Sep 5, 2022
When looking for ways to increase the power of your BMW and crank up the excitement you experience when driving it, you’ll eventually end up learning that there are basically two roads you can take, without any physical performance upgrades: BMW ECU tuning or a piggyback tune (also known as box tune).
If you’re wondering how the two options differ from one another and which one is better, you’ve come to the right place! Join us as we explore the two ways to improve the performance of a car, as well as a third approach from Awaken Performance that brings the best of both worlds – perfect for anybody looking for a safe and reliable everyday performance boost that doesn’t sacrifice engine longevity for ¼-mile times.
If you think about it, the explanation as to what a piggyback tune is in its name – a “piggyback ride” is when one person takes another on their back and carries them around. Similarly, a piggyback tune is a special device that you connect to the engine control unit (ECU) and various plugs under the hood, like the mass air flow (MAF) sensor in the intake manifold, the fueling connector, as well as the turbine speed or the charge pressure sensors.
Usually, piggyback tunes consist of a circuit board and a processor enclosed in a small box (hence their other name, which is the “tuning box”) with wires running out of it. However, the cheapest of the cheap boxes are much less sophisticated and if you were to open them up, you would probably find just a bunch of resistors to alter all the necessary signals.
This form of tuning is most popular among people who don’t want to spend much to gain some horsepower in their cars. But, as you’ll find out when you read on, with piggyback tunes the initial cost-savings can be a very superficial advantage…
Piggyback tunes are a simple solution for increasing the performance of your car: as opposed to a BMW remap, they do not alter anything in the ECU, but rather trick it into thinking that the input from the affected sensors has changed. The biggest difficulty with installing piggyback tuners is finding the right spot to plug it in ;)
However, as you may have already guessed, such simplicity and the operating method based on software “trickery” also entail certain tuning limitations…
One of the most obvious pros of piggyback tunes is the fact that such modifications are plug & play – they don’t require any modifications. You just have to connect the tuning box to already existing wires and you are ready to go. Some boxes also offer the capability of pre-installing multiple tunes, which you can easily switch between from a special app that comes with the device.
In addition, since no coding is necessary, piggyback tunes make it possible to come back to a stock tune relatively easily. Note that it doesn’t make it 100% undetectable though: most ECUs might still record parameter changes occurring in certain moments.
The simplicity of a piggyback tune is also its main downfall: because of the way they work (i.e., the tricking of the ECU), boxes are limited in what can be achieved by using them, as there is no way to precisely adjust how it affects the engine’s performance. Even if you install some BMW performance upgrades with a tuning box, you will still be limited by your factory ECU tune. In addition, any potential gains aren’t certain. There’s a high chance that you won’t spot a difference with a box tune or that the performance of your car will actually decrease, maybe even get janky and take away all the driving joy you had before.
More significantly, your “bamboozled” ECU will try to adapt to new outputs. It may make the engine run leaner, for example, which will lead to premature wear of the spark plugs and ignition coils due to higher operating temperatures – in itself, that also introduces a risk of overheating your engine.
Another disadvantage? Since a box is an actual physical object, it will clutter up your engine bay with wires, wherever it’s plugged in. When thinking about installing a piggyback tune, you should also consider the fact that it has its own life span – after all, it’s just another electronic device.
So, to briefly sum it up:
|Pros of piggyback tunes
|Cons of piggyback tunes
+ Ease of install and removal (plug & play)
+ No coding necessary
- Limited customization possibilities
- Takes up physical space
- Limited device lifetime
- Premature engine wear
- Makes a less significant difference
But what about the other methods…?
We’ve already discussed BMW ECU chip tuning in detail, but here’s a little rundown. BMW performance tuning, which is also sometimes called flash tuning, completely replaces the stock programming of an ECU and you would want that for a couple of reasons.
