Getting more horsepower out of your car used to involve messing with lots of hardware. Hot Rodders would install things like big carburetors, headers, hot cams and other engine components. Since cars went digital, though, another technique has evolved to hop up cars: changing out Electronic Control Unit (ECU) chips. These chips are frequently sold as an easy route to big power gains. The questions is: do they really work and do you want to do it? To answer these questions, we asked our friends at Ken Garff of West Valley, UT, a Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram dealer, and what we found out is that there is no free lunch. The reality is that you can get some additional power with “modded chips” but there are some downsides.
Hot Rod Chips can cause premature ignition
What the chips do primarily is “advance the timing”. This is an old hot rodders trick and power gains will be found in almost any engine by advancing the timing. While doing this may give you some additional horsepower, it often times increases an engine’s risk of premature ignition or “knocking.” As mechanics will tell you, premature ignition can damage pistons and cylinder heads which can result in very expensive repairs.
Advertised power gains often don’t match reality
Many power chip companies advertise significant power gains with “dynamometer-proven results”. What most of these companies won’t tell you is that the specific conditions and modifications that need to be present. Advancing the timing can increase power, primarily during high RPM conditions, but the sacrifice is normally a loss of power under other conditions. This can ruin the drivability of your car.
Chips Will Almost Always Void Your Warranty
Are you driving a car that still has the original warranty? As a general rule, operating on the ECU in your car or truck will immediately void your warranty. Installing “modded chips” will change a whole ton of other things vital to engine operation such as fuel metering, ignition timing, and even redline data. These changes can remove many of the safeguards the car manufacturer’s program in the ECU.
You will need premium gas
As we discussed above, when you advance the timing on a car engine, you risk premature ignition. One way to eliminate premature ignition is to use higher octane gas and that stuff isn’t cheap. If you are building a car for racing purposes, that’s one thing, but if you are doing this to your street car, prepare to pay a lot more at the pump.
While chips can provide noticeable power gains, they are not without tradeoffs. These gains can increase the cost of operation and require changes in useable fuel as well as aftermarket octane boosters. If you are making a racing car, well, you may want to consider a chip replacement. In your regular driver, it’s not a very good idea for most.