Do I Need A Tune If I Get Exhaust Headers?

You’ve been planning to get some performance parts for your car – like a new exhaust system and a pair of new high-performance headers and you are asking yourself the question, do I need a tune for this new upgrade?

That’s a very common question for car enthusiasts. And for aftermarket headers, the answer is yes, you should tune your car when installing a new exhaust header.

Major performance mods like a header can significantly alter important variables like air/fuel ratio. Tune is required to ensure you get the most out of the header without future problems.

aftermarket exhaust header

Performance exhaust header designed to reduce restriction for exhaust gases to flow.

Why You Should Tune After Getting Headers?

An ECU tune helps you adjust the incorrect air/fuel ratio that always happens when you install a new header.

Also, ECU tune ensures check engine light is not turned on – another thing that commonly happens with headers installation. 

A performance header works by allowing exhaust gases to flow better – resulting in more Oxygen in the combustion chamber. 

This is good for performance but now your air/fuel ratio is incorrect. You are getting extra oxygen but still the same amount of fuel in the combustion chamber. 

Without tuning, you may risk running lean and the check engine light (CEL) is most probably going to turn on. 

If you don’t care about any of these, then installing headers without a tune is also fine, the ECU can learn the new parameters and adjust accordingly.

However, the stock ECU is not capable of adjusting drastically – which means you are not going to gain the full horsepower that you can potentially get. My advice is to always tune when getting a significant mod like a header. 

If you are still not convinced, here are four reasons why you should tune your car after installing a performance header:

  1. Getting a tune will maximize the performance gain – specifically increasing your horsepower and low-end torque. While improving the overall health of your engine and mileage.
  2. Your car will be more aggressive. While tuning you can also change different variables like the throttle response and rev limiter – allowing your car to be even more powerful.
  3. Prevent check engine light. Every time you install a significant mod, your ECU will be impacted and you will get a check engine light. Tuning is the only way to prevent this.
  4. Plug and play tune options are available – just a few small steps and you are ready to rock and do some burnouts if you wish.
Image of performance chip

Plug and play performance chips

Horsepower Gain From Headers: Tune Vs No Tune

You can get significantly more horsepower and a more aggressive car if you install headers with a tune. Installing headers without tune will limit the horsepower gain and introduce risks like CEL and engine running lean.

After installing headers and tuning, you can get up to 50 additional horsepower on your car. This is because tuning can provide you with an optimal air/fuel ratio for performance and alter other variables like removing rev limiter and updating your engine torque map. 

With tuning, the new headers will work as one with the engine in perfect symphony and produce a ton of horses for you to enjoy while blasting your car on the twisty roads.

On the other hand, if you don’t tune your vehicle after getting aftermarket parts is going to even decrease your current performance, the engine will be confused and the parameters will be messed up (air/fuel ratio is out of whack). 

It will take some time for the ECU to learn the new parameters and adapt, but it cannot fully do it as with the tune. 

With no tune, performance headers may provide you with just a couple of horsepower more – without any benefit in torque or efficiency.

You may also get a lower gas mileage and overall strange performance, not to mention the check engine light that will pop up instantly after you install the headers.

Will Installing Headers Without Tuning Hurt Car Engines?

Installing headers without tuning your ECU is not going to hurt your engine. Performance headers are just headers made with better material and shaped better to allow exhaust gases to flow efficiently.

Here’s an article I wrote that explains headers in detail. Should You Get Headers First Or Exhaust? 

Many owners feel downplayed by stock parts because most parts are designed only with cost and efficiency in mind.  Aftermarket parts like a performance header is a good way to unlock your car’s true potential.

How Much Does It Cost To Tune A Car

There are a few types of tuning that you can do to your vehicle and their price varies. Here are the most popular ways to tune. 

 

Dyno Tuning (~$1,500)

Dyno tuning is recommended if you are hugely upgrading your car, like turbocharging or supercharging, it may require a performance shop and mechanical expertise. 

It can come to a steep price of thousands of dollars mostly because of the hours and effort involved in this tedious process of testing and checking all of the parameters. 

If you don’t plan to make huge upgrades and a race car feel on your car, you better stay out of this type of tuning.

Image of Dyno tuning

Dyno tuning in a workshop

ECU Flash (~$350)

ECU flash, one of the easier ways of tuning your vehicle, many people go this route because it doesn’t ask for any level of expertise.

Many aftermarket parts actually come with these easy tunes that are  plug-and-play. You connect it to your OBD port press tune and that’s it. 

On the other hand, if you decide to perform ECU flash at a professional mechanic shop, then it will cost more money. A professional mechanic can customize the ECU parameters for your goal.

Which muffler is your car right now?

ECU flash at performance shops can range from a couple of hundreds of dollars and up.

Performance Chips (~$80)

Performance chips are a nice way to tune your car, but only if it’s supercharged or turbocharged from the factory. 

If it’s naturally aspirated, you likely won’t gain anything. But if you have a turbo gasoline or diesel car, these chips can unlock for up to 50 horsepower in some applications. Mostly because cars come detuned from the factory in order to deliver a longer engine life and fuel economy. 

And these chips also cost very little compared to ECU tunes. Basically, they override the ECU with new parameters and deliver performance. There are plenty of options on the market for everyone’s budget, they cost even less than a hundred dollars. 

I would personally recommend a performance chip if you have a turbocharged vehicle and you want to do it quick and cheap. 

Do an ECU flash if you want to go a step further and install new aftermarket parts on your vehicle and dive deeply into it and mess up with the throttle, rev limiter and other good stuff that brings more power on the table.

For information on tuning, you can check out our full article where we covered tuning and horsepower in detail – How Much HP Can You Gain From A Dyno Tune?

Tuning For Headers: My Recommendation

My recommendation when it comes to tuning is to tune, but tune when you are ready. 

If you plan to do just one upgrade, then you can tune it right away. But if you plan to add several more  aftermarket parts like a cold air intake, bigger turbo, bigger headers, then you should wait till you install all of it before tuning.

Performing a tune after each upgrade will unnecessarily increase the cost on your end.

Ifandi S.

Ifandi S.

Passionate about everything mechanical. Ifandi has been involved with motorcycles and cars since the old days - in his family's auto parts shop. Want to keep in touch? Scream "STRAIGHT PIPEEEEE" at the top of your lungs and Ifandi will show up.

Car Performance Boss

Best resources online to improve your car performance!

Reach out:

  • hello@carperformanceboss.com
  • shop@carperformanceboss.com (Shopping related)