5-Star Tuning: Plug-In (Horse) Power

Ready, set, RV! 1) Here’s something you don’t see every day: RVs on a drag strip.
Ready, set, RV! Here’s something you don’t see every day: RVs on a drag strip.
Photos by Chris Dougherty

5-Star Tuning’s power enhancement for gas engines lights up the towing experience

Traveling to places like the Sierra, Olympic, Cascade, Rocky, Appalachian, Adirondack, Berkshire, and Green and White mountains can test the mettle of any gas-powered truck towing a sizable trailer or fifth-wheel. RVers are always on a quest for more power, but the high cost of trucks these days makes it paramount to consider modifications that will not damage the powertrain or create warranty issues. While RVers want to get up the grades first, doing so may require engine tweaking, which can get expensive. Adding a power tuner from the gasoline-engine experts at 5-Star Tuning, a company in Florence, South Carolina, requires almost no physical work, doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, and can get the ponies galloping.

To delve deeper into how it works its magic on modern engines, the company leased out a drag strip for a day to show how four different gas-powered trucks performed towing trailers with and without programming. As a bonus, we added our test truck, a diesel-powered Ford F-350, and our loaded travel trailer to the mix to see how the diesel performed after installing a designated tuner (see “Power Stroke Performance” on page 77).

Among the gas engines tested, the Ford F-150 with the 3.5-liter EcoBoost engine showed the most improvements with the 5-Star Tuning programming. Towing a toy hauler on the strip, the F-150’s time was cut from 13.64 to 11.85 seconds, and speed went from 51.49 to 59.11 mph.
Among the gas engines tested, the Ford F-150 with the 3.5-liter EcoBoost engine showed the most improvements with the 5-Star Tuning programming. Towing a toy hauler on the strip, the F-150’s time was cut from 13.64 to 11.85 seconds, and speed went from 51.49 to 59.11 mph.

Improving horsepower and torque can be complicated, considering modern vehicles are equipped with sophisticated electronics and emissions equipment, and fiddling with precise specifications can wreak havoc on the road. Flashing, or reprogramming, diesel-engine computers is a proven method of adding desirable power, but not all providers have moved into the gasoline-engine space.

Truck manufacturers are in a never-ending contest to build the most powerful engines that will give their vehicles the towing-capacity crown. One way to get there is to reprogram the engine’s computer software. The folks at 5-Star Tuning know the engineering limits of the engine, transmission and other truck components, and develop exacting changes to the programming to maximize the efficiency of the powertrain.

The company, which develops the software programming for many of the most popular tuners on the market, also markets directly to the public. The programming is the culmination of many years of testing, and much of that information is packed into 5-Star Tuning’s proprietary products for gasoline and diesel engines.

The loaded test trailer and truck, a 2012 F-350 with the 6.7-liter diesel, had a combined weight of 19,200 pounds. When tuned for daily towing, the combo crossed the 1⁄8-mile sensor in 13.02 seconds at 53.07 mph. Long-term testing showed improved performance accelerating to highway speed and no trouble maintaining speed on steep grades.
The loaded test trailer and truck, a 2012 F-350 with the 6.7-liter diesel, had a combined weight of 19,200 pounds. When tuned for daily towing, the combo crossed the 1⁄8-mile sensor in 13.02 seconds at 53.07 mph. Long-term testing showed improved performance accelerating to highway speed and no trouble maintaining speed on steep grades.

5-Star’s headquarters is a two-building complex in the heart of auto-racing country. One building houses offices and a shop, and the other is a custom-built dynamometer facility where the real magic happens. It’s here where the company’s engineers take the relevant information and design tuning specifications that increase the engine’s horsepower and torque. Part of the strategy is to calibrate torque converter lockup, transmission shift points and air/fuel mixture. The improvements are very credible.

Our “track day” pitted four half-ton gas-powered pickups (three Ford F-150s and a Chevy 1500) and the aforementioned 2012 Ford F-350 stock diesel against each other, towing trailers, at Pageland Dragway in Jefferson, South Carolina. For this article, we concentrated on the performance of a 2018 F-150 with an EcoBoost 2.7-liter engine and a 2017 F-150 3.5-liter version of the same powerplant. These engines are serious power- generating machines based on a six-cylinder aluminum block. Note that these gas trucks had some hardware modifications, like Banks air-intake systems, which increased the baseline numbers from stock a bit, but the tuning comparisons tell the real story.

The F-150s were chosen because they were equipped with 10-speed transmissions and performed better than the Ford 5.0-liter and the Chevy 5.3-liter V-8s right out of the box — although they did see marked improvement tuned over stock.

The 2018 2.7-liter EcoBoost is factory rated for 325 horsepower at 5,750 rpm and 375 lb-ft of torque at 3,000 rpm. The 2017 3.5-liter EcoBoost delivers 375 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 470 lb-ft of torque at 2,500 rpm.

At the drag strip, conditions were identical for every run. Time and speed — stock and tuned — were recorded on the 1⁄8-mile track in the same manner as for vehicles competing at an NHRA drag-race event. In the end, the strongest gas truck, the F-150 with the 3.5-liter engine and the diesel truck were taken back to the shop and put on the dyno for two sets of tests, one in stock form and one with the 5-Star Tuning calibrations.

