Other than mostly amongst motoring enthusiasts, long gone are the days of carburettors, mechanical fuel pumps, mechanical distributors, cable driven speedometers and the like. Pretty much everything nowadays is electronic or solid state when it comes to controlling a modern engine. About all that is common with yesteryear’s engines and today’s, is that they all share the same combustion processes. As I’ve mentioned previously, I enjoy working on all manner of things and cars have been a bit of a passion since I got my license and my first car, an ex-racing Mini Cooper S that was utter junk (but boy did it go). Since then, I’ve always been keen on finding ways to improve things with my cars as I’ve never found a car that didn’t need some improvement one way or the other and, given the plethora of aftermarket car accessories available, I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Now I’m not going to regale you with a story of my history with cars, but will be reviewing a product that I’ve been contemplating for some time. As I alluded, with today’s cars, everything is slowly becoming drive-by-wire, that is, there’s no mechanical linkage between what you are controlling but instead, control is enabled via electrical wires and electric motors/solenoids (even fibre optics are used in car technology nowadays). One such device is the throttle control. In the past, throttle control was achieved via a cable (even rods and ball joints) connected to the accelerator pedal and the carburettor or throttle body, a simple and straight-forward mechanism. Cables did have their issues, however, as the cable could jam, stretch or break. While by no means completely gone, the mechanical accelerator cable is slowly being replaced by electromechanical ones, as they generally provide much finer control but, more importantly, allow connectivity to other engine management systems (for better or worse).
So are electronic throttle controls better than the mechanical ones? Well, yes and no. In the main, they can be more reliable than mechanical ones, as they don’t suffer the issues that I noted, but they can also come with their own issues. The one in my Patrol, the accelerator pedal in this instance, was replaced a while ago following a recall, as there had been a small number that had experienced issues while driving, nor is this an entirely uncommon issue with any make of vehicle. But there’s another issue that often comes with electronic throttle controls and that’s to do with feel or feedback. Mechanical systems will almost always provide tangible feedback to the operator, whether it’s a throttle, brake or steering system (drive-by-wire is becoming mainstream with braking and steering systems as well); however, electronic systems have to emulate feedback (or not) and often the results can be disappointing or erratic and can introduce annoying lag. The latter is part of what this story is about.
The electronic throttle in my Nissan Patrol is generally not an issue; however, when I go off-road onto rough tracks in low range, it can become quite annoying when trying to maintain a steady forward motion because the accelerator pedal is so sensitive and starts to cause a lot of roughness when driving over rocky terrain (vehicle jolting and the like). Cable operated accelerator pedals could exhibit the same issues, but that was often overcome by long-throw accelerator pedals. The situation wasn’t as bad with the previous accelerator pedal, but it’s quite annoying now and is the reason why I started to look for solutions. That solution came by way of an electronic throttle ‘controller’. This is a device that piggy backs onto the accelerator pedal assembly and allows you to adjust the sensitivity of the throttle to suit the conditions and your driving style. There are many types available and eBay has quite a range, but I chose one from a supplier* that I’ve known for a while and the system is called the E-Drive Advance 4.
These ‘piggy back’ electronic throttle controllers have been very popular with all manner of motoring enthusiasts for some time, as they enable you to fine tune the throttle sensitivity to suit the way that you drive, where you drive, as well as complementing modifications that you may make to your vehicle. With high performance vehicles (or any for that matter), a throttle controller will help to eliminate lag that can be an issue with drive-by-wire systems. But these throttle controllers can also be used to slow down the throttle response in situations where you don’t want it to be too responsive. So what does such a throttle controller entail? The E-Drive kit, like many others, comprises a remote control unit, a control box (the ECU), a throttle interface wiring harness, an ODBII connector, extra wires (for brakes and reverse gear), spare wire, sticky pads and a comprehensive instruction manual. In the photo, the blue wire is a braking connection and the green wire is a reversing connection, both designed to return the throttle operation to factory default (Normal mode) when braking or in reverse (both optional).
I was initially concerned that I needed to use the ODBII connector, as I’m currently using that for a Scangauge; however, the connector is only used to draw power and the instructions provide guidance if you wish to use an alternative power source. You can also use an ODBII double adapter and, as I had one of these, I decided to see how that went before considering the other option. Mind you, it would have been even better if the unit could have drawn power directly from the accelerator pedal assembly, as some units appear to do, but maybe this entails other issues. The entire kit is actually quite modest in size, so should fit easily in any vehicle and the control unit itself is surprisingly small (smaller than most car remotes), which means that it should fit just about anywhere.
