The Best Performance Chips to Upgrade Your Ride
If you are looking to get more power and better fuel economy from your vehicle, one of the simplest and most efficient options is an aftermarket engine tuning device. Some people might refer to these systems as performance chips, as in the early era of computerized automotive tuning, they were literally microchips that you would plug into the vehicle’s computer system.
Due to advancements in automotive computer technology and the introduction of the OBDII port under the dash, those microchips are a thing of the past. They have been replaced by plug-and-play tuning devices. These modern tuning devices offer improved power and fuel economy, just like the performance chips of the 1980s and 1990s, but the modern tools do much more than that. Depending on the product chosen, modern tuning devices can sharpen throttle response, adjust the transmission shifts, and check diagnostic trouble codes. Some of the most advanced systems even come with elaborate display screens that report a wide range of engine parameters.
The problem is that there are many different types and brands of tuning devices on today’s market, so we put together a list looking at the best options.
For more information on the best performance chips, refer to our table of contents.
Table of contents
1. Editor's Pick: Power Tune Performance Engine Tuning Module
The Power Tune Performance Engine Tuning Module is in the most basic class of modern tuning devices. It works similarly to the old school performance chips. You simply plug it into the OBDII port under the dash of your vehicle and it automatically communicates with your engine’s computerized control system.
The small module makes small adjustments to your engine’s fuel delivery and ignition timing to increase power output. In many cases, these changes will also improve fuel economy in addition to adding power. The Power Tune also sharpens both throttle response and transmission shifts, leading to further improvements in overall performance.
If you don’t have a world of mechanical knowledge and you are looking to get slightly better performance from your car, truck, or SUV, a performance chip system like this one is your best option. Installation is simple and you don’t have to make any manual adjustments or select modes. It is truly a plug-and-play system that improves the overall performance of your vehicle.
Easy to install, no mechanical knowledge required, very inexpensive, applies to many makes and models
Limited functions, no customization options
2. Pedal Commander
Next, we have the Pedal Commander. It is called the Pedal Commander because it is designed to adjust the electronic input from your accelerator pedal to the engine computer. All modern vehicles which use a throttle-by-wire system have a bit of lag built into the system. The Pedal Commander removes that delay, leading to much sharper acceleration and throttle response. It doesn’t actually add any power, but instead, it makes your accelerator pedal more or less sensitive to your inputs.
The Pedal Commander has a wire that plugs into your OBDII port and connects the control box to the engine computer system. The box mounts on the dashboard, putting all of the controls easily within reach of the driver. If you don’t want to have the control box in sight, you can also mount it under the dash or in the glove box, making adjustments wirelessly via a smartphone app.
One key advantage of the Pedal Commander is that it comes with 36 settings. The control box has four different modes, Eco, City, Sport, and Sport+, along with sensitivity settings which allow you to fine tune each mode. For example, the Eco mode actually softens throttle response, leading to decreased fuel usage, but if you find that Eco mode is too soft, you can use the up and down buttons on the control box to adjust the mode to your liking. Along the same lines, Sport+ offers the most aggressive throttle input, but within the mode, you can make adjustments for the sharpest throttle response possible.
Adjustable modes, offers increased performance and fuel economy, no mechanical knowledge required, wireless control from a smartphone, users cite instant improvements, no risk of engine damage, applies to many makes and models
Doesn’t add any power, expensive
3. Bully Dog Tuner and Monitor
The Bully Dog Tuner and Monitor is one of the more elaborate systems on the market today. Not only does it improve performance, but the device is made to be mounted and left in the vehicle at all times. The screen provides information on the engine tuning aspect, but it also functions as a full performance gauge suite, giving you a look at many engine parameters which are likely not included in your vehicle’s gauge cluster.
The Bully Dog system works like the others, by plugging it into the OBDII port, but it does not work automatically like some other systems. Once connected to your vehicle, you use the controller to select the function. Of course, there is a tuning mode where you can pick from an array of upgraded engine tunes. These pre-programmed tunes are designed to cater to the various needs of all drivers. If you are tuning a hard-working truck, there is a towing mode that focuses on low-end torque. If you are tuning a performance vehicle, be it a truck or car, there are modes that focus on optimizing power output across the powerband. There is also usually a setting that improves fuel economy while also improving performance. This is all achieved by tweaking the fuel flow, ignition timing, and transmission behavior of the vehicle.
In addition to adding power and performance, the Bully Dog Tuner and Monitor provides several other functions. As mentioned above, the screen doubles as a performance gauge panel when you are driving the vehicle. You can also read and clear diagnostic trouble codes. Also, this device comes with a mounting system that puts the controller up, out of the way for convenient use every day.
Larger power gains, multiple tuning settings, elaborate gauge display, attractive mounting system for extended use
Model specific with limited applications, very expensive
4. DiabloSport inTune i3
DiabloSport is one of the top names in the world of aftermarket tuning devices and the inTune i3 is one of its most popular items. DiabloSport has designed the device to look like a smartphone, so it is easily tucked away when not in use. This device offers the easy installation of power and performance, but it is designed to cater to drivers who may want to go beyond the preprogrammed upgrades.
