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Category: BMW Performance

BMW N20 Engine Tuning - Gain more power keeping it safe

BimmerTech

Dec 8, 2022

BMW N20 Engine Tuning - Gain more power keeping it safe

Imagine this beautiful scenario: you’re running your F30 generation BMW 320i through a twisty mountain road. Corner to corner, at some point you notice that something is off. It’s not as exciting as it was once before. Your bimmer isn’t broken – after all, you maintain it well and care for its heart, the BMW N20 engine. So, what’s the problem? Where are the thrills…?

Chances are that you just got used to how your car behaves. Maybe you started feeling that the throttle response could be sharper. Or the boost: you know it’s there, but it always feels like it joins the party later than it should.

Of course, the above doesn’t only concern that particular version of the 3 series. It can happen to basically any car. But let’s cut to the chase: you are probably here because you learned that your vehicle has the BMW N20 engine. Or the N26, if you are from the US (more on that later). 

Do you want to improve its performance? Keep on reading to find out about the available tuning options and which one’s the best for you!

BMW N20 Engine Specs

BMW N20 Engine SpecsBefore we get to explaining how you can make your N20-powered BMW perform better, it’s worth understanding its design and characteristics a little bit more. 

Replaced by the BMW B48, the N20 was a turbocharged inline-four produced from 2011 to 2017 in two displacements: 1.6 L (N20B16) and 2.0 L (N20B20). The smaller of the two saw a limited use in just a couple of markets, namely Greece, Tunisia, Turkey, and Vietnam. The larger one also came in the N26 version, designed specifically for the United States, to comply with their strict SULEV emission standards.

All of the N20 variants come equipped with:

  • a twin-scroll turbocharger, to make torque available in the lower RPM range.
  • direct fuel injection for better fuel economy. 
  • variable valve lift (Valvetronic).
  • variable valve timing (Double VANOS).
  • a lightweight aluminum open-deck engine block. 

Want to learn more about the technical specifics of those designs? Be sure to check out our article on the BMW N20 engine, where we explore it in detail. Now, when it comes to the differences between the N26 and N20 – despite some component changes, they are virtually identical from the driver’s standpoint. They behave the same and produce the same power and torque figures.

Which brings us to the next question, which is…

How Much Horsepower Does the BMW N20 Produce?

There were four variants of the N20 produced over the years, making different power figures depending on the application. Redlining quite high for a turbo engine at 7,000 RPM, it made 154–241 HP and 240–350 Nm of torque. You can find it in almost everything the Bavarians have on the menu: from the sporty Z4 roadster, through compact 1 series hatchbacks, all the way to X5 SUVs and 5 series sedans. 

Check out the list below to see the range of bimmers equipped with the BMW N20. 

Which BMWs Have an N20 Engine

Power Torque Years of production BMW models
154 HP 240 Nm (177 lb/ft) 2013–2017

- Z4 sDrive18i (E89) 
- X3 sDrive18i (F25)

181 HP 270 Nm (199 lb/ft) 2011–2017

- X1 xDrive/sDrive20i (E84)
- X3 xDrive20i (F25)
- 320i / 320i GT (F30/F34) 
- 420i (F32)
- 520i / 520Li (F10)
- Z4 sDrive20i (E89)
- 220i (F22)

215 HP 310 Nm (229 lb/ft) 2012–2017

- 125i (F20)
- 525Li (F10)

241 HP 350 Nm (258 lb/ft) 2011–2017

- Z4 sDrive28i (E89)
- X1 xDrive/sDrive28i (E84)
- X3 xDrive28i (F25)
- 328i / 328i GT (F30/F34)
- 428i (F32/F35/F36)
- 528i (F10)
- 228i (F22)
- X4 xDrive28i (F26)
- X5 xDrive40e (F15)

Do you have one of the above cars? 

The N26, on the other hand, was only produced in one power version. It was putting out 241 HP and 350 Nm of torque through the wheels of American 28i 2, 3, and 4 series models of the F generation. Basically like the strongest N20. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t increase its performance even further.

ECU Tuning vs. Piggyback Tunes

ECU Tuning vs. Piggyback TunesUsually, the first step to take when trying to improve the way your car behaves is to turn to engine tuning. There are two methods of fiddling with the Engine Control Unit (ECU) operation: chip tuning and piggyback tunes (we’ve talked about both of them in one of our previous articles). They can be especially effective in case of the turbocharged cars. Why? Because in forced induction engines it’s possible to affect the boost pressure. 

Well, that’s exactly what the piggyback tunes do. By increasing how much boost the turbocharger provides, they force the engine to produce more power. Piggybacks, also referred to as box tuning, simply trick the ECU, providing fake sensor outputs. 

