Modding a Modern Dodge or Ram Begins with an Unlocked PCM

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Dodge Charger and Challenger

Dodge and Ram vehicles use an encrypted engine computer which took tuners quite some time to crack.

There has been a great deal of talk in the automotive community of late about the encrypted engine computer system in the upcoming Chevrolet Corvette, but many people forget that FCA was the first company to really pose a challenge for the aftermarket tuning world. Like the current and upcoming computer systems from General Motors, the engine control system in every late model Dodge, Ram, Jeep and Chrysler vehicle has been “locked” from the factory, preventing tuners from making performance-enhancing adjustments.

Car Buzz recently did a piece regarding the incredibly challenging hackability of the Hellcats. As if some outlets didn’t know about this, the popular discussion of the system coming to the new mid-engine Corvette (expected to be the toughest to crack thus far) led some journalists to ask Dodge boss Tim Kuniskis about the FCA encryption system at the debut of the Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Widebody. Kuniskis pointed out that FCA was among the first automakers to make engine control systems harder to access, which led to an early delay in the tuning applications for the Hellcat cars, but as it always the case, the aftermarket overcame that minor roadblock, unlocking the full potential of the supercharged Hemi.

Hellcat Hemi

Since a surprising number of people inside and outside of the modern Mopar world are unfamiliar with the encrypted engine control system, here is a quick rundown of why it exists and what you have to do to get real performance gains from your Dodge Charger, Dodge Challenger or Ram 1500.

Tuning a Hemi

In the early days of computerized engine management systems, Dodge went so far as to sell engine computers that were already upgraded for better-than-stock performance. For example, Mopar offers a high performance computer for the second generation Ram 1500 with the 5.9-liter V8 that makes a significant difference in performance. You just buy it, install it in place of the stock computer and enjoy the extra power.

When the Hemi engines came to market in the 2000s, tuning had changed, so rather than replacing the engine computer with one that was modified for better performance, Dodge and Ram owners could buy an aftermarket tuning device that plugs into the OBDII port. Once connected, the tuning device adds the aftermarket engine tune, adjust parameters like fuel delivery, spark timing and transmission shift points to improve performance. If you have a third generation Ram 1500 with a Hemi, a plug-and-play tuner is one of the easiest ways to add a little extra power.

2019 Ram 1500

However, with the modern Hemi engines, you can no longer plug into the OBDII port and add an aftermarket tune because the system is locked. You have to either buy an unlocked engine computer or you have to remove yours and send it to a company that will unlock it for you. In either case, this step creates a costly, time-consuming headache that prevents owners from easily tuning their modern Mopar machines. In most cases, buying an unlocked engine computer will cost more than the tuning device itself or the custom engine tune, so locking the computer system has had a big impact on enthusiasts.

Why Lock the System?

There is a long list of reasons why automakers want to make it harder for owners and aftermarket performance shops to tinker with the ECM, but there are three key reasons: emission laws, warranties and legal liability.

While some Americans live in areas where they don’t have to worry about annual emission testing, aftermarket tuning in states which use California’s emission regulations is often illegal, so relating to emission tests and standards, the automakers lock the engine computer in order to prevent owners from easily adding engine tunes that are illegal in some areas.

Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat Redeye

Next, when you add more power, you are more likely to break things and in some cases, people with modified Dodge or Ram vehicles will try to get things repaired under warranty that were caused to fail by the aftermarket upgrades. For example, if you unlock the computer in a Hellcat Challenger, swap the pulley and tune the engine to make 900 horsepower, there is a better chance of breaking the transmission than when stock.

FCA has a way to tell if the engine computer has been tuned and if it has, the dealership is likely to refuse warranty coverage. To try to prevent tuning issues causing warranty disputes, FCA and other automakers lock the computer system, putting the blame on the owner if something breaks with the car is modified.

Hellcat Redeye Hemi

Finally, cars like the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat Redeye have been proven to easily make well over 1,000 horsepower with a few basic upgrades and a good engine tune. A car with 1,000 horsepower is very quick and, in theory, is more likely to be involved in a high-speed crash. In this age of litigation, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that the family member of someone who was killed by a 1,000-horsepower Dodge could come after FCA in court, so once again, the automaker makes it much harder to reach those power levels.

An Easy Fix

Fortunately, the computer system in the Dodge Hellcat cars and the rest of the Hemi engines were unlocked by the aftermarket years ago, so tuning your Challenger, Charger or Ram is as simple as buying an unlocked computer and having it paired to your vehicle. Once that is done, you can adjust pretty much every aspect of the drivetrain, from the engine parameters to how the transmission shifts. It is an easy fix, but it isn’t cheap, with unlocked computer systems for the Hellcat costing as much as $1,000.

2017 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat

That being said, while it is expensive, there is no way to get significant power increases from a modern Dodge or Ram vehicle without it, so if you plan on adding forced induction, nitrous or a cam, you will need to get an unlocked PCM for tuning.

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"Before I was old enough to walk, my dad was taking me to various types of racing events, from local drag racing to the Daytona 500," says Patrick Rall, a lifetime automotive expert, diehard Dodge fan, and respected auto journalist for over 10 years. "He owned a repair shop and had a variety of performance cars when I was young, but by the time I was 16, he was ready to build me my first drag car – a 1983 Dodge Mirada that ran low 12s. I spent 10 years traveling around the country, racing with my dad by my side. While we live in different areas of the country, my dad still drag races at 80 years old in the car that he built when I was 16 while I race other vehicles, including my 2017 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat and my 1972 Dodge Demon 340.

"Although I went to college for accounting, my time in my dad’s shop growing up allowed me the knowledge to spend time working as a mechanic before getting my accounting degree, at which point I worked in the office of a dealership group. While I was working in the accounting world, I continued racing and taking pictures of cars at the track. Over time, I began showing off those pictures online and that led to my writing.

"Ten years ago, I left the accounting world to become a full-time automotive writer and I am living proof that if you love what you do, you will never “work” a day in your life," adds Rall, who has clocked in time as an auto mechanic, longtime drag racer and now automotive journalist who contributes to nearly a dozen popular auto websites dedicated to fellow enthusiasts.

"I love covering the automotive industry and everything involved with the job. I was fortunate to turn my love of the automotive world into a hobby that led to an exciting career, with my past of working as a mechanic and as an accountant in the automotive world provides me with a unique perspective of the industry.

"My experience drag racing for more than 20 years coupled with a newfound interest in road racing over the past decade allows me to push performance cars to their limit, while my role as a horse stable manager gives me vast experience towing and hauling with all of the newest trucks on the market today.

"Being based on Detroit," says Rall, "I never miss the North American International Auto Show, the Woodward Dream Cruise and Roadkill Nights, along with spending plenty of time raising hell on Detroit's Woodward Avenue with the best muscle car crowd in the world.

Rall can be contacted at [email protected]

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