The world of speed and performance has been overwhelmingly associated with cars throughout the decades, from classic and modern muscle to import performance. For years, when someone mentioned “tuning” it was presumably some kind of car application. Nowadays, truck performance has gained an immensely popular following. With impressive stock power, daily-driver comfort, and off-road capability, these rigs offer their own unique bag of tricks.
Yet a strange division exists within the industry. Many truck owners pursue aftermarket power-adders like cold air intakes, exhaust systems, or computer programmers that are convenient bolt-on modifications. As such, they have been snubbed as ‘less hardcore’ in comparison to their early muscle-car, carb-tuning, speed-and-performance counterparts.
But the truth is, whether it’s two-wheel or four-wheel drive, building a combustion engine is building a combustion engine. The fundamentals of gaining real power are the same across any particular vehicle platform.
So, with our truck performance brethren in mind, let’s break down some of those tried-and-true upgrades.
When it comes to performance-built cars one of the first questions you hear is, “What kind of heads are on it?” It’s true, that as engines become more powerful and efficient straight from the factory, this question becomes less relevant. However, aftermarket heads still have a lot to offer any builder seeking a little more power. Simply put, manufacturers take the time to identify weak points in factory heads and improve on them. Whether it’s port size and shape, combustion chamber design, valve sizes, or the materials being used, specialized aftermarket companies can hone in on inefficiencies and make corrections for maximum power.
Those seeking truck performance upgrades may not be as exposed to aftermarket cylinder heads for the simple fact that it’s one of those things that tends to fall under the umbrella of car division. However, this doesn’t mean you don’t have options.
Many of today’s trucks share engines with cars produced by the same manufacturer. This means that whatever heads fit that engine can be used in any vehicle with it. Plus, there are many aftermarket suppliers who pride themselves on their large and diverse product offerings. Edelbrock, for example, offers cylinder heads for all sorts of applications, including diesel engines, making the company a great name to turn to for many builders.
For some, aftermarket heads won’t be an option.
It’s a hard truth and one I think will unfortunately affect truck performance seekers more than anyone else. However, factory heads can be taken to a machine shop for improvement. Ports can be reshaped and polished to maximize air flow. Valve sizes can be opened up to allow more air into the chamber, and even the chamber itself can be addressed.
Performance gains will vary heavily across each platform. New aftermarket heads or machine work to factory heads are going to heed different results for different engines. Honestly, what it comes down to is how bad the original head design is and what areas are addressed. It’s hard to put any kind of realistic number on what kind of gains you can expect to see but if you are looking for the best possible performance out of your engine, I strongly suggest starting your build here.
If you start with cylinder heads, in an effort to improve air flow efficiency, it’s only natural to progress to the camshaft, the part making that air flow possible. This upgrade can completely alter engine performance and should be taken on by those looking to do exactly that.
The lobes on a camshaft dictate when valves open and close, how long they are open for, and how far they open. Aftermarket camshafts will change the lobe design to manipulate these factors in an attempt to achieve specific performance characteristics.
For older truck performance, this upgrade is a no-brainer. But with newer engines, it can be a little more in-depth. In order to really take advantage of a cam grind, a custom ECU tune may be needed—and this can send you on a wild goose chase. Choosing the right cam grind takes a lot of homework because so many variables come into play. RPM range, horsepower, torque, and fuel economy are all directly affected by what cam is selected, and these, in turn, will change the engine’s operation. You can lower total power output but bring the torque curve way down, or do the exact opposite. You can tame the engine, level out the curve, and increase fuel economy. And with the right amount of research and proper selection, you can reap the rewards of each area effectively.
Adjusting timing and fuel delivery has been something tech junkies have been doing for quite some time, regardless of whether you’re seeking car or truck performance. We can all imagine our parents or grandparents tinkering under the hood of a vehicle and talking about how smooth it runs. Even with carbureted applications, advancing or retarding the timing and messing with the fuel settings allows you to run the engine how you want. Maximum efficiency or maximum performance? The choice is yours.
