How To Tune Your Car Yourself – Easy


Squeezing some extra power from a pre computerized engine was no easy mod. You wanted more power. The engine needed some major components replaced – lightened flywheel, bigger valves, porting and polishing. Not the type of work you could do in the garage on a Saturday morning. ECU-controlled engines changed all that. Tuners didn’t take long to figure out how to squeeze more power from even a basic engine with just a little code, Nice!

Installing a preset car tune, also known as remapping the ECU, is the most effective and easiest tune an owner can do themselves. 

Top six tunes an owner can do include:

  1. Remap the ECU
  2. Fit performance intake system
  3. Fit performance exhaust system
  4. Fit performance tires
  5. Fit performance brake pads
  6. Lighten the vehicle

In this post, you’ll learn more about the top six performance modifications you can easily make without costing a ton of money, tools, or equipment.

What Is Tuning?

Tuning a car is about getting more of what you want from your car. You could, for example, tune your car for the economy, for longevity, be kinder to the environment, or for comfort, and if that’s your thing, great!

You may have other reasons for needing a tune. Your car’s performance is affected by things like weather conditions, height above sea level, humidity, type of gas being used.

Tuning for most, however, means they simply want better performance from the whole car – the engine, transmission, brakes, steering, suspension, etc.

The good news is DIY performance tuning has never been easier. There’s a ton of great tuners out there with fantastic off-shelf bolt-on or plug-and-play type mods. We’ll cover the most common DIY type mods here.

Engine Modifications 

ECU

Nearly all cars leave the factory with their fun gauge dialed down, which is a little sad when you think about it. There’s more potential there. You just need to unbolt the stable door.

All engines have a max tolerance, go beyond that, and the engine will blow. Manufacturers know where this limit is and make sure their vehicles are tuned well below the max limit for obvious reasons. They can control the output of the engine by installing stock software on the ECU (engine control unit). 

The ECU may also be referred to as the – Control unit, Module, Control module, Controller, Computer, Brain, ECM (Engine Control Module), PCM (Powertrain Control Module). The PCM, by the way, is a combined engine and transmission control module, but nearly everybody calls it the ECU.

Tuning an engine

Performance tuner

An engine by itself is not complex. They need three main ingredients to run. They need oxygen, gas, and spark. Tuning an engine is mostly about getting as much air into the engine as possible. The idea is simple enough, right? More air equals more fuel, which means a bigger bang and more power at the wheels.

However, getting an engine to run well in any given situation, like variable rpm, engine load, weather conditions, transmission selection, terrain, etc., is a difficult task.

It’s complex because engines only run well if the air to fuel ratio hovers around 14.7:1 (14.7 parts oxygen to 1 part gas), and of course, the spark plug is fired at the optimum time.

It’s a balancing act. The ECU receives a ton of data from sensors like air volume, air temperature, coolant temperature, throttle position, engine load, O2 sensors, altitude, speed, and the list goes on and on. 

Based on sensor inputs, the ECU calculates the optimum fuel and timing settings (based on its torque map), fires the injectors and spark plugs. This process all happens in fractions of a second and continuously. 

As previously said, tweaking these settings for max power means getting more air and fuel into the engine more quickly. Remapping your ECU will tweak components like throttle response, valve lift (variable valve timing equipped cars), turbo boost pressure (turbocharged engines), engine rpm, gear changes, fuel pressure, fuel injectors, duty cycle, timing dwell angle.

It’s complex but not to an ECU.

Performance air filter

The air Intake filter is likely the first mod a new car owner makes. It’s quick, easy, and inexpensive. Performance filters specialize in three areas, cleaning the air, getting more air to the engine, and getting it there quickly. Many of the top manufacturers boost as much as 50% more airflow.

The filter achieves this by using layered oil-coated cotton media in a pleated formation instead of pleated paper. In addition, if you install a complete intake system, you’ll get a shortened and therefore faster flow of air to the engine. You’ll also get a deep growl when you’re on the gas, and you already know more air means more fun.

Check out the post I wrote on K&N air filters here.

The exhaust system is also a popular component for modifying, with a ton of great options out there. Stock systems are dedicated to capturing and processing unburnt fuel and suppressing noise. Both cause backpressure. 

Backpressure prevents spent gases from leaving the engine unrestricted, and that means power loss. Speed up that airflow by removing some of the restrictions, and you free up some horses. The soundtrack improves too.

System mods come in three levels, if you like – from the rear axle back. From the Cat-back or a complete system (headers back).

Handling

Tire noise

When it comes to handling, tires and wheels do make a difference. Performance tires will improve road manners and offer greater confidence. Softer compounds that provide greater grip also wear out more quickly. This isn’t a cheap mod, but wheels and tires change how a car feels on the road and how it looks.

Brakes

Buying a car

Brake pads are brake pads, no, not at all. Performance pads will increase your ability to harness your car’s power, especially as the brakes get hot. Heat is the enemy. Regular pad compounds aren’t equipped for high performance. Brake fade, glowing rotors, and brake smoke are common when you push on with regular pads.

How To Remap Your ECU

Remapping your car is as easy as plugging in a handheld tuning device or laptop and uploading new software. I’ll run through the process shortly, and you’ll see how easy it can be. But first, I should point out a few things about tuning.

