HID­DEN POWER

AN IN­TRO­DUC­TION TO THE WORLD OF ECU REFLASHING

NZ Performance Car - - Con­tents - WORDS: JADEN MARTIN PHO­TOS: SUP­PLIED

We like to think that some­where in the world there’s a big-wig au­tomaker exec sit­ting be­hind a ma­hogany board­room ta­ble yelling, “They can’t han­dle the truth!” in re­sponse to a lowly en­gi­neer­ing tech’s sug­ges­tion that buy­ers should be given full ca­pa­bil­ity of their cars. It’s the truth that they don’t want you to know about and the same truth that af­ter­mar­ket re­flash­ers have been try­ing to tell us about for years: there’s power to be had out of the box, if you know how to find it.

Yep, these days, most of the power scales of­fered from man­u­fac­ture are capped by soft­ware that man­u­fac­tur­ers try to lock away from you, un­less you want to pony up your hard-earned dosh.

The rea­sons why they do this vary from fac­tory to fac­tory. Some are safe­guards de­signed to cover the use of shitty fuel or to pro­tect the mo­tor from the dam­age caused when peo­ple fail to ser­vice their car. Oth­ers’ soft­ware re­stricts power to get the car to con­form to the dif­fer­ent emis­sions stan­dards for var­i­ous mar­kets. What­ever the rea­son it’s done, al­most all stock ECU set­tings are hold­ing back your car’s per­for­mance and, in some cases, com­pro­mis­ing good fuel econ­omy.

To get you the low­down on how to un­lock this hid­den power, how it all works, and what can be achieved on a fac­tory ECU in­stead of an af­ter­mar­ket unit, we hit a few in­dus­try ex­perts with all our burn­ing ques­tions — and here’s what they had to say.

In ba­sic terms, what is ECU 'reflashing' and how does it work?

Sam Bakalich from CTB Per­for­mance says: “The fac­tory en­gine con­trol unit, or ECU, is also re­ferred to as the car’s ‘com­puter’, and reflashing is the process of achiev­ing op­ti­mum per­for­mance from a ve­hi­cle by mak­ing changes to it.

“What you do, and the re­sults, will de­pend on what ve­hi­cle is be­ing re­flashed, but the idea is to tweak dif­fer­ent pa­ram­e­ters within the ECU to in­crease power, im­prove throt­tle re­sponse, torque, fuel econ­omy, etc. If the ve­hi­cle is suited to it, we use a pass-through de­vice that is plugged into a ve­hi­cle’s on-board di­ag­nos­tics (OBD) port, which reads the pow­er­train con­trol mod­ule in or­der to ob­tain the car’s strat­egy — each car has a dif­fer­ent strat­egy from fac­tory that con­sists of pa­ram­e­ters suited to its in­tended use; for ex­am­ple, ac­cord­ing to the fu­els and at­mo­spheric pres­sures ex­pected in its in­tended mar­ket. A car suited to Aus­tralia’s 50-de­gree tem­per­a­tures won’t be op­ti­mized for a colder New Zealand cli­mate and so forth.

“Our sys­tem sucks that in­for­ma­tion out, and we can tweak num­bers to get the car to op­er­ate how we please. The change­able pa­ram­e­ters al­ter de­pend­ing on the car and what soft­ware it runs. Some ap­pli­ca­tions al­low us to change things right down to the fans, when they spin and how fast. But we can al­most al­ways change the ba­sics of fuel, tim­ing, pres­sures, boost, and the like. With most ve­hi­cles, we have de­vel­oped a plan be­fore the cus­tomer has ar­rived, as we know it works. Take a 5.0-litre Fal­con with a Mi­ami mo­tor, for ex­am­ple. The first thing we do is to tell the waste­gate to al­ways stay shut, as the pul­ley is al­ways go­ing to cap boost at 10psi. Like­wise, the fac­tory only en­ables 60 per cent throt­tle, which is used as a way to al­ter power lev­els out of the fac­tory, so we up that to 100 per cent. From there, we can ad­just fu­elling and tim­ing to suit.”

How does that af­fect fuel econ­omy?

