Tuning your car: what it means in 2021

Interview with NZ auto modification expert Dave Snook
By Michael Botur

Engine expert Dave Snook calls himself a hands-on owner, having personally built NZ Performance Tuning over 15 years. Snook’s Auckland-based business is one of the leaders in a rather small NZ tuning and modification industry full of amateurs, with few true professionals.

Snook is so passionate about tuning cars his mates call him ‘Dave Wiki.’ He gave In The Dogbox heaps of insight when we caught up to find out what it truly means to tune your car in 2021.

What comes to mind when you think car tuning. Adding a spoiler? Putting a muscle engine through the bonnet?

Whatever your dad taught you about auto tuning may well be out of date these days. If you’re thinking about tuning your car in 2021, expect it to mean tuning a computer.

“Tuning was just about DIY back in the day,” Snook says. “Spin your distributor cap, chuck some more fuel through your carburettor and away you went. Today it’s fully electronically and sensor controlled. You can’t fuck with things and not adjust the computer.”

As Snook explained to In The Dogbox, tuning in the 21st century means augmenting engine software to get the car to allow you to consume more fuel and spit out more exhaust. After engine and exhaust, the next most important part of a car you can upgrade to give increased performance is the intake and cooling systems.

Today, tuning your car means tuning your engine management system.
One of the first things Snook told In The Dogbox is that the cars best suited to having their performance improved these days are Audis and Volkswagens. Getting more engine power requires remapping, which means being able to modify (re-map) the computer chip in an automobile’s electronic control unit (ECU).

Remapping involves taking the factory software which has been exported, often ‘de-tuned’, recalibrating for NZ fuel and what the modifications requested.

NZ Performance Tuning deals with 65 different ECU variants, from Bosch to Siemens– all tuned different ways. “No two tunes are the same,” Snook says. “And it’s certainly not just European vehicles than can be tuned this way. Many American-made and Japanese vehicles can also be tuned the same way.”

Best to tune on top of a turbocharged car
Those of us wanting to try get a 40% increase in engine power and torque should probably be working off an Audi, VW, Skoda or SÉAT, Snook says – these use the same base MQB platforms and often variants of the same engine. The big four come from Europe where emissions restrictions are coded into the ECU – though the job of NZ Performance Tuning is to make modifications to help the engine “burn and belch” better.

“The vast majority of what we see, cars of the last 15 years and our more popular brands we tune are German stuff as opposed to Japanese 2L runarounds,” Snook says.

The best cars to tune are those which arrive turbocharged or super charged.

“VW or Audi, pretty much everything is turbocharged therefore opens itself up for easy performance gains. Very few cars are supercharged other than Audi and some older Mercedes.”

Can’t go abroad cause of COVID? Spend it on your car
While tourism suffered under COVID, sales of high-end Milltek exhaust systems were strong.

“A lot of people who would have spent the money on international travel decided ‘Let’s buy a new car and spend some money on it,’ Snook says. “On Friday a customer with an M33 BMW put a $12,500 exhaust on his $30,000 car! A few years ago that wouldn’t have happened.”

The motivation for upgrading an exhaust system is sometimes just the desire to hear your car make a manly noise in an age of quiet cars, Snook explains.

“Some of the vehicles just don’t make the right sound anymore. Guys are quite prepared to pay for it, because who doesn’t want their V8 to sound like a V8 – let’s be honest.”

NZ Performance Tuning sells hundreds of Milltek exhaust systems each year, often installed in RS6 and RSQ8 Audis – both of which can cost a quarter of a million dollars.

A very common tuning platform nowadays is the Audi 3L V6 supercharged engine which can start life at 300 to 333 horsepower and end up over 450hp. So that has huge gains.”

“I wouldn’t necessarily say Audi is the best option but it’s got wide appeal because they’re mainly turbocharged platforms, going back to 1998. BMW have only had turbocharged platforms in more recent times.”

So can I tune my own car at home?
A great guide to how you can modify your car can be found on the AA’s website under Vehicle modification rules and regulations.

Apart from ensuring your vehicle doesn’t go outside rather tight NZ safety regulations – which you’ll find out about the hard way when you go for your WOF – Snook reckons the industry is largely unregulated. “Some operators feel you can pop up, blow shit up and disappear.”

While ‘block tuning’ courses are available on YouTube, Snook feels these “border on dangerous.” Because there are hardly any books or manuals out there helping the average person understand how to tune a car in 2021, it’s best to call an expert. 

NZ Performance Tuning has the parts ready to go if you’ve got a suitable car you can’t wait to ‘supercharge’ into life.

Check out NZ Performance Tuning’s supercharged new website www.nzperformancetuning.co.nz

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