For example, they make the vehicle think that the boost pressure is lower than it actually is. This will result in the computer adjusting certain parameters to reach the specified boost pressure target. Which is actually higher than the factory setting. 

Sounds pretty crude, doesn’t it? 

And it is. Generally speaking, piggyback tunes aren’t as safe as chip tuning. They also aren’t very reliable – although the modern ECUs will adapt their cooling to the increased boost, boxes don’t offer any fine control over some of the most crucial engine operating parameters. This leads to higher operating temperatures, resulting in higher component wear over time. 

In the case of the BMW N20 engine, there is also the issue of its significantly higher intake air temperatures. Which poses a challenge to any attempts at reliable tuning of this particular unit. As you’ve probably already guessed, that’s also why the brutal power increase offered by the piggyback tunes are especially unfavorable for the N20. 

Luckily, there is another way to improve the engine performance: chip tuning. Since it relies on deeper, much  finer adjustments of the ECU map, it offers much more than just power and torque gains. When done properly, the tuning will also let you enjoy better mileage and fuel consumption. 

How exactly does it work? And how can you know that it’s done right? 

BMW N20 Perfected Performance Engine Chip Tuning

The answer is: Perfected Performance. Okay, it’s not very self-explanatory, but stay with us!

At the factory, car makers produce hundreds of thousands of engines. Even ones of the same type differ slightly from one another, because of manufacturing tolerances. That’s why the engine map installed when the vehicle is put together has to be universal – to fit all of those slightly varying units. Oh, and to comply with the emission norms. 

This can be remedied by fine tuning of the parameters like boost pressure, fuel injection, ignition, radiator fan speed or even how the variable valve lift and timing systems work. Careful tweaking of those will let a professional BMW tuner unlock the full potential of your engine. 

Because of its design characteristics, the BMW N20 is a tough nut to crack in terms of tuning. The high intake air temperatures make it so that the engine already operates close to its limits from the factory. Which is why a very thoughtful approach is needed for any reliable performance improvements to be made with it. 

According to our internal testing, the other available ECU tuning solutions and services for the BMW N20 engine focus purely on the power gains. Without the necessary cooling precautions. How do we know that? When we hooked up a bimmer tuned by one of our competitors and ran it on a dyno, we discovered that the intake air temperatures were around 20% higher than required for maximum reliability. And that’s a lot – a lot of kilometers or miles less for your engine’s potential mileage. 

So, that covers the “how and why” questions. But how to know if the engine tuning is done properly? 

It’s best to trust the technicians with many years of experience working on BMWs. Our Perfected Performance service is all about that – we take care of the complex stuff, you just have to know how to connect your PC to your car. 

What Will Change?

When you decide to go for the engine tuning, you can expect noticeable changes in three key performance areas. 

  1. Performance

    More power, more torque, and a much smoother throttle response. That’s what you’ll be able to enjoy in terms of power delivery. Accelerating for the first time after the tuning session, you should feel a stronger kick, when you get pushed into your car seat. 

    No more suffocating on lower revs – only full confidence when overtaking or merging. In short: a general improvement of torque curves and the responsiveness of your engine.
    Keep in mind though that in the case of N20 the power gains will only be substantial if you additionally equip yourself with an intercooler. If you decide to go without it we’ll prepare a specially adjusted tune using the full potential of the engine, but one that’s slightly weaker so it doesn’t override its capabilities.

  2. Fuel Consumption

    You probably didn’t buy a quick car for the sake of its mileage. Although if you did and now are a bit disappointed by how fast it burns through the fuel tank, you can still do something about it – the new tune affects the injectors as well, making them spray just the right amount of gas each time. Doesn’t saving money sound nice? 

    Of course, you will notice the fuel consumption changes under normal driving conditions, e.g. on your everyday work commute.

  3. Engine longevity

    Our tunes lower the operating temperature of your BMW N20 engine, taking a few years off your bimmer. Why does it need lowering in the first place? Well, some carmakers (including “ours truly” from Bavaria) deliberately program the ECU so that it’s running a bit hotter than it should. All to slightly increase the frequency of your car service visits. And your maintenance spendings. 

    Add to that the design characteristics of the N20 (with its high intake air temperatures), and you’ll stop wondering why we keep on talking about the cooling. It’s worth mentioning that we don’t stop at lowering the temperature. Our map is designed to detect when it gets too hot and temporarily limit the power, allowing for the engine to cool itself. 

As you can see, it’s not only a matter of making your vehicle go faster. 

What Does the Chip Tuning Process Look Like?

What Does the Chip Tuning Process Look Like?The Perfected Performance tuning process is really simple and effortless. Conducted remotely, you can have our technician take care of your car anywhere in the world, at any time. Without having to visit a special tuning workshop or knowing anything about the engine tuning. 

