The Best Things In Life Can Be Free

Sometimes, you get what you pay for. I’d rather put a good set name brand performance springs on my car than some cheap no-name coilovers from eBay. I want high quality performance tires, not cheap generic all-seasons. But occasionally you can get something for nothing and come out ahead on the deal.

I was contacted by Ben Fearn after he read the 18 month update on my BRZ. Ben introduced himself as the “BRZ Whisperer” for the 86 Owners of New England. He offers club members some simple modifications at no charge, and said he “Would love to help you enjoy your car more.” Who am I to refuse? I met up with Ben at the JDM/KDM Meet, where he was already at work tweaking other FR-S/BRZs. This wasn’t some special deal for me just because I write about cars on the internet. He’s modified around 30 or so cars (and counting) throughout the club, all for free, simply because he has the knowledge and equipment, and enjoys doing it.

clutch

Ben had me sit in his car, also a World Rally Blue BRZ, and try out his clutch pedal. My second biggest complaint about my BRZ, aside from the original tires, as that the clutch has no feel or feedback whatsoever. Even after more than 20,000 miles of driving I still make rough shifts sometimes because I can’t feel the clutch engagement point. I didn’t drive Ben’s car, but his clutch pedal felt quite different. It was easier than mine at the top of its range of travel, but harder at the bottom, rather than light throughout its range like my stock pedal. Ben had removed a spring that’s normally attached to the pedal. It makes it easier at the bottom but more difficult near the top, making the effort more consistent throughout its travel, but also somehow insulating the pedal from the clutch itself and removing any feedback. I agreed to let Ben remove this spring from my own clutch pedal. I had to get used to the different levels of effort required, but for the first time I could actually feel the friction point. After adjusting to it, my shifting in this car is smoother than ever now.

The other modification Ben made was an ECU tune. This usually costs several hundred dollars for an EcuTek or OpenFlash Tablet (the most common choices for the FR-S/BRZ), and even more if you work closely with a tuner on a program customized specifically to your car. Ben doesn’t create the tunes himself, but has a wide variety of open source tunes available to match the particular modifications made to a car, anything from stock through a more open exhaust to forced induction. Since the only modification to my powertrain is a Nameless Performance axleback exhaust, we used a tune for a stock car, since the axleback adds only sound, not power. I could’ve gotten a tune optimized for 93 octane gas, but I chose a less aggressive one for 91 octane, since I sometimes drive to places like Maine where only 91 is available. E85 was another option but clearly not practical for my daily driver. Ben plugged in his laptop, flashed the ECU, started the engine and ran through an initial setup process, and it was done. It took maybe five minutes from start to finish.

ben

What did the free tune do for me? Most noticeably, it all but eliminated the infamous torque dip between 3000-4000rpm. Highway driving keeps the revs in this range, and I don’t need to downshift to make passes nearly as often. It’s no torque monster, but it feels like it has enough now instead of stumbling in the mid-range. My other half could even feel the difference from the passenger seat. I don’t have dyno charts, or horsepower/torque measurements from an app, but my butt dyno tells me that while peak horsepower may not have increased, the power and especially torque that it does have are much more usable now, especially in everyday driving.

Additionally, the drive-by-wire throttle now has a linear map, which it doesn’t have from the factory. Now pushing the pedal down halfway will actually give me 50% throttle. I even have a rough form of launch control – a soft 5000rpm rev limiter below 5mph that will let me hold revs, drop the clutch, and go. The main rev limiter has also been increased to 7600rpm, but I don’t plan on taking advantage of that, both to save the engine and because power already starts dropping off above 7000. Best of all, if someday I upgrade my headers, or add a supercharger like I dream of, Ben can reflash my ECU to take full advantage of the new parts.

decal

It always helps to “know a guy” in the local club. 86ONE has Ben, but most groups for most cars that I’ve owned have some guru or two who can do amazing things for cheap or free. Whatever you drive, there is a group of enthusiasts out there for your car. I was active with a group of Saturn S series enthusiasts back when they were common on the road but not commonly raced (we raced them anyway). I encourage you to hook up with your local group for your car, no matter what it is. If nothing else, they can help you diagnose problems with your car, give you advice, and help you make the right choices for modifying your car the way you want it.