There are a ton of tuners out there, and their products and services range in complexity. The three most common products are:

1 Plug and play applications

This is by far the most common type of product. It’s an off-the-shelf handheld device that connects to your car. Choose from a preloaded map menu to upload to your vehicle. (what I’ll cover here). 

Alternatively, many tuners sell a cable connector and software. The owner uses their laptop to perform the upload. It’s more cost-effective, and if you run into an issue, you can connect to the tuners help center for remote repairs.

2 Custom

A variation on this product is the ability to download your car’s current map and send it to a tuner for modification as per your personal requests and have it emailed back to you for upload via laptop or handheld device.

3 Stand alone ECU

ECU

At the other end of the table are the geek types that like to play with every parameter of the car and write code. Some build their own standalone ECU. This obviously isn’t advised unless you are familiar with coding and intimate with how a car engine works.

For most, a plug-and-play type remapping is more than up to the job of releasing all the horsepower. It is advisable, however, to do your research, join a forum for your model, and be guided by those who have gone before you. Gearheads are a good bunch and will be happy to offer great advice.

It is better to make whatever bolt-on mods you’re planning before remapping your ECU. Depending on what package you choose, a tuner may need to know what exhaust, intake systems wheel/tire sizes fuel octane rating you are running.

Mapping your vehicle using a plug and play type handheld tool looks something like this:

  • Plug tool into vehicles OBD port under drivers side dashboard
  • Ignition on
  • Save current map to memory (stock map)
  • Choose map from selection, to upload
  • Upload map and follow on screen directions
  • Ignition off and wait few moments
  • Ignition on, remapping complete
  • Have fun!

Saving your vehicle’s stock map before uploading allows you to revert if needed.

As said, this procedure may vary if your handheld or laptop requires a few boxes ticked – like mods you have already installed or fuel type 91, 93, or E85, etc.

Check out the Amazon link below for performance tuning kit.

Amazon Car Tuning Kit

Fit Performance Intake System

Intake system

Fitting a performance intake system isn’t difficult. You’ll need to remove the MAF sensor plug carefully and remove the MAF sensor from the old tubing. We’ll be reusing it. Then remove the stock tubing and air box and store them.

Before fitting the new tubing, consider cleaning the throttle body using throttle body cleaner, it takes just a moment to complete, and your engine will run sweeter. Fit the new tubing to the throttle body and secure it to the chassis. 

Clean the MAF sensor before fitting it to the new tubing. Fit your new airbox and filter. A good air intake system will be bespoke and won’t require a drill or any special tools. It really is a one-hour job.

You’ll find throttle body cleaner and MAF sensor cleaner here on the Consumables page of this site.

Fitting Performance Exhaust System

Sports exhaust

Fitting a performance exhaust is still on the DIY list, but it’s starting to climb into the area of needing some specialized workshop tools. A hoist would be a real advantage here. Failing that, you’ll need a creeper, jack, and axle stands to start with.

Depending on the system you are fitting, you may need a drill, cutting tools, and a MIG welder. 

A complete system from headers back would be a challenge to fit in the yard but from the Cat-back is doable.

You’ll need to access the exhaust, so four axle stands are needed. I begin by soaking all the bolts with WD40 and have them cooking while I gather my tools. An impact wrench makes short work of rusty exhaust system bolts. Having a gas torch on hand works great on frozen bolts. 

Removing the old system by first opening the system at the center clamp and removing the exhaust rubbers. The more expensive the replacement system is, the better it fits. 

Before buying a system, do some research, check those forms again and tap all that free knowledge.

Fitting is the reverse. Use exhaust putty around the exhaust clamp and check for chassis impact points. Some maneuvering may be needed.

Check out the post I wrote on Borla exhausts.

Fit Performance Brake Pads

Brake pads

Replacing brake pads are another easy-to-nail maintenance/mod a DIY’er can do. You’ll need a brake caliper wind back tool. It’s a specialized tool but not expensive, and when you see how easy changing pads are, you’ll never pay for a brake job again. 

A wind back tool pushes the pistons back into the caliper, which makes room for the new pads. You’ll need to apply some brake lube to the brake caliper slides, rail, and pads. You’ll find a wind back tool and brake lube listed here on the Brake repair tools page.

I wrote a post about changing brake pads here, “Brake pads won’t fit”.

Lighten Your Vehicle

Timing belt

This sounds too simple, right? But it’s the easiest performance mod you can make. A friend of mine took it to the next level – removed all interior trim, except front seats and dash, replaced side and rear glass with Perspex, went with a fiberglass hood and trunk lid.

Removing items from your car you don’t need is a simple and effective strategy for performance gains, but it’s not practical. You can, however, exercise some simple weight-saving techniques like removing tools from the trunk and ditch the spare wheel for a sealer and pump.

Other posts you may find helpful:

Are K&N filters worth it?

Are Borla exhausts worth the money?

John Cunningham

John Cunningham is an Automotive Technician and writer on Rustyautos.com. I've been a mechanic for over twenty-five years, and I've worked for GM, Volvo, Volkswagen, Landrover, and Jaguar dealerships. My passion is cars. I use my knowledge and experience to write articles that help fellow gear-heads with all aspects of car ownership, including buying advice, maintenance, and troubleshooting.

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