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Ironman 4×4’s Black Ops Build: Part 1

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The first phase of our Ironman 4×4 Bush Truck build is the installation of a performance upgrade. I was expecting more people to ask why and I was a bit disappointed that most people just accepted it without explanation.

I was ready to explain that the performance upgrade would help to compensate for the additional weight of all of the accessories as well as the larger wheel and tyres that we would be fitting to turn the Ranger into a serious bush truck. It would seem however that a performance upgrade for a diesel- powered double-cab bakkie is par for the course.

Ford Master Technician Yasteel Hiralal of Neil Woodridge Motors at work on the Performance Centre engine upgrade.

One only has to look at the back of any motoring magazine or do an online search to see a plethora of diesel tuning and chip companies advertising their products. Some of the performance gain figures that are quoted certainly make one perk up and take note. It is however easy to get confused as there are always two sides to the story: one positive and the other negative. Fortunately, some years ago, I was briefly involved with a diesel conditioning product from Canada and at the time I gained some insight into diesel engine performance.

Diesel engine performance differs somewhat from petrol engine performance and the means employed by tuners and performance gurus differ too. One of the main areas that effects engine performance is fuelling – the amount of fuel injected as well as the air-fuel mixture. In a petrol engine, too little fuel (a lean mixture) will cause excessive combustion temperature and the engine runs hotter. Too hot and you’ll start melting things. In some high performance engines, additional fuel is used to lower the combustion temperature. Too much fuel (a rich mixture) in a normal engine will cause the build-up of carbon and excessive unburnt fuel. This carbon build-up could foul the spark plugs and the excessive fuel will wash away lubrication on the cylinder walls leading to premature engine wear as well as excessive fuel consumption.

Diesel engines are a little different. At idle, a diesel engine theoretically runs lean. Without a throttle, the engine revs are controlled by the amount of diesel injected into the motor. Push the accelerator pedal and more diesel is injected in a very controlled manner, the revs climb and so does power and torque delivery (put very simply). Add a turbo and suddenly more air is forced into the engine. More diesel can be injected which again equates to more power and torque. All of the above is very carefully controlled by the vehicle ECU. Unlike a petrol engine, if there is not enough diesel injected into the engine to match the flow of air, all that will happen is that power will be down. If too much diesel is injected, combustion will be inefficient and the result will almost always be billows of black smoke and, of course, fuel consumption will be higher than normal.

The underlying problem with over-fuelling a diesel engine is not always that apparent. The air-to-fuel ratio is not only important from a performance and fuel consumption point of view. The combustion temperature in a diesel engine is very important for engine longevity. The amount of cold air that gets ingested into the diesel engine combustion chamber has a direct bearing on the combustion temperature. Pump in too much diesel vapour and there is less cold air in the combustion chamber during combustion. Combustion temperatures go up quickly and one could destroy a diesel engine in a very short period of time.

This is where the potential issue with chip tuning can emerge. There are many well engineered chip tuning products on the market as well as some less well engineered products. Some of these chips involve merely altering the accelerator pedal response (incorrectly referred to as throttle response on a diesel vehicle) and this may create the impression that the vehicle is suddenly more powerful. Any chip that promises significant increases in power and torque output has to, by nature of the workings of a diesel motor, involve an increase in the amount of diesel being injected into the engine at some stage compared to the standard vehicle. If this is not carefully monitored and controlled, it could spell disaster for the engine. I have a mate who owns a diesel engineering industry repairing diesel engines. He only does diesel engine repair work for car dealers and he just loves diesel tuning chips.

This UniChip may be ‘old technology’, but it’s perfect for this project.

Tuning chips that are well engineered focus on engine longevity rather than merely raw power. They work within the safety parameters of the vehicle ECU and its systems. According to some experts, one of the most important safeguards for diesel engine longevity is an exhaust gas temperature sensor or EGT sensor. Exhaust gas temperature is of course in direct relation to combustion temperature. When the combustion temperature rises, the exhaust gas temperature does too. Most modern diesel vehicles have an EGT sensor as standard. This sensor relays its information to the ECU and subsequently the chip. The ECU and/or chip can then regulate fuelling to bring the combustion temperatures down to safe levels. On older vehicles that do not use EGT sensors as standard, an aftermarket EGT sensor can be fitted. These sensors even have a display that can be fitted inside the vehicle. This allows the driver to be warned should EGT and thus combustion temperatures rise and become critical.