The F-150, a four-wheel-drive model, was paired with a Forest River Vengeance toy hauler that weighed 8,620 pounds. The truck had a Banks cold-air intake and cat-back exhaust upgrade. On the track, in stock tune, the truck and trailer did the 1⁄8 mile
in 13.64 seconds at 51.49 mph. The same truck and trailer, after tuning, ran the distance in 11.85 seconds at 59.11 mph, a notable improvement in time and speed.

When we returned to the shop, we put this truck on the dyno to record power curves, and measure horsepower and torque gains. The goal was to establish percentages of gain when the tuner was in place. The dyno shop at 5-Star Tuning is a top-shelf facility, with dynamometer rollers built into the floor of a truck-size drive-through bay. It’s even possible to dyno a truck with a trailer attached, as we demonstrated with the F-350 diesel.

Each dyno test consisted of three runs where the truck was accelerated to highway speeds to get peak horsepower and torque measurements. The computer reads the data from the engine and the dyno, and reports the results in both digital charts and graphs. Three runs for each test were necessary to make sure there aren’t any wild swings or anomalies.

The 3.5-liter EcoBoost tested stock (with the intake and cat-back exhaust) at 299.8 horsepower at 6,100 rpm and 356.7 lb-ft of torque at 4,050 rpm. This is a marked drop from Ford’s published numbers, even with the hardware improvements. After reprogramming the onboard computer with the performance tuning, the truck produced a whopping 447.5 horsepower at 6,100 rpm, a 49.27 percent increase from stock, and 471.5 lb-ft of torque at 4,050 rpm, an improvement of 32.18 percent. The tuner programming remains within the engineering limits of the engine and meets federal emissions standards, according to 5-Star Tuning, noting that tuners are not legal in California for on-highway vehicles.

To program the F-150, he company used an nGauge programmer from HP Tuners ($679.95), which has a digital touchscreen device that can be mounted to the windshield using a suction-cup bracket or installed directly in the dash, if there’s room. The tuner plugs into the OBD-II port under the dash and can stay connected or be removed after tuning. If left connected, it becomes a user-configurable digital information center and can display up to eight gauges at a time, picking from literally hundreds of OBD-II signals. The device has built-in diagnostics and can display engine codes to warn the driver of an issue. It is also capable of data logging, using a micro-SD-card slot, which is useful for intermittent trouble codes.

5-Star Tuning frequently offers multiple tunes for each vehicle, customized for improved towing, performance and, sometimes, fuel economy. In this case, the programmer is loaded with 87-Octane Performance/Tow, 93-Octane Per—form­ance/Tow and 93-Octane Per—formance selections. The company also offers a flurry of fuel-economy tunes and transmission-only tunes for the 2017 F-150 with the EcoBoost engine.

Choosing a brand and model of tuner from 5-Star revolves around features and vehicle compatibility. The range of tuners is fairly large, starting with a basic programmer with no adjustments and going up to those with full-vehicle computer interfaces. The programming files in each unit are provided and designed by 5-Star Tuning, and the company’s expertise supports a strong customer-service experience.

Getting the most horsepower and torque from an engine is almost a rite of passage for truck owners. Those who prefer a lighter truck powered by a gasoline engine no longer have to envy the performance gains that were once reserved for diesels. 5-Star Tuning enhances the driving experience, especially during hill climbs.

5-Star Tuning | www.5startuning.com

Power Stroke Performance

Although we concentrated on the EcoBoost-powered F-150 and recorded substantial horsepower and torque improvements with the 5-Star tuners, the company also gets accolades for boosting the performance of the Ford Power Stroke diesel in Super Duty trucks. The test truck performed fairly well out of the box, but mileage had suffered over the years. The idea was to inject new spirit into the Ford diesel and hope for better fuel economy, since the power-to-weight ratio was improved dramatically after the engine was recalibrated.

We submitted the 2012 F-350 4×4 with the 6.7-liter Power Stroke to 5-Star’s tuning and dyno testing. The F-350’s powertrain was completely stock. We weighed the truck and trailer before heading over to 5-Star, and the combination tipped the scales at around 19,200 pounds, as it was loaded for extended travel.

At full weight with stock programming, the F-350 did the 1⁄8 mile in 14.26 seconds at 50.51 mph. After tuning for daily towing, the combo crossed the 1⁄8-mile sensor in 13.02 seconds at 53.07 mph. That relates to roughly a 5 percent increase. In long-distance testing, fuel economy improved 1 to 2 mpg while towing on the highway when repeating most of the earlier travel route.

The programming was accomplished using the SCT X4 Power Flash unit with three custom tuning choices: Daily Towing, Performance (no towing) and Transmission Only. The loaded programmer has an MSRP of $449.95. Like the nGauge used on the F-150, this tuner has multiple options and readouts, and is Wi-Fi connectible and updatable.

After the track test, the F-350 was run on the dyno with the trailer still attached, which was merely for convenience but workable with 5-Star’s sizable drive-through bay. Marked post-tuning improvements in both horsepower and torque were recorded with this truck.
Horsepower went from 315.5 to 351.0, and torque increased to a significant 785.1 lb-ft from 702.7 lb.-ft. While the EcoBoost had more actual horsepower than the Super Duty at 441 horsepower, torque was only 471.5 lb-ft, a clear indication of the difference between a gas and diesel engine.


 

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