With today’s proliferation of small-displacement inline fours and V-sixes, it’s no wonder that motorists are walking through the doors of repair shops and parts stores seeking extra horsepower for their vehicles. Complicating this quest for more power, federal CAFE standards mandate frugal gasoline consumption and threaten to relegate the V-8 to history.
Modern engine programmers are overcoming these challenges. Also known as engine tuners, and formerly called “chips,” engine programmers offer increased performance at minimal cost and hassle without sacrificing gas mileage. Because very few motorists know how to add these devices, the opportunity for installers and auto parts sellers to cash in on this burgeoning market couldn’t be better.
Today’s programmers install in less time, allow a large profit margin and offer more performance and features to the customer.
“We make good money on engine programmers because you not only turn a profit on the sale, but on the installation, too,” said Marco Figueroa, owner of Max Truck Depot in Tucson, Ariz. “On diesel models, the sale price markup ranges between 35-45 percent. For the gas cars, it’s still good at about 25 percent.”
With programmers now selling from $350 to $900 depending on the level of features the potential for generating income on these parts is significant.
The Best Option in Today’s Market
Except for track applications, long gone are the days of adding open headers, a high-rise manifold or a high-lift cam to go faster. Aftermarket turbochargers are legal, but involve a big cash outlay and a lot of wrenching to fit into tight engine compartments. While cheap, a less restrictive air filter helps, but only minimally, and car and truck enthusiasts know it. But none of this diminishes their desire to extract more performance from their vehicles.
In search of more power, motorists are consulting with their mechanic or the person behind the counter at the local parts store.
“We have three kinds of customers who wander into our shop,” Figueroa said. “A handful know exactly what a programmer is and which brand they want. Some know about the existence of ‘chips’ but not much else. The majority are clueless. Those are the ones we educate about all the extra functionality that today’s programmers offer. We show them different models and they make their selection with our guidance.”
Figueroa added that while the “need for speed” brings most customers into his shop, an increasing percentage seek better gas mileage.
“The nice thing is, when we sell a programmer to someone who wants extra horsepower, we tell them that they should also get better gas mileage as a bonus,” Figueroa said.
Having it your way
As all gearheads know, programmers operate by monitoring engine RPMs, coolant temperature, air flow, fuel rail pressure and other operating considerations such as vehicle load, and then balancing these parameters by changing the electronic tuning characteristics of the engine management system to yield optimized performance.
While OEM mapping of the engine management system is designed for a “happy medium,” an aftermarket programmer allows drivers to adjust the tuning to their preference-whether in the direction of greater horsepower, torque or better gas mileage.
By using a tuner it is possible to increase gasoline or diesel engine performance up to 99 horsepower and 88 lb/ft of torque on a gas vehicle, and 120 horsepower and 240 lb/ft of torque on a diesel truck, depending upon the type of vehicle.
Optimizing engine efficiency often offers the byproduct of improved gas mileage.
“I have always liked horsepower, so I have been using an engine programmer on my last two vehicles,” said Kevin Johns of Aberdeen, Idaho. “I love the enhanced performance I get from the Bully Dog tuner. What is surprising, though, is that no matter how high the horsepower setting, I have always gotten a little better fuel mileage; as much as eight percent more.”
Idaho-based Bully Dog Technologies is just one of the more popular tuner manufacturers whose devices have found application in cars and trucks alike.
Better Than Ever for Installers
The latest breed of engine programmers provides a myriad of features of benefit to the motorist-safety warnings monitor engine, coolant and transmission temperatures. Some programmers allow control of vehicle security functions such as vehicle locking and warning chimes. Some even includea built in “driving coach” that provides advice on how to improve fuel economy via a graphically-displayed bar graph.
But the biggest advancements, as far as installers are concerned, come from the ease of installation of today’s engine programmers.
“Over last six years programmers have evolved from the days when they were big devices requiring three different modules and a lot of time,” Figueroa said. “You had to download the program from the Internet with a separate downloader. After you finished, you then had to install a screen on the A pillar and solder leads to the ECM.
“But these days I install the Bully Dog programmers and one little screen does everything. It’s now all one piece, with the ‘chip’ housed inside the display monitor. The tuner controls that the customer can play with are also built right into the monitor.”
Installation goes quickly because most of today’s engine programmers connect by plugging directly to the engine’s control module via the OBDII port. Some models don’t even need access to the Internet. Instead, they come pre-loaded with software specific to several popular makes, models and engines-much like a new computer that includes drivers for popular printers. After selecting the desired version, the monitor prompts the installer through the procedure, ensuring that everything goes smoothly. The only time access to the Internet is required, is if/when a new update is offered.
“It only takes me about 30-45 minutes to install one, depending on the vehicle,” Figueroa said. “The Bully Dog units are especially simple to put in, since one module fits all makes.”
With such units, installers and parts sellers only need to stock one “black box” to cover all cars, trucks, SUVs, crossovers, minivans and even big rigs. Only the tiny chip is model specific. This conserves valuable shelf space behind the counter.
Modern programmers are so easy to install, that a savvy motorist who is not afraid to “turn a wrench” could do it.
“The nice part is, most customers are afraid to install these things,” Figueroa said. “They are happy to pay for installation. My charge varies, but, using an example of a 2010 Mustang with the V-6, I’d charge about $75. The gets added to the profit I’ve already made on the markup from the part itself.”