As early as the ’70s, vehicles released in Europe and North America already had an onboard computer that controls vital engine functions – from gearing and ignition timing to air-fuel ratios. Although these built-in computers were responsible for the car’s overall health, they were calibrated for vehicle stability more than optimum performance. It was not until 1996 that the use of performance chips (aimed at correcting factory-set limitations) started to become prevalent.
Because this practice continues to be widely spread, it brings many of us to question, “Do performance chips work?” The answer is yes. Performance chips provide a substantial boost in torque output and overall vehicle performance. However, getting the most out of your chip is dependent on several variables and requires finding the compatible chip for your vehicle.
Factors such as the vehicle make and model, high-quality fuel and lubrication, and the presence (or lack) of aftermarket performance parts affect how well a chip performs. Understanding the role these elements play in the effectiveness of a performance chip is essential in knowing when it is necessary or detrimental to equip your vehicle with one.
Continue reading this guide if you want to learn more about performance chips in general.
What Is a Performance Chip?
Before finding out the answers to the questions, “Do performance chips work?” and “Do OBD2 performance chips work?” we must first establish what it is. By definition, a performance chip is a computer enhancement that alternates a vehicle’s original operating parameters to improve its overall responsiveness.
How do performance chips work? They recalibrate your car’s factory programming (meant for basic, everyday driving) for performance.
Performance chips go by lots of names – among these are the terms super chip, module, in-line tuner, and programmers – to name a few. And while these monikers are often used interchangeably, there are distinct differences in how each type is built. Some draw out more torque and horsepower, while others allow you to customize settings based on road conditions and other variables.
The following information offers some clarity on the different kinds of computer enhancements and how they compare to performance chips:
Tuners (a.k.a. Computer/Power Programmers, Flash Tuners)
Although they function similarly to a performance chip, tuners differ from the latter in three specific areas. Firstly, they connect to your vehicle via the OBDII port and not under the hood. Secondly, tuners are not permanent fixtures under the bonnet of your car. Unlike super chips, they only need to be plugged into your vehicle for 10 minutes. Tuners need to be updated regularly, which can be easily done over Wi-Fi using a laptop or desktop.
Thirdly, they allow the input of a broader scope of variables to help customize your vehicle’s factory settings, including your driving style and any modifications (for instance, rear-end and speed rating tweaks) made on your car. Tuners then send the onboard computer commands tailor-made to your needs after taking these details into account.
More advanced versions of a tuner (a flash tuner) have multiple mappings readily available in the component for download. In particular, a flash tuner reprograms your wheeler’s onboard computer more aggressively and is one of the most flexible computer enhancement units available to consumers. Typically, it comes with an integrated monitor displaying performance figures, gauges, and diagnostics you can mount on the windshield or dashboard.
This type is a special tuner designed for throttle mapping and targeted toward vehicles with the Electronic Throttle Control (ETC) feature. It allows replication of useful drive modes that are otherwise only available in specific vehicle makes and not your own. Additionally, you can adjust the throttle to go farther back than stock if using your wheeler on slick surfaces.
Engine Management Systems
Compared to a performance chip, an Engine Management System or EMS is an entire performance-enhancing package that enables complete control of your vehicle’s tuning. Apart from being purpose-built to increase power, torque, and speed, EMSs handle so much more from idle speed to fuel injection – the reason high-performance/heavy-load car owners prefer it. Its downside? Unlike performance chips, this system is so much pricier and can prove challenging to install.
Performance Chips (a.k.a. Modules, In-line Chips)
Finally, we have performance chips. A hands-free means to upgrading performance, performance chips plug into your car’s electrical system under the bonnet/hood in under 15 minutes. They act as a mediator of sorts, filtering data received from various sensors and determining adjustments needed by the vehicle based on analyzed data. The module then communicates these adjustments to the onboard computer that acts on the suggestions to optimize performance.
To work seamlessly with factory components, program the chip specifically to your vehicle’s make, model, and year. Once done, installing the performance chip is easy. Should you decide to go back to factory settings, all you have to do is unplug the chip from under the hood – no need to worry about leaving a footprint of any vehicle modification.
Do Performance Chips Really Work?
Like any other performance-enhancing component, a performance chip’s effectiveness depends on the make and model of your vehicle and the maker of the chip. And with the latter aspect, quality is proportionate to the price. Cheaper online options, although tempting, could be detrimental for your car. Conversely, chips made by reputable companies (usually within the range of $200 to $500) are proven to amplify the power delivery of your wheeler.
Many makes and models may not fully benefit from using a performance chip. Some examples are pre-2010 versions of Mitsubishi Eclipse, Jeep Cherokee/Grand Cherokee, and Subaru Forester. Horsepower gains will only be close to negligible. And if the modules do not perfectly mesh with these four-wheelers, emissions issues could occur.
