optimizing air/fuel mixture by setting ignition timing at proper intervals needed for higher power levels, higher RPMs, and higher engine loads. Engine performance is smooth with a noticeable increase in performance, and emissions levels aren’t affected.
If necessary, power tuners can de-fuel the engine briefly to prevent stress on automatic transmission components such as the torque converter clutch. If excess slippage is occurring, power tuners can recognize it and reduce engine power to keep components from frying.
Greater Fuel Economy
Power tuners with settings to increase fuel economy adjust throttle response to a more gradual level, giving a driver greater control to ensure fuel doesn’t get wasted during acceleration. Engine timing is adjusted accordingly, air/fuel mixture is made leaner on fuel at times when the engine isn’t under load, and transmission shift points are remapped to allow upshift to higher gears sooner.
Consistent, responsible action on these fronts will deliver higher-than-factory mpg levels under normal and relaxed driving conditions. In fact, using an increased economy setting for daily driving will probably save you enough money to recoup the cost of your controller many times over.
How About On-Screen Display Of Vehicle Information Not Otherwise Visible?
As a natural result of interfacing with your vehicle’s ECU, performance tuners gain access to all the data flowing through it – a staggering array of information that is tracked but not displayed on your vehicle’s instrument cluster. Because many of the performance tuners we offer have large color display screens, real-time readouts for battery voltage, fuel pressure readings, coolant temperature, air intake temperature, trans fluid temperature, engine rpms, and other information become available.
Should you choose to monitor additional information your vehicle’s ECU is not equipped to read, many of these display tuners offer optional cables and input jacks are available that can be installed anywhere you choose for read boost pressure, any fluid temperature, air temperature, and more.
Power tuners with large-screen displays may also have built-in input jacks that allow the screen to serve as a backup monitor when any additional camera is installed. They can also serve as a DVD player upon request.
Recording Track Runs
If you want scientific readouts for zero-to-sixty times and quarter mile speeds the way automotive publications obtain them, we've got units that record and display that information for you. Red, yellow, and green colors will typically flash on the screen racetrack style, then the monitor begins recording all speed and distance using information directly from your ECU. When the run is over, a timed graph readout will be shown and can be uploaded to your computer.
Diagnose And Clear Check Engine Light Fault Codes
Most power tuners we sell are equipped to display any diagnostic trouble codes your vehicle's ECU has flagged, even before they've registered significantly enough and for a long enough period to turn the check engine light on. You'll know about any kind of problem with your vehicle, and you'll be able to delete those fault codes and turn check engine lights off. Dealership service departments typically charge an hour of labor to do this, so your savings will add up quickly.
Tuners with large screens typically include all features such as power/economy/towing settings, displays for monitoring engine criteria, track time recording, and diagnostic trouble code retrieval and clearing. They also will have the ability to calibrate your speedometer and offset incorrect readings that result when larger tires have been fitted and/or a different final-drive gear ratio has been installed for quicker off-the-line acceleration.
To this end, Edge offers the Evolution CTS2 Programmer with a turbo timer kit that automatically keeps the engine running until operating temperatures cool down, and the Juice With Attitude CS2 Programmer that adds 2 to 3 levels of extreme performance for vehicles with strengthened drivetrain and engine components. Diablosport offers the Intune I3 Programmer, and the Trinity Programmer that can store up to 5 aftermarket tuning programs, and comes with settings for aftermarket cold air intakes and superchargers with custom-sized pulley wheels.
The Banks Six-Gun Diesel Tuner Performance Module is created for full-size diesel trucks and specializes in power increases, with 5 levels above stock that can result in gains of up to 128 horsepower and 345 ft/lbs of torque when mechanical modifications have been made. Bully Dog offers the GT Platinum Programmer and Triple Dog GT Tuner for a wide range of makes and models - the Triple Dog GT Tuner can even generate a time slip which can be printed and mailed by Bully Dog.
High-Function Units Without Large Color Display Screens
These performance tuners tend to have many, if not all, of the features that full-screen units do at a slightly lower cost. For example, the Banks AutoMind Programmer reads/clears fault codes, boosts economy, power, and towing parameters, records track times, and can monitor over 20 sensor values. Hypertech's Max Energy 2.0 Power Programmer enhances performance/economy, addresses fault codes, adjusts cooling fan kick-on temperatures, and can eliminate cylinder cut-off functions.
The Edge Evolution Programmer is designed to enhance power/economy/towing, address fault codes, compensate for tire sizes, and adjust rev limiters and transmission shift points. JET's Dynamic Spectrum Tuner specializes in GM cars and trucks back to 1996, and can increase power, address fault codes, adjust transmission shift points, idle speed, cooling fan kick-on temperatures, and limiters for RPMs and overall speed.
For slightly less money, Hypertech offers the Max Energy Programmer with a range of features but without the power programming ability. Additionally, Hypertech’s Max Energy Sport Programmer is specifically designed to increase power on Asian performance cars with/without turbos and superchargers as well as variable-valve timing. It can address fault codes and adjust top speed and rev limiters.
We have a good selection of programmers that specialize in one or several functions, giving you features you really want without paying for others that you don’t. The Banks Economind Performance Module is for diesel pickups only, and emphasizes the driver who values tracking their fuel economy. It’s got a large full-color screen that shows clear readouts for mileage, fuel savings, cost savings, and much more. Additionally, it can also be used to enhance power when you need it for towing.
Hypertech’s Interceptor Power Tuning keeps it simple with one power increase level as well as calibrations for vehicle functions such as cooling fan kick-on temperature and top speed limiters. The Banks Bullet Performance Model is a small round pod that boosts power on diesel pickups for performance and towing.
For those seeking maximum value, we’ve got “chip” type programmers. These install under the hood where they piggyback onto your vehicle’s ECU, and perform one to two functions generally. For late-model BMWs with turbo engines, the Dinan Dinantronics Performance Tuner raises turbo boost pressure and maximizes power while managing all engine parameters. For Ford Powerstroke 7.3-liter diesel engines, the Banks Big Hoss Engine Calibration Module has 5 levels of power increases that can be selected before installation when the chip is interfaced to your PC. Levels 1-4 are emissions-legal, while level 5 is an extreme power boost not recommended for street use. For GM diesel-powered trucks, the Diablosport Extreme Power Puck Module offers multiple power levels and one setting that can boost fuel economy. This underhood device is wired to an in-cabin switch that changes power levels.
We know that these features sound exciting to many of you; they certainly sound exciting to us! Be sure to plug in your exact year, make, and model vehicle so that our site can steer you to the units most appropriate for your ride. Concerned about installation? Don't be. These devices plug into the OBD II port under your dash. Once you're set up, get ready to enjoy a whole new level of driving excitement, for which you didn't even need to raise the hood!