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The internet is a powerful tool. It lets ideas and information flow freely from those who know theirs *%t to people who want to know theirs. It’s allowed us as a business to grow, not just in terms of reach, but the in-house knowledge we have from working with some of the biggest names in engine control systems. The downside is there’s no special license where you need to prove your credentials before passing on information. No fact-check to make sure some fly-by-night diesel tuning shop knows which end of a 4WD to put the engine before they start swaying people’s minds and talking them into costly ‘upgrades’ when there’s far better options out there. We figured it was high time we put right from wrong and start busting a lot of the myths floating around the interwebs from so called experts about ECU re-mapping and give you the straight-shooting, no-nonsense facts.
Myth #1 – It’ll damage the ECU – ECU remapping has been around in petrol engines for near on 30 years now, but it’s only recently the ECUs in diesel 4WDs have been smart enough to tune them that way. The early ECUs in petrol engines were often incredibly rudimentary, meaning the people tuning them would have to crack them open, solder in patch leads and physically alter the ECU to get it to work, obviously not something you’d be keen on doing on a brand new 4WD. Modern ECUs are a lot more complicated but they’re also designed to be easily updated, just like a phone. In almost all 4WDs we’re simply able to plug into the diagnostics port, download the old program, make our changes then re-upload the new one. It does no more damage to your ECU than having the computer reset, just with a whole lot more usable power.
Myth #2 – Chips are safer than re-mapping – This is a common one lately but it’s been misrepresented. Re-mapping and chips both operate very differently. A chip alters the signals going to the ECU, tricking it into behaving the way the tuner wants it to. So if they want 3psi more boost, they’ll trick the ECU into thinking it’s running 3psi less than it actually is so it’ll ramp up to compensate. Re-mapping goes to the source and tells the ECU to bump up 3psi. With modern ECUs being so complicated that difference in pressure could mean the ECU will change multiple other parameters to suit, if it doesn’t know it’s doing it, it doesn’t know how to do it safely. A bad re-map is just as dangerous as a bad chip, but a good re-map is a lot better than a good chip.
Myth #3 – It can wreck your engine – ECUs are a lot smarter than many give them credit for. They’re not sitting idly on their hands watching as your engine rips itself to pieces. For every possible operation the engine will have, the ECU will have multiple maps to check against and act accordingly. We can bump one map up to slightly change boost pressure for normal operation, without changing the factory over-boost limits. We’ll read the existing maps to understand where things can be pushed and where they can’t and make sure we stay well within the factory limitations. If it reaches those factory limitations we leave in place it’ll still go into limp-mode, just like a stock one.
Myth #4 – The bigger the number the better the tune – Tuning a 4WD isn’t a race, there’s no ‘best’ tune we’re all aspiring to. The fact that one tune make 20hp more than another is basically pointless information. What matters is drivability. We can crank the wick right up on a tune till it’s making astronomical power figures and it’ll run down the dragstrip like a rocket. But it’ll drive like a bucket in every other situation. If you’re building a diesel drag car, or a family tourer we’ll do two completely different tuning levels to make the vehicle work how you want it to.
Myth #5 – You need a dyno – A shops opinion on whether or not tuning on a dyno is necessary normally revolves around if they have a dyno. We have two, but they’re not always needed. With modern diesels the ECU controls every little detail of how the engine runs, to the point you can almost tune for a specific torque figure without ever seeing the vehicle the tune is going on. If the vehicle is reasonably late model, has been looked after and doesn’t have weird and wonderful power upgrades done to it the dyno is more verification of the adjustments, rather than a key step. It’s a tool we use constantly in the development of our tunes, but once we’re making predictable results it’s not required and can often be substituted with some on-road testing.
Myth #6 – It has to be done in-house – There’s a huge misconception that if the person removing the ECU isn’t the one doing the tune then the tune is just a generic map and dangerous for your engine. That couldn’t be further from the truth. When Apple sends an update out over the internet for your phone there’s no possibility of them accidentally installing Android. It doesn’t matter if the ECU we’re remapping is plugged into our hardware on the bench next to us, or if it’s thousands of kilometres away in one of our dealers and being done over the internet, the results are always the same.
Myth #7 – You’ll have no warranty – A huge concern for anyone with a new 4WD is voiding the factory warranty by fitting upgrades. The manufacturer will use any excuse to get out of paying warranty, including using your 4×4 as a 4×4. To stop this issue all the work we do at Roo is warranted, if something goes wrong because of a tune you’re still fully covered under warranty, even if the factory complains you’ve fitted an aftermarket floor mat.
