ECU tuning, also known as “chip tuning,” refers to the process of reprogramming a vehicle’s electronic control unit or ECU. ECU tuning allows you to optimize your vehicle’s performance in a number of different areas, from fuel efficiency to increased power output or even better emissions standards.
A Fabspeed ECU upgrade chip for the Ferrari 488. Source: Fabspeed Motorsport.
In this article we’ll look at some of the best ECU tuning shops from around the country. Whether you live in the heartland, the deep south, Texas (they hate it when you call them the “deep south”) or the coasts, you can get a professional-grade ECU tune up for your vehicle at a reasonable price.
What’s the Point of ECU Tuning?
For as long as cars have existed, people have wanted them to go faster and run more efficiently. ECU tuning helps accomplish that. It’s sort of like waving a magic wand to unlock your car’s hidden potential.
Engine manufacturers use a so-called “conservative” ECU map that is designed to accommodate as many different kinds of drivers as possible. In the U.S., for example, a conservative ECU map is calibrated for average weather and road conditions in North America, with a mix of highway driving and in-town driving in mind.
From a sales perspective, this makes perfect sense. The manufacturer of the vehicle has no idea what particular customer will buy the car or where they will drive it, so a generalized, jack-of-all-trades ECU tuning is the most logical choice.
And indeed, for the average consumer, the factory ECU map is perfectly fine. Many drivers don’t even know that the ECU exists, let alone that it can be modified for optimal performance.
ECU Tuning is about getting the right combination of variables for peak engine performance. Just like tuning a musical instrument, the ECU includes a number of parameters that must be synchronized.
ECU tuning will allow you to unlock the hidden potential of your vehicle. But, as you can see from this frankly head-spinning display, ECU tuning is definitely not for everyone. Source: DSPORT Magazine.
Old-school ECU tuning did, in fact, involve swapping out physical chips in the engine computer of a car. But ECU tuning nowadays mostly involves updating software through a standard interface such as the vehicle’s on-board diagnostics (OBD) port, using a diagnostics scanner or similar device. This lets you alter characteristics of your engine and increase horsepower with no new physical parts required.
This software update is known as a “re-flash.” Re-flashing will allow you to:
- Raise the rev limit: This will increase power of the engine by letting it rev higher on average. Note that this requires your engine to maintain good airflow at higher RPM to avoid engine failure due to overheating.
- Raise the governed top speed: Many manufacturers put hard caps on the speed of their vehicle (155 mph for BMW, for instance). Removing this limit will, of course, allow you to go much faster. Be aware, however, that this practice is illegal in many parts of the country. Some states enforce strict limits on when and where re-flashed vehicles can be deployed. ECU tuning devices from AEM, to take one example, are strictly forbidden on most roads and are intended only for racing.
- Air-to-fuel ratio: By altering the air-to-fuel ratio, you can adjust the power output of the engine. Air-fuel mixtures can be lean, ideal, and rich depending on how much air is sent into the engine and how much oxygen is left over at the end of the cycle. The ideal mixture for a gasoline engine is about 14.7 grams of air to 1 gram of gas.
ECU Tuning vs. Dyno Tuning
ECU tuning is not to be confused with dyno tuning. While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there are some important differences between the two.
Essentially, ECU tuning modifies software whereas dyno tuning modifies hardware. Both optimize a vehicle’s performance, but in different ways. We spoke to an expert from Top ECU Tuning in Cary, NC who has done automotive tuning since the early 90s. “With a dyno tuning, they’re going in and manually changing setting right there on the spot.” In contrast, ECU tuning “is basically a pre-set tune we’ve determined to work for what we’re trying to accomplish for the customer.”
ECU tuning is a software-based process.
“Dyno tune can alter settings on the spot. You can go in and shave off a few seconds from your track time, optimize power bands for each gear ratio—it’s very specific and you need to know exactly what you’re doing.”
“We’re using a predetermined file that will adjust everything cohesively, for one ultimate goal, to get more horsepower essentially.” However, he added that “we did use a dynamometer to test the settings and determine the correct software” for the ECU tuning processes. Hence while ECU tuning settings are tested under real road conditions using a dynamometer, the ECU tuning process itself is software-based and does not require physically operating the vehicle.
Source: Engineering Explained; phone interview conducted with a tuning expert from Top ECU tuning (07/22/2020).
ECU Tuning Near Me: 5 Great Shops
If all this has piqued your interest and you’re looking to tune up your own ECU, there are a number of good options all across the U.S. You can start by choosing a major ECU specialist like COBB or ECU Tuning Group and use their dealer locator to find a shop near you. Alternatively, you can focus on high-quality independent auto shops with ECU tuning services.
