Torque Shop

I drive a 2018 Volkswagen Golf GTI. I am tempted to perform a Stage 1 electronic control unit (ECU) upgrade. I understand that an upgrade is purely electronic and does not require any physical or visible modifications to the car. Rather, it increases power and torque substantially by increasing turbo boost pressure. My annual mileage is about 4,000km and, assuming that I drive only on the road and not the race track, are Stage 1 ECU upgrades safe? Will they lead to costly damage to my vehicle later on? Are there any other downsides?

Before getting into the effects of upgrading, it is important to take note of two things.

One, any modification not performed by the authorised workshop renders your warranty null and void, in part or in its entirety.

Two, under the Road Traffic Act, any car with a modified engine that is not homologated during the type approval phase when the car model was first imported into Singapore or a modification that had not been presented to the Land Transport Authority for approval, cannot be driven on Singapore roads.

In the United States and most parts of Europe, such modifications can be warranted by the dealer or manufacturer. In many countries, they do not require approval from the transport authorities.

Even so, the extent of modification to an engine is usually limited to upgrades sanctioned by the manufacturer. For the VW Golf GTI, there are a number of tuning houses offering ECU upgrades, but only some are approved by VW. Power can be boosted to as much as 325hp with a Stage 1 ECU upgrade.

Increased turbo boost, however, does demand more from the engine because of higher thermal and mechanical stress. The EA888 engine in your car is fitted to a number of VW and Audi cars in various states of tune, some exceeding 300hp. So this engine is designed to produce more power.

If it is for normal use here in Singapore, the Golf GTI's steering, suspension, transmission and brakes are capable of handling more power.

But if you are someone who fits a Stage 1 ECU upgrade only when you drive to Malaysia, it is highly recommended that your GTI is also fitted with upgraded brakes and suspension dampers, and that the engine oil is of the highest quality.

As to whether there are long-term effects, I would say such a modified car will last 100,000km with no issues.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2020, with the headline 'Torque Shop'. Subscribe