After you book the tuning session, we’ll send you all the necessary instructions, explaining how to prepare for the process. Apart from an hour of your time and knowing where to plug in the cable, you’ll simply need:

  • the ENET cable itself.
  • a laptop.
  • apps to make it possible for you and our technician to connect (more details included in the instructions).

Connected? Great. Now our tuner will:

  1. Scan the data from your car’s ECU.
  2. Make some careful changes in the software and save them.

Note that a second tuning session might be required in some cases – we just want to make sure everything is running perfectly for maximum reliability of your car. 

As easy as it may seem, remember that any incorrect parameter changes can lead to increased wear and tear of engine components. Perfected Performance service takes care of the difficult stuff, so that you don’t have to worry about critical failures or ECU software corruption.

Is BMW N20 Tuning Safe?

Is BMW N20 Tuning Safe?Despite the BMW N20 running relatively hot, compared to other similar engine designs, it’s still safe to tune it. Of course, that is if the person tuning it knows what to do. Careful treatment of the N20 will result in the performance, mileage, and durability changes we mentioned above. Just like it would in the case of its successors, the B48 and B46 engines

For best results it’s advisable that your car is well maintained before you decide to tune it. Make sure that there aren’t any engine-specific lights on the dashboard and that the motor is running well. If you’ve already modified your car in the past, either by ECU tuning or adding some performance parts, let us know. 

Can You Untune a Car?

Yes, it’s possible to reinstall a factory ECU tune. Think of it as installing and uninstalling various apps on your PC. Or changing the wallpaper of your smartphone. Well, the complexity is significantly different, but you get the idea – the wallpaper change can be undone. 

If you decide to pick Perfected Performance as your tuning option, our technician will make a copy of the default settings installed on your car’s computer. This way, you’ll be able to revert the ECU to its stock form. And our satisfaction guarantee will let you have your stock ECU map reinstalled by us free-of-charge for the first 7 days following our tuning service. After that, we can still help you (but for a small fee). 

If your car is still under engine warranty, please note that our service will void it, like all engine tuning would. 

How to Ensure Your N20 Remains Reliable After Tuning

You might be surprised, but to have your BMW run reliably after engine tuning, simply perform regular maintenance on time. Don’t neglect oil and filter changes, inspect the spark plugs, and you’ll be good to go. 

It’s also worth using premium fuels, since they let your car run cleaner, without clogging up the fuel system over time. This means 91–94 octane types in the US and 98–100 octane types in Europe. 

Other BMW N20 Performance Upgrades

Okay, so your engine is now tuned for better performance. What if you still think it’s not enough? The solution would be to install some new, more efficient parts and take it to stage 2. Which is what you call introducing both the ECU changes and components that are meant to increase the engine’s potential. What are some of the mods for the N20?

BMW N20 Intercooler Upgrades

One of the first upgrades for any turbo engine, and even more so the BMW N20, is the intercooler. This part is vital to the performance because it cools the air that is forced into the cylinders by a turbocharger. 

Why is the cold air so important? The equation is simple: lower temperature means higher density of the intake air. The denser it is, the more fuel can be burned by the engine. And, finally, the more fuel that is burned results in more power produced. Hot and cold air differ in density because of the distance that separates the air molecules – as they heat up, they move away from each other, expanding the volume, but keeping the same mass. 

Cooler air also helps to prevent engine knocking or pre-ignition: phenomena that happen due to incorrectly timed ignition. This should be the go-to part upgrade for anyone wanting to get even more out of their N20 engine. 

BMW N20 Downpipe Upgrades

Although they might seem like a simple metallic piping, downpipes are actually pretty important for effective power increases. They connect the turbocharger to the exhaust system and directly affect its efficiency. 

Designed to be cost-efficient from a production standpoint and compliant with strict emission norms, downpipes usually are quite restrictive. Apart from a smaller diameter, they contain catalytic converters, which limit the flow of exhaust gasses. Aftermarket downpipes are of a larger diameter and often don’t have cats, to remove those restrictions. 

Remember: to take full advantage of your newly installed performance parts, you’ll also need an ECU tune. Your car’s computer will receive different outputs from certain sensors (e.g., the air flow sensor or intercooler temperature sensor). 

Is BMW N20 Tuning Worth It & Safe?

If you feel that your N20-powered BMW could use some more power or if you don’t feel as much excitement when driving it as you did right after buying it – the BMW N20 tuning will be worth it. 

However, if your car is still under engine warranty or if it’s poorly maintained, you might want to reconsider waiting with any modifications. Either until your warranty expires or until everything is fixed and your bimmer is running smoothly. Despite it being 100% safe and lowering the operating temperature, the ECU tuning won’t fix any existing issues with your engine. 

Will you perfect the performance of your BMW with us?

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