Complete Mustang Tune Guide: How to Do Custom Tuning Right
What is Mustang Tuning?
When you give your Mustang a tune, you're rewiring or reconfiguring the parameters of your stock engine to increase its power and improve performance. As impressive as your Mustang is straight off the line, Ford's factory tune provides it with some pretty conservative parameters. This holds true for all Mustang models, whether you're driving a brand new EcoBoost, a GT or a Mustang Mach 1. Ford wants to put out a vehicle that anyone can drive daily, have good fuel economy and still kick the engine into high gear when drivers need it.
When you add Mustang modifications into the mix, like a new pair of headers or a supercharger under the hood, conservative parameters just won't cut it anymore. After you install custom mods in your Mustang, custom tuning becomes extremely useful, and at times, very necessary. Custom tuning your Mustang provides the parameter adjustments that you'll need to manage your engine – giving you the best results from your Mustang modifications and improving overall performance as you're barreling down the open road.
What Are the Benefits of Custom Tuning Your Mustang?
A factory tune is designed to meet the needs of the public – meaning it needs to fit in the parameters of a wide range of driving styles. This can include the casual driver who never cares to take advantage of the throttle and the commuter looking for the best mileage they can get. Average, everyday, boring people, frankly. For the wide range of Mustang owners, Ford has designed a factory tune to provide balance for a variety of different conditions. Custom tuning ignores all this and allows you to dial in your engine to meet your exact needs and match your driving style to a T. The main benefits of a custom-tuned Mustang include:
- Improved Throttle Response
- More Aggressive Shift Points in Automatic Vehicles
- Better Fuel Economy
- Increased Horsepower & Torque
Which Custom Mods Typically Require an Aftermarket Tune?
When you're trying to make your Mustang faster, more powerful and more aggressive on the road, most car enthusiasts turn straight to Mustang modifications. But it's important to know that virtually all custom mods require some form of custom tuning. Components like cold air intakes, headers, large style throttle bodies and of course turbo and superchargers increase airflow to your engine – the primary reason they require tuning. A tuned Mustang will have the correct parameters that help maintain a proper air/fuel ratio and your Mustang's drivability. The complete list of custom Mustang mods that require or benefit from custom tuning include:
- Cold Air Intakes
- Cylinder Heads
- Fuel Injectors
- Full Exhaust Systems
- Intake Manifolds
- Nitrous Systems
- Rear Gear Changes
- Superchargers & Turbochargers
- Throttle Bodies
Which Mustang Modifications Don't Need Custom Tuning?
You won't have to do a Mustang tune outside of the Mustang modifications listed above if you don't want to. If you opt to install a cat-back or axle-back exhaust or just a simple body kit, you can continue driving your Mustang as is. That being said, all parts still benefit from a tune. If your entire car or engine is bone stock, an aftermarket tune can still give you a solid increase in power that can range anywhere from 12 to 35 horsepower.
Canned Tune vs. Dyno Tune vs. Custom Tune
In the world of Ford Mustang tuning, there are three different tune "types" you'll have to choose from – canned tunes, dyno tunes and custom tunes.
- Canned Tune: You can think of a canned tune like a "one size fits all" type of tune. They're generic, preloaded tunes (with a handheld tuner) that you can do for any kind of Mustang.
- Dyno Tune: A dyno tune can be considered a real-time tune. You'll get a dyno tune when you take your Mustang to a speed or tuner shop, where they'll connect it to the dyno to dial it in real-time. Typically, dyno tunes are the most accurate, giving you the most power and best drivability. They are also among some of the most expensive.
- Custom Tune: Custom tuning is written explicitly for your Mustang based on the mods you have installed. Usually, these tunes will be emailed to you once you purchase your Mustang modifications. Custom tuning typically provides the same level of performance as a dyno tune, but it costs about half of the price.
As mentioned, canned tunes work with any Mustang. But when you're doing a custom or dyno tune, make sure you research the company or shop you're getting services from.
How to Tune a Mustang
Mustangs built from 1996 until today require you to simply plug in your handheld tuner into the OBD-II (on-board diagnostics) port. From there, all you need to do is follow the tuner's instructions to flash your PCM (powertrain control module). Of course, this isn't necessary if you get a dyno tune – it's only needed for custom and canned tunes. To get the custom tune that's been emailed to you into your handheld tuner, just plug it into your home computer and download it.
What is a Handheld Tuner?
We've made a couple of mentions of handheld tuners, so it's best to know exactly what they are if you're thinking about Ford Mustang tuning. Initially, handheld tuners were only available to factory service centers to provide minor tuning adjustments. But in recent years, aftermarket tuning manufacturers have begun to produce their own versions – giving drivers a chance to upload custom tuning programs that can adjust spark and timing for maximum performance. Handheld tuners are the most popular option for tuning, and for a good reason. They're convenient, easy to use and able to hold up to three custom tunes at a time.
How Does Ford Mustang Tuning Affect Your Warranty?
Unfortunately, having a tuned Mustang will void your powertrain's warranty, as stated by Ford's corporate warranty. This is probably the main reason people prefer to stick with their stock parts and opt not to tune their vehicles. But in reality, it tends to vary from dealer to dealer. Some may be strict and by the books. Others may be more open-minded and won't void the warranty. For them, it's a judgment call. This is another area where it's great to do some research. If you need some warranty work done but are rolling with a tuned Mustang GT, talk to some other car enthusiasts or hit the online forums to see if there is a mod-friendly dealer near you.
Once again, do your research. Talking to your fellow Mustang enthusiasts either in person or online can give you an idea of what to do. You'll likely be able to learn if the Ford dealer you are considering taking your Mustang to is modification-friendly. One thing we can say is never to try to return to the factory tune and take it to a dealer. Ford can determine if you have flashed your computer with a custom tune thanks to some special proprietary software which will show how many times your Mustang has been tuned and returned to factory settings.