U-Tunes

Dec 2, 2009

Street Performance is taking on a new definition today in the face of yo-yoing fuel prices and a new group of automotive enthusiasts who value things like fuel efficiency gains instead of just pure horsepower boosts.

Fortunately for those consumers, the automotive aftermarket is ready to serve them in 2009 with a wide variety of high-tech performance programmers set to optimize the engines of their late-model road rockets.

“Fuel efficiency is one of America’s largest concerns today,” says DiabloSport’s Max Wyman. “A lot of the time performance is still important, but more than anything, people are looking to save money at the pump. (These) products will generally increase the efficiency of the customer’s vehicle, with the potential to save huge bucks over the course of a year. That being said, I think a lot of men ask the question about fuel economy so they can justify their new power toys to their wives!”

Bully Dog is seeing just that type of customer lately as well, according to Mike DeFord.

“There are two types of customers in the marketplace-the average consumer wants to be more efficient, get better fuel economy and be more environmentally friendly. Then you have the second group of consumers that want more power, be it for towing a trailer, just to increase the fun behind the wheel or for racing. All consumers want added safety and reliability as well.”

To that end, Bully Dog has introduced new products aimed at helping drivers drive better.

“They are set to become our best sellers,” DeFord says. “In addition to the normal performance enhancements, they feature software that informs and teaches the driver how to operate their vehicle more efficiently in real time.”

Choose Your Tune

Jack Friedman of Unichip is understandably a big fan of the piggyback computer programmers his company sells. Piggyback technology allows a consumer to simply “plug and play” a programmer into a vehicle’s onboard computer system, he says, and this piece of hardware comes set with a variety of upgrades to maximize the efficiency and performance of a vehicle running bone-stock tunes.

Piggyback tuners often include application-specific custom wiring harnesses that make for a quick installation on essentially any vehicle. A speed shop can download Unichip’s tunes for a customer, or do more advance dyno-based programming if they have the capabilities, Friedman notes.

An advantage of a piggyback tuner is that it can be removed from the vehicle, at which point the stock computer takes over.

“A dealer or mechanic can never even tell our computer was there, because we don’t change the onboard computer at all, just work in series with it,” he says.

The approach is different than “flash” tuners, which are used to reprogram a vehicle’s stock computer. But all have the same goal of creating more performance than stock tunes that are set to strict EPA limits and OEM longevity goals set to satisfy the “average” automotive consumer. (It goes without saying that the “average automotive consumer” is very different than the customers who frequent your independent speed shop!)

One such flash programmer provider is Hypertech, which is also experiencing the dual demands of consumers who want more power and efficiency.

Hypertech’s Marla Moore says the company offers both full-featured and economically priced programmers. “Both contain our award-winning Optimized Engine Tuning, plus our exclusive Transmission/Converter Program for substantial improvements in fuel economy, but with uncompromised full-throttle power and performance when you need it.”

DiabloSport has also released an updated flash programmer that can be used on all vehicle applications, Wyman notes. It offers a customizable virtual gauge monitor, performance programming, diagnostic code reader and a built-in virtual drag tree.

Target Customers

When it comes to targeting customers, Quadzilla is covering all of its bases, noting that even as gas prices have dropped recently, interest in efficiency isn’t a passing trend.

“We offer products for most of the new vehicles out today, but we really feel the market is going to strongly favor vehicles with less emissions equipment,” says Quad Boenker, owner of Quadzilla. “With the economy being what it is, the slightly older vehicles are less expensive to operate, get better fuel economy and are cheaper to buy. This combination allows owners of these vehicles to want to further improve them because they can afford it and because they do not have to stretch any laws to see maximum results for their efforts.”

For example, Boenker sees strong potential in the slightly older truck market, from 1998 models on up.

Perhaps a truism of retailing is that while your customers’ interests are ever-changing, the one constant is that you as an owner need to know how to get the word out that the best products and prices can be found in your shop.

Bully Dog’s DeFord has a few hints.

“The first thing a retailer needs to do is know its customer and know what each person is looking for specifically. Our products offer something for everyone walking in the door, so knowing what they are looking for allows the shop to cater the product information to what is important to that customer. Our company also offers our marketing department and services to our customers free of charge, be it building a sales flyer, TV commercial or designing a complete marketing campaign.”

DeFord expects many customers will be looking at the new half-ton diesel trucks when they hit the showrooms this summer, and the performance four-cylinder cars such as the Subaru WRX.

Hypertech’s Moore has similar suggestions for shops to move more performance products in 2009.

