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What is a Performance Chip?

2013 Audi Allroad (Blaque Diamond)
iKnowAuto Staff
In July of 1958, Jack Kilby developed an idea that would eventually redefine the whole concept of performance tuning. Jack put together the first integrated circuit on a speck of silicone; a feat that would earn him a Nobel Prize in 2000. 
AUG 02, 2019

Today that invention allows a billion circuits to be placed on a chip the size of a fingernail. As a result, an ECU on a new $16,500 Nissan Versa Note has 12 times the computing power of the first $25.4 billion Apollo moon shot. And that’s a roundabout way of saying that the most important part of your ride is not that 707 hp 6.2L turbocharged V8, it’s your Electronic Control Unit (ECU) and that’s where performance chips come in.

Messing with the Manufacturer’s White Bread Programming

Your ECU has chips that map out the performance parameters of nearly every component in your car or truck. When a manufacturer’s engineers create the maps, they typically establish pretty conservative parameters meaning there is room for customization. In other words, there’s room for a stock car or truck to be tuned to optimize performance.

When carmakers are programing their ECU units, they have priorities that are driven by law (emission control), and marketing (fuel economy, longer periods between scheduled services, etc.), and safety (caps on RPM).  And that’s just the start. Everything from power performance to braking has a map that tells the components how to behave.

Superchips TrailDash2 Jeep Tuner
Superchips TrailDash2 Jeep Tuner
Superchips TrailDash2 Jeep Tuner

What do Performance Chips Do? 

In theory, one stock car or truck should perform and have the same capabilities as any other stock vehicle of the same model with identical equipped. And that is exactly what enthusiasts don’t want. They want their ride to be better, badder, and uniquely their own. One way to do that is to mess with the manufacturer’s map.

Performance chips can do that.

In fact, the most common reasons gearheads opt to use performance chip systems are:

  • Increased horsepower and torque. A chip can get past factory-set limitations on revs and speed limiters. Performance chips can overlay new signals on your ECU resulting in dramatic increases in horsepower and torque turning your ride into a racing machine. And that is a problem for the chip manufacturer. As a result, some power levels can only be attained after you sign a waiver stating that you will not use those power levels on any public streets or highways.
  • Towing. If you routinely pull a ton or two of toys, you’ll appreciate the new increases in horsepower and torque. You can drive like you didn’t have all that weight on your back end. The engine can be optimized to ensure the extra stress of towing does not have adverse effects on other components. You can change shift-points on the transmission allowing you to stay in higher gears longer and eliminate hunting for lower gears.
  • Fuel economy. Any engine tune will make the engine more efficient and help with fuel economy, but a performance chiptune can take those efficiencies to a new level.
Performance Chips - Mythbusted by Mighty Car Mods

How Do Performance Chips Work?

Maybe the easiest way to understand how a tuner chip works is to think of it as an external drive attached to your computer. The external drive has programs designed to optimize your specific ride by changing the default settings of its ECU. It can, for example, change air-fuel ratio, fuel injector flow rates and spark timing and a hundred other things. It does this by signals sent to override other default signals to improve engine performance, or by custom calibrations uploaded into your car's computer to boost performance.

Tuners can be very versatile. Some optimizations, like power, not only get you a faster ride but are important to towing as well. Many chip tuners will come with preprogrammed “modes” that optimize to a specific driving function.

Chips can also allow for a personal touch. For example, you can:

  • Speedometer calibration based on tire size. If you switch out the stock rubber for bigger tires you can adjust the speedometer to reflect the accurate speed.
  • Set the maximum EGT required to enact an automatic refueling process.
  • Adjust transmission shift points to provide firmer, more aggressive shifting.
  • And a bunch more.

It’s important to remember that these programs have to fit your model and engine. So when you see a chip package with a lot of claims, make certain that those claims actually apply to the vehicle in your garage.

Obviously, how well a performance chip works depends on the wizardry of the chip manufacturer who puts the tuner software together. Choose wisely. And always, always, use a tuner program that will allow you to reset the optimization back to the factory default. You’ll want a stock ECU when it’s time for emissions testing or scheduled maintenance.