Modifying Your Engine: The Truth about Engine ECU Upgrades, Chips & Re-mapping

Re-chipping, re-flashing and re-mapping your engine control ECU: Many people queue up to do it - and often it ends in tears

Free audio.jpg

Plenty of would-be vehicle buyers, especially those of the SUV and ute persuasion - are already planning (what are to them) the all-important ECU re-map. They don’t even own the vehicle yet. If that is you, to you I would say … emphatically … buy a vehicle that is adequate to your requirements, out of the blocks.

MARKETING VERSUS REALITY

Re-mapping your engine sounds great - just a few taps on the keyboard. More kilowatts and more Newton-metres plus greater economy, better emissions. Twice the chocolatey goodness; half the calories. Plus, it prevents diabetes. Yes!

But it doesn’t always work out that way. Certainly it did not recently for this guy:

 
"My VW Amarok failed. The dealership stated there was an oil leak that clogged the DPF, which fouled the turbo. When I asked for a diagnostic they claimed it was because the ECU was remapped so therefore it is my fault. The company who remapped the engine are putting it back on VW. So basically I have a 4 year old $60,000 paperweight." - Shannon
 
0 OBDii Port.jpg

I know at times I seem like a flippant sociopath with a heart of stone. But the truth is, I hate giving good people bad news. Especially when the repair bill is a healthy five-figure sum.

The facts here … so inconvenient.

When your engine blows up, an aftermarket engine control ECU is a great deal for the carmaker - because it essentially allows them to sidestep any accountability for engine or powertrain failures.

More: What causes DPF problems >>

MEET THE HACKERS

0 Hacker.jpg

And then there’s the ECU-hacking backyarders. Do you suppose the guy selling you some aftermarket chip over the counter of an industrial unit in West Analsex has a test-track and a couple of engine dynos running flat-out, doing extreme accelerated life component testing on all the makes and models he re-flashes?

Do you think he bothers to establish emissions compliance? Does he appear to have a budget to compensate you for a catastrophic engine failure? I urge you to think about this beyond the vague claims on the el cheapo website.

These malignant keyboard jockeys can certainly overfuel an engine at wide-open throttle get power. They can lean it out at part throttle and push the NOx through the roof - and also save a little fuel. But there’s no free lunch.

You cannot do this without compromising reliability and/or emissions. It’s easy to pump up the power and shred sixth gear pulling a heavy trailer up a shallow incline at 80 kays an hour on the freeway. That’s going to be a memorable day out with the boat.  

The manufacturer has every right to decline your warranty claim in these circumstances. To slam the door in yo’ face and opine that you brought this upon yourself, idiot. Because, essentially, you did.

See also: Manual Vs auto Vs dual-clutch Vs CVT >>

FIGHTING IT OUT: YOU - THE BIGGEST LOSER

0 lawyer.jpg

And you can bet the re-chipper who charged you a princely sum to re-chip your formerly functional machine will not compensate you without a fight either. You’ll be hiring a lawyer, and retaining expert witnesses for multi-page forensic reports.

Fighting in this arena gets expensive fast. You’ll end up paying almost as much in legal and associated costs as the repair bill itself - and when you have your big day in court, you might actually lose.

Even if you win, you’ll be out of pocket. That’s even if you win and you make a successful application for costs. Because the only one who really wins in a courtroom is a lawyer.

WORST-CASE SCENARIO

The most poignant of barrel bottom-scraping missives from the department of self-destructo engines over the past 12 months emerged into my inbox just like the baby Jesus, only minus the wise men and the virgin birth, almost a year ago today.

 
"I bought a Ford Ranger 2012 brand new. It's 10 months out of warranty. It’ been serviced on time at the dealer. The car has a chip on it and the Dealer said Ford won't provide assistance because of that chip. The chip was recommended to me by the Ford salesperson and I was told it would not void the warranty. (The salesperson’s dad sells them through his own business)." - Nathan
 

I went a fair way down the track investigating this. I lubed up, and put on my investigative journalist’s spandex jumpsuit. Interesting look, but it feels good. I established the name of the salesperson. I established that his father did at the time own an aftermarket business selling ECU upgrades as a sideline.