Sam tells us: “What I’ve al­ways found is that a power tune and fu­ele­con­omy tune tend to be the same thing at their core. A num­ber of Amer­i­can com­pa­nies will of­fer a separate tune for each; how­ever, when they’re bro­ken down, the only dif­fer­ence is that they have re­stricted the ac­cel­er­a­tor. When tuned to peak power, the mo­tor will run at its op­ti­mal fuel ef­fi­ciency. We al­ways tune a ve­hi­cle to its op­ti­mum, and nice fu­elling should equate to a nice fuel econ­omy — at the end of the day, your real fuel-econ­omy de­vice is your right foot.”

Does reflashing void a new-car war­ranty?

“In most in­stances, yes, it will,” ex­plains Sam. “How­ever, only for the en­gine and trans­mis­sion. As long as the ve­hi­cle is still un­der new-car war­ranty, we of­fer a full driv­e­line war­ranty with our re­flashes. That also means if your elec­tric seats or win­dow wipers fail, your new­car war­ranty will cover that fault — it doesn’t void the en­tirety of the car’s war­ranty.”

Can all fac­tory ECUs be re­flashed, or are there some that sim­ply can't be ac­cessed?

Peter James from Su­per­chips says: “The short an­swer is no, not all ECUs can be ac­cessed. The rea­son is that many types of ECUs have been used over the years. In some makes, you may find a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent types, and man­u­fac­tur­ers don’t all use the same ECUs. Each uses cer­tain pro­to­cols for the code which is used to com­mu­ni­cate with them, and un­less you have the fac­tory codes, they can­not be ac­cessed. For ex­am­ple, the new­est BMWs use ECUs that haven’t been cracked yet by af­ter­mar­ket flash­ers — how­ever, we’re work­ing to gen­er­ate ac­cess to these in the near fu­ture. Like­wise, some of the older stuff is a bit harder now. Take most cars pre 1996 that have a phys­i­cal chip. You can still switch these out — that’s where the terms ‘chip­ping’ or ‘chipped’ come from — but find­ing the right chip is quite hard these days.

“In say­ing all that, a huge range of makes and mod­els can be ac­cessed, es­pe­cially when you’re talk­ing Euro­pean cars.”

So, which are the com­mon makes/mod­els that can be ac­cessed and will ben­e­fit from this sort of treat­ment the most?

“You can break this down quite sim­ply: turbo diesels will al­ways ben­e­fit the most, they’ll see a 35- or 40-per-cent in­crease in power while ac­tu­ally im­prov­ing the fuel econ­omy,” says Peter. “Like­wise, turbo petrol ap­pli­ca­tions can ex­pect up to a 25-per-cent in­crease. Non-turbo cars on pa­per gen­er­ate around a 10-per-cent in­crease, but what they lack in out­right power gain, they make up for in terms of quicker throt­tle re­sponse and im­proved fuel econ­omy. BMWs, for ex­am­ple, see a lot bet­ter throt­tle re­sponse, and you can re­move that hor­ri­ble flat spot that they have be­come known for, while, for a Golf R32, you can boost ac­cel­er­a­tion and low-to-mid range torque, cre­at­ing a much more lively driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

“There’s a rea­son you can eas­ily find this kind of im­prove­ment. Ev­ery year, buy­ers ex­pect the same, or more, power from any given model, while man­u­fac­tur­ers bat­tle to meet Euro­pean emis­sions stan­dards. The re­sult is of­ten re­stricted en­gines that are high-strung to meet both ex­pec­ta­tions; how­ever, it’s ba­sic physics that you sim­ply can’t keep push­ing both ends to break­ing point: even­tu­ally, one has to give for the other to in­crease; there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Reflashing al­lows a com­pro­mise be­tween what can be done and can’t, and we fo­cus on pro­vid­ing a good safe tune, one that lets you feel a no­tice­able dif­fer­ence, with­out go­ing be­yond the point of rea­son just for the sake of good fig­ures on pa­per.”

Does the car have to be put on a dyno to be re­flashed?

David Wal­lace from Tune Tech­nic ex­plains: “Tech­ni­cally speak­ing, no, the car does not have to be put on the dyno to be re­flashed. A ve­hi­cle’s ECU can be re­flashed with­out the use of a dyno, as a dyno is sim­ply a tool to mea­sure an en­gine’s per­for­mance whilst mon­i­tor­ing spe­cific en­gine data. So it’s not manda­tory to use one when reflashing, but, in say­ing that, us­ing a dyno for reflashing gives you the ul­ti­mate abil­ity to test and mea­sure through­out. Ques­tions like, has the re­flash done what you were ex­pect­ing; does it need more ad­just­ments; can the tune be fur­ther im­proved; and, is it safe? are all re­ally hard to an­swer with­out the use of a dyno and data-log­ging equip­ment. If we are reflashing a new en­gine type that we haven’t worked with pre­vi­ously, it would be im­pos­si­ble to tune it per­fectly with­out the use of a dyno.”

