Back in the old days, if you wanted to tune your ride you simply grabbed a few tools and started jinking around with the carburetor and twisting the distributor. It was a simple process of trial and error until you had your engine running at its peak efficiency. That’s not the case these days. Carburetors are long gone and distributors have been replaced by coil packs and miles of wiring.
It’s 2013 and the only way to tune a newer Camaro is to hack your way into the Engine Control Unit, or ECU. Now, if you’re savvy with a PC, buy the right software, and understand the raw programming code, then tuning is a snap. Hell, you don’t even have to open the hood. But for those of us not up on PC engine tuning there’s another option that will keep us from turning our engine into molten slag: the handheld programmer. It uses a simple menu system and preprogrammed (i.e., safe) tunes that even a caveman can get downloaded into the ECU. They can also remove top-speed limiters, adjust for aftermarket tire sizes or changes in gear ratios, and even remove the dreaded Computer Assisted Gear Selector (CAGS). If you have an automatic, there are more benefits to be had in being able to adjust your transmission’s shift points. Other features like data logging and check engine code reading are just icing on the proverbial cake.
01. The SCT SF3 Power Flash Programmer (PN 3416, $375) is a compact, menu-driven tool that will let you change the parameters in your factory ECU. It comes with preprogrammed tunes but also has the capability to store up to three custom tunes that can be loaded by any of SCT’s custom tuning dealers.
02. There are only six buttons to mess with and the menu system is easy to follow. We plugged the unit into the OBD-II port, keyed the ignition on, and started clicking through the menus. Aside from performance tuning, the SCT lets you adjust a wide array of parameters, including air/fuel ratio, shift pressure, axle ratio, top-speed limiter, wheel diameter, rev limiter, and host of other tweaks.
03. To us, the other aspects of the handheld are even more important than the performance programming. With this unit we’re able to data log our Camaro and review it on either the SCT’s screen or on a laptop PC.
04. In addition, if we ever had a check engine light pop on, we would be able to diagnose the problem without having to head to a dealership.
05. All the ECU modification tweaks are cool, but the only one we can really quantify is the performance gain, so we rolled a bone-stock ’02 Z28 over to Westech Performance in Mira Loma, California, and strapped it to their Superflow chassis dyno. After warming things up we nailed a baseline pull of 296 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque.
06. The programmer works on a host of different vehicles, so we scrolled down through the menu until we found an automatic Camaro.
07. After selecting our car, things were pretty simple. The SCT uploaded the stock tune before downloading the preprogrammed performance tune. This way we can switch back and forth whenever needed. The key is to make sure that the unit isn’t unplugged or the power cut off during either the upload or download process.
08. After programming, our peak numbers moved up to 304 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque. That’s a peak gain of 8 hp and 7 lb-ft of twist. Driving around town we could feel that the shifts were firmed up, especially at WOT.