A universal engine map installed by the manufacturer is meant to comply with all the emission norms and make some components wear off faster, to increase the frequency of your visits to the dealership. BMW remap can help you overcome the limits of factory programming by unlocking the full potential of your car while still remaining within the reliable safety margins of the engine.
The way an ECU tuning works, more parameters can be adjusted in comparison to a piggyback tune: in addition to boost pressure, an experienced BMW tuner will be able to change almost every aspect of how the heart of your bimmer beats, such as the fueling, ignition, timing, fan speed (to improve cooling) or how VANOS (the BMW’s variable valve timing system) works. Or, even more importantly, the throttle response, so something that you will feel the most when driving.
The single greatest advantage BMW ECU tunes will have over any piggyback tune is the amount of control and customization they provide, resulting in a far better overall efficiency (e.g., bigger power gains, decreased fuel consumption, increased engine longevity). Simply put: everything is tailored just for your engine, resulting in smooth operation, as if the car was meant to be this powerful from the factory.
Moreover, you don’t have to rely on an external device that can break down – everything is on your car’s ECU. Of course, as with everything in life, BMW ECU tuning isn't free of some disadvantages.
What are the flaws of this method? First of all, it’s a bit more complicated and requires a visit to a BMW tuner. It’s also a bit more difficult to bring back the factory tune, making it somewhat of a permanent option (though not truly irreversible) which will generally void your warranty.
Lastly, because of the fact that BMW ECU tunes require the involvement of a specialist, they are a tad bit costlier than piggyback tunes. Unless you are willing to do it yourself, but if you are inexperienced, you would be running a very high risk of damaging your engine because of improper software changes.
|Pros of BMW ECU tunes
|Cons of BMW ECU tunes
+ Great control over engine parameters
+ Maximized efficiency
+ Self-contained (no external devices)
+ Fully customized for your engine
+ Smooth operation
- Complex (professional help needed)
- Cost (usually higher than piggyback tune)
- Voids warranty
At Awaken Performance, we’re dedicated to providing all those pros, minimizing the cons, and most importantly: making it easy.
The BMW ECU tuning we offer is for those people who love driving their turbocharged bimmers, but feel that they could be getting much more out of the car’s engine. Maybe you’ve lost the excitement you felt right after purchase or you expected more from your vehicle? Perhaps during one of your latest commutes you thought that the overtaking took too long and wasn’t swift enough?
If you answered “yes” to at least one of those questions, our tuning is for you. Not only does Awaken Performance let you take advantage of all the performance boosts ECU tuning has to offer, it also has the potential to positively affect other important aspects, such as the reliability of your engine and fuel consumption. The whole process is remote, so you can take full advantage of professional tuning even from your driveway. Oh, and you don’t have to worry about doing something wrong – our experienced technician will introduce software changes and adjustments in the ECU for you.
It’s simple, easy to revert back to factory settings, and cheaper than some of the best box tunes. The only drawback? Like all BMW ECU tuning, Awaken Performance might void your car’s driveline warranty, so it’s advised only when your warranty has expired.
The Awaken Performance tuning process isn’t complex and it’s performed remotely. Moreover, before the tuning session, we will send you detailed information regarding coding preparation (of both your car and your PC) as well as the list of things that you will need, which are:
What you don’t need is any technical knowledge. That is, any knowledge other than where your OBD port is (pro tip: it's usually right in the driver footwell), to insert the cable. What does the tuning process itself look like? Our specialist has to follow a car tune-up checklist, starting with an ECU data scan of your car, followed by implementing appropriate changes in the software and saving them.
All of that might seem pretty straightforward, but in reality, engine tuning is rather complex. A wrong parameter change may result not only in increased component wear, but can also lead to the “bricking” of your ECU (which basically means software corruption). By relying on a professional BMW tuner with Awaken Performance, you don’t have to worry about such issues – even if an ECU gets bricked by accident during the process, we will be able to reinstall the factory programming, since we always do a backup copy before introducing any changes.
