Keeping your vehicle’s engine in tune (Part I)

ARE you not happy with the power your engine is giving you? There are solutions, and of course they depend almost entirely on how deep your pockets are.

ARE you not happy with the power your engine is giving you? There are solutions, and of course they depend almost entirely on how deep your pockets are. Almost any engine in any car can be adjusted, tweaked, modified and tuned to give more power. This will depend on the amount of money you have to spend, the more you put in, the better the vehicle’s performance will be! The simplest and easiest modification to most modern engines is called chipping.

When it was first introduced, it involved removing the chip that contains the ignition map from the engine management system, and replacing it with one with a modified map. The new chip was designed for better torque, increased power, or just smoothing out flat spots in the power or torque curve of the engine. Nowadays, chipping is referred to as Remapping.

In those days, one had to just replace a chip out of the ECU. That’s so 90’s. Today, when you cough up your hard earned cash at a tuner house, they’ll plug a laptop into your engine diagnostics port and upload new software which changes all manner of things from turbo control, fuelling maps, engine load and torque limiters all the way up to throttle-by-wire response where applicable.

They write their own software after studying (read: reverse-engineering) the car’s ECU parameters using a rolling road and a laptop hooked to the diagnostics port. From there they can re-write the engine management software to do what they want rather than what the manufacturer wanted. Petrol cars respond well to remapping, but for some reason, diesels respond much better, especially VW diesels. It’s not uncommon for a remapped VW ECU to generate 30% more power and torque after it’s been breathed on. Add a turbo to that and you can see even wilder gains. Realistically you ought to expect around a 5-7% increase in horsepower from a chip or remapping operation.

Getting your car remapped will take a couple of hours if you go to a reputable tuner shop. They’ll pop your steed on a rolling road and hook it up to a dyno to get it right. In some cases, you can get a remapping module which sits in-line with the factory-fitted ECU, and then you can download or create your own mappings and upload them to the unit yourself. Power Commander are one of the more notable manufacturers of this sort of system, although theirs is predominantly designed for motorbikes.

But how can this work? More torque and horsepower without changing anything in the engine! Well, bear in mind that from the factory, most cars are sold to be more economy and comfort biased than performance biased. Most engines have a lot of slack for generating more power or torque; it’s just a question of having the expertise to find it. A lot of work does go into these chips and remapping programs which is why they can cost upwards of $400 for a quality branded product.

Whilst it might only be 5 per cent by the numbers, you likely will notice some of the other effects, like smoother acceleration due to flat-spots in the torque curve being ironed out. Everyone I know who has chipped their vehicles has enjoyed the modification, and relative to what you can do to a car, it’s a pretty cheap modification.

Something to be aware of: chipping or remapping your car will likely void any warranty you have on it, because you’re messing with the onboard computer which in turn is going to adjust the running of the engine to be “different” from factory spec. And by “different”, the manufacturer normally means “no warranty”.

Having said that, some tuner houses have perfected their software to the point where manufacturers own diagnostics computers can’t tell that an engine has been remapped. In that case it becomes a moral issue for you - is it invalidating the warranty if they can’t tell? (To be continued)


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