There’s a certain old school cool about classic 4WDs. The steel dash, round headlights, simple interiors and classic styling is like nothing else money can buy, especially when you’re miles from anywhere trundling down an isolated track listening to the roar of a naturally aspirated six cylinder or turbo-diesel donk. They’re the kind of vehicle where nothing even comes close to the feeling of enjoyment you get out of them and you enjoy them because of their simplicity, not in spite of it.
Then there’s the middle ground.
The 4WDs that are starting to reach their expiry date and will never be held in high esteem like an old steel dashed 40 or Land Rover. The mid 90s to early 2000s rigs that fall somewhere between the nostalgic older vehicles and comfortable and reliable new rigs. I’m talking about early model Mitsubishi Challengers, Nissan Pathfinders, even 90 Series Prados, and just about every dual cab ute made before coil springs came into play. While they were great steads in their time they’re all getting a little long in the tooth now and are starting to go past their used by date, but is it time to upgrade?
We’re in the game of making 4WDs more reliable and powerful so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s one of the first things we look for in any 4WD. While older donks are incredibly simple to work on they’re also incredibly limited in terms of what they can do, and what you can do to them. Let’s take a look at Toyota’s 1KZ-TE engine, one of the best engines available on the market when it came out that literally powered just about every mid-size 4WD they could shoe-horn it into. In stock form it’d make about 85KW and 315NM, put a tune or chip into it and you’d be looking at around 100KW and 360NM, it’d average about 12L/100km depending on what setup you had it running in too. Its replacement, the 1GD-FTV in the new HiLux and Prado punches out 125KW and 343NM stock, put a chip or re-map into it and those numbers jump to around 140KW and nearly 400NM of torque all while returning under 10L/100KM. Even after doing serious power upgrades on an older 4WD in many cases the best you could hope for would be similar power to a stock late model unit and worse fuel consumption. Starting to see why we like new 4WDs and their high-tech power plants?
Unless you’re trundling around the back streets of Cairns in a soft top 40 I think it’s safe to say most people would be at least half tempted at the thought of a new 4WD. In fact the biggest thing turning people away from them is often the cost, and sure, brand new top-of-the-line 4WDs are pretty damn expensive no matter which way you look at it. But even a mid-tier 4WD will have a whole lot more to offer than most 15-20yo 4WDs, especially if you start looking at some of the more budget friendly brands out there. In fact, unless you’re chasing a top tier variant you can normally get behind the tiller of a new or late model dual cab ute for around the $45k mark.
If your old 4WD isn’t completely shagged it’d be reasonable to expect it’s worth around $10k still. That’s a changeover price of about $150 a week if you hunt around for a good rate. Sounds like a lot of coin but when you factor in the maintenance you no doubt spend and the fuel difference it starts getting damn close to breaking even. A new radiator will easily cost a month of car repayments, probably two if you pay a shop to do it. A couple of tired old bearings due for replacement would easily be a fortnight or more, and if something serious goes wrong like a turbo or injection issue you could easily be looking at six months’ worth of repayments. The harsh reality is as vehicles get older the cost to keep them on the road also rises. Have a good look at your financial situation and decide when you should double down, or when you should cut your losses.
Look if you have a twin locked, 35in tyre’d 80 Series LandCruiser with a heap of boost pushing through an FT motor you’re going to be hard pressed to find a suitable new replacement, at least this side of $100k anyway. Try as they might new vehicles just don’t have the bare bones capability that older rigs have. What they do have (keep your sniggering down) is comfort. If your idea of a fun weekend 4WDing is hitting the local tough tracks with some mates you might find a 150 Series Prado isn’t up to scratch. But if you’re hitching on a camper or caravan and heading a few hours down the road to a secluded beach camp site ditching the old MK Triton for am MN or even ML Triton might mean you’re turning up to camp feeling refreshed and ready for the weekend rather than trying to shake the drone of road noise out of your ears while performing a spine correction on yourself. At the end of the day it comes down to your unique situation, for some people a modern 4WD just might not be financially viable, for others they just might not be the best option, but for those who fall somewhere in the middle you might be surprised just how much more you enjoy getting out there when you’re doing it comfortably and with plenty of power under your right foot.