Tuners are doing the exact same thing but without a timing light and a screwdriver. Frankly, they simply make life awesome. By tapping into the engine management system, you can set the engine up to run exactly how you want, without ever popping the hood.
Handheld tuners are super easy to work with and are the kind of upgrade I really would recommend everyone to make. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but all can be installed and operated in the comfort of the cabin in only a few minutes. As for aftermarket companies to lean on, we recommend Diablo, Edge, SCT, and Superchips.
I love any speed and performance. But, for me, next to that badass whistle of a roots style blower, the most fun upgrade to make is to the exhaust system. It doesn’t matter if it’s slow or ugly, the sound of Detroit makes us all a little giddy and is a major reason that we’re here.
Exhaust systems are pleasing to the ear, but they also have a major impact on engine performance. It’s obvious that we want more air flow in an exhaust system, but the question is why? By sucking out as much exhaust as possible, we keep the cylinders running clean air and this helps bring horsepower up. Also, the right amount of back pressure helps drive torque through the roof.
When it comes to exhaust selection, I feel like there’s this lingering desire to want to go as big as possible—and this isn’t just true for truck performance seekers. But since back pressure is important, you don’t always want huge pipes on a vehicle. Appropriate sizing is critical to performance, especially considering we are talking about relatively low- to mid-power in a lot of cases.
There are plenty of aftermarket players standing at-the-ready with exhaust products that deliver significant power with an aggressive note. MBRP, Magnaflow, Gibson, and Flowmaster are some of my personal favorites, as I feel they spend a wonderful amount of time on dialing in their systems without robbing the customer.
For those seeking the best possible results, headers are a great complimentary upgrade to make to the system.
We’ve covered some common mods and some advanced mods, but I can’t keep dancing around the elephant in the room: turbochargers. More and more vehicles are leaving the factory with turbos, and they’re becoming a hot mod for those who own vehicles without them.
Without forced induction, an engine relies on vacuum to draw in the air it needs to run. Due to the limitations of the atmosphere around the engine, running at 100% is very unlikely. A turbocharger forces air into the engine and makes sure each cylinder is getting at least as much air as it’s intended to displace.
Natural aspiration has its limitations. By removing them, you can increase power dramatically even with a low amount of boost. Docile kits can be used on otherwise-factory engines and still produce a ton of power. However, the bigger the turbo, the more it will impact the engine’s entire dynamic, meaning other modifications will need to be made to ensure proper and safe function.
Whether you’re looking for car or truck performance, check out our piece about Bolt-On Boost for information on installation difficulty, recommended aftermarket brands, and exactly how in-depth some of those related upgrades can be.
As turbos gain popularity, so too do turbo mods. An extremely popular and effective modification to make to a turbocharging system is the addition of an intercooler. As wonderful as turbochargers are, they do have their flaws and what is likely the biggest issue with these units can be corrected by an intercooler.
Turbos deliver compressed air to the engine. By nature, compressed air is hot. Combine that with the fact that the turbine is spun by hot exhaust gases leaving the engine, and all that heat becomes an issue. An intercooler will bring the temperature of the air down, delivering more oxygen to the engine, resulting in more power being produced. With high-powered applications and large turbos, this upgrade is an absolute must. But anyone looking to get more out of a turbo should consider this mod as well. Mishimoto is a quality brand that focuses on delivering an OE-grade fit and finish with the aftermarket convenience of serving a variety of applications.
The Performance Puzzle
As I stated with cylinder heads, it’s hard to put solid numbers on what can be expected in terms of performance since a lot of variables come into play. The same is true for all of these modifications, which makes engine-building a lot like putting together a puzzle. You start with what you’re looking to get out of your engine, how much power you want to make, and when you want to make that power. Then, you pinpoint your engine’s limitations. Because once you figure out the flaws, you can move to what mods are best suited for your needs.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a car, boat, motorcycle, or truck—an engine is an engine. And the challenge of modifying it to your desired performance level is extremely rewarding.