The DiabloSport inTune i3 connects through the OBDII port. Once connected, you can select from a variety of functions, from performance tunes and data-logging to diagnostic code reading and gauge displays. The inTune i3 comes with preprogrammed tunes, so you can gain power and performance right out of the box. At the same time, this device is designed to meet the needs of drivers who are running custom engine tunes from a performance shop. The shop creates an engine tune file that and uploads it to the device. You then load that tune into your vehicle’s computer system and the result is generally greater power gains than the preprogrammed tune. A critical aspect of custom tuning is data-logging, so the DiabloSport unit makes saving and sharing engine data very easy. When that data is shared with the performance shop, the custom engine tune can be tweaked for better performance.
In addition to providing extra power and performance, the inTune i3 can scan and clear diagnostic codes, along with displaying gauge data. However, the inTune does not come with a mounting bracket, as it is meant to be used and then disconnected. It also does not have an elaborate gauge screen.
Large power gains, can be equipped with custom tunes, less expensive than similar devices, data-logging capabilities, easily stowed when not in use, offers individual fine-tuning, many model-specific applications
Not ideal for everyday gauge monitoring, requires updates through a wired internet connection, incorrect use can lead to engine damage
5. SCT Performance BDX Performance Tuner and Monitor
The SCT Performance BDX Performance Tuner and Monitor is the ultimate performance tuning device. It offers preprogrammed and custom tuning capabilities, an elaborate gauge screen, WiFi connectivity, data-logging and diagnostic trouble code reading and clearing. In short, this SCT unit does everything that you could want from a performance tuning device, whether you are looking to get more power from an otherwise stock car or a big-money build.
The SCT Performance BDX Performance Tuner plugs into the OBDII system and that is the extent of the installation process. Once connected, there are preprogrammed tunes that you can upload that offer varying advantages. Some tunes improve high end horsepower, some improve low end torque, and some focus on fuel economy. These modes adjust both the engine and transmission function to improve overall performance, even when the focus isn’t added power. However, in adjusting the fuel and ignition systems, the SCT Performance BDX Performance Tuner can add big power, especially with a custom engine tune.
The system is designed to save uploaded tune files from a tuning shop along with providing real-time data for acute tuning tweaks, so this is a great piece for anyone with a modified engine. At the same time, the preprogrammed tunes will add considerable power to a stock engine.
This piece does not come with the mounting bracket for constant use, but when you buy a bracket, this device can serve as an additional gauge panel during your daily drive. The screen is customizable, so you can select what you want displayed, with a long list of engine and transmission gauges. The LCD screen is easy to read day or night, so this is the ideal unit for everyday use.
Large power gains, can be equipped with custom tunes, less expensive than similar devices, data-logging capabilities, designed for daily display use, offers individual fine-tuning, many model-specific applications, WiFi updates
Incorrect use can lead to engine damage, mounting bracket not included
How a Tuning Device Works
While the performance tuning devices discussed above may offer other functions, their key purpose is adding power and performance or improving fuel economy. While these systems all look very different from the performance chips of the 1980s and 1990s, they work in the same basic way. The early performance chips adjusted the engine output by plugging a microchip into the system while today’s systems all connect via the under-dash OBDII port.
Every modern engine is tuned to offer a given level of power while achieving a specific level of fuel economy while staying within the requirements of federal emission standards. Just about every modern engine can be tuned to either increase power output, improve fuel economy, or both. This is achieved by adjusting the fuel flow, ignition timing, and throttle input sensitivity. By adjusting the fuel and timing, extra power is created while the throttle input sensitivity leads to a more active accelerator. In many cases, adjustments made to the fuel flow and ignition timing leads to power and improved fuel economy, but the eco-friendly engine tunes focus on getting the best possible mileage.
The best possible results come from custom tuning shops. While the preprogrammed tunes offer increases in performance, the tuning device contains very safe tunes for a stock engine in any air condition. A custom tuning shop can push things closer to the limits for improved power on your specific car and in your geographic conditions. For example, a preprogrammed tune will work well in the high altitude of Denver or the sea level altitude in Miami, but a custom tune would yield much more power in either condition, since the tune is developed with local air conditions.
Where modern devices shine brighter than the old performance chips is in their function beyond just adjusting engine output. Features like data-logging, gauge displays, and diagnostic abilities make modern tuning devices more useful to everyone, whether their vehicle is completely stock or heavily modified. When shopping for one of these devices, you will want to make sure that you find a tuning module that meets your needs and fits your vehicle. Some tuning devices are universal while others are designed to work with specific vehicles and specific engines.
If you want your vehicle to be a bit quicker and more responsive, or if you are looking for better fuel economy, these tuning devices will all offer those advantages. If you want diagnostic capabilities, the ability to upload custom tunes, and the custom gauge readout, the more expensive tuning devices are the way to go.
We are committed to finding, researching, and recommending the best products. We earn commissions from purchases you make using the retail links in our product reviews. Learn more about how this works.
Main photo credit: Averon / Shutterstock.com
Patrick Rall has been covering the automotive industry for over a decade, but was born into car culture. Having grown up in his father's performance shop, he spent extensive time at the track, driving and wrenching on various types of vehicles.
More by Patrick Rall