Getting a professional performance-grade car tune is a quick way to separate your car from every other car on the highway. It doesn’t change how your car looks, but it can change everything about its performance. A car tune is definitely something you need to visit a professional shop for, and there are some things to consider before making your trip to your local tune shop.
Before getting your car tuned, you should do the routine maintenance that you might have been putting off. Check your tires, oil, fuel, spark plugs, fluids, and battery – be sure to replace and repair any parts that you notice along the way. A dyno tune puts a lot of strain on your car. If things break during the tune, you’ll be paying the tune shop their hourly rate to pause and fix the issue. Also, do any performance modifications before the tune to get the most out of your tune.
In this guide, I’ll get into the specifics. I’ll explain 12 things that you need to do before getting your car tuned. I’ll also walk through the tuning process and give you some personal anecdotes about how it went for me. By the end of this guide, you’ll be ready to get your own professional tune.
What Is a Tune?
I want to be clear that during this guide I’ll be talking about a tune, not a “tune-up”. A tune-up entails doing a series of preventative maintenance around your car to bring it up to snuff. A car tune is completely different
A tune is when a professional tuner changes the parameters on your car’s onboard computer to get the most out of your vehicle. For standard cars, the shop might have a prewritten code that they flash onto your car’s computer and overwrite the stock code.
The new code changes things like when your car shifts, air-fuel ratios, how fuel is delivered, and different response times in your engine.
Getting a car tune involves removing some safeties and pushing your car closer to its performance limit.
A stock car comes from a manufacturer with a simple goal: they want to give you a car that’s manageable, long-lasting, quiet, and easy to drive for the everyday driver.
After a performance car tune, your vehicle can be the opposite.
However, there’s a small sector of people who get their car tuned to make it tamed and boost its fuel efficiency. I’ve never experienced someone first-hand who did this, but I’ve talked to shops who have worked with people who recently bought a Mustang, Corvette, or Hellcat and wanted to dial back the performance so it’s easier to drive as a commuter car.
Whether you want speed or fuel efficiency, a car tune will work for you.
The Purpose of a Car Tune
To boil it down, a car tune will help you achieve one of three things:
- Better performance and drivability
- Better fuel efficiency
- More speed and acceleration
Think of these three variables as the three points of a triangle. As you lean towards one of the three, you’re moving away from the other two. A stock car is closer to optimizing #2 while sacrificing #1 and #3.
I’m assuming that most people here will want to focus on either #1 or #3. Both can be improved by sacrificing #2 and doing some other tunes under the hood.
How the Tune Works
I’ve gotten a tune in the past, and it was a really cool experience. Basically, I took my car to a tuning shop and gave them the keys. Luckily for me, they let me hang around and watch the process.
The shop would put my car on the dyno, hook it up to a laptop, run it on the dyno, then do a bunch of typing and changes on the laptop before repeating the process.
Each time they run it, the technician is making small changes to optimize the tune for what you specifically want.
I talked to the team while getting my tune, and they shared some tips about things to do before getting your car tuned. They also shared stories about times people ignored their advice and the shop had to waste a lot of time and charge extra.
Your Car Will Be Pushed
You should understand a simple fact about car tunes: your car is going to be pushed to the limit. The tuning shop will try to see what your car can physically do, make adjustments, and try again. It honestly sounds scary to hear your car on a dyno, because the accelerator is being floored and held for an extended period of time.
A lot of things you have to do before a car tune revolves around this fact. The noises, leaks, and damage that you can ignore while you drive around casually become a lot more devastating as your car is held at the redline.
12 Things to Do Before Getting Your Car Tuned
Before driving to your local tune shop, here are some things to do. Doing them before your appointment can save you a lot of time and money. With the maintenance pieces on this list, the performance shop will have to do them if you don’t do it ahead of time. However, they’ll charge their high hourly rate to change your oil or replace your spark plugs, instead of you doing it on your own for a fraction of the price.
1. Find the Right Tuner
First off, you should recognize that a car tune is not done by a typical mechanic or auto dealership. These are done by “performance tune shops”. The shop likely has mechanics on staff, and they might even handle repairs and replacements in their shop.
However, the shop is a little different. For instance, I have a performance shop near me that only deals with BMWs. They will do mods, standard auto repairs, replacements, and high-performance tunes in the same shop — but they’ll only do it on BMWs within a certain year range.
That’s because the performance tune has already been optimized for BMWs in that range. If the shop doesn’t have a tune to flash on your specific make, model, and year, they might turn you away.
Writing a tune from scratch takes a ton of time and even more guessing and checking. It’s typically not worth it for the shop unless you’re looking for a very simple tune.
2. Come Up with a Tuning Goal
This is partially included in the previous step, but you should come up with a tuning goal. In other words, what do you want the tune to achieve for your car?
If you want to accelerate faster in a straight line and boost your top speed, then that would be your tuning goal.
By sharing your goal with the tuner, you’ll get exactly what you’re looking for. Even if you have very vague goals, they can help your tuning technician.
If you don’t give them any idea of what you want, they won’t be able to work on your car. As I mentioned earlier, a tune can achieve so many different outcomes.
3. Change Your Oil
The main job of your oil is to keep things lubricated. As your engine fires faster, lubrication is even more important.
During the tuning process, your car will be pushed to its limits, and the engine will be firing as quickly as possible for an extended period of time.
If your oil is old, degrading, there’s not enough, or it’s the wrong kind of oil, your engine can seize and fail. Apparently, it’s happened before in the tune shop I went to: someone had old and dirty oil, and apparently the pistons wore during the test and the repair was really expensive.
