It has been more than a year since we revisited the topic of engine management. We find ourselves ruminating about this again because, after a lengthy engine rebuild, our Project Elantra’s ECU was found to be as fried as some of the Colonel’s best dishes. Needless to say, it sucks, donkey balls.
On Part 1 of this series, we featured three ways of dealing with the need to retune your fuel-injected car for the mods that you have most certainly have had done. It is best that you revisit that article so you have a basic idea what we’re on about.
We continue the series with further tuning options for your consideration, as well as some further thoughts in this regard. Do read on for more. And please do not hesitate to comment away if you think we’re huffing ether with the stuff we’re writing about.
The need to upgrade engine management may be due to many things. This series of articles is written in the assumption that the engine in need of proper management has been extensively modified from OEM specification, or maybe even fitted with forced induction.
Perhaps one is reading this in the hope of increasing power from an otherwise standard powerplant. You are probably aware that the manufacturer programmed your car’s ECU settings to err more to the side of safety and reliability. There is power to be unlocked from the conservative planta tune.
But remember, tuning is merely unlocking and optimizing what you have under the hood. To actually create the power that engine management controls and maximizes, you’ll have to improve upon the components of horsepower.
More air and fuel means more power. More revs means more HP. Bigger displacement, via increase in bore and/or stroke means more power. More cylinders means more power. Better engine combustion efficiency and breathing means more power. While engine management plays a part, all of these factors are mechanical constructs, the manipulation of which has been done since time immemorial.
Take a look at the past trends of engine hot-rodding. Bigger engines, more cylinders, forced induction via engine- or exhaust-driven superchargers, more valves per cylinder, bumpier cams, precise engine building tolerances, lighter rotating parts, high RPM operation. Nothing new. It is just the manner of controlling combustion events have changed.
Engine management is just making sure everything runs in the right manner in the right timing and without exceeding bounds on rev limit, engine temp, exhaust emissions, air/fuel ratio, etc. The wiring, programming, and tuning of whatever engine management solution you are considering must be done by an experienced specialist. We are lucky to have found that sort of expertise from the people of Haltech Philippines.
3. Consider your options (for parts a. to c., consult Part 1 of this Tip.)
d. Retune the stock ECU
This option actually re-configures the settings in the ECU instead of altering the signals it transmits. Such settings are stored in the ECU’s EEPROM (erasable programmable read only memory), and over the years, various tuning solutions were developed to finagle with it.
A long time back, there were companies like Superchips that supplied EEPROMs with better tuning pre-programmed for stock to lightly modified cars. Specialized installers had to open the ECU, detach the standard EEPROM, and resolder the new one in. The more aggressive tune did net additional horsepower for the customer. But if you had to retune because you majorly modified the engine, you had to request for a custom tune, which they will then program and send to you. The problem with that is, the chip tuner and the car to be tuned may be in opposite corners of the globe. The chip tuner has to guesstimate the right tune for the car. He would most likely get it right, as the car may run well, but not to the level of maximizing power. And also, if you err on giving even one specification to the chip tuner, the car will not run well. You’ll have to send the chip back and forth to resolve the matter.
Soon afterwards, certain shops developed the ability to retune certain ECUs by acquiring equipment to reprogram the boxes without swapping EEPROMs. Instead of chipping, you send your stock ECU to them and wait for them to reprogram it and send it back. Basically, you get the same problem as earlier, unless you live close to these specialist tuners. Or you fly them tuners in, just to tune your car. We’ve heard of Hyundai Genesis Coupe owners in the PH do exactly that and group-bought a ECU reflash from a Korean dude who was imported for that purpose.
With the evolution of OEM ECUs, manufacturers can have their dealers flash in an updated tune to resolve bugaboos not resolved by the boffins back home. The chip tuner, seeing the potential, soon developed handheld devices that can store different set of tunes for different needs, and allowed the customer to pick and choose what tune he wanted by flashing it to the car by himself.
Nowadays, if you’re lucky, you can have your stock ECU modified to be tunable via a regular laptop PC, or flash them with your own custom tune. For example, Honda peeps have various choices such as Hondata, Uberdata, or Crome. Nissans have Nistune. Mitsus and Subarus have ECUFlash. Other manufacturers and models may have other options available. With these innovations, not only is the ECU user-programmable but also non-OEM settings can be made available, including but not limited to launch control, boost control, and on-the-fly map change for different fuels.
If the aftermarket provides a user-programmable modified stock ECU solution for your car, locally accessible to you via parts availability and tuner experience, then by all means go for it. You retain the stock functionality of the ECU, as it will still drive your gauges, you will not lose your vehicle immobilizer, no cutting and splicing of the wiring harness, and so on. At the same time, you will be able to properly run your not-so-stock modifications. However, if your car is not blessed with such aftermarket support, or if you need to go beyond just to get your car running right, then the only better way than a piggyback is to go for the stand-alone ECU route.
e. Deep-six the stock ECU with a standalone, programmable aftermarket ECU
This is it, the totally balls-out solution to your tuning woes. If none of the above options applies to you for any reason whatsoever, this may be your last resort. Wait, that sounds too dire. It really isn’t – because standalones are awesome.
What standalones do is to eschew the entire stock ECU together. You remove the ECU, and you wire in the standalone ‘box. The standalone utilizes the stock sensors, or employs some or most of its own, to detect what’s going on with the engine. Based on those readings, it outputs signals to the fuel injectors to squirt some fuel or to the ignition to light the spark plugs, based on a map of settings on a particular load, airflow, temperature, and RPM.
