Computer Chip Upgrade

Tuning your car's computer for performance

In the good old days, car buffs could fiddle with their carburetors, make a few adjustments and end up with improved performance. The power increases focused on the enthusiast's particular application, ranging from outrunning the other guy's Camaro or heavy-duty hauling for a functional pick-up truck.

Horsing Around

Carburetors have evolved into fuel injection, and eventually everything under the hood has become computer controlled. In the evolution of "fiddling," the aftermarket industry came up with computer chip upgrades, which were originally pretty intimidating to anyone without a degree in computer science. Evolution finally produced a 21st-century version of "fiddling with the carburetor" in the form of computer modules, designed for 1996 and newer vehicles, that even the computer-phobic can install.

But, "Why bother-" you may ask. The answer depends on your driving style. Auto manufacturers basically program vehicle computers to suit who they consider "average drivers." For performance enthusiasts or light truck owners who actually use their trucks like trucks rather than station wagons, the "average driver" designation and subsequently tuned vehicle does not meet their needs.

Performance enthusiasm is not limited to sport compact speed freaks. Commuters who battle death-defying freeway on-ramps five days a week and those who maneuver up and down steep grades just to get to the grocery store can also be candidates for a little computer module fine-tuning.

How Upgrades Work

There are a number of computer upgrade companies-Hypertech, Superchips, Kenne Bell Performance Products, JET Performance, to name just a few. There are variations in product from company to company, but here's how computer upgrades generally, work: The tuner or programmer module can be connected to your 1996 and newer vehicle's ALDA connector, which is the plug that mechanics use for diagnostics. The tuner reads the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to determine how the vehicle's computer is programmed. Tuner, or module, manufacturers have a range of options. For instance, Hypertech's Power Programmer III gives you the option of tuning for various octanes of fuel, ranging from 87 regular to 92 premium. From that point, the module takes over, recalibrating the computer's parameters, or, in the old terminology, re-tuning the vehicle.

Those parameters include elements of performance, or vehicular behavior, that most non-car buffs aren't even aware of but, nevertheless, deal with every time they put the key in the ignition. Here's a near-layman's version of just a few of those parameters and the changes an aftermarket computer module can make:

Computer Parameters

EXTENDED REV LIMITER provides an extended rpm range, or wider powerband, which comes in handy when you need a quick burst of speed to avoid an accident or enter a fast-moving, crowded freeway. Most drivers understand what the "red line" is-the maximum rpm (revolutions per minute) your engine can handle. The module moves that limit up for more emergency power, but not so much as to put your engine at risk.

COOLER FAN ON/OFF temperatures create a lower, cooler, engine operating condition. This isn't rocket science. The cooler your engine runs, the longer it lasts and the more efficiently it operates. All good things.

FIRMER SHIFT POINTS for automatic transmissions. When those shift points are optimized by speed and rpm, the end result is improved acceleration. Example: You're cruising the freeway in top gear and need immediate acceleration to pass or avoid a high-speed mishap-you need a firm, decisive shift to access your engine's power.

INCREASES TOP SPEED LIMITER to match the top speed to the speed rating of high-performance tires.

CORRECTS SPEEDOMETER/ODOMETER for non-stock tire sizes. Vehicle speedometers are calibrated to stock tire/wheel sizes. If you've opted for a larger wheel/tire package, for higher vehicle clearance or just for aesthetics, or if you've changed your 4x4's gear ratios, then your speedometer and odometer are no longer pinpoint accurate. You may not consider this a critical issue, but try explaining to a trooper that you're speedometer doesn't jive with his radar scanner because you're running oversized tires. You'll still get a speeding ticket.

The primary focus of all the available computer upgrade modules is engine efficiency-the optimum air/fuel mixture. This can (but not necessarily WILL) result in improved fuel economy. Here's one example of some of the parameter changes on a Dodge Cummings Turbo Diesel: an increase of 65 horsepower and an additional 185 lb.-ft. of torque. That's a significant improvement from not doing much more than punching a few computer keys!

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