A Beginner's Guide to Chip Tuning: The Pros & Cons

Published by on . Updated on 18 Jun 2020

Motorist Guide To Chip Tuning June 2020
(Photo Credit: AutoTimesNews)

Can you get more power from your car without actually making any performance modifications? Find out more in this article!

A modern car is a series of computers running together to keep all the systems working. Your car radio and air-conditioning system uses an electronic management system. Your key fob requires a computer interface to communicate with the car's alarm system. So do your wipers and headlights. Heck, even your car’s engine is controlled by computers!

ECUs: The "Brain" of the Car

With so many electronics running in tandem to make a car work, a central “brain” is required to manage all these systems.

Just like the Central Processing Unit (CPU) is the “brain” of an iPhone, all modern cars have an Engine Control Unit (ECU) to control all the systems running it. And just like how an iPhone can be jailbroken to give the user more control over its functions, the computer within a modern car can also be hacked to give you more power and performance.

Motorist Ecu Tuning June 2020
(Photo Credit: SubPNG)

There is a whole “Chip Tuning” industry that is dedicated to the “hacking” cars, and there are two main methods that experts use to electronically tune a car. Here's a brief guide on how each method works, and their pros and cons:

ECU Tuning

Motorist Obd Tuning June 2020
OBD Tuning (Photo Credit: eirtuning)

ECU tuning is known by a few other names, such as ECU flashing, or chip tuning. Without getting into too many technical details, the ECU of the car controls a multitude of parameters related to how much air and fuel enters the engine’s combustion chamber.

The simple idea is this: the more air and fuel is inside the combustion chamber, the more power is produced. Car manufacturers usually set the parameters of this air-fuel ratio to be lower than it needs to be, in order to meet emissions regulations, or to ensure engine longevity.

Tuners hence tap into the ECU to modify these parameters, in order to unlock more power for your car.

This is done in two main ways: electronically through the Onboard Diagnostics (OBD) port, or physically through “bench-tuning”, by directly accessing the ECU to dismantle and re-programme it.


Pros:

With customised ECU tuning, you will have full control to tune your car however you like, whether you are looking to maximise fuel efficiency or power.

For example, you could have your tuner re-programme the car to give you more power lower down the rev range, or to increase the rev limit. If you drive a Japanese parallel-imported car, you can even delete the 180km/h electronic speed limiter from your car!

Cons:

Although ECU tuning allows you to have full customisation over how your car behaves, it is a permanent modification. If you would like to change the car back to its stock settings, you will have to go back to your tuner to make those changes.

If the tuning is done through the OBD port, a record of the tuning (also known as a “flash count”) will be made. This means if your car is still under warranty, your authorised dealer will be aware that your car has been tuned, and your warranty may be voided.

However, experts in bench-tuning will be able to dismantle, re-programme, and re-assemble the ECU and have it still look like it was untampered with. Hence, bench-tuning might be a more viable option if you are looking to conduct an ECU tune but not risk having it easily detectable.


Piggyback Tuning

Motorist Piggyback Tuning June 2020
(Photo Credit: Fandom)

An alternative to ECU tuning is piggyback tuning. Although both ECU and piggyback tuning provide your car with power gains, they work on fundamentally different principles.

Whereas ECU tuning directly re-programmes the ECU to change the car's performance, piggyback tuning does not use such a method.

As the name might suggest, rather than “hacking” into the car's ECU, an additional tuning box is added to piggyback on to the car’s existing ECU.

Motorist Piggyback Chip June 2020
A piggyback box connected to the car’s ECU (Photo Credits: Motor Verso)

This box then taps into the electronic signals that the ECU is sending to the engine, and changes the data that is being sent in order to instruct the engine to produce more power.

As such, piggyback tuning is also known commonly as box tuning/tuning box.


Pros:

Piggyback tuning is fully reversible, and can be easily installed or removed by the average driver with no technical expertise.

This means that your warranty is less likely to be affected, as you could simply remove the tuning box before heading for your servicing, and re-install it afterwards.

Your vehicle’s resale value will also be more secure, since you can easily return it to stock condition, which cannot be said for cars with ECU tunes.

Tuning boxes also tend to be cheaper, since they are “plug-and-play” systems, rather than custom jobs conducted by skilled tuners, as in the case of ECU tunes.


Cons:

Every individual car differs in performance due to age, wear and tear, and how the owner has maintained the car.

With a tuning box, you will not be able to have a tune that is specific to your particular car. Thus, power gains will be less than what a custom ECU tune can provide. You will also be unable to calibrate the car’s behaviour as specifically as with an ECU tune.

What you get instead is a general tune that will provide you with a slight power bump over your car’s stock output.

Conclusion:

Motorist Chip Tuning Power June 2020
(Photo Credit: Motorist)

Both ECU and piggyback tunes have their advantages and disadvantages. If you would like to have full control of how your car behaves and do not mind spending a bit more, and have a tune that is specifically customised for your car, then ECU tuning would be the best choice for you.

However, if you are concerned about warranty issues, and do not mind having less power gains on your car, you can choose to install a piggyback chip, which is cheaper and can be easily reversible.

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