What are the pit­falls of some­one try­ing to do it at home?

Says David, “There is so much that can go wrong when you start chang­ing things with­out hav­ing a full un­der­stand­ing of what you’re do­ing and what ef­fect it can have on the en­gine. Reflashing gear has be­come cheaper and eas­ier to ob­tain, mean­ing [that] it may look at­trac­tive to have a go at it your­self. Even us­ing a tun­ing file [that] you found on the in­ter­net isn’t a smart move. With­out some solid tun­ing knowl­edge and the right gear to test what you’ve done, you could de­stroy the en­gine or brick the ECU. We some­times see cars com­ing in for re­flash tun­ing and it’s ob­vi­ous that some­one’s had a go at it them­selves, or down­loaded a file from over­seas that doesn’t suit their en­gine. Over the years, ECU architecture has be­come so much more com­plex. In the 1990s, ECUs were fairly sim­ple to reverse-en­gi­neer and tune. To­day’s ECUs have 10 to 20 times the amount of pro­gram­ming code in the firmware. Don’t ex­pect to jump into the code or a tun­ing pro­gramme and raise a few num­bers here and there to find some power — it’s just not that sim­ple. If you’re not that eas­ily de­terred, then at least get your tune checked by a pro.”

What sup­port­ing mods can be used to ben­e­fit most from a re­flash?

Ste­wart Mearns from ST Hi-tec tells us: “When it comes to reflashing, you can up­grade any­thing af­fect­ing the air­flow in and out of the en­gine. This gen­er­ally en­com­passes air fil­ters, in­take pip­ing, larger MAF hous­ings, in­ter­cool­ers and pip­ing, waste­gate ac­tu­a­tors and boost so­le­noids, turbo, down­pipes, high-flow or cat deletes, and larger di­am­e­ter ex­hausts. Like­wise, up­grad­ing fuel sys­tems and mak­ing sure the fuel pump is get­ting full volt­age, fuel fil­ters, fuel pres­sures, right up to larger capacity in­jec­tors and fuel rails. This does vary be­tween dif­fer­ent makes and mod­els, how­ever, and we are now able to of­fer ECU reflashing on Nis­san, Mazda, Mit­subishi, Subaru, Toy­ota, Ford, and GM ve­hi­cles.”

How un­tapped is a fac­tory R35 GT-R ECU?

“The fac­tory R35 GT-R ECU is state of the art,” says Ste­wart. “There are many ad­van­tages to reflashing it to a cer­tain power level, the first be­ing re­ten­tion of all the drive­abil­ity of a stock car with abil­ity to tune for more power. This is im­por­tant if ve­hi­cles are still un­der war­ranty, as the man­u­fac­turer’s di­ag­nos­tic tools can ac­cess codes and check ve­hi­cle sys­tems. The sec­ond ad­van­tage is that the fac­tory CAN-bus sys­tems re­tain com­mu­ni­ca­tions to all of the ve­hi­cle sys­tems, which is key. With EcuTek soft­ware, we can un­leash the ve­hi­cle’s full po­ten­tial and add many ad­di­tional fea­tures — such as launch con­trol, rolling launch, pop and bang, up to four dif­fer­ent tune modes change­able at the touch of the cruise-con­trol switch, vari­able closed-loop boost con­trol — and even hi­jack fac­tory gauges for ad­di­tional dis­plays such as turn­ing the wa­tertemp gauge into a boost gauge or ethanol-con­tent dis­play. We are able to tai­lor power in­creases to suit sup­port­ing mod­i­fi­ca­tions in ex­cess of 100kW more than fac­tory and be­yond.”

Have tech­nol­ogy ad­vances made it eas­ier to do?