“In general, speed shops will have to focus on service, community relationships and product knowledge,” Moore says. “Our programmers are 50-state street-legal, have a no-risk, money-back satisfaction guarantee, a lifetime warranty and will pay for themselves in a few months (in fuel savings).”

When it comes to trucks, DiabloSport is one programmer company moving away form strictly light-truck focus and capitalizing on large fleets’ hunger for fuel savings. The company is currently producing a new diesel fleet tool.

“This is a simple device which is installed in light-duty and medium-duty diesel trucks that is designed to save 1-4 miles per gallon while still increasing the performance/towing/efficiency of the vehicle,” Wyman says.

Bully Dog also works in fleet sales, a market segment it doesn’t see diminishing this year, DeFord notes.

Count Quadzilla in on that as well.

“We have always sold a lot of products to fleets, including major energy providers,” Boenker notes. “Economy is always of high importance, but liability and safety is another huge benefit for these fleets. The primary products we sell to large fleets consist of some sort of fuel-saving product combined with a speed-limiting device.”

Down the Road

Moving into the new year, performance tuning module companies face challenges like any segment of the performance aftermarket.

“Some of the greatest challenges companies in the performance market will face are the current environmental issues at hand,” says DiabloSport’s Wyman.”The EPA and CARB are beginning to take action against companies that alter a vehicle’s emissions (despite the fact that in the majority of cases the emissions are actually improved). DiabloSport is actively working with the EPA and CARB to ensure our products meet every standard, (and as a company) have helped develop the Tier 2 emissions standards that are in the vehicles on the road today.”

Quadzilla is among the companies accepting the challenge to squeeze every drop of power out of regulated cars and trucks.

“I think the single biggest challenge is fully extracting the best performance and economy out of the emissions-equipped vehicles,” say Boenker. “While these things are available now, I fully expect with longer testing and research that current products will become substantially better and much more emissions parts-friendly.”

Hypertech’s Moore takes a larger look at the automotive industry as a whole when thinking of challenges for 2009, and how everyone can emerge a winner.

“The effects of the economy on our distribution system, the changes in our marketing attitudes and, of course, the fate of Chrysler, Ford and GM will affect everyone,” she says. “This will definitely be a difficult year for everyone, but I believe our industry will treat the recession as a challenge and we will make changes and create opportunities that will make us leaner and stronger.”

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Tuning with Ford Racing

Ford Racing offers aftermarket tuning products for Ford vehicles, particularly Mustangs. Wayne M. Geoffrey, national sales manager, outlines the state of the performance tuning market from his view in the following Q&A:

Which of your performance tuning products are set to take the lead in 2009?

We have performance upgrades for all three Mustang models-the V-6, GT and GT500. These upgrades consist of cold air kits with performance calibrations and performance exhausts for all three, and superchargers with performance calibrations for the Mustang GT and GT500. We package matched components into performance “packs” that are engineered to work together.

We have improved our calibration tool that comes with our power upgrade packs so it now provides customers the flexibility to change wheel and tire size, and/or rear gears later on, without having to pay for a new calibration.

Our newest product is an engine control install kit for enthusiasts who want to drop a 4.6- or 5.4-liter modular motor into a hot rod or resto-mod. Many have shied away from modular engines in their hot rods because they cannot figure out how to make them run.

Do you see consumers more concerned with horsepower gains, increased fuel efficiency or a mix of the two?

Our customers are opting for performance. Our performance calibrations require a minimum of 91 octane gasoline.

How would you suggest independent speed shops market your products in 2009?

In addition to the added horsepower and torque from our safe performance upgrades is something called “performance feel.” All Mustangs since 2005 are “drive by wire” no matter how hard you step on the throttle, the vehicle’s computer tells the throttle body how fast to open.

Ford Racing Performance Calibrations contain a much more aggressive throttle tip in than stock. This increases the performance feel of the vehicle.

We have just made our Mustang GT and GT500 cold air intakes available without our Ford Racing calibration. Some customers really want to push the envelope, and now can do it without having to pay for our calibration. This said, I recommend a really good tuner to keep your engine together!

What late-model cars do you expect to be hot for 2009?

We expect the 2010 Mustang to be hot and we are ready with upgrades with 400- and 550-hp superchargers and chassis performance.

What will be the greatest challenges the performance automotive aftermarket has to face in 2009?

So far, the economy hasn’t treated anybody nicely toward the end of 2008. We all will have to be mean and lean in 2009 if the current situation continues.

-Dirk Vinlove