My explanation is very simplified and there is certainly more to it than merely the above. My point is that there is a real danger of causing your engine and your pocket huge damage if you’re not careful. I am certainly not keen on having engine troubles with my Bush Truck. I am a horrible mechanic. I was thus looking for a performance upgrade that would guarantee as much peace of mind as is possible with these things.

The upgrade

Enter the Ford Ranger Performance Upgrade Package developed locally by Performance Centre in Centurion; an accredited fitment centre and licensed agents for both Ford Performance Parts as well as Roush Performance for Ford vehicles in South Africa.

Performance Centre works closely with Ford Motor Company SA (FMCSA) and they have a signed agreement in place detailing the scope and extent of the performance upgrades that they do in the SA market on Ford vehicles. The Ranger – the top volume seller for Ford in the SA market and only available with diesel power trains – has no performance upgrade available through either Ford Performance Parts or Roush Performance. Performance Centre has thus produced an upgrade for the Ranger that is within the scope of their agreement with FMCSA. This upgrade is safe, transparent, above-board and conservative when compared to what is being done in the market.

Performance Centre is represented by three facilities around the country with the promise of more to come. The KZN facility is hosted by Neil Woolridge Motors (NWM). Ironman 4×4 has a long association with NWM and they are our Ironman 4×4 Platinum destination store in the KZN region. NWM is a family owned and run business that has been in operation for 25 years. The Woolridge name is synonymous with the motor trade in Pietermaritzburg for many years, and many people will remember Peter Woolridge who owned the Shell Garage and Alfa Romeo dealership at the top of Church Street.

NWM is a multi-faceted business comprising of a BP service station, a Service Department servicing all makes and models of vehicles as well as 4x4s, a specialist 4×4 store and fitment centre, a motorsport division as well as the recent addition of the Performance Centre KZN. The latter was established due to Neil’s motorsport connections – NWM are probably best known for building the Ford Ranger Dakar race cars for Ford Motorsport. Neil’s son, Lance, who heads up the 4×4 store and fitment centre, contests the local Off-road Racing series in a Ford Ranger racing truck. His co-driver is Ward Huxtable who happens to be the dealer principal at Halfway Ford Waterfall in Hillcrest KZN.

The reason I’m telling you all of this is due to the fact that I purchased my Panther Black Ford Ranger Wildtrak 4×4 Auto from Ward and he delivered the vehicle down the road to NWM for me to have the performance upgrade done. It was convenient and very kind of him.

As I am extremely fastidious about my vehicles, it is difficult for me to have just anybody work on or fit anything to any of my vehicles. NWM are however one of the very few businesses that I would leave my vehicle at to be worked on. The level of professionalism in their workshop is comparable to the best dealer workshops in the country. I thus travelled down to Pietermaritzburg to witness young Yasteel Hiralal, a Ford Master Technician, meticulously fit the performance upgrade package to my new steed.

THE GEAR

So what does this performance upgrade consist of? In the order that they were fitted:

Upgraded intercooler

The function of an intercooler on a turbocharged engine is basically to cool down the air that is being forced into the engine by the turbo. This air gets warmer with compression which lowers the oxygen level and can affect combustion temperature. By first sending this compressed air through an intercooler, it is cooled down which increases the oxygen content and allows for more fuel to be burnt – increasing the performance. The intercooler can also aid intake air temperature consistency, which helps with control of the air-fuel ratio.

The intercooler used on this upgrade system is locally manufactured. It is significantly thicker than the OE cooler which allows for better cooling and increased airflow through to the engine radiator. It uses the original OE mounting points so there is no cutting or modification required to install it.

Hybrid turbo upgrade

The standard Ford Ranger 3.2 OE turbo is not replaced but “upgraded”. The compressor side impeller is replaced by a slightly larger “billet impeller”. This causes a couple of things to happen. Not only is more power produced but turbine speed is significantly reduced. This means lower temperatures and therefore less wear and tear – ensuring longevity. The net effect is a much wider power band and turbo lag is eliminated.

UniChip engine management

This system is seen by some as “old technology” but it fits this application perfectly. The UniChip system reads all of the vehicle’s vital sensors including water temperature, intake air temperature, as well as the very important EGT. Any power increase is shut down if any of these OE limits are exceeded. The UniChip is OE locked. What this means is that the power increase generated by the UniChip has been checked by FMCSA and is acceptable conditional on the abovementioned safety factors being in place. Secondly, the programming cannot be tampered with or re-written. The conventional UniChip system is sold into the market by the manufacturer as a programmable chip – but for this application, it is locked.