There was corroborating chatter online, in forums. I read the vague guarantees from the re-mapper. I checked the dealership for official endorsement of the product - nothing, expectedly enough.

I had a look at the $15,128 repair bill and the photos of the engine in disrepair. Various other correspondence. I’m not alleging the fundamental truth of the owner’s allegations. All I can say is: I didn’t sniff any bullshit

I formed the view it is - at best - morally repugnant for a salesman at a dealership to solicit customers for dad’s ECU upgrade business. And to purport warranty compliance, which is flat-out untrue, that’s epic misconduct - even for a car salesman. I simply formed the view that the poor bastard with the blown-up ranger seemed to be telling me the truth.

Will high-octane fuel make your engine go better? Find out here >>

THE OFFICIAL NON-RESPONSE

So I contacted Ford. I reached out on the fourth of November last year to Wes Sherwood, the then big cheese of external communications at Ford ‘Straya. I laid it all out, in great detail, in writing, in the hope that those tools at Ford would intervene.

Optimal result, I thought: ‘out there’ in the real world, one guy’s $15,000 pre-Christmas frown might go upside-down. A small victory for journalism, perhaps. Mr Sherwood got right back to me the very same day. And I thought: This actually looks promising.

 
"Hi John:  Thank you for giving us the chance to look into this matter, we will investigate and come back to you by early next week. Wes."
- Wes Sherwood, Ford Communications Team
 
 62yo Ford CEO James Hackett is reportedly eligible for US$13.4 million in total annual remuneration. (Just saying.) So I guess the buck stops with Mr Hackett in terms of Ford's conduct globally. It would be interesting to learn exactly what he thought of this reputation-damaging situation...

62yo Ford CEO James Hackett is reportedly eligible for US$13.4 million in total annual remuneration. (Just saying.) So I guess the buck stops with Mr Hackett in terms of Ford's conduct globally. It would be interesting to learn exactly what he thought of this reputation-damaging situation...

And guess what? It’s been 13 months. Deafening silence. This was the camel’s back-breaking straw that convinced me Ford was absolutely not of merchantable quality here in ‘Straya.  

A company with a functioning moral compass would have gone on a witch hunt. A dealer’s franchise agreement would have been leveraged against a significant pull-through. Subject to verifying the truth of the allegations, or course. I’m certain there’s a ‘bringing the brand into disrepute’ termination clause in most car dealers’ contracts.

If I had received a phone call from Ford, and if the facts had been corroborated by the owner of the Ranger, with his balls suddenly released from the $15,000 vice, if they’d said: We’re fixing this and we’re taking definite steps to ensure this kind of malfeasance never happens again …

… I would have gone: ‘OK. Nice one. I won’t report it.’ There are several PR operatives in the car industry I’ve done this kind of thing with. But not with the brands I advise you to steer clear of, such as Ford. (Not for want of trying.)

CONCLUSION

0 ECU.jpg

My strong advice to you: Buy a vehicle that performs as you require in its standard configuration. Engine, handling - whatever - do not step across the line and open Pandora’s box by re-mapping the engine control ECU. Unless you want to wave goodbye to essentially all consumer safeguards.

You have to ask yourself, in the case of the Ranger, is there really a problem that 470 Newton-metres of standard Ford Ranger engine cannot solve? And if there is, man up and buy a LandCruiser. Re-mapping the ECU is an invitation to disaster. Certainly not worth the risk.

Nathan, the guy with the Ranger, above, and Shannon, the bloke with the Amarok, they’re ultimately going to pay something like $15,000 to re-chip their engines. Seems like a pretty poor return on investment to me.

MORE REPORTS