Shops suggest changing your oil a few days before the tune. This gives your engine enough time to work the oil through the system before getting on the dyno.
4. Replace the Spark Plugs
Your spark plugs are more important than you might realize. Your spark plugs aren’t just used for starting your car, but they also ignite the fuel and cause your pistons to move in the first place.
Actually, some shops will change the position of your spark plugs as part of the performance tune.
If you have old and failing spark plugs, your engine will misfire. It will give incorrect results during the dyno, but it will also cause the shop to stop doing the tune to replace your spark plugs.
5. Fix All Fluid Leaks
If your car is bleeding out a rainbow of different fluids, you’re not ready for a car tune. Transmission, power steering, and brake fluid cannot leak during a car tune. It can give incorrect results or derail the tune altogether.
If the shop notices a leak, they’ll pause the tune and fix the leak before moving on. Again, they charge their hourly rate just to look for a leak, and you lose valuable time on the dyno.
Put a big piece of cardboard under your car and park it overnight. In the morning, take out the cardboard and look for any drip spots or new stains. This is a sign that you have a fluid leak, and you’ll need to start troubleshooting under the hood.
6. Fix Your Electrical Issues
Another bottleneck to this process is having an electrical issue. This could range from your starter motor to your interior cabin lights. If you have an electrical issue, it could slow down or halt the tuning process.
Instead of having the tuning shop troubleshoot and fix the electrical issues, you should do it on your own. It might be as simple as changing your battery, or as involved as swapping out the part.
Regardless, it’s less expensive and easier to DIY this repair before the tune.
7. Make Sure Your Battery Is Healthy
If you have to cross your fingers every time you turn your key in the ignition, you might want to postpone your appointment for a car tune. Having a battery or alternator that is almost dead can give skewed results.
On top of that, a battery that isn’t fully healthy can slow down the whole process. Most tune shops have a spare battery that they can put in your car, but it isn’t worth the time and energy for them to do that.
Start by following my guide here, all about checking the life of your battery.
Ideally, you’ll have a fully charged battery and a healthy alternator. This will help the technician continually run your car during the tune without stopping to replace or charge it.
8. Check the Health of Your Tires
Next, you should take a look at your tires. On a dyno, the tires are the only way to deliver power to the sensors underneath. If your tires are balding, unevenly worn, or under-inflated, your final horsepower and torque values will be off.
With your tires on your car, check the air pressure in all four. Do this with a tire pressure gauge. Look at the driver’s door jamb for a sticker that tells you the correct air pressure. All four tires should match the air pressure on that sticker.
If any of the tire pressures are off, then you should either add air with a compressor or push the valve to release some air. Underinflated or overinflated tires will not make correct traction with the tire tread and the dyno.
Speaking of tire tread, you should also check the health of your tread. Take the tires off one at a time and look for two things: the depth of your tread, and the wear of your tires.
If there is any uneven wear on the tread, then you need to replace your tires. Uneven wear is if part of your tread is lower than the rest. It also refers to one tire having less tread than the rest.
Use a penny and hold it upside-down with Lincoln’s face pointed towards you with his head pointing downward. While holding the penny like this, place it between two blocks of tread on your tire. If you can see Lincoln’s head at all, your tires are too low and need to be replaced.
This shows you that you have less than 2/32” of tire tread left.
If just one of your tires’ treads is uneven or too worn, you need to replace all four. Just replacing one tire can lead to even more problems since one of your four tires suddenly has more grip than the rest.
9. Fuel Up Before
It might not be obvious, but you should always arrive for your tuning appointment with a full tank of gas. If your car uses performance fuel, make sure you have the correct octane in your tank before pulling up.
Running your car on a dyno burns up a lot of fuel. The last thing you want is to run out and pause the tune just to get more fuel in your car.
If your car has old fuel in it, consider replacing it with new fuel to ensure you get the best performance.
10. Do Your Mods Before the Tune
Some people might want to do a number of performance-enhancing mods in addition to the tune. If that’s your plan, you should do the mods before doing the tune.
Things like swapping your exhaust system, upgrading your air intake, or getting performance tires can undo some of the “tune” if you do it afterward.
Instead, do it before taking your car to the tune shop. That way they can adjust your performance based on your car’s current state. This will give you a “best-case” performance, based on all of your mods.
If they tweak all the parameters, then you change your tires the following week, a lot of their work will be irrelevant and simply a waste of time.
11. Top Off Your Fluids
I mentioned changing your oil and fueling up, but you should really top off all of your fluids. During the dyno tune, a lot of fluids will get eaten up since your car is being pushed so hard. If enough of your fluids burn up, then it could change your car’s performance or lead to some expensive damages.
That’s why shops always say that the best rule of thumb is to check and top off all fluids before making your appointment. This includes power steering, transmission, brake, and even windshield wiper fluid (because, why not?).
12. Consider Visiting a Mechanic
If you’re not very familiar with doing repairs and troubleshooting on your own, it might make sense to visit a mechanic before the tuning appointment. Ask the mechanic to do a full inspection and check on your car.
Typically, they’ll print out a list of problems that they noticed during the inspections. Some shops will also give you an estimated price for each repair.
Take a close look at this list, and look for items that might interfere with this tuning process. Anything mechanical, electrical, or relating to your wheels should definitely be fixed. From there, you’ll have to consider each repair on its own to see if it’s worth doing before getting your car tuned.
If you’re doubting yourself, give the tune shop a call and ask them which repairs on your list would be important to fix before your appointment.
Now you know exactly what to do before getting your car tuned. A car tune is a great way to get the most out of your car. By doing all 12 things beforehand, you’ll save time and money once you arrive at the tune shop.