The system has five set programs that can be selected by means of a rotary dial mounted inside the vehicle.

  1. Valet Mode – This is a detuned map ideal for when you leave your vehicle and keys at the car wash or valet. In this mode, the vehicle’s performance is severely limited and I find that acceleration over 25km/h puts the car into a kind of “limp” mode. I often select this mode when I have to park in a suspect location. They’re not getting very far very quickly!
  2. Eco Mode – This is the lowest level of performance upgrade. It is ideal for off-roading or just taking it easy. Throttle response is muted which is great when crawling over rough or rocky terrain.
  3. Heavy Towing Mode – This mode adjusts Torque delivery for a smoother towing experience.
  4. Everyday Mode – As the name implies, this is the setting that you would in all likelihood use the most, especially when “she who must be obeyed” is in the car with you.
  5. Power Mode – This is full power. No more to say other than, “Those tyres are not cheap, Mate!”

Exhaust

This is a “Cat-Back” system which means that the vehicle catalytic convertor stays on the vehicle and in operation. The exhaust is locally made from 76mm diameter 304 Grade stainless steel – significantly bigger than OE spec 57mm diameter. This system is said to reduce EGT, which is always a good thing.

The background

According to Performance Centre, the test vehicle for this performance upgrade was run for 20 000km “destructive testing” without any signs of failure. Now you’re probably wondering what all of the above managed to achieve for the Ranger 3.2. The quoted power figures were obtained from Dastek, an independent performance specialist and manufacturer of the UniChip system. The test runs were done at the Dastek facility in Pretoria on a “Load Dyno”. It is important to note that results for the same vehicle will vary from dyno to dyno, and are affected by altitude as well as the types of runs done. Torque converter variances were also taken into account.

So the all important figures are quoted as follows. Power output as measured at the flywheel is up to 200kW (this may vary slightly from vehicle to vehicle). The power upgrade is limited by FMCSA to 200kW as measured at the Dastek facility in Pretoria. This is obviously to safeguard the vehicle’s drivetrain and components. Torque is up to 650Nm and limited as above. Importantly, the vehicle runs on average 15% cooler when reading water, intake and exhaust gas temperatures.

It is important to note that every component fitted to a vehicle as part of this performance upgrade is documented on an upgrade register and sent to FMCSA warranty department to be registered on the FMC warranty system. A Ford Level 3 Master Technician oversees all of the upgrades done and signs off all related job cards.

A very important question at this point would be “What about the vehicle warranty?” We need to always bear in mind that ANY performance upgrade, especially to an engine, is going to compromise the longevity of that engine in some way. This is the fundamental reason why vehicle manufacturers do not entertain performance upgrades. To this end, the Performance Centre upgrade gets an aftermarket 3yr/60 000km Comprehensive Drivetrain Warranty. Other than the drivetrain, the rest of the manufacturer’s new vehicle warranty remains intact.

This performance upgrade is not merely a plug-in chip-type upgrade. The full package has been carefully developed to offer the best performance upgrade within the safety parameters as set out by FMCSA technical department for the 3.2 Ford Ranger. With the vehicle warranty still in place as well as a new drive train warranty from Performance Centre, I feel very comfortable that I will not run into any undue issues. Time of course will tell.

While we were fitting the performance upgrade at NWM, we elected to fit the Ironman 4×4 Airforce snorkel at the same time. The snorkel is after all ultimately part of the engine’s induction system. There is quite a lot of misconception about the function of a snorkel on a 4WD vehicle. Merely fitting a snorkel is not going to suddenly raise the wading depth of your vehicle as this depth is not determined only by the height and position of the vehicle’s original air intake nozzle. There are other considerations including electrical component location in the engine bay, door and window seals, air intake for the cabin circulation, engine filter air box drainage holes, etc. Make no mistake, fitting a snorkel is going to help somewhat to prevent accidental water ingestion during a water crossing but it will not turn your truck into a submarine. When fitting a snorkel, it is a good idea to silicone seal all of the joints and connections for the snorkel housing and the plumbing that connects it to the vehicle’s filter air box.

