- I'll just nip this up... oh it's gone awfully loose all of a sudden... that can't be good.

Stage Tuning: I hate it

Call me old fashioned, but I just don't get 'stage tuning'. It makes no sense to me!

I cannot stand the idea and principle of stage tuning a car. There, I said it. The whole thing peeves me off so biblically. You know the sort of thing I mean, think a pop-bang mapped Fiesta Zetec, draped in a garish body kit, Instagram handle stickers on the rear windows, typically metal flake blue or lurid piss green. They are weapons-grade annoyances and a deeply dislikable part of the car community.

Now before you hit me in the comments with "respect all builds" some builds do not deserve to be respected and their simian-brained owners should probably be told this as their slammed Fiat Punto sheds its terrible rear fender upon encountering a bump in the road that even the most stringent surveyor would ignore. The worst part of this is the whole "stage tuning" concept, like a real-world application of 'Forza tuning', is that it dumbs down the idea of engineering to "slow car go fast because tick boxes". But where does it all originate from?

This is literally how I imagine stage tuning works.

This is literally how I imagine stage tuning works.

Well from what I can work out, it all stems back to the modified car scene in the 1990s and the culture it spawned. Magazines like Max Power laid bare the new method of modifying cars in the modern era. Gone were the days of fitting big valve kits, re-jetting carburettors and polishing ports. Turbos were becoming the new normal with electronic tuning building a crowd as computing power became more affordable and accessible. Making your car fast had moved on from the days of down-drafts and crossflows to laptops on passenger seats and dangers to manifold, whatever that means...

It even says Stages 1,2 and 3 at the top!

It even says Stages 1,2 and 3 at the top!

The way that the enthusiast fiddled had changed to keep up with the tech. But then suddenly it seems we stopped fiddling. The means of tweaking cars became a complicated and time-consuming process that really needed a professional touch, otherwise, you ran the risk of eradicating all the clever bits of your car's ECU and making it think it's an HP printer and not a SEAT Leon. This saw the world of tuning move from being a DIY industry to a truer industry of companies and crews establishing brands. This meant that there had to be some logical way of marketing what you could do to your customers and clients, especially those who lacked in-depth mechanical knowledge. So, in a bid to keep things simple the Stage Tuning concept was created.

A set menu of parts and processes you can pick from and apply to your car. Tuning made easy. Stage 1 is widely recognised as simple physical modifications, think intercoolers, manifolds, filters, intakes. Exhaust work usually falls under stage 1. You could probably chuck brakes into this section too. Essentially you'll be swapping like for like without needing to tell the ECU about the new bit. If you can get away with doing it in your garage with a relatively general toolkit, it's "stage one stuff".

Stage 2 is generally when you start opening up the engine. New injectors, a turbo or supercharger or a new one, new injectors, ignition coils, piggy-back ECUs. If you're having to break open a laptop to get your modifications bedded in then you're into the stage two realm. This is where you begin the technical side of tuning.

Big boosty boi.

Big boosty boi.

Stage 3 is when you are swapping in performance engine mounts, minutiae on the engine, low resistance water pumps, new alternator, plus bottom end work, forged cranks, new conrods, lightened drive shafts. If you're pulling out the engine and stripping bits from the block, then it seems you're getting into stage three territory.

But none of it is the same, no two Stage 1 tunes on a Fiesta are the same set of modifications. The list I put together above has been compiled from a zillion conflicting websites. One said putting a new exhaust downpipe on would be a stage two mod, but when I look at my Jimny outside I know that it'd be an hour-long job involving a few spanners and perhaps four bolts all in. How that'd be called stage two is beyond me. And that's the thing, there's no standardisation to a seemingly nationwide, if not an international convention for tuning. Why are there no SI units for making a Vauxhall Corsa truly detestable?

And this leads me back to vaguely where I started. You're standing out front of a Halfords in the light drizzle where a proud owner has just told you that their Golf is Stage One tuned. You nod sagely but in reality have no clue what on earth they said. It just looks like a white Golf that gets nervous around speed bumps.

Now this is tuning!

Now this is tuning!

Potentially I'm missing the point and spent too much of my childhood watching Motortrend programming, shows where tuning a car meant putting a dual plane manifold and Holley Streetbrawler carb on a Ford Windsor V8, chucking in a Mustang with slapper bars and a set of Hooker headers. Perhaps my childhood of big valve kits and dodgy Chinese stroker engines has left me with the idea that modifying your car should be a manual thing where you pick and choose what goes onto your car as opposed to just ticking a box and levelling up. Anyway, I'm off to go and rebuild an engine from the 1930s for a car made out of wood and patina.

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Comments (27)

  • There are a lot of crap builds out there. But the way i think it used to work was that different stages were to the limitations of certain car components. "Stage 1" is say, ECU and mild bolt on engine mods that take the car to the limit of what the transmission can handle or what the fuel injectors/pump are capable of. The other stages fix the weakest/limiting component, and the next "Stage" becomes something else weak/limiting.

    APR does some really good stuff for turbo Audi/VW vehicles that breaks it down like that. "Stage 1" is an ECU tune of a turbo motor that is safe and reliable for everything being stock. "Stage 2" adds a bigger intercooler and downpipe plus an even higher HP ECU tune.

    Its a good starting point for someone who doesnt want to spend the time figuring out what works and buying parts from someone else who already figured it out. Not everyone has the time, space, money or desire to go the Might Car Mods or B Is For Build route.

      1 month ago
    • I get how each stage focuses on the next weakest link. But it’s the lack of continuity that makes it impossible to understand when someone says “stage 2 golf”. It’s like saying “lasagna” what recipe? What ingredients? It can vary from...

      Read more
        1 month ago
    • I agree, saying "stage whatever" only matters to people who know about it and people saying "stage whatever" dont understand that.

        1 month ago
  • Your 100% right. All respect to you for the article and calling out some of the crappy stuff.

      1 month ago
  • I'm not a fan of "the stages" at all. For me its for people who don't understand how an engine works or how to make power. If I hand someone two intakes and tell them to pick one they won't know off hand how runner length and plenum volume affects the torque curve, but if you hand someone two manifolds and say " this is stage 1 this is stage 2" the layman will be able to select a manifold much easier. Most people don't know what VE is, and they don't know how to properly maximize it so they rely on companies to tell them what will work together well.

      1 month ago
  • I 100% agree. To me the whole point of tuning a car is to make it unique to you. To me stage tuning takes this aways. Also, most stage tuned cars look rubbish and are driven by d!cks (imo).

      1 month ago
    • That's nonsense. Tuning the engine via a remap has nothing to do with their appe and most remain fully stock externally.

        1 month ago
    • I never said anything about whether it appeals or not.

        1 month ago
  • 90’s? It goes back way further than that! We were certainly doing it in the 70’s.

    Stage tuning is supposed to increase performance a bit at a time. Funny thing is though, I’ve seen it fuck up motors and make them slower.

    If you are going to do it, do it right with the right pieces of kit.

    Sometimes people, thinking they are doing the right thing, do the wrong bits at the wrong time, causing the engine to not run correctly.

    It’s the same with motorbikes. I’ve seen bikes tuned for racing by well known tuners, but they were crap.

    But get it right and it’s not a bad thing

      1 month ago
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