What’s the difference between aftermarket engine control units (ECUs) versus stock or OEM engine control units? We’ll tell you!
As we’ve discussed quite a bit in our articles in the past, your vehicle’s engine control module (ECM) is really at the center of your engine. It monitors, controls, and regulates everything from your transmission to fuel injectors to the camshafts to your ABS brakes and beyond. And even more than that, the ECM essentially creates the limits within which your engine and vehicle are allowed to operate. This means that the ultimate power and efficiency that you get out of your car depends on parameters that the engine computer controls.
Most of the time, stock ECMs come programmed in a way that suits the manufacturer and the regulators. For reasons related to things like vehicle warranty, emissions regulations, and fuel economy, they typically do not want to program the control module so that the vehicle runs at its maximum power capabilities.
Stock ECMs are also designed and programmed to work with your vehicle more or less as it was when it rolled off the assembly line. They are not really made to handle a ton of modifications. So, for example, if you want to add a bunch of parts onto your engine that increase air and fuel, and maybe decrease exhaust restrictions, you won’t be able to take full advantage of those parts with a stock engine computer. That’s because, although you added the parts, the stock ECM still has the parameters from the manufacturer that emphasize moderation, low emissions, and good gas mileage.
It is possible to reprogram and tune some stock ECMs. However, it often depends on the manufacturer, and even if it is possible, stock computers can sometimes be difficult to reprogram or tinker with. This goes back to the same reason why they are also not great at working with vehicle modifications; because they are really designed to stay as is and not to be messed around with by vehicle enthusiasts.
This is where aftermarket engine computers come in. These are computers (also called standalone ECMs/ECUs) that you purchase separately for your car and that you or a mechanic then install. The great part about aftermarket ECMs is that you can purchase the brand or type that best suits what you are trying to get out of your vehicle.
If you want to greatly improve your car’s fuel economy, then you can find an ECM that is designed to optimize fuel economy. If you want to improve performance and have greater speed, then you can purchase an engine computer that is made to take advantage of your engine’s full power.
Basically, when it comes down to an aftermarket ECM vs a stock ECM, the aftermarket ECM will let your car do things that the stock ECM won’t. For example, with aftermarket you are able to change the operating parameters to emphasize power output over mileage. An aftermarket computer is more of a clean slate—and offers you far more opportunities to modify and tailor your engine to exactly the way you want it.
As we already mentioned, if you are in to buying a lot of aftermarket parts for your car that allow you to push your engine to its limits, then you really are going to want an aftermarket ECM to go along with them. That’s because those parts are really for nothing if they are bound by the stricter limits imposed by a stock ECM.
Aftermarket vs Stock ECM
When it comes down to it, a stock ECM is perfect for what it was designed to do. The manufacturer sets up the car and its computer to have a good balance between your performance and your fuel economy. And not much beyond that.
An aftermarket ECM, on the other hand, is not limited by the stock hardware or software. You can easily add additional sensors and wiring to meet the needs of any new or extra parts you may be installing on your vehicle. Aftermarket computers can also often be tuned in real time, meaning that you can quickly see the results of the changes you are implementing.
The ability to instantly see results makes aftermarket computers much faster to optimize and tune because you can immediately see if you are heading in the right direction. Additionally, standalone ECMs will also often offer advanced functions such as onboard data logging, and motorsport features like launch control, anti-lag, and traction control.
Aftermarket vs Stock ECM: Which One Is Better?
At the end of the day, when deciding whether you want an aftermarket or stock ECM it ultimately depends on what you want the computer to do for you and your vehicle. What are looking to get out of your car?
If you are just wanting to implement some slight modifications like exhaust and air intake, then you will most likely be able to tune and program your existing stock ECM to meet your needs. On the other hand, if you are trying to convert your vehicle into a race car, then you will most likely want an aftermarket unit.
Although it can be possible to get away with running a modified engine on a stock ECM, there isn’t much advantage in doing so. An aftermarket, standalone ECM allows you to take full advantage of your other vehicle modifications and also lets you tune and program it much more quickly. They are able to integrate all the advanced features you are looking for, along with live real-time tuning and advanced data analysis, and this can be invaluable when looking to optimize performance.
Ultimately, the choice is yours and comes to what you need your engine computer to accomplish for you.