Tuning options explained

If you’re not familiar with what a tune or tuning is, then check out the article explaining tunes, What Does a Tune Do?.  Be aware that I’m just covering the most common ways to get tuned.  If I’ve missed any, please let me know in the comments.

So you’re ready to get a tune.  What do you get?  There are many different options, which one is best for you?  Let’s go over each option and then you can decide for yourself.

Chips

Sometimes you’ll hear the term “chip” or I’m “chipped” when referring to tuning.  Chips are the oldest form of tuning and back in the day, tuning companies literally sold you some type of ROM chip that would replace the chip in your computer.  Some of them plugged in to a socket and some of them had to be soldered in.

This is quite antiquated since there are so many aftermarket EFI (electronic fuel injection) and EMS (stand-alone engine management) solutions that replace old OEM ECUs for those older cars, and newer cars use more advanced computers that can be accessed using a laptop.

But the term chip is still in use today and can refer to different things.  The most common is the eBay performance chip.  Stay away from these.  Most are garbage and do not do anything at all.  I don’t mean results, I mean literally they don’t do anything!

There are some eBay solutions that do actually do something, but how they do it is by tricking the ECU in one way or another.  Usually it’s just an inline resistor.  For example, some of them install inline to the intake air temperature sensor in order to trick the ECU into thinking it has colder air than it actually does so the ECU will potentially increase timing.  Different devices do different things, but in the end, they just trick the ECU and that’s a bad thing.

Piggyback

There is the piggyback option which does have many successful applications.  A piggyback will connect to the factory ECU and will either have a plug and play setup or will need to be spliced into the wiring harness.  These can either be plugged into the input side, or output side of the ECU.

A piggyback that sits in front of the ECU will modify the inputs going into the ECU. This again is just tricking the ECU, but generally in a smarter way.

The post-ECU piggybacks will modify the output from the ECU to accomplish different things such as changing injector duration, ignition timing, boost control, etc.

In some cases piggybacks are referred to as a chip.

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OBD2 Plug-and-Play

There are also some OBD2 options that claim 40hp and 40tq just by plugging them into your cars OBD2 port.  Most if not all of these are scams.  If anyone has actual proof of their own I’d be interested to see it.

Friendly note: If the site you’re trying to buy your tune from also sells electric intake super chargers, please don’t give them any money!

Reflash

The best way to tune a car is to change the actual tune itself.  This means reading and writing to the ECU or actually replacing the factory ECU with a pre-tuned ECU.  This process is called flashing or reflashing (which is a term carried over from the old chip days!).

There are plenty of tuners that will have you ship your ECU to them, they will write or “flash” a new tune to your ECU and then send it back. These are usually basic canned tunes.  We’ll cover what canned tunes are in another article.

This is a viable option and sometimes the only option to get a tune depending on the platform.  Be sure you do your research and select a reputable company.  Please note that you have to find a tuner that knows your specific platform.  While it is possible, don’t expect a Chevy tuner to know how to tune your BMW.  Even still, a tuner specializing in Corvettes may not be the best to tune your Camaro.  You want to find a tuner with a good reputation and proven results in the community.

In the same vein is to go to a tuner and have them install a tune for you.  It can be a canned tune or a custom tune.  You can drive to the tuner’s shop or the tuner can come to you.  If you’ve ever heard the term, “tuning event”, that’s what it refers to. The tuners will travel to the event location and spend the day tuning cars.

Self-service & Email Tunes

Next up is installing the tune yourself.  This is done using an OBD2 cable and a laptop or a handheld tuning device like the Diablo Sport InTune, and Cobb Accessport.  These devices all connect to and use the OBD2 port to read and write the tune (perform the “flash”).  The Cobb AC and Diablo Sport tuners are currently not available for the Genesis Coupe platform, and most likely will not be in the future.

It’s common for the handheld devices to come with canned tunes on the device so you can pick which tune you want to install.  These are commonly referred to as “OTS”, or “off the shelf” tunes.  Usually they give you tune options for 91 octane and 93 octane, but you can also load on custom tunes.

These devices are great for working with remote tuners.  You’ll hear the term, “email tune”, and what this means is a tuner will send you a tune file via email and you’ll load it to the car using the handheld tuning device or a laptop. We’ll cover how custom tunes work in another article.

The handheld devices usually also let you make changes to the tune yourself using a simple interface. You can change things like timing and fuel trims, add boost and so on. But it’s usually very limited and coarse grained.

Stand-alone Engine Management

Then there are complete stand-alone engine management systems or EMS.  These are actual replacement computers for your car. You may have heard of Haltech, Motec or AEM offerings.  There are plenty of others, but these are a few of the more common ones.

An EMS replaces your factory ECU and is designed to be fully programmable.  Some of the problems tuning factory cars are that the ECUs are proprietary, encrypted or just flat out limited in what can be done do to age or hardware constraints.

An EMS is highly customizable and offers a variety of additional features. I won’t cover the full scope of an EMS, but along with a full suite of software packages for setup and tuning, they also provide additional inputs to run different sensors or setup custom activations, which isn’t possible with most factory ECUs. These options are great for custom car builds, full on racecars and cars with limited tuning availability.

An EMS can certainly get you to your goal and increase your available pool of tuners, but it can be cost prohibitive and even technically prohibitive, meaning you’ll need an expert to help you install and/or set it up.

So, that’s a basic run down of tuning options.  Your best bet is to do your own research for your specific car, and learn about each of the options available and evaluate the pros and cons. Cost should only determine if you do or do not get a tune; it should not determine which option you go with.

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About the author: Dustin Davis

I'm a car enthusiast always learning and sharing with other enthusiasts. My goal is to help novice enthusiast learn the fundamentals so they can start modifying their car the correct way. You can learn more by checking out my YouTube Channel