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Tune Your 4x4 With Electrons

Posted in How To: Engine on January 1, 2011
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Photographers: Mike McGlothlin

Technology is everywhere. From your cell phone to your 4x4, the electronic invasion seems to be ever-growing. And while many of these new tech devices make day-to-day living a little more blissful, wrenching on the new gadget-filled autos can be frustrating.

With stricter government safety mandates in place and an overwhelming push in the U.S. to out-gadget the next guy, the future of automobiles may be more in the hands of the computer scientist than the gearheads of old. In fact, we'd be willing to bet that by 2015 most, if not all, dedicated wheelers' toolbags will be filled with more electronic testers and tuners than ever before.

Although a handheld programmer will never take the place of a tire plug kit, it could be the most important tool you have in your ride. While this reality frustrates many classic car enthusiasts, it shouldn't. For all their seeming limitations and nanny functions, there is a performance Mecca hidden beneath those flashing dash lights. The key to technology is to not fight it, but rather figure out how it can work for you.

To examine how one can manipulate the modern-day auto's electronic controls, we're taking a look at some of the most common tuning features that the modern handheld programmers have to offer. Though it's one of the most common and affordable tuning approaches, the handheld programmer and its array of features and functions are not always well understood. In this article we'll break down some of the most important functions of the programmer and offer a little insight into your vehicle's intricate onboard computer.

On The Average
Modern vehicles are programmed from the factory with a mild performance-based tune. These factory programming parameters are designed to meet or exceed Federal emissions standards and are factored into the life expectancy of the vehicle and its powertrain components. Tweaking these factory parameters can adjust power, fuel economy, and the performance of the vehicle, but will likely void your warranty.

Tuner Options
All tuners are not created equal. Depending on your vehicle, one tuner may offer advantages or more features over another. For this article we are focusing mainly on the Superchips Flashpaq handheld programmer. The Flashpaq is a modestly priced tuner that simply plugs into your OBD-II port to access and modify information and parameters such as shift points, tire size, and octane-based performance tunes. Once the tuner is mated to the vehicle, it can only be used on that particular vehicle, unless all the tuning options are returned back to stock.

Access Ports
Part of what makes it possible to tune your ride and access its critical data system easily is the onboard diagnostics (OBD) port. Though onboard computers have been around since the '80s, it wasn't until the mid '90s that the computer-monitored emissions systems became more advance and the next-generation access port (OBD-II) became the mainstay. OEMs and the aftermarket began to utilize the port for more than just emissions data, but as a virtual life plug into the vehicle. These ports (which are generally found on the driver side of the vehicle, below the dash) are capable of uploading and downloading valuable information that's stored on your rig's computer or ECM (electronic control module).

Tuning Levels
When it comes to programmers, most people buy them with the hope of gaining more power. This power boost is achieved by downloading a performance-based tune. While the names of the tunes vary greatly (race, economy, tow, and so on), each has its own specific parameters. By downloading a preloaded tune, you are modifying air-to-fuel ratios, spark timing, injection pressure, shift points (if applicable), rpm limitations, and a host of other electronically controlled features.

It's In The Map
Maps are the blueprints your vehicle runs off of and can be divided into two categories, real time and base. Both real and base maps are at the core of your vehicle's electronic engine management. A base map is comprised of a list of set numbers, tables, and parameters that your engine uses to default to and build off of. Real-time maps are constantly adjusting parameters as the vehicle encounters factors such as elevation, load, acceleration, and temperature. While programmer companies remain tight-lipped about their exact tuning calibrations and methods, we have learned that many choose to create modified real-time maps to layer with a custom or standard base map. What does all this really mean? It's still all a little bit of black magic to us as well, but there is an easier way of looking at it. Think of a performance tune as installing the newest version of your favorite Internet browser onto your home computer. The new browser is designed to work faster, smarter, and overall better, without damaging your computer or removing any features that you already enjoy.

Take Note
Data logging is a tuning service feature that allows you to individually review and monitor readings from your engine. It also allows you to track and compare performance data. This gives you the ability to compare performance numbers before and after engine upgrades such as an intake and exhaust system. While there are many levels of data logging, the most basic and highly informative are available on many of the latest handheld programmers.

Programmer Payout
We've tested many programmers over the years on various diesel, gas, and high-boosted engines. While performance results have varied, the utility of the programmer has been invaluable. The ability to clear and read DTCs (diagnostic trouble codes) earns most programmers their keep right out of the box. And with options like tire size, gear ratio, and idle control all part of these new operating systems, programmers have also become a must-have for anyone with a lifted late-model 4x4.

Computer Tuning
When most people think of computer tuning they often think of laptops. In a certain way this association is accurate because most handheld programmers are in essence mini laptops with simplified operating systems. Do PC-based systems still have the upper hand? Yes, but only when in the hands of an experienced professional. Most PC-based tuning software is designed to work in conjunction with a vehicle dyno. A well-trained dyno tech can create a custom tune specifically for your vehicle. While a dyno session is not cheap, for those with high-performance engines and aftermarket turbo- and supercharger kits it's a sound way to ensure that your vehicle is getting the most performance safely.

So what if the only onboard diagnostics system you have is your buddy in the passenger seat? Well, there is still hope! Professional Products has developed the Powerjection III fuel injection conversion, which combines modern technology with old-school engines. Part of what makes the system so unique is its built-in computer, which is fixed to the side of the throttle body. Provided with the kit are software and a special USB plug that allow you to finely tune the injection system. Though it's not exactly plug-and-play, it's very straightforward and comes with step-by-step instructions that are easy to follow.

If your ride is pre-1996 and equipped with an OBD-I computer port, then there are tuning options for you as well, namely the plug-in style chips that simply piggyback on your vehicle's onboard computer. While not as advanced as the OBD-II programmers, plug-in chips are still a valuable way to increase the performance of your ride.


Professional Products
Hawthorne, CA 90250
Superchips Inc.
Sanford, FL 32773

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