When your vehicle arrived at the dealership, it was designed to appeal to as broad an audience as possible:
-Soft, smooth shifts that most people desire took precedence over quick, fast shifts, even though faster shifts lead to better performance.
-Fuel maps were optimized to minimize emissions and maximize fuel economy, even though this lessens performance.
-The fuel maps and shift points were also tuned for a stock air intake and a stock exhaust system.
The point? If your vehicle still has the factory default engine tune, then your vehicle's engine computer isn't programmed to maximize performance. Instead, it's programmed to offer a good combination of performance AND fuel economy AND low emissions AND drive-ability. While that's A-OK for most people, it's not what you're looking for if you're a performance enthusiast.
The solution, of course, is to re-tune the engine computer. But is this a DIY project, or something you should pay a tuning shop to do for you? Here's our take on the benefits of shop tuning vs. using a handheld tuner.
What's Shop Tuning?
Shop tuning, often called dyno or street tuning, is where you hand your vehicle over to a tuner who specializes in adjusting your ECU for more power. Usually, what they're looking to do is squeeze out all the power they can, and they're using a dynamometer (dyno) as their primary testing tool.
The process usually starts with the tuner pulling your car onto the dyno, doing 2-3 runs to establish a baseline horsepower rating, and then reprogramming your ECU using the shop's tuner. After this reprogram, they'll run the vehicle on the dyno again, show you the improvement, and collect their $$$.
If you're working with a good tuner, they will probably do more than 2 dyno runs...they'll do their initial baseline runs, an initial program, then a set of test runs, then tweak the program, then another set, etc. After a few hours have gone by, the tuner will be able to show you good, great, or decent power output improvements on the dyno.
The Pros of Paying A Professional Tuner
The main advantage to letting a shop take control of your engine's tune is that they can modify parameters you can’t access with most handheld tuners. They use more advanced tuners that the typical enthusiast doesn't have.
Pro tuners also have a lot of experience tuning around specific add-ons and upgrade, and may even have experience with your specific make and model. Some of the best professional tuners in North America are booked months in advance and charge a pretty penny to "tweak" your vehicle, but the payoff is a perfectly tuned engine computer that compliments all the add-ons and modifications you've made to your vehicle.
The Cons Of Paying A Pro
The biggest con of paying a pro tuner is that they're tuning your vehicle according to the dyno. While that's not exactly bad, the dyno isn't the same as the real world. If, for example, you're only concerned about quarter mile times, a dyno is probably just fine. But if you're trying to maximize your tune for your regular, every day driving, dyno tune isn't ideal.
The other cons of paying for a professional tune:
-The cost of a single tuning session with a good pro (and the dyno they use) usually exceeds the cost of a handheld tuner
-Re-tunes and adjustments are often necessary (especially if you don't like the way the car behaves in the real world), and they'll cost you a fair amount (most shops will discount repeating tuning sessions)
-You’ll need to make an appointment for every tune and re-tune, as the dyno is usually busy
While we're very big fans of professional tuning, we don't think it's the best choice for the average vehicle owner. It's expensive, time-consuming, and often no more beneficial than hand-held tuning when it comes to regular, every-day commuting.
Handheld Tuners FTW!
Over the years, handheld tuners have become extremely popular. There are many different brands of tuner available, each with their own models and tuning philosophy. Generally speaking, all handheld tuners are designed to increase performance and power in the RPM bands most people actually drive in.
What's more, most handheld tuners offer customization abilities, so you can adjust for all kinds of changes, like gearing and tire size — but you can also change a lot of factory settings to increase power.
Handheld Tuner Pros
-In terms of dollars spent per horsepower gained, handheld tuners are usually the very best performance add-on available
-Compared to the cost of a professional tuner and dyno, handheld tuners are downright cheap
-All quality tuners are sold with documented, proven performance gains
-It's easy to tune and re-tune your vehicle whenever you like - no setting appointments days, weeks, or months ahead and waiting
-You can take as much time as you need to test and tune different features
-You can take your car to the track, do a few runs, adjust the tune, repeat, etc. to your heart's content
-You don’t have to rely on someone else to make your car perform the way you want it to
Handheld Tuner Cons
The biggest disadvantage with a handheld tuners is that you can’t quite change everything that your local tuning shopping can. There are some settings that have to be tuned by a more expensive tuning system.
-There's a little bit of a learning curve when it comes to managing your own tunes
-Unless you've got access to a dyno or are timing runs, it's hard to know exactly how impactful your tunes are in terms of horsepower gain, etc. (there are some ways to estimate this).
Which Tuning Option Makes The Most Sense For Your Vehicle?
If money and time aren't a consideration, our suggestion is to buy your own dyno and professional tuning software! But if you can't do that, then we suggest going with a handheld tuner. For most people, a handheld programmer is the most logical choice. While there's a little bit of work involved in learning how to tune your vehicle, handheld tuners are far more practical that pro tuning. It's easy to re-tune your vehicle when you add new accessories, test and adjust your tune at the track, change tunes out for different situations, etc.
Obviously, professional tuning offers a lot of value. If you're racing, for example, there's really no substitute for professional help. But for everyone else, professional tuning isn’t needed. In fact, we'd argue that money spent on pro tuning is better spent on parts and accessories!
Here at EuroSportTuning, we deal with a lot of different engine tuners and performance programmers for VWs, Audis, BMWs, and Volvos. We choose the best tuners and programmers from the US, Europe, and Canada to sell here on our site, and believe it or not we have professional tuning experience in-house that also helps guide our selection. If you're looking for a great handheld tuner for your European vehicle, we've got it.