The creation of the map is done by first establishing engine idling, then by inputting values on the map/s just to get the engine revving throughout the range somewhat, keeping air-fuel ratios (AFRs) on the rich side, and then fine-tuning to get the best power possible. With many modern standalones, if equipped with a proper wideband AFR sensor, there is a fantastic tool called ‘quicktune’, where tuning is made drastically simpler by just telling the ECU to adjust the figures on the map that would make the engine have a particular AFR.
Cheaper standalones, like the Haltech Sprint 500 that we use, are geared towards the basic control of engines with low cylinder count and thus have limited capabilities as compared to their more pricey brethren. High-end standalones provide additional capabilities that may include turbo anti-lag strategies, boost control, nitrous oxide activation, data logging, shutting the engine after a countdown (otherwise done by a turbo timer), lighting up a shift light, launch control, selectable maps to account for better fuel and higher boost, and so on.
Basically, the differentiating factor between models of programmable ECU from the same manufacturer can be seen by comparing the amount of inputs and outputs each model has. The same generation of ECUs from the same manufacturer share similar software packages. Such software is updated in future generations, usually improved upon in ease-of-use, ease of tuning, better user interfaces, increase of and control of new engine management core functions and add-ons, and so on.
Newer ECU generations are now weather-tight and heat-resistant so the units can be located in the engine compartment, use the latest in communication protocols between tuning laptop and ECU and ECU to other nifty devices, and so on.
If you’re lucky, you can get branded standalone ECUs that would plug-and-play onto the stock wiring harness. You get all of the advantages and all available tuning strategies afforded by the aftermarket ‘box, while at the same time eliminate the need to splice or replace the entire wiring harness. If you aren’t so lucky, standalones are normally universal and can be adopted to the majority of engines, regardless of cylinder count or even design (think Wankel).
Standalone ECUs are for you if you have drastically modified your engine, introduced it to forced induction, or otherwise demand a high amount of control of the engine, AND tuning with your stock ECU is not feasible or is insufficient for your needs. You will accept the molestation or even the eradication of the stock engine wiring harness. You will accept the fact that you’ll not be going to the casa and instead be seeing your tuner every single time you have a engine diagnostic problem. Though, if he’s good, you shouldn’t see much of him unless something of a freak nature has happened, or if you had a major upgrade.
There are many brands of standalones on offer. Some may have better doo-dads than others. But the true test of a good standalone is the tuner or the set of tuners who have embraced the platform. Good customer service, respectful to inquiries and returning customers, enthusiasm and candor. These are what we found when we met with Art Rodriguez and decided to run a Haltech ‘box on our Project Elantra.
f. Convert to carburation
This option is really like using a daguerreotype to take pictures for Facebook. You can’t get more Cro-Magnon than fitting a carburetor to your electronically-controlled modern engine. Though in fairness, we have seen Toyota Starlets running 4AGE engines converted to carburation, and they sound great, making otherwise disheveled Starlets sound like what their nameplates evoke. Their Weber sidedrafts are quad trumpets that bleat out mechanical aural pleasure.
And, yes, with carbs, the fastest Starlets in Slalom still continue to kick ass.
Our personal preference is towards electronic engine management over the old-school option. Yes, we’re the same type of unsophisticate that prefers a dumb basic quartz watch over a schmancy timepiece with a mechanical movement. Yes, we understand the allure of restoring how and what the ancients used to do it way back when. But we are midway through our twenties. Our generation’s collectibles will be the cars of 90’s vintage. And the majority of them are fuel-injected.
You can tune carbs via a screwdriver and changing jets. Can’t say the same for an ECU. Again, the induction noise of some of the best carburetors are ethereal. They make otherwise inert automobiles seem alive and temperamental, flawed like you and me.
As humans, sometimes we don’t want to wake up in the morning. We become fussy and sometimes even belligerent. We become gluttonous and yet not eke out a commensurate increase in productivity, just being wasteful and fat. Many people don’t understand our quirks, but those who do, we get along with very well. The same is true for carb’d engines.
Grandiose personification aside, we’re not discounting carburation. It’s still a valid engine management device. Until recently, NASCAR race engines were fitted with them, and they aren’t wallflowers as far as power is concerned. And yes, the Starlets in local motorsport still run Weber DCOE’s. Much in the same way that typewriters are still relevant in the Windows 8.1 age, let’s not dismiss the versatility of the old mixing pot. But also, let’s be realistic. If you want a no-fuss, least-compromise tunable option, you can always buy a PC – este – a piggyback or a standalone.
We’ll revisit the topic of carburetion in a future article in this series.
4. Find a reputable tuner to hold your hand, or do it yourself , just Get it Done
Once you decided what route you will take, now is the time to figure out how to get it done. Finding a tuner that would help you out is the most critical.
The true value of an upgraded engine management solution is the tuning input done by a professional. The tuner is the determining factor to how well your engine will run and and how reliable it will be. What is the use of buying a super-duper programmable ECU when the guy installing it will just put in nonsense settings? Or worse, wire it to the car wrong and toast its innards to a crisp.
If you want to do it yourself, then by all means. Take your sweet time researching the do’s and how’s. Get yourself the proper tools, including but not limited to wideband air-fuel ratio meter, timing light, OBD2 scanner, laptop PC, oscilloscope, etc. Learn how to solder and crimp connections properly. Learn as much as you can about electrical circuitry. Have patience and be prepared to face difficulties.
Happy tuning, keep it slow as always, and catch the next installment of this series, where we talk about carburated turbo setups. If you disagree with anything written herewith, feel free to gesticulate via the comment function below.