In the South: Top ECU Tuning
Top ECU Tuning, located in central North Carolina, will build a “custom dyno tested tune” just for your vehicle. This means that Top ECU will design a set of tuning specifications that is optimized and tested for your car and driving habits, all with a turnaround time of 24–48 hours.
Their re-flashes have the potential to increase your horsepower and torque by up to 40% or improve your fuel economy by up to 10%. All of their tunes are tested and developed on a dynamometer—sort of like a treadmill for your car that simulates real road conditions that allows for optimal data collection and tuning specification. This means that Top ECU is the place to go for all your dyno tuning and ECU tuning needs.
For example, if you drive a Jeep Grand Cherokee, you’ll get “better high-end torque and power and, with the SRTH, you’ll get a lot of rear-end torque, better jump off the line” for both on- and off-road use. “Better transition between gears, both up and down, so you don’t lose momentum as easily.”
According to the experts from Top ECU, “we’re taking the factory tuning and making it run without the restrictions installed by the manufacturer.” This can “optimize the performance of each power band, which will improve your quarter mile by 5%.” Top ECU promises “proven, reliable custom ECU tuning which will increase HP up to 40%, which gives you better throttle response.” They especially wanted to emphasize how their ECU tuning is equally suitable for both roads and racetracks: “you can go from street to track and back without having to do anything to your car in between.”
Source: Top ECU Tuning; interview conducted with tuning expert from Top ECU Tuning (07/22/2020).
In Texas: COBB Tuning
As we’ve discussed previously on car-engineer.com, COBB Tuning has tons of licensed (and unlicensed) dealers across the country. COBB is perhaps best known for the Accessport. Originally designed for Subaru vehicles, the Accessport was one of the first handheld ECU devices. It is to this day one of the most popular and successful.
The COBB Accessport is one of the most popular ECU tuning devices for Subaru. Source: MAPerformance.
Unlike most ECU devices, the Accessport can perform two kinds of re-flashes:
- It can install a “base map”, which essentially refers to your car’s hard-drive memory. Parameters set in the base map remain until you alter them, even if you reset the ECU or power down the whole system. This makes re-flashing the base map a permanent reprogramming, as the only way you could undo these changes would be to re-flash your ECU with yet another base map.
- Second, it can re-flash with a “real-time map.” This is not saved to the ECU’s hard drive, but instead affects your car’s random-access memory (RAM). This re-flash will be lost if the ECU is ever reset.
You can check out the COBB dealer locator as well as the list of authorized dealers on their website. The list of authorized dealers includes hundreds of shops across the country, while the locator will list all shops within your search area and provide full contact info.
Source: COBB Tuning.
On the West Coast: ECU Tuning Group
Formerly known as Singh Autosport, ECU Tuning Group was founded in Fremont, California in 2004. Though they’re roots lie in the West, ECU Tuning Group now has locations all over the country. Check their list here.
Getting a Dyno tune at ECU Tuning Group. Source: ECU Tuning Youtube.
They are the self-proclaimed “leading vehicle performance enhancer” in North America. They have the software and expertise to tune up the ECU of your Audi, Bentley, BMW, all the way down to Volkswagen and Volvo (are there any “z” car manufacturers out there?).
For example, if you wanted to get an ECU tune up for your Audi, this page lists all their procedures and price points.
Source: ECU Tuning Group.
In the Northeast: NL Tuning
If you need an authorized APR tuner in the Northeast, check these guys out. Next Level Tuning (or NL Tuning if you’re in a hurry) specializes in German cars, specifically Audi and Volkswagen. Located just outside of Pittsburgh, they are an authorized APR and United Motorsport (UM) dealer offering flashable programming installation, in-house APR Programming, and ECU solder installations.
A couple of Audis waiting their turn for a tune up. Source: NL Tuning
Among their APR products is the APR 1.8 TSI Generation 3 ECU upgrade for MQB platform. This ECU upgrade is available in octane-specific variations and is flashed to your vehicle’s factory ECU through the OBD-II port. No physical modification to the factory ECU is required. Software-only solutions are a particular strength of APR tuning devices and NL Tuning specializes in providing them to all Volkswagen and Audi drivers. Click here for more details.
Also, just to be safe, don’t confuse these guys with No Limit Tuning, a motorcycle tuning shop in Switzerland.
Source: NL Tuning.
England (with dealers distributed all over the world)
EcuTek Technologies Ltd. offers technical tuning products based around performance car engine management technology. EcuTek designs and produces high-performance tuning and remapping programs for Subaru, Mitsubishi, Mazda, and Nissan vehicles. They will perform a clean re-flash of the standard ECU and will customize your ECU for almost any driving circumstance.
You can use their dealer locator to find locations near you. Over 200 dealers in more than 40 countries use EcuTek software to provide a top-quality professional re-flash.