During the development of the Ironman 4×4 Airforce snorkel for the Ford Ranger, independent testing did show a very small improvement in the pressure of air being forced into the filter air box. There was however a noticeable drop in intake temperature when moving the intake from within the front fender up to vehicle roof height. As explained previously, any lowering of the intake air temperature is welcome.

Fitting a snorkel can be traumatic when it involves cutting a dirty great hole in the fender.

By far the biggest advantage of fitting a snorkel has to do with dust intake as dust is arguably the biggest enemy of the turbocharger. Dust particles can in fact punch microscopic holes right through the metal of a turbo impeller, and, over time, with more and more of the impeller material disappearing, things can become unbalanced and this inevitably leads to turbo failure. Proper filtration is thus a critical facet of turbodiesel engine care. I have over the years seen the advantages of the fitment of a snorkel in this regard with my own eyes. The air filter remains cleaner for longer.

Snorkel fitment on the Ford Ranger is a tad easier that on most other vehicles. The snorkel body sits on the outside of the fender, normally on the same side of the vehicle as the engine filter air box. In the case of the Ranger, this is on the driver’s side. The snorkel body connects to the engine filter air box by means of some supplied plumbing, which usually means cutting a huge hole through the fender. It should never be done with the proud vehicle owner looking over your shoulder. I’ve made that mistake too.

On the Ford, however, the Ironman snorkel has been designed to pass through the triangular plastic trim high on the right front fender behind the wheel arch. The trim is popped out and the snorkel body fits over the hole. The rest of the plumbing fits inside the fender above the wheel arch and easily marries up to the engine filter air box. Quinton Bosman, technician at NWM, did a fine job of fitting the snorkel. Once the snorkel was fitted, it became very evident that the 3.2-litre 5-cylinder motor sucks in a lot of air. My metallic black truck sucks and hisses like a certain dark character from Star Wars. Silly, but I do enjoy it.

The verdict

I have completed just over 20 000km with the Black Ops Bush Truck. I am new to Ford ownership and I must admit that I am liking this truck more and more every time I drive it. As a confirmed Toyota fan, I can see why so many people opt for the Ford Ranger as an alternative. It has a standard features list longer than any other double cab currently on the market here. It has a very solid feel to it from behind the wheel. The Wildtrak model has loads of leather and a black roof lining which gives the cabin a rather special feel to it. It is not all sunshine and roses though. A couple of small things are irksome and were clearly not thought through properly. I have been coming to terms with them and in time they will be less noticeable.

There are however two major flaws that I am struggling with. The front seats are immensely uncomfortable. In my early working career as a rep on the road, there was a period where I covered more than 100 000km in a year. Correct folks; that is almost 390km every working day and this lasted for around five years. My point is that I can spot an uncomfortable chair a mile away and these are the worst I have come across.

The other issue with this truck is the gearbox. The six-speed auto is not as refined at the Toyota boxes that I am used to. At times it can be a bit rough on down-change and I’m hoping that this does not have any long-term ill effects on the longevity of the box.

As far as the power upgrade is concerned, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t great. There is heaps of power. Even on setting 2, the Eco Mode, it pulls strongly. Setting 5, the Power Mode, is a hoot. It does chirp the rear tyres without provocation and one has to be very gentle with the right foot on pull-away. During the rainy season, I found the Power Mode to be mental to try and control. The Ford Ranger traction control system is hugely lethargic and I can be well sideways before it wakes to intervene. When it rains, I turn it down to 2 and all is well.

Before we started to build the rest of the truck, the performance was ripping and it was easily the quickest away at any traffic light. We have since added an immense amount of gear onto the vehicle and also fitted larger wheels and tyres. This has blunted the performance considerably. It is still very quick but the weight and tyres have taken their toll. I wonder how a standard Ranger fares with all of the mods that we have done. It’ll be no less capable off-road and for touring I’m sure, but a little less exciting I would guess.

Done and dusted!

Was the performance upgrade worth the money? That’s a very good question. A plug-and-play tuning chip is anywhere between R4000 and R6000. I’ve driven many diesel 4x4s of late that have been chipped and I must admit that they often feel as quick as my truck. However, the big thing for me is that, within the warranty period, I’m fully covered. A blown diesel engine costs a mountain of money to repair properly. To my mind, the R70 000 for the engine upgrade gives me a healthy upgraded amount of properly engineered power, plus my vehicle still has a full warranty with Ford and with Performance Centre. I’d rather not find out what the alternative costs.

By Mic van Zyl

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