Some performance chips work better, especially when paired with a turbo or supercharger. Similarly, a high-quality chip on a fuel-injected machine will make a noticeable difference in fuel economy and performance. Others even have remedial effects – as observed with performance chips correcting a vehicle set to run rich from the factory. However, there are some trade-offs – for instance, the need to switch to a higher-octane fuel for optimal results.
But things do not end with your choice of fuel. Getting the most out of this computer enhancement entails moving to quality oil, upgrading to an aftermarket air filter, and replacing stock plugs and wires with decent ones. Premium engine oil, in particular, increases engine longevity and yields incremental but substantial benefits to fuel consumption and power delivery.
If you make these other improvements alongside getting a performance chip for your vehicle, you are guaranteed to reap the rewards in gas mileage, throttle responsiveness, and torque/horsepower – among other things. The following section covers the perks of having a performance chip/module in detail.
Benefits of Using a Performance Chip
Chips enhance a vehicle’s overall function. Depending on the type, it may do this wholistically or only for specific performance aspects, as follows:
Boost Fuel Economy
Full-feature performance chips have what engineers call a “driving coach” that aids in boosting fuel economy or MPG via remapping the ECU/ECM original parameters, leading to operational efficiency. This feature guides your vehicle’s control unit or module, making your car fuel-efficient regardless if you have your foot on the gas pedal or not. As a result, you make the most out of every drop of fuel in your tank – not to mention pile up on savings, especially if you do frequent long-distance drives.
Enhance Torque and Power Output
One of the top reasons car owners use performance chips is for gains in horsepower and torque. The extent of positive results from this computer enhancement is usually guaranteed but differs between gas-fed and diesel-fed wheelers. From the two, diesel engines take a much higher power boost, reaching up to 200 hp. Whereas gas powerplants only offer a 40-hp increase at most.
Either way, these results can be overwhelming. However, it is crucial to understand that getting performance chips for this purpose should only happen if you have a genuine need for the said increase. If your vehicle’s application is not carrying heavy loads or machinery, purchasing a performance chip may be counter-intuitive – not to mention a waste of money.
There is also a night-and-day difference in gains on a naturally-aspirated versus a turbocharged engine. Hence, thoughtful consideration is a must. Turbos yield better torque and power delivery with the use of performance chips compared to those without superchargers. Similarly, the number of cylinders and the arrangement affect torque and horsepower gains by extension. That said, a performance chip would have very little to no effect on a 4-cylinder SOHC engine but work much better on a V8 DOHC power mill.
Monitor Overall Engine Functionality
Although widely perceived as purpose-built for power and fuel economy, performance chips also help prevent engine damage. Yes, built-in warning indicators let a driver know if anything is wrong with the engine’s internal processes. But unlike these indicators, chips do something to mitigate an adverse outcome once it detects it.
For example, performance chips immediately lower a vehicle’s horsepower if it senses this as the cause for engine overheating. To add, it lets the driver know what is going on and provides valuable input for troubleshooting or repair (if any) that needs accomplishing afterward. Many vehicle owners find this extremely helpful in keeping a tab of root causes for engine problems that would otherwise be easily overlooked or disregarded.
Improve Speed and Acceleration
Think about a performance chip as a standard control module but on steroids. Unlike your car’s built-in module, an aftermarket chip alters your engine’s factory-set operating conditions for twice the optimal performance warranted by the task at hand. If you need to improve quickness and top-end speed at high revs, the chip adjusts the engine to increase valve lift. It can also decrease this for hauling or towing applications.
Free Up Rev/RPM Limitation
Performance chips reprogram a vehicle’s rev/speed limiters, lifting off restrictions to the engine’s entire RPM range and unleashing its power potential. The transmission upshifts at higher revs, resulting in improved bottom-end power necessary for faster acceleration and allowing for full utilization of high-speed tires (if you have any or recently switched). In-training racers often do this to achieve a restriction-free driving experience.
Regulate Air-fuel Ratio
Old-time vehicle owners often say that performance chips can only do so much to open up your vehicle’s air intake. While this statement is true, the fact remains that chips still help fine-tune your engine’s air-fuel mixture. In turn, this process results in a more powerful, controlled combustion due to more energy drawn out of your cylinders. And the best part of it? Power output improves without messing with the factory-set air-fuel ratio.
Supplement Rear-end Upgrades
Swapping out stock tires cannot be avoided. Especially if you live in an area with changing seasons, it is typical to have separate tire sets for winter and the rest of the year. More so if you opt for bigger tires, which entail modifying your rear gear ratio or upgrading your rims a few sizes larger. Consequently, these changes alter gauge readings and shift points – something that your onboard computer does not automatically pick up.
