Unlock Your Engine’s Hidden Horsepower

race car


Many vehicle manufacturers are ultra conservative when it comes to programming engine control units (ECU), also known as the engine control module or the engine control computer at the factory. They’re not going to program the control module so that the vehicle runs at its maximum power capabilities, in part because they’re concerned with things like the vehicle warranty, emissions, and fuel economy. Their conservative settings, however, leave you with a vehicle that isn’t producing as much power as it could. How frustrating is that? Is there a DIY engine tuning solution? Quite a few, actually.

ECU unlocking software

A lot of you are probably thinking, “ECU chip tuner” or “reflash” right about now. Reprogramming the engine control computer seems to be the common wisdom when it comes to increasing horsepower. For the uninitiated, an ECU basically controls how the engine goes about its business of producing and delivering power, including air/fuel ratio, ignition timing, idle speed, valve timing, and RPMs.

Back in the day, if you wanted to do some car tuning and change the ECU’s parameters, you had to actually change computer chips, physically swapping them out with newer chips that had software featuring the performance parameters you wanted. Today, one can install new software that changes the ECU’s operating parameters simply by plugging into the OBDII port. Boom. A few keystrokes later and you just raised the rev limit, governed top speed, and tuned the air-to-fuel ratio.

Replacing an engine control computer

What about switching out the engine control computer entirely with a new one instead of just reprogramming it? Is a new control module an option? A couple people, including Ethan Campbell, a Roanoke, Virginia-based tuner toying with a ‘96 Miata, have mentioned the MegaSquirt PNP ECU (MSPNP2) as one possibility for completely replacing the stock engine control computer. Campbell’s winter project is taking an engine with a VVT head from a ’99 Miata and installing it into his ’96 and adding a MegaSquirt ECU. MegaSquirt describes the product as taking “over the functions the stock ECU provides, like fuel control, ignition control, and various other outputs, and lets you adjust these yourself by connecting a laptop to the MSPNP2.”


Another car-tuning option to increase engine performance is Accesstuner from Cobb. The manufacturer describes the software as allowing “the user to get into the heart of the OEM ECU and create custom calibrations for vehicles equipped with virtually any performance modification. The end result is a tune that is custom tailored to the vehicle’s unique modifications, producing maximum power gains while maintaining the drive-ability and sophistication inherent in the OEM ECU.”


What about turbocharging as a car-tuning option? I know that turbocharging a non-turbo car is a viable option for increasing horsepower, but it’s also one that’s accompanied by a whole host of other considerations, including boost level, compression ratios and avoiding knock, that have to be planned for to avoid engine damage when turbocharging. There’s even the option of adding a Nitrous Oxide System (NOS).

If you have DIY engine tuning solutions to share, leave us a comment.


  1. Can I do that on a 97 Lincoln town car ??

  2. Very true I was using my car at lower power then its capability. I actually under rated my car for almost two years then this thing happened call it good or bad my younger brother while driving for the first time got a hit on the subway. It took me 2 weeks to take it to the one who made me feel proud of my car . that was the day I realized how lucky I am to have her. I love my car…

  3. hi..

    i just want to ask a question?

    I have a pontiac trans am 2002 with stock engine ((ls1)) and i want to install a aps twin turbo.

    i want to know what i can do with the engine to install the twin turbo but with out noise .

    i want reach to 700 or 800 hp


  4. Terrence jones says:

    Hello my name is T. Jones and i have a 94 firebird that i restored its a five speed and i added a k&n cold air intake and a g-force performance chip and a 80 series flowmaster muffler i havent had it dyno’d so i dont currently know what kind of horse power it has now i know the factory on it is 148 but will tunning the computer give me more horse power and what else can i do to increase the speed thanks in advance.

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