Are Tuners Worth It?

Click Here to Begin Slideshow Whether you use software installed on a laptop, like Haltech’s ECU Manager, or a handheld tuner, you will see and feel the benefits of tuning your powertrain for performance. Image courtesy Haltech.com. Movies like those in the “Fast and the Furious” franchise have brought automotive tuning software to the forefront to the mind of almost every gearhead driving a new car. I’ve had a number of friends ask me if I thought they should spend the money on this or that piece of software or physical tuning device and then invest the time required to learn how to use it properly. The key there is “learn how to use it properly,” since any schmuck can plug a tuner in and punch a few buttons. That schmuck can even experience some improved horsepower and economy numbers. However, like any other high tech device or software, learning how to use it properly takes time and effort, trial and error.

Are Tuners Worth It?

Click Here to Begin Slideshow

Whether you use software installed on a laptop, like Haltech’s ECU Manager, or a handheld tuner, you will see and feel the benefits of tuning your powertrain for performance.
Image courtesy Haltech.com.

Movies like those in the “Fast and the Furious” franchise have brought automotive tuning software to the forefront to the mind of almost every gearhead driving a new car. I’ve had a number of friends ask me if I thought they should spend the money on this or that piece of software or physical tuning device and then invest the time required to learn how to use it properly. The key there is “learn how to use it properly,” since any schmuck can plug a tuner in and punch a few buttons. That schmuck can even experience some improved horsepower and economy numbers. However, like any other high tech device or software, learning how to use it properly takes time and effort, trial and error.

What’s Out There for the Hot Rodder to Use?

Superchips’ Flashpaq F5 Pro is one of the most popular handheld engine tuners on the market.
Image courtesy superchip.com.

As mentioned above, there are both software packages and handheld or dash-mounted tuning devices that can be used. For example, Haltech Engine Management Systems offers their ECU Manager software, which you install on a laptop. It comes with a USB cable that plugs into your car’s diagnostic port under the steering wheel. The software allows you to control boost, fuel delivery, ignition timing, shift points, torque converter lockup and quite a bit more, all in real time. Some of these programs even let you control boost pressure and oxidizers/combustion “helpers,” such as nitrous oxide and water/methanol injection systems.

Handheld Options are Convenient

Hypertech offers the Interceptor tuner for HEMI engines. This is a plug-and- forget tuner that fully installs inside the engine bay.
Image courtesy hypertech.com.

There are two types of handheld or dash-mounted devices on the market. The first are from companies that most likely haven’t supplied you with any other aftermarket go-fast goodies. Superchips is one of these companies. They have a number of products, including the FlashPaq F5. Superchips is one of these companies. They have a number of products, including the FlashPaq F5. This device is menu-driven and allows you to change a number of operating parameters to improve fuel economy and power output, as well as calibrate your speedometer when you’ve swapped transmissions, rear gears and/or tires.

Included With Kits

The Bully Dog Triple GT is also a popular tuner, especially with truck owners.
Image courtesy bullydog.com.

Another type of handheld programmer/tuner is the kind that comes with an aftermarket kit or component you’ve installed. For instance, Holley Terminator EFI kits come with a handheld/dash-mounted controller that allows you to plug in some information about your car and powertrain, and then the device will optimize the system for you. There are also options for you to do some fiddling with certain parameters so you can fine-tune the system for the particular conditions of the moment. Some of the Holley EFI kits can be upgraded using a software download to laptop control, allowing you even finer control over your engine’s performance.

Professional Tuning - Easy Option

This is what it looks like when you take your vehicle to a professional engine tuner.
Image courtesy Haltech.com.

Your last option, in terms of physical and mental difficulty, is the easiest. However, it’s also likely to be the most expensive. It’ll probably also be the quickest overall in terms of how much time you have to spend actually tweaking with settings and such, because you won’t be doing any of that. This option is to set an appointment with a professional engine tuner and let them hassle with everything. What they’ll do is strap your vehicle onto a dynamometer and plug your car into the dyno and a computer running tuning software; as they run your engine through the RPM band, they will tweak each and every setting possible so your engine delivers the most horsepower and torque, and so as much of it as possible gets to your drive wheels.

How Hard Are They to Use?

The Precision Code Works tuning software is super easy to use.
Image from screen capture.

Quite simply, how hard engine tuners are to use depends on what you’ve got and what you want to do with it. As I said above, taking your vehicle to a professional tuner is as simple as it gets, except in terms of the impact on your wallet. The small handheld tuners like those from Holley and Superchips are as easy as doing it yourself can get. Normally all you have to do is answer a few multiple choice questions and the tuner does the rest.

Multiple Options

The Precision Code Works software gives you menu after menu to select OEM and aftermarket performance equipment that you’ve installed before you get into changing the base tune on your ECU. This makes it so you have less work and thinking to do and don’t have to understand timing and fuel tables as well as a professional.
Image from screen capture.

Software packages like those from Haltech are as easy or as hard to understand as you want to make them. What this means is that most of them can do some basic stuff for you like a handheld unit can. However, once you’re ready to start getting into finer control over your powertrain’s operation, like controlling shift points, torque converter lockup, and boost pressures, up to “power adder” injection systems, it starts to get a little more difficult to use. However, ones like the Holley systems are quite intuitive to use and come with excellent directions and instructional videos, as well as free tech support.

Benefits and Gains of Tuning Software and Tuners

Some makers of handheld tuners, like Bully Dog, give you various mounting options that will allow you to glance at the tuner’s screen while still keeping your eyes on the road/track.
Image courtesy bullydog.com.

The most obvious benefit of investing in either a piece of software for your laptop (and there are some, like the Holley application, that are free) and handheld tuners is that you don’t have to spend something like $400 to $1000 every time you install a new piece of performance equipment. You can just plug in the tuner/software and do it yourself.

The other benefit is the gains you will (not “you might!”) gain in doing so. You can see gains of as little as ten horsepower up to a hundred or even more, depending on whether you’re tuning in conjunction with something new or tuning a bone stock engine, and what kind of engine/trans combination you have.

Another benefit is that most of what’s available will allow you to back up a “street tune” when you install a “race tune.” This will allow you to keep your streetability but still give you the power you need at the track. The good ones, like those from Holley, will also deal with boost pressures and timing, as well as nitrous/alky/meth injection timing. This alone is worth it to me, since I’ve seen guys blow their engines up when they haven’t used their nitrous or meth injection correctly. Tuners will “stage” these systems so that they come into play incrementally and not all at once. I’ll admit, that all at once is a real kick in the pants, but it’s also really hard on your drivetrain. The added longevity and reliability from your engine is worth it in the long run.

On a Related Note, What Is Chipping?

Superchips originally made their name back in the early 90s by supplying us with reprogrammed PROM chips for our early computer-controlled cars with the OBDI engine control modules.
Image courtesy pelicanparts.com.

Back before the OBDII engine control system was made standard, we had OBDI. The only way to change any of the mapping parameters of the engine was to open the ECU and change the Programmed Read Only Module (PROM) chip. You went to your local speed shop, bought a new chip and swapped it out to get more power and performance. You told the supplier what you had, how much of a gain and where you wanted it, and they’d send you out the chip to install with instructions on how to do it.

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About Mike Aguilar 202 Articles
Mike's love of cars began in the early 1970's when his father started taking him to his Chevron service station. He's done pretty much everything in the automotive aftermarket from gas station island attendant, parts counter, mechanic, and new and used sales. Mike also has experience in the amateur ranks of many of racing's sanctioning bodies.
  • Drew

    In addition to learning how to apply it for your specific automotive/motorcycle applications,in how You’ll be using that added power,when it comes on,etc.

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