In this article we shortlisted some of the best tuners available for Ford’s F-150 EcoBoost models today.
To understand tuners, we first need to talk a bit about a vehicle’s ECU. Drivetrains of modern vehicles are electronically controlled by software logic maps stored inside the vehicle’s ECU (read: brain). These logic maps, called tune files, control hundreds of parameters related to the behavior of the drivetrain such as fuel injection, valve timing, ignition timing, gear shifts, and engine rev limit.
Tune files provided by manufacturers from the factory are relatively conservative. They are meant to cater to an average consumer, compromise on throttle response in favor of comfort, and comply with legal regulations at the same time—a jack of all trades, if you may. There is room for growth here.
What is a Tuner?
Tuners are cell-phone-sized devices that write new tune files to the ECU of your vehicle by connecting to the OBD port of the vehicle. This allows drivers to customize the character of their vehicle by prioritizing what they desire—power, gas mileage, better towing, or even calibrating the vehicle to their newly installed aftermarket parts.
Figure 2: Tuning options come in all different shapes and sizes. Source: VividRacing.
Tuners are a good way of getting the maximum performance out of your vehicle and making the most of any upgraded parts that are installed. However, there is a disclaimer required here: some tuners may increase your vehicle’s emissions beyond the legal limits depending on your state.
While tuners come in many different shapes, even the most basic ones perform three basic functions: they come preloaded with at least one tune file, they allow the storing of custom tune files (ten custom files in most cases), and they read and clear DTC codes.
By paying for some of the more high-end options on the market you get better user interface, more customizing options, a larger number of pre-loaded tune files, live data readouts and logging functionality, OTA firmware updates using Wi-Fi connectivity, and even cloud access.
Ford F-150, with its many engine options and cult-like aftermarket support, provides an amazing platform for tuning. The EcoBoost engines, primarily the 3.5L, are the most popular and provide ample room to stretch your tuning legs.
Figure 3: Ford F-150 EcoBoost engines offer a lot of room to increase performance. Source: VividRacing
How Did We Decide?
Tuners are somewhat like mobile phones. All of them will (figuratively) make a phone call and send texts. Also, like phones, it can be tricky to figure out which one is suitable for you. What sets them apart are three main factors, each of which we believe will appeal to different people.
First, most bang for the buck. This category will appeal to users who are looking for a no-nonsense tuner that will provide the most power and torque gains at a reasonable price point. They are probably not planning on upgrading a lot of stock parts on their rig.
Second, the Swiss army knife category. These users prefer good customization options for the tunes to go with the aftermarket parts installed on their truck but are probably not willing to break the bank to get a larger touchscreen.
Lastly, borderline race tech. This is ideal for people who want a finger on the pulse of their engine all the time, require space-grade data logging, and are constantly trying to refine their tune to squeeze every last bit out. Needless to say, price is not necessarily a factor in their decision.
Now we reviewed the options out there and picked the one, which we think is the best for each of these three categories.
1. Most Bang for the Buck: Bully Dog / SCT BDX
Our top choice in this category is for people who like to cut to the chase. A good tune with large power and torque gains is what a tuner should provide, and this is all they are looking for. BDX from Bully Dog (or SCT) from Florida based Derive Systems fits the deal.
Figure 4: Bully Dog BDX is a no-nonsense tuner that offers the most bang for the buck. Source: VividRacing.
A sales representative at Derive Systems told us “BDX from Bully Dog and SCT are identical and are meant to cater to brand loyal customers. This [tuner] is for people who are looking to upload one tune and be done.” It comes preloaded with just one tune that can be adjusted for parameters like fuel octane level, axle ratios, custom air boxes, tire size, throttle body size, and more.
Now the meat part, if you are looking for more power and torque, this is probably the best preloaded tune on the market. Bully Dog advertises gains of up to 149HP and 139ft-lbs of torque for 2015+ variants of the 3.5L EcoBoost engine, although this might depend on your overall setup. With 93 Octane fuel, this tune has proven under-curve gains of +126 HP and +118 ft-lbs of torque at the wheel.
Figure 5: Bully Dog BDX advertises a gain of as much as +149HP power and +139ft-lb torque, mostly in the higher RPM range with 93 Octane. Source: Bully Dog.
This is amazing! These gains are noticeable for almost the entire RPM range, but are definitely more prominent on the higher side. This ends up making the RPM vs torque curve flatter, which will provide a huge improvement in driving experience. Similarly, under-curve gains of up to +79HP and +95ft-lbs torque have been observed for the smaller 2.7L EcoBoost models as well. BDX is also compatible with the High Output 3.5L EcoBoost engine.
In addition, while being an entry level tuner, BDX has very impressive capabilities of reading and clearing DTCs, monitoring engine vitals, data logging, and is even Wi-Fi enabled for OTA updates. However, your user experience might be underwhelmed due to an extremely small screen size and antiquated push button interface. BDX also allows storing up to 20 customer tune files from external parties, and this can also be done wirelessly using their cloud platform.
