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Basics of 
Performance chip tuning

Photo Credits: Florian Schneider (@flotography)
iKnowAuto Staff
In this article, we will discuss the basics of performance chip tuning and how despite the stress performance chips can add to your engine, performance chips and ECU flashing still remains an integral part of the tuning process after hardware updates.  
MAR 14, 2019

A brief history on performance chips; they became popular in the '90s with dramatic advancements in the electronic and software engine management, manufacturers installed small, read-only chip modules that contained preset values controlling spark timing, fuel injection, throttle control, and boost control (for turbocharged engines).

  • Spark ignition - they tell sparks when to light up
  • Fuel injection - without it, injectors would not “know” how to inject fuel at just the right moment (and how much of it)
  • Throttle control - values that say just how much throttle valve will open at a certain point in time in the chip module control
  • Boost control - they tell the turbocharger how much it can spool up and how much boost should it produce

With that said, it is safe to assume that back in the '90s and for some cars in the early 2000s, performance chip modules were like the brain of the engine. Now, with slight changes in the preset values, aftermarket specialists developed performance chips so that they release hidden engine potential - more power. After some parameters are changed, all the installed hardware will start to behave differently. In simplest of terms, performance chips would allow a bit richer fuel mixture, slightly change ignition timing, and slightly alter change throttle response. Resulting in about 10-20 more horsepower, maybe more for turbo-diesel engines.

Today, however, performance chips are no more. Performance chips are replaced by what can only be described as computers. Welcome, the age of the Engine Control Unit (ECU).

You might still wonder why manufacturers do not do this in the factory? Well, original software is usually perfectly programmed to provide the optimum balance between performance, power and engine wear. What Performance chip tuning (or ECU flash) does is put more stress on all the elements. Tuning the engine this way would probably void the warranty. Now, I could go into great details describing how wear and tear actually occurs, but TL;DR it means a shorter lifespan. However, if you do it right and do not go for power overkill, you can avoid major engine problems.

K&N 63 Series AirCharger (#63-2592)
Hedman Stainless Steel Hedder (#82300)
Magnaflow Competition Series (#16885)

However, performance chips and ECU flashing can be used for a number of other things as well. It is, actually, an integral part of the tuning process after hardware updates. See, one may benefit the most from chip tuning or ECU reflash after installing new elements on the engine - such as a new cold air intake kit (K&N Air Charger), new headers (Hedman Stainless Steel Hedder), or a new exhaust (MagnaFlow Competition Series). This way, the engine will definitely behave differently compared with its original setup. Just the right changes within the software will definitely have the most profound effect on the engine power and engine characteristics. Some, like AEM Performance, provides full-on Software solutions.

Some other characteristics that performance chip tuning or ECU flash may control:

  • Electronic throttle control
  • Poppet valve timing
  • Boost control (for turbocharged engines)
  • Anti-lock braking system
  • Automatic transmission
  • Speed limiter
  • Electronic Stability Control system

Here are our picks for the top Performance Chips for your vehicle:

Dashpaq for Ford Gas - 1060 (Superchips)

Superchips Dashpaq for the Ford Gas - 1060

One of the most popular Superchips offerings is a product named Dashpaq for the Ford Gas - 1060. It is an ECU tuner adapted for use on newer Ford engines including the 3.5L, 3.7L, 4.6L, 5.4L, 5.0L, and 6.2L naturally aspirated motors and the 2.7L and 3.5L Ecoboost motors.

Apart from receiving a full tune-up kit which is bound to increase the power of any of the presented gas engines, the Dashpaq for Ford gas trucks and SUVs includes an innovative and rather cool in-cab monitor designed to provide an insight into all engine parameters such as coolant temp, transmission temp, battery voltage and the like.

Depending on the application, Superchips do promise a noticeable power gain from 20hp to 86hp.

Computer Chip Stage 1 Auto Transmission (Jet Performance)

JET Performance Chips Computer Chip Stage 1 Auto Transmission

As noted above, performance chips in their original form were actually pieces of hardware carrying reprogrammed software solutions which affected engine behavior after installation. Usually created for older cars, they can improve fuel consumption and increase power as is the case with the JET Performance Chips Computer Chip Stage 1 Auto Transmission made for a 1981-1995 GM car, truck or SUV.

Although intended for use with naturally aspirated engines, the JET Performance Chips do promise a healthy power increase of 23hp.

Installing the chip will provide a full range of Dynamic Spectrum Tuning of the air/fuel ratio, ignition advance, transmission, and various other parameters. This will affects the ignition timing, power delivery, torque curve and more.

Banks Power Six-Gun Diesel Tuner(#61022)

Banks Power Six-Gun Diesel Tuner Power System

This ECU tune-up from Banks Power can increase the power of the 2007-2010 Chevy 6.6L diesel motor by incredible 120hp and 210 lb-ft of torque at the wheels. Interestingly enough, like the Superchips Dashpaq for Ford Gas, this one comes with a dedicated 4.3-inch display which shows all important information about the engine.

Banks Power does promise a lot:

“Optimum fuel tuning for awesome sport/street power, built-in safety, and adjust-on-the-fly power, plus CleanTune Technology. Calibrated for sport applications, Six-Gun delivers pavement-shredding power with CleanTune technology, which out-performs dirty, smoky tunes.” 

AEM Infinity 508 Programmable ECU(Photo Credits)

AEM Infinity 508 Programmable ECU 30-7108

Offering one of the most recognized programmable ECU systems on the market, AEM definitely is the one to look for if your software is in need of a major update. Bear in mind that the AEM Infinity 508 Programmable ECU isn’t exactly a chip tuning, nor is it ECU flash tuning. It is, in fact, an all-new fully programmable ECU adapted for use on newly developed systems.

This ECU offers full configuration options running on the latest generation 200 MHz automotive processor that can process 400 MIPS.

It will allow users to adapt all engine properties:

  • Flex-fuel and multi-fuel capability
  • On-board wideband air/fuel control
  • Map switching and knock control
  • Coolant Temp Protection
  • Oil Temp Protection
  • AFR vs. MAP
  • Air Intake Temp
  • Knock and fuel pressure control

Equally important is the fact that the Infinity 508 offers programmable drive-by-wire, variable cam timing, boost control, nitrous control, and traction control systems.

In short, if you are installing new hardware such as new intakes, new exhausts, headers, air filters, or changing other important parts of the engine (or suspension for that matter), this is the ECU unit you will need to program to use all of the new hardware to the best of its potential. It is not by chance that the system is best utilized with racing cars, off-road machines or some other special use vehicles. In this case, the Infinity 508 is adapted for V8 engines, although AEM Electronics do have programmable ECU units adapted for cars or four-cylinder and six-cylinder engines.

In the simplest of terms, the AEM Infinity 508 will replace the conventional ECU unit and allow for unrestricted programming of engine parameters.

Change the intake, enter new values and the ECU will adjust all other parameters (fuel injection, ignition timing and everything else). AEM offers a whole range of ECU reprogrammable units. There is a downside, though - you are allowed to use it on racing engines.