When it comes to cities with ties to world-class tuners, what comes to mind? If Mercedes is your thing, you’d probably say Affalterbach, Germany, home to AMG. Perhaps you’d say Asaka, Saitama, Japan, home to Mugen, if fast Honda’s are your passion. Closer to home, Livonia, Michigan, home of Roush Performance, may come to mind if you’ve got a penchant for fast Mustangs.
If you’re a Volkswagen or Audi fan, your performance mecca is Opelika, Alabama, home to APR, LLC and one town over from Auburn University. Founder (and Auburn grad) Steven Hooks simply wanted to create a shop where VW and Audi owners could go for repair and tuning services, without fear of getting ripped off. What started as a hobby has grown into a worldwide business that includes both street and track performance for Volkswagen, Skoda, Seat, Audi and Porsche vehicles.
In the early days, APR’s specialty was remapping the Bosch Motronic ECU to get more horsepower. Unlike many other tuners, APR never went for just peak power, instead aiming for a balance of both power and real-world drivability. Even their dyno charts aren’t “padded”; instead of using a worst case run as a “stock” starting point, followed by the best run as a post-tune “after” example, APR’s dyno charts are usually an average of multiple runs. Spend some time talking to their employees, and you get the feeling that the company has nothing to hide.
While much of their business still consists of ECU tuning services for Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche clients, APR’s capabilities have increased substantially over the years. They employ a full time staff of both mechanical and electrical engineers, and have the capability to design, prototype and test parts in-house. Rapid prototyping allows the company to go from an engineering representation on a computer to a plastic resin part, perfect for test fitting, in a matter of hours. They even do their own CNC work onsite, which allows APR to maintain a high level of quality control on every part that goes through their doors.
The company has a “do it yourself” attitude common with businesses founded and staffed by engineers. To test their high pressure fuel pumps, for example, APR built their own test rig at a cost of around $60,000; that may sound expensive, but commercial units designed to do the same thing cost in the neighborhood of $500,000. APR is the only company, aside from manufacturers and Tier 1 suppliers, to have such a fuel pump test rig in their facility. If you get the feeling that they’re obsessed with quality, you’d be correct.
Testing components as part of the design process allows APR to keep tight control of quality, something that their customers have come to expect. If you drive an Audi A6 and want a bit more power, you probably won’t have a sense of humor if your upgrades continually produce a “check engine” light or regular component failures.
Although APR’s 34,000 square foot facility allows them to design and build many parts in house, work that can’t be done economically is farmed out. Their intakes and exhausts, for example, are built by third party companies, since APR doesn’t want the expense or hassle of laying carbon fiber or bending stainless pipe to form exhausts. The secret to any well managed business is knowing both your strengths and your weaknesses, in order to maximize the former and minimize the latter.
My visit to APR was two-fold: I wanted to see the facility, but I was also on-site to get more horsepower from my 2011 VW GTI. In the words of Mark Twain, “Those that respect the law and love sausage should watch neither being made,” and the same could be said of reflashing an ECU. Removing the actual ECU isn’t terribly difficult, although it does involve the use of a cut-off disk, which poses it’s own risks. If you’re pulling out your own CPU, be sure to cover the windshield with a fire-resistant cloth since sparks can etch the finish of the windshield.
Once the ECU is out of the vehicle, the real fun begins. The cover must be removed to allow access to the circuit board, since this is the only way to allow programming. Removing the ECU cover is best left to a professional: there’s a lot that can go wrong if you don’t know what you’re doing, and you really don’t want to write a check of your own to replace an ECU. APR has quite a bit of experience in reflashing ECUs, and the company made quick work of mine. Less than an hour later, my car was buttoned up and I was back on the road (in the middle of a tropical storm, complete with tornado warnings).
Is there a difference between stock and a Stage 1 tune? Yes, in much the same way that there’s a difference between Rosie O’Donnell and Keira Knightly. While I didn’t have a chance to dyno the car before and after, APR’s numbers claim that a stock GTI, running 93 octane gas, produces 216 horsepower and 227 ft-lb of torque. With a Stage 1 tune and no other modifications, the car makes 254 horsepower and 303 ft-lb of torque.
As you’d imagine, the difference in acceleration is substantial, but the GTI never exhibits the puckering amount of torque steer that the Mazdaspeed 3 does. In fact, the tuned car feels very much like a factory-built car; there’s no sudden buildup of explosive power at top-end only, and the car just seems to pull harder across the entire range. If you use you new-found power wisely, there’s even a slight gain in fuel economy compared to stock.
So now that my GTI goes fast and isn’t electronically limited to 130 miles per hour, it’s time to start shopping for lighter wheels and stickier tires. A highway encounter with a pair of cell-phone addled drivers has convinced me that a stiffer rear-sway bar would be a worthy upgrade, and the stock brake pads don’t exactly give the car world-record stopping distances. Look for these changes coming soon.
I’d like to give thanks to Keith Lucas, APR’s director of sales and marketing, and Arin Ahnell, APR’s marketing manager, for the time they spent with me during my visit. If you want to see APR products in action on the racetrack, be sure to catch the APR-tuned Volkswagen GTI’s running in GrandAm’s Continental Tire Series. To find an APR dealer near you, check out the APR website.