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  • Todd

Tuned to Perfection?

Our recent Focus RS film has garnered some great comments and showcased the on-going discussion of tuned cars versus factory set-ups. While we believe the only baseline for car testing is the way the car was sold to the public, we totally support and encourage owners to revise a car to their personal taste. Tuning is a massive business, and in this age of turbo-charged everything, “more” is as close as your OBD II port.

However, this discussion also reveals bias about what makes a car worthwhile. Most of the time the “tune” being discussed is a change to the ECU programming and ultimately results in one thing… more power. The evangelists of this idea generally retread the same promises over and over: it will transform the car into the best of all the options in that segment, and it will cost you about $500.

For proof, I offer the following:

The Golf R can be tuned by the regularly mentioned folks at APR, or our friends at Integrated Engineering, to change the power numbers and throttle mapping to give you a more lively R for around $500.

My long term FR-S is about to add an ECU tune using the expertise of our friends at Open Flash Performance. The expected result will be more power and a further improvement of the torque dip for a cost of around, you guessed it, $500.

In both cases, reviews of these tunes talk about it "waking up the car" and "making it the way they should have offered it from the factory". A simple tune, and you car will be "perfect".

But at the risk of enduring an angry mob with flaming pitchforks, I offer the following: power isn’t always the answer, and no car is a $500 ECU tune away from perfection.

Somewhere along the way ego and bragging rights merged with car discussion and created the flawed premise that a more powerful streetcar is always better. There is no legitimate or usable reason for a 707hp Hellcat Charger outside of stats debates and “Watch this” fun with your friends. A new Toyota Camry doesn’t need the horsepower of a Mustang GT from 10 years ago, and yet it almost does. Zero-to-60 times and drag strip numbers continue to sell cars in a way that great handling can’t. As a result the human need for more continues to manifest itself in cars that are always faster and the belief that any car, when given more power, will become exponentially greater still.

A car’s fundamental enjoyment comes from many things in its balance of power and dynamics combined with the creature comforts and character it offers. Changing any one of the variables begins to change a car, but transforming a vehicle into a different kind of experience requires alterations to every major category. A $500 chip tune can’t do that.

Witness the 450hp MK IV Golf R we drove last year. The guys at Integrated Engineering put together an impressive package that turned the staid Golf R into the dual-personality monster we always wanted. It’s a phenomenal change, but the build sheet totals up around ten thousand dollars and covers suspension, wheels, brakes, and major engine components on top of a well calibrated tune. Plus, it’s still under development which means sometimes things break. They’ve successfully transformed the car, but it was far from cheap or easy.

The vocal VW fans on our RS film repeat the idea that the Golf R is one engine tune away from bettering every other car in our comparison. And yet, to change any of the four cars handling characteristics and the nature of their AWD systems would require far more than just a change in software. A more powerful or responsive engine doesn’t make a car handle any better, any more than a good bluetooth stereo can fix bad interior design. For real change, components will have to be swapped and testing will have to be done. The cost can sky-rocket.

Which leads me back to our Long-Term FR-S and its own $500 tune. I admit I’d like the FR-S to be a more powerful car, but I never bought it to be powerful. If I was looking for a fast car I would have never purchased the FR-S. I bought it for the steering feel, interaction, and handling. From the day I first drove one I realized the car excelled in the areas I find important. I would rather drive an underpowered car with naturally great handling, than a powerful car I might be able to tune into a good canyon carver. Everyone has different priorities, but a car should excel in your most important areas from the day you buy it. Tuning is great to shore up a cars weak-points, but changing its fundamental nature can be costly enough to warrant buying a different car.

Cars are canvases for our personalities just as much as they are transportation. There isn’t a wrong way to customize something if it increases your love for the vehicle. But cars, like people, come with certain natural inclinations that can only be changed over time, trial and error, and great personal cost. It makes more sense to accept the weaknesses of the one you love, and embrace what they do best.

Perfection costs more than $500.

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