Please note that final logging will be required – we want to ensure that everything is running flawlessly for safety and reliability. During the second session, we’ll gather the necessary information to assess if any adjustments to your ECU map are needed.
Remember though: you’ll have to take care of your car after tuning! Although this doesn’t mean “babying” it, you shouldn’t neglect regular maintenance. It’s also worth paying attention to changing filters and spark plugs on time, as well as using the highest grade of fuel available. In the US, that would usually mean 91–94 octane, while in Europe 98–100 octane, due to differences in the rating systems.
Before you purchase the Awaken Performance ECU tuning, you’ll be asked to specify what gas you’re going to be using.
Now that you know the advantages and disadvantages of each option, you’ll probably want to know how they stack up against each other.
When comparing the three, it’s necessary to establish what the potential tuning goals may be. Obviously, the main reason you might want to tinker with your BMW ECU tune is when you notice that something is no longer there in your driving experience. It’s only natural that after some time you get used to the power levels of your car and how it drives – you lose the excitement, so you start feeling that some kind of change is needed.
Tuning, whether through the means of an ECU flash or a piggyback tune, will help you achieve just that: performance increase leading to more fun when driving. But besides higher power levels, with tuning you can also achieve improved engine reliability and better fuel consumption. This, however, brings us to the “versus” part of this article: only proper BMW ECU tuning with a custom remap will be able to provide you with more than just raw power, as opposed to piggyback tunes.
The control offered by professional engine tuning, such as our Awaken Performance service, is basically its greatest advantage over box tunes. Nevertheless, since a BMW ECU tune replaces the factory engine map, it is at the same time more likely to void your car’s warranty, though the involvement of a skilled tuner like Awaken Performance mitigates the other risks that can be associated with ECU tuning.
ECU and Piggyback tunes side to side with the Awaken Performance
|Standard ECU tune
|The performance gains can be better with ECU tuning
|BMW ECU tuning will always win with even the most advanced piggybacks in this regard
|For an ECU tuning to be safer, you need an experienced tuner with a focus on reliability, not just squeezing the most power possible out of your car. Piggyback tunes increase engine wear, so they lose this one
|Since piggyback tunes give no control over the most important engine parameters, only BMW ECU tunes can improve mileage, although many tuners don’t make an effort to improve fuel efficiency
|Detectability & warranty
|Although it’s possible for the box tunes to be detected at the dealership, it’s less likely than it is for a BMW ECU tune
|Piggyback tunes are, in general, cheaper than BMW ECU tuning, but with the Awaken Performance you get real value for money
All things considered, piggyback tunes only let you scratch the surface of the engine tuning. They are simple like a hammer, while the ECU tunes are like a scalpel – they offer much more precision and make it possible to squeeze much more out of your car. You can think of the boxes as a temporary demo version for a real ECU tuning, but they will never provide an accurate overview of how proper tuning could behave when custom made for you. And when you bring Awaken Performance into the picture, you’re getting all the benefits of a custom ECU tune, paired with the convenience of a piggyback tune.
With so many variables that have to be taken into account when comparing the available tuning methods, it might seem that it’s a tough choice. However, if you think about it and consider the points we brought up above, you will quickly come to the conclusion that it all boils down to what you expect and need from engine tuning.
In some cases, piggyback tunes could be a better option – mostly if you want to reduce the risk of losing your car’s warranty or if you would like to try the tuning out before deciding on whether or not you want it coded into your ECU. But if your warranty already expired or if you don’t mind the fact that restoring factory settings might not be enough to hide software modifications from the dealership, we say that a proper tuning conducted by a specialist is by far the superior choice.
With Awaken Performance you just gain much more than increased horsepower and don’t have to worry about doing something wrong – an expert does everything for you. And while many ECU tuners work to squeeze everything they can out of the engine at the expense of reliability and fuel consumption, we keep those aspects in mind while creating our tunes, so you'll have excellent performance from your BMW for years to come.
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