“Yes and no. Tun­ing each ve­hi­cle is the same prin­ci­ple, but now we are able to fac­tor in ul­tra-close fuel trims, closed-loop fu­elling, closed-loop knock, in­di­vid­ual cylin­der ig­ni­tion tim­ing, and torque con­trol to keep the trans­mis­sion re­li­able, then add in vari­able camshaft con­trol,” Ste­wart says. “This is an area where huge gains can be made. While tech­nol­ogy has added more di­men­sions to tun­ing, it has also en­abled se­ri­ous gains in per­for­mance, where we are not lim­ited by emis­sion-con­trol re­straints. Rather than ‘dump’ in a ba­sic ROM re­flash, we use the lat­est ROM files as a base tune, then tune each ve­hi­cle to op­ti­mize per­for­mance.”

From the fac­tory, how close to their most ef­fi­cient do cars run?

Says Carl Ruiter­man from E&H Mo­tors, “From fac­tory, most cars are very close to ideal when it comes to fuel mix­tures, ig­ni­tion, and cam tim­ing un­der light cruise loads. Un­der full throt­tle, how­ever, the fuel mix­tures are gen­er­ally way too rich and the ig­ni­tion tim­ing far from ideal. You can in­crease the power on a fac­tory tuned turbocharged car by 20 per cent with­out in­creas­ing boost, just by op­ti­miz­ing fuel and ig­ni­tion tim­ing. By fur­ther op­ti­miz­ing cam tim­ing and boost pres­sure, we can make more power at a lower rpm than the fac­tory did, while re­duc­ing turbo lag and hold­ing onto that ex­tra power higher in the rev range. You may think that be­cause the en­gine is mak­ing more power than fac­tory, it is not as safe, but, in most cases, af­ter your fac­tory ECU has been dyno tuned cor­rectly, it is much safer than fac­tory, it will use less fuel un­der high load, there’ll be less oil con­tam­i­na­tion, and lower risk of en­gine knock.

“As fac­tory Ja­panese turbo cars tend to be set up with very safe, low base ig­ni­tion tim­ing, they of­ten use knock con­trol to add ig­ni­tion tim­ing un­til knock is de­tected, then add and re­move tim­ing to keep it close to ideal. The is­sue here is that when cruis­ing down the road at lower throt­tle open­ings, the ECU adds a lot of tim­ing as it does not de­tect any knock. When you stand on the throt­tle quickly, the en­gine will det­o­nate, and the com­puter has to pull all the tim­ing out again. Ev­ery time the en­gine knocks, it is po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing and/or weak­en­ing the en­gine. To fix this, we tune the ECU so [that] the ig­ni­tion tim­ing is op­ti­mized for the fuel type and mod­i­fi­ca­tions to your en­gine, so it can­not put in enough tim­ing to get to this knock con­di­tion, yet can still add and re­move ig­ni­tion tim­ing for dif­fer­ent fuel types or other con­di­tions that have changed to keep your en­gine safe.”

How far can you push the fac­tory ECU be­fore an af­ter­mar­ket ECU is re­quired?

Carl ex­plains, “The fac­tory ECU on mod­ern cars — ve­hi­cles with OBD-II, such as the Mit­subishi Evo from 1996 and newer, Subaru V7 and newer, Mazda3 and 6, etc. — is very pow­er­ful, and can go a long way be­fore it needs to be re­placed. They give very good fuel, ig­ni­tion, knock, cam, and boost con­trol, and will al­low us to in­crease in­jec­tor size, turbo, in­ter­cool­ers, and ex­haust in most cases. In some cases, they al­low some mo­tor­sport func­tions, like launch con­trol.

“One of the lim­it­ing fac­tors is the air­flow me­ter, and once you have an en­gine set-up that is out­flow­ing what the air­flow me­ter can mea­sure, it may be worth look­ing at af­ter­mar­ket ECU op­tions. We can in­crease air­flow me­ter size, or even change to speed den­sity on some com­put­ers, but this is usu­ally the cross­over point, and it gen­er­ally hap­pens when you start mak­ing over 280kW on a four-cylin­der turbocharged en­gine. Af­ter­mar­ket ECUs open up the op­tions, such as flex fuel for fuel blends us­ing ethanol, oil-pres­sure input to pro­tect the en­gine un­der oil surge con­di­tions — or no oil at all if some­thing dam­ages your oil-cooler lines or sump — ad­justable launch and boost con­trol, anti-lag, etc., al­though some fac­tory com­put­ers are ca­pa­ble of these, so check be­fore buy­ing. For most mo­tor­sport cars, we still rec­om­mend af­ter­mar­ket ECU op­tions.”

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