BDX can be married with up to three vehicles, after which it gets locked and requires an additional $150 fee to unlock, the same sales representative told us. Plus, it will work well if you have a custom air intake or exhaust on your truck, but anything more than that will require a custom tune. One more thing from the fine print: Bully Dog / SCT BDX is illegal for use in the state of California.
2. Best Swiss Army Knife: Superchips DashPaq
Our second category is catered towards people who want something more than a basic tuner. They plan on adding some aftermarket parts to their truck and want to be able to customize the tune. Or, they are not too interested in power gains, but rather towing ability or even gas mileage.
Figure 6: Superchips Dashpaq offer three preloaded tunes that can be further customized. Source: Superchips.
Our top pick in this category is the Superchips Dashpaq. Dashpaq comes preloaded with three tune options – Economy, Towing, and Performance. Each of these three tunes can be customized to a good extent to accommodate your driving style and custom parts. In addition to common customization options such as tire size and rev limiter, it will also allow you to adjust shift points and firmness. With the 93 Octane and Performance tune option, Dashpaq put out an additional +48HP and +82ft-lb torque under the curve at the wheels for a 2016 3.5L EcoBoost.
These are considerable gains, mainly at the low end of the RPM band, which is going to make your truck accelerate much faster and also improve towing performance. Like most other tuners on the market, Dashpaq will also hold 10 custom tunes from external parties. While it is Wi-Fi enabled for OTA updates, it does have cloud access for transferring tune files.
Dashpaq has a 2.5” screen with a push button interface and can display up to six drivetrain parameters at once for monitoring. The screen layout is customizable, and it comes with a windshield mount that you can use to monitor your truck vitals on the go. DTC reading and clearing, and data logging functionality is also standard.
Figure 7: The default home screen layout of Dashpaq where it displays up to six drivetrain parameters in real time. Source: American Trucks.
Other than the three preloaded tunes, what also makes the Dashpaq a unique product at this price point is their virtual performance tests. Based on your tune, drivetrain parameters, and vehicle weight (which is entered manually), Dashpaq can simulate your 0-60 time, your quarter mile time along with trap speed, and also engine horsepower output. For our fuel savers out there, there is also a Mileage Coach that helps you improve your driving style by providing you with real-time fuel optimization strategies.
There is good news in the fine print too. Superchips offers a limited one-year warranty on the product and the tune. Also, unlike Bully Dog / SCT products, there is no limit on the number of vehicles you can use your Dashpaq with. It is also legal for use in emission restrictive states such as California.
You can purchase Superchips Dashpaq for about $460 at your preferred dealer.
3. Borderline Race Tech: Edge Gas Evolution CTS2
This category is for the best top of the line tuner available out there, and we pick the Edge Gas Evolution CTS2 to be our contender. A technical representative for Edge told us that “all three brands [Edge, Superchips, and Diablosports] are managed by the same parent [Powerteq, LLC] so the tunes available in the CTS2 are identical to the ones in Superchips Dashpaq. CTS2 has bigger screen and some additional features.”
Figure 8: The Edge Gas Evolution CTS2 is one the best top of the line tuners out there. Source: Edge Products.
Given that, tuning performance can be expected to be similar to Superchips Dashpaq (or Edge Gas Evolution CS2 for that matter). With 91 Octane setup, American Trucks reported an additional 55HP and 72ft-lbs torque at the wheels, which is also more prominent at the low end like before. Same level of flexibility and customization with the three preloaded tunes as the Dashpaq can also be expected from CTS2.
What sets the CTS2 apart, then, is its tablet like 5” HD touchscreen. As a start, it lets you adjust the screen layout and the color profile to your taste. Where CTS2 shines the most is in its data monitoring and recording functionality, which is impressively augmented by the screen. CTS2 can monitor, display, and record pretty much every single parameter in the vehicle—including g forces, throttle position, and even grade percent. This opens up immense possibilities for having a data-based approach to refining any custom tune.
The screen comes with a windshield mount and can display up to eight parameters at once in real time. There are options to have both digital and analog display layouts. You can even set individual thresholds, colors, and alarms for each of the parameters you choose to display. In addition to features like virtual performance tests, Mileage Coach, data logging and diagnostics that are available in Dashpaq, CTS2 is also able to connect to a rearview camera.
Figure 9: CTS2 offers many customizable layouts for data display and can even connect to a rearview camera. Source: Edge Products.
CTS2 comes with the same limited one-year warranty that is offered on Powerteq products, and has no limitation on the number of vehicles it can be married with. Edge offers the Gas Evolution CTS2 in a separate variant that is also legal for use in California.
Gas Evolution CTS2 is available at dealer at a price point of about $640.
Sources: American Truck Ford, interview conducted with representative from Powerteq, LLC (09/30/2020).