Automatic Vs Manual transmissions. It’s an argument that’s raged on since there was transmissions to argue about. Auto owners claim their transmission of choice gives them more continuous drive and increased low-down grunt, while manual gearbox owners say that doesn’t make up for the control a manual cog-swapper gives you or the ability to clutch start if you get a flat battery in the bush. And you know what? Absolutely none of that matters. Like most things in life people will choose their transmission like they would a football team, waving their chosen flag through highs and lows. Now that’s all well and good, but what happens when the 4WD you want, doesn’t come with the transmission you like? Now that part is simple, you call Roo Systems.
While we’ve earnt a name for ourselves as the go-to workshop for tuning diesels it’s far from the only trick up our sleeve. The workshop is routinely lined front to back with 4WDs getting the tourer treatment, but something that’s becoming more and more common is transmission swaps. 20 years ago it’d be a row of auto’s all being yanked out for far superior manual gearboxes, now we’re yanking lethargic manual gearboxes for trick modern automatic transmissions.
Before the naysayers get themselves in a huff it’s worth making the point that auto’s aren’t the same thing they used to be. Far from it. The old automatics you probably remember were generally three speeds and hydraulically controlled. Now there’s a couple of bad things about that, but the biggest is only having three gears to choose from. With each gear having to cover a larger space on the speedo it means the engine would rarely be in the right rev range for power and economy, it’d rev its head off higher in the gear and drop to just off idle when it kicks up. Modern autos with 6 or even 8 speeds keep the engine in its optimum RPM constantly. The result is more performance, a more direct feeling between your right foot and the engine, and better fuel economy as the engine isn’t labouring constantly.
It’s not just more ratios either. Old slush boxes used hydraulics to control the gear shifts, but the hydraulic fluid itself was controlled by clunky vacuum valves. It was a very rudimentary system that lead to lethargic gear changes and would often see the box doing the exact opposite of what you wanted it to. Modern boxes still use hydraulics to operate the clutch packs engaging each gear, but with electronic precision guiding them shifts are far smoother and more precise, knocking you into the gear you need before you can even think about changing a manual cog-swapper. Combine that with off-road modes, torque convertor lock ups, and improved cooling systems and the negative list of an automatic transmission starts getting awfully small.
The 70 Series Cruiser is already one of the best 4WDs money can buy, why would you want to mess with it? To make it better of course. Like it or not modern automatic transmissions have a whole host of benefits over a manual cog-swapper, and not a whole lot of negatives.
Sure, there’s the simple stuff like they’re easier to drive when you’re not doing an Irish jig just to get into a parking spot, but they also make life off-road a whole lot easier. There’s an old saying that autos are for going up hills and manuals are for going downhills; it’s because autos are able to provide constant drive even through gearshifts where a manual would see your 4WD momentarily hesitate costing you precious momentum. They also act like a giant shock absorber between the engine and wheels so you can maintain a smoother power delivery compared to a manual unit. Combine that with the torque convertor acting as a torque multiplier giving your 4WD more low-down grunt off the line and it’s clear where that saying comes from.
In fact the only reason manual gearboxes were seen as superior heading down hill was the ability to engine brake, but with intelligent computer controlled autos being able to lock the transmission as well as Hill Descent Control things are starting to stack up in the autos favour.
When we do an auto conversion we’re slotting in the latest and greatest options too, Toyota’s 6-speed AB60 transmission, the same setup you’ll find in an LC200. We use brand new boxes that are rated for a huge 900Nm and drop freeway revs by 500rpm.
The 200 Series LandCruiser is a hell of a rig, and arguably one of the most versatile 4WDs on the tracks. But it’s not for everybody. They’re big, real big, and they’re bloody nice; too nice to go punting through a back-country track covered in lantana. They’re also independently sprung up front and have plenty of soft body panels hanging out in every direction. Now all of these things can be overcome, but it’s kind of like ordering a beer then complaining you don’t like beer. The 70 series range of Cruisers are significantly cheaper, have a more robust drivetrain with a solid axle up front and are more suited to the kind of touring you’ll find when reaching for the diff lock button. Not only that, it’s significantly cheaper to put an automatic transmission into a 70 than it is to turn a 200 into a ute. Sure, they’re a little down on power compared to the twin-turbo donk in the 200, but I know some blokes who can sort that for you too.
You don’t need to look too far back to realise diesel performance tuning in Australia has had a dramatic change. Even in the last 5 years it’s gone from a niche modification off-roaders make to something every man and his dual cab ute wants for family work, the 9-5 grind, and serious outback travel. After all, it’s one of those modifications with no negatives, if it’s done right. That last point is the key, and something we’ve come across more than a few times here at Roo HQ. There’s more tuners than ever, many of them are good, many more aren’t.