And this is where performance chips enter the picture. To ensure a continued, fine-tuned performance, you need to let your car know that you made rear-end upgrades. Performance chips do just that – they relay that message to your vehicle every time you make such modifications without fail. Programming your wheeler to accommodate the said changes and ensuring different engine components work fluidly are made simple by pressing a few buttons.
If you only changed stock rubber to same-size ones, you can expect your performance chip to reduce your vehicle’s need for energy and fuel – provided your car has the right set of tires pressurized to spec. However, it still depends on the tire type and driving habits you have. Tires specifically built for use on dunes, deep snow, and mud would always require more energy to move forward compared to all-season ones – regardless if cold-tire pressure is accurate. Furthermore, airing down tires when riding on dirt or rocky terrain offsets any effort by the performance chip to help reduce rolling resistance.
Things to Consider Before Purchase
To be on the receiving end of the above advantages, you must take other steps, such as:
- Remap your car’s ECU with the help of a professional.
- Stick to the manufacturer-recommended fuel type and motor oil for your wheeler, as using other variants may be detrimental to the operational efficiency of your engine.
- For FI vehicles, give your fuel injectors a proper ultrasonic bath.
- Always inflate your tires to the correct pressure.
- Go for more massive or broader tires if you are mainly using your vehicle for hauling or mudding. Just be prepared for a trade-off in fuel expenses.
- Refrain from putting unwarranted stress on the engine by using the possible highest gear.
- Avoid unnecessary, extended idling.
- Replace the air filter as needed with an aftermarket air filter assembly. Pair this with a high-performance exhaust.
- Be sensible when using your air conditioning.
- Optional: Reduce aerodynamic drag by installing a tonneau cover (this also increases fuel economy by up to 10%).
** This list is non-exhaustive
In essence, a performance chip is not solely responsible for all of the benefits stated in this article. It is one modification that most vehicle owners mistakenly overestimate. This is not to say that computer enhancements are generally a scam. However, it would be folly to turn a blind eye to the potential drawbacks of installing an engine chip in your car. These include excessive EGTs, a higher probability of premature engine failure, intermittent power loss, and Check Engine Light going off unceremoniously.
But more than these minor setbacks, installing a performance chip often results in more consequential trade-offs that require careful thought. Before you jump into buying an engine chip for your wheeler, consider the following:
- Because the chip disables factory-set emissions controls and triggers your CEL indicator unnecessarily, there is a big chance you will fail emissions tests in your state.
- Opening the ECU box of your vehicle within warranty is sure to void it.
- While advanced performance chips help increase power at wide-open throttle and high-rev conditions, they usually guarantee power loss in other riding conditions and heavily take away from your car’s drivability.
- Chips purpose-built for power increase will result in reduced fuel efficiency or lower MPG.
If you really cannot help but get your wheeler a performance chip, my advice is to wait until you have done all your mods before purchasing one. This is especially important for those who are in the middle of an extensive build project. Finishing all mods first ensures your engine chip calculates optimal performance accordingly, with changes you have made taken into account.
Best Performance Chips for 2021
Now that we have gone over the definition, pros, and cons of performance chips, it would make perfect sense to cover the top picks of different online sources and automotive publications:
Créme de la Créme:
- SCT BDX Performance Tuner and Monitor
- SCT Livewire TS Performance Tuner and Monitor
- Bully Dog GT Platinum Gas Diagnostic
- 31503 Edge Juice w/ Attitude CTS2 (view on Amazon)
- Edge 85450 Evolution CTS2 Programmer
- Jet Performance 91204 Power Control Module
- 9300 DiabloSport Trinity 2 EX Performance Programmer (view on Amazon)
- Hypertech 32500 Max Energy Programmer (view on Amazon)
- Range Technology Active Fuel Management Disabler (view on Amazon)
- TS Performance Part #1180412 Switchable Chip (view on Amazon)
Please note that items in this list have been randomly selected and may not be compatible with all types of vehicles. Some are unsuitable for cars without AFM (Active Fuel Management), while others provide no tuning or customization capabilities. As a precaution, do extensive research on these products before buying any of them. And stay away from cheap options that seem too good to be true.
Conclusion – Do Performance Chips Work?
So, do performance chips work? Absolutely! No wonder they are commonplace with most owners – they have an easy-to-install plug-and-play mechanism and are reasonably priced. In no way do they drastically improve your vehicle’s deficiencies. But when paired with some TLC and the right aftermarket mods, they bring about a noticeable improvement in overall vehicle performance.
Kris is an avid off-roader and outdoor enthusiast who loves to brave the elements and take on challenging terrain. He also enjoys sharing his passion and knowledge with others so that they, too, can appreciate the ride.