One of the sometimes overlooked methods to increase horsepower, torque and even improve fuel economy is vehicle tuning. This is also commonly referred to as chip modding or re-programming the ECU. What this entails is uploading a new program into your vehicle’s computer that changes many control parameters of your car’s electronic control system. These include but are not limited to revising fuel mapping, increasing or retarding ignition timing, and changing shift points to name a few. On older vehicles, such as early 1990’s LT1 based Camaros and Firebirds the computer chip may have to be physically removed from the car and replaced with an upgraded reprogrammed unit. However in most vehicles from the mid 90’s to present day, there is a port found underneath the dashboard on the drivers side that allows access to the vehicle’s onboard computer. Via this port one is able to completely upload new, revised programming into the CPU to either increase horsepower, get better gas mileage, or both. This can be all done without even opening up the hood in most cases!
Power Gain and Fuel Economy
Typically chip programmers have been marketed and designed to increase horsepower and torque in modern day cars. However due to the recent run up in gas prices over the last several years we are seeing more and more companies choose to gear their programming towards improving fuel economy and gas mileage rather than increasing power. This can easily be done because the computer controls the air fuel mixture and ignition timing of the vehicle which can be manipulated either to increase power or raise gas mileage.
Depending on your car’s make, model and year the benefits of chip programming vary wildly. For example on a late 90’s LT1 or LS1 5.7 liter engine upgraded with re-tuning it is not uncommon to gain anywhere from 20 to 40 horsepower and/or torque. On a smaller 4 cylinder high revving engine, tuning will provide a much smaller horsepower gain perhaps on the order of 10 hp or less, and it will be concentrated higher up in the rpm band as well. Each manufacturer makes their own claim as to what can be gained with their chip programmers.
Fuel economy benefits to tuning come by decreasing the air fuel ratio slightly such that less fuel will be injected into the system. Some tuners will also reprogram the ECU to lower a vehicle’s shift points so that you are always at a lower rpm while driving. To read a more detailed description of how this helps fuel economy check out our manual transmission section. In addition they may also reprogram the torque converter to lock itself up at lower speeds than normal. This will stop the converter from slipping while connected to the transmission which will transfer more power to the wheels and raise gas mileage. Some manufacturers claim gains of a few to several mpg with their fuel economy programmers.
There are several major advantages to chip programming, especially in this modern day and age. First they are relatively cheap for the amount of power they can give you compared to other modifications. They have a high horsepower to price ratio. Prices on the order of a few hundred dollars are not uncommon for chip programmers. Secondly they are extremely easy to install. In fact this modification is probably one of the easiest if not the easiest mod to install in your vehicle. They are maintenance free. There are no mechanical parts that need to be serviced as with other modifications. The only disadvantage we have found to these systems is that some of them may void your vehicle’s manufacturer’s warranty.