There’s a few reasons behind this too. The most obvious is with the Commodore and Falcon dying out more and more people are flocking to dual cab utes, the other is that with the birth of electronically controlled diesels it’s never been easier to tune a diesel, but those same tools that make it a simple process also make it simple to stuff up. Any old numpty can download a tune off the internet, throw your pride and joy on a 2nd hand dyno and call it good. The problem is, with dodgy tuners paying for the work isn’t where the credit card swiping ends, in many cases you’ll be paying for it for years in excessive fuel consumption and replacing components way before their use-by-date, and in most cases the tuner won’t have a clue why. Sound complicated? Well it is, and it isn’t, but that’s why we’re here today.
When it comes to chasing power out of your 4WD the actual figures are essentially irrelevant, with just about every other consideration coming in to play before them. We’ll look at what potential limitations the vehicle has like torque limiters, substandard injectors, and turbochargers only just up to the task and then work in those parameters with the end goal for usable power at the speeds you need them. If at the end of the process the numbers are large, that’s fantastic, but we really couldn’t care less. For some tuners those numbers are the one and only goal. They’ll throw drivability to the wind giving you a 4WD that potentially runs hot, damages components, and feels everywhere you’re driving it, except flat stick on the dyno. Rather than chasing efficiencies in little places here and there these tunes are often the 4WD equivalent of a sledge hammer. Throwing boost and fuel into your engine with no regard for anything else, as long as it doesn’t go bang while they have the keys.
So what does all this mean apart from slightly higher fuel consumption making all that power? The big factor is your 4WDs Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF), a vital piece of emissions equipment designed to reduce harmful diesel particulates from entering the atmosphere. It works like a giant sponge with a couple of sensors inside. As your engine runs, the DPF simply captures the particulates, eventually choking up and letting the ECU know it’s time to do a burn, or regeneration cycle. To achieve this the engine will dump huge amounts of fuel into the engine, raising exhaust gas temperatures through the roof literally burning the build-up into finer, less harmful particles.
Now when these dodgy tuners start throwing around keyboards like they know which end of an exhaust to put the engine on they’ll often do what we call a dirty tune. A performance tune that basically dumps fuel into the engine for maximum power. It’s an incredibly basic setup with little thought put into creating usable power. It was a very common way to tune a diesel engine when we were still spinning spanners on mechanical injection pumps and even many performance chips, but it doesn’t cut the mustard now engines and our tuning methods have advanced. Y’see, the big problem isn’t necessarily jamming fuel into the engine, it’s excessive diesel soot finding its way into your DPF, sometimes up to twice the amount. That means the DPF is filling twice as fast, requiring twice the burn cycles, and twice the fuel used to do the burn as a result. When you consider that some models can suck in an extra 3L to do the burn, and are doing them every few hundred kays it starts seriously adding up over the life of the vehicle, even if your instant fuel usage looks great. Not only this, but most DPFs will also have a limited service life. Over time the ceramic material inside can become brittle, breaking down and clogging the filter requiring a full replacement. Twice the soot going through, half the DPFs life. When you budget in a replacement DPF from Toyota for an N80 HiLux right now will run you $4,000 it’s something you probably want to keep in working order.
In Facebook land where facts don’t matter and the info is made up anyway the solution is often seen as simply removing the DPF. The logic is basic enough, no DPF, no regeneration cycle using fuel, no filter to clog up and require replacing. The problem is it’s kind of like yanking your exhaust off because you bought an eBay mild steel special and it rusted away, rather than a quality stainless jobby. Making bad decisions to cover bad decisions rarely leads to good results.
When it comes to removing emissions gear the Environmental Protection Agency takes things pretty bloody seriously too, to the tune of a $250,000 fine for the vehicle owner, and $1,000,000 to the workshop doing the work if they want to throw their weight around. That eBay DPF delete pipe isn’t looking too crash hot now is it?
Like it or not, high-tech 4WDs are the way of the future. If you like things like capability, good fuel consumption, and being able to breathe when someone starts the engine it’s a damn good thing too. Sooner or later every diesel workshop will either be forced to get with the times and start working with technology, or they can keep bringing a knife to a gun fight till they find themselves not having a clue how to work on a new 4WD, we’re just ahead of the curve like usual. By setting your vehicle up to comply and work within the factory systems you’re often not only working within the factory warranties, you’re saving yourself from the potential risk of life-changing fines, decreased air quality, and a whole lot of negative side effects in your 4WD. When things are done right, they just work better, and that’s something you can’t download off the internet.