Tuner - A Buyer’s Guide
- A tuner improves your car’s performance by changing the “tune” or performance settings programmed in the vehicle’s powertrain control module.
- Tuners reprogram the EEPROM chips in your OBD-II-compliant car.
- You can perform changes like increasing the horsepower, adjusting the fuel mixture, changing the ignition timing and spark advance, and others. Some tuners also work as OBD scanners.
- You need an engine tuner to reprogram the engine’s computer so it can take full advantage of performance parts installed in the car.
- While a tuner and a power programmer both improve the vehicle’s performance, they are very different devices.
- On CarParts.com, a tuner can go anywhere between $204 and $1,530.
- Before buying a tuner, check your vehicle’s warranty to see if reprogramming its tune will void the warranty. Start with preset tunes until you gain experience. Keep your tuner safe and do not lose it.
Computers control many parts of your car. The engine, for example, falls under the purview of the engine control unit, also known as the powertrain control module. The settings programmed into modules like this ensures that the vehicle operates within the performance specifications set by its manufacturer.
However, you may need your vehicle to perform differently. Perhaps you’re customizing a stock vehicle for higher performance. Or you may find yourself dissatisfied with the factory standard performance settings.
Enter the tuner. This electronic device improves your car’s performance by changing the “tune” or performance settings programmed in the powertrain control module.
What is a Tuner?
Also called “performance tuners” and “engine tuners,” tuners are reprogramming tools. They let you replace the standard settings in your vehicle’s powertrain control module with a different “tune.”
How Does an Engine Tuner Work?
You can use an engine tuner on any modern vehicle that complies with OBD-II regulations. It plugs into the same diagnostic port as an OBD scanner.
Engine tuners access the Electronically Erasable Program Read Only Memory (EEPROM) chips in OBD-II-equipped vehicles. Since tuners are factory-allowed reprogramming tools, they can change the programming of EEPROM chips.
If you own an older vehicle built before 1996, you will need to replace the original Program Read Only Memory (PROM) chip with an EEPROM performance chip. The older PROM chips cannot change their programming.
What Can a Performance Tuner Accomplish?
Tuners grant you control over the engine and transmission systems. You can calibrate the settings for various parts of the engine to increase its horsepower and torque.
Depending on your performance tuner’s model and your vehicle’s year, make, and model, you can perform:
- Increase the horsepower of both gasoline and turbo diesel engines
- Adjust the fuel mixture
- Change the timing of the ignition and spark advance
- Move the shift points of automatic transmissions, such as the gear number, speed, and gear ratio, so that the transmission shifts earlier or later than normal
- Raise the revolutions per minute (RPM) setting of the rev limiter, allowing the driveshaft to spin faster and produce more power
- Adjust the speedometer to take into account different tire types
- Tweak the speedometer to work better with different axle ratios
- Adjust the speed limiter to factor in the speed rating of tires, especially performance tires that can handle higher speeds for longer periods
- Download tuning profiles developed to get certain levels of performance, such as increased power
Some tuners can also take up the role of OBD-II scanning tools. These devices can read diagnostic trouble codes logged by the engine control unit. They can also clear the codes after the repairs finish.
Why Do You Need a Tuner?
If you wish to enhance the performance of your turbocharged or supercharged vehicle, you will need an engine tuner to reprogram the engine’s computer. Otherwise, the car cannot take full advantage of improved fuel injectors and other high-performance parts.
Car owners who replace stock engine parts with aftermarket performance parts will also need an engine tuner to recalibrate the powertrain control module. Replacing engine parts drastically changes the way it operates. You must replace the factory-issue fuel and ignition curves in the engine’s computer with a new tune that factors the aftermarket parts into its calculations.
Comparing a Performance Tuner and a Power Programmer
When you go looking for a performance tuner to enhance your vehicle’s performance, you may come across power programmers. These electronic devices also adjust the engine and transmission parameters to increase the vehicle’s performance, but they’re not the same as tuners.
A power programmer goes on your vehicle’s engine control module. You can install it through the OBD adapter below the dash.
Once it’s connected, the programmer tweaks the module’s computation to match the performance-boosting settings stored inside it. The module transmits the new signals to the engine’s electrical parts, which change the way they operate.
Some power programmers come with multiple performance profiles. Each profile tailors the vehicle’s performance for a certain role, such as conserving fuel or towing a cargo trailer.
A performance tuner changes the vehicle’s performance by altering the factory settings in the engine control module.
Meanwhile, a power programmer is essentially a second computer module that overrides the engine control module.
Tuners improve your car’s horsepower, torque, and fuel efficiency.
Power programmers maximize the vehicle’s power and fuel mileage. They also keep track of the important functions of the engine.
Tuners enjoy compatibility with any OBD-II compliant vehicles built in 1996 or later. They can also work on pre-OBD-II vehicles if you replace the stock PROM chip with a compatible performance chip.
The PROM chip of some vehicle models got soldered onto the main circuit board of the powertrain control module. You cannot remove or replace the chip.
However, you can hook up a power programmer to the vehicle’s PCM wiring harness. Acting as a second computer module, it can trick the vehicle’s PCM to change the signals sent to the ignition and fuel injection systems.
How Much Does a Tuner Cost?
The price tag of a performance tuner depends on the functions built into the device. The more capable a model, the higher its cost goes.
On CarParts.com, a tuner can go anywhere between $204 and $1,530. They usually come with cables for plugging into the diagnostic port.
Our website’s filter bar can help you find the most suitable engine tuner for your vehicle. Enter your vehicle’s year, make, and model in the bar to browse our wide listing of tuners quickly.
Tips on Using an Engine Tuner
Getting a tuner to tweak your car’s engine control unit? These tips can help you.
Check Your Vehicle’s Warranty
Before purchasing an engine tuner, review the warranty for your vehicle’s powertrain. Altering the settings in the powertrain control module to a performance tune may render the warranty void.
Start With Preset Tunes
A tuner comes with several pre-programmed tunes courtesy of its manufacturer. These tunes take into account common changes to your car’s engine, such as aftermarket performance parts.
If you are new to tuning, start with one of these preset tunes and tweak it until you get the performance you want. Avoid coming up with custom tune adjustments unless you gained enough experience in using tuners. You can cause serious damage to the engine if you experiment with the settings.
Don’t Lose Your Tuner
Once you use a tuner to change your car’s engine settings, only that device can perform any future modifications to your vehicle’s computer.
If you lose the tuner, you will need to reflash your car’s powertrain control module. Not only will you get forced to bring the vehicle to the dealer, but you will also have to remove all aftermarket modifications and return the stock parts.