The fitting is a simple exercise, but getting things routed under the dash was a neck straining task (I was still sore several days later – the joy of working on cars at my age) and I learned to fit small zip ties using just one hand. Routing the wires safely was an important aspect but, as the cables were all quite long, this wasn’t a problem. However, in my case, with the way in which the factory ODBII outlet is located, the double adapter sticks out awkwardly, so I had to do some re-engineering to get it out of the way and still provide easy access to one of the plugs (for the Scangauge) and this turned out less of a hassle than I expected. That said, one annoying feature with the E-Drive is that the control box doesn’t have any lugs or similar to make attachment easy and the double-sided tape is useless because of the dust that’s built up underneath (and elsewhere as you can see); however, I did manage to zip tie it to the steering column bracket so that it was firmly mounted. If you plan to use the brake and reverse wires, solder some longer wire to the existing ones before you fit the system.
The initialisation process that followed was quite simple, but essential, as it sets the parameters for the control box, telling it when the throttle is fully closed or fully open (on/off). Once this process is completed, you can start testing out the features available with the unit. There are three main options (accessed via the mode button); normal, economy and power modes, and in the economy and power modes there are further options available (accessed by the up/down buttons), giving nine power and seven economy settings. Other features available with this unit include an anti-skid, anti-theft and launch control mode (the last one definitely not relevant to my Patrol). The normal mode is a useful feature if you are having your vehicle serviced, or someone else is driving it, and you don’t want any mishaps to occur because of your settings. The economy mode is of the greatest interest to me, as it enables you to reduce the throttle response when off-road in rough conditions, though it can also be useful for other conditions such as snow and ice.
How the throttle response indicator works
Setting the E-Drive to suit your driving style is simply a matter of going for a drive and adjusting the controller to a setting that’s comfortable. You shouldn’t simply adjust the E-Drive on the move, you need to stop and test the settings from a standing start, so that you’re measuring all aspects of the applied setting. You want the throttle to be responsive, but not so responsive that it becomes too sensitive to accelerator pedal movement. One thing that I’d like to point out is never try and complete your testing in just one day and believe that you’ve got it right. As with any modifications, proper evaluation needs to be conducted over a number of days and in varying conditions, repeating with each setting that you’ve narrowed down and then comparing to the baseline (Normal setting in this case). If you try and attempt a perfect setting all at once, you’ll most likely fail to notice subtle differences in each setting. You might find that a higher setting isn’t as good as a lower one, even if it may appear to provide a better response in the first instance.
So what I did first was to go for a drive to get a feel for the changes that the Power settings produced. On setting 1, I didn’t notice any change. Setting 2 gave a slight change that was ‘just’ noticeable; whereas, Settings 3 and higher gave clear changes. Once you’ve selected a setting, all you need to do is just leave it at that, as the ECU remembers that setting each time that you start the vehicle. What’s also good is that if you switch between modes, the last setting in each mode is remembered so that you don’t have to reset things each time. So how did the power settings go? I must say that I’m impressed. As I kept raising the settings, the responsiveness kept improving each time, but it was at Setting 9 where it seemed to take a exponential jump in performance. The Patrol was like a totally new vehicle, sprightly and wanting to go; something not expected from a 3 ton, 3lt diesel, automatic 4WD. I seriously thought that the maximum setting would be unusable, but it turned out the best of all in the initial testing. But following my own advice, I compared Setting 9 with lower settings several times to make certain it was the optimum.
Now because it’s Winter and most tracks are closed, I don’t have any great opportunities for testing the E-Drive in rough conditions, but there may be an opportunity in the not too distant future. So what I have tried is seeing what sort of difference the Economy mode makes in general driving and going up our rear driveway, which is fairly steep and makes for a good winching base. This driveway, when wet or extremely dry, usually creates some wheel spin, so at least it gives me some indication of how the Economy mode works. There’s no doubt that the Economy mode slows down the throttle response and, quite frankly, there’s no way that I’d use it for any normal highway driving etc, as it really becomes extremely sluggish and unresponsive, especially after Setting 3. So when I get a chance, I’ll update this story and provide real world feedback on how the E-Drive performs in rough terrain.
So are there any issues with the E-Drive? Well, not really. Other than the few very minor installation issues I noted earlier, I didn’t find anything that was really a concern when it came to the fitting and operation of the unit. In fact, the operation of the unit is simplicity itself, as the controls are easy to see, access and change and, with the ability to make adjustments ‘on-the-fly’, it easily caters to all manner of drivers and driving conditions. It’s important to note that these electronic throttle controllers do not alter the power or the torque of the engine in any way, all they do is change the way in which the throttle responds to input. Additionally, fuel economy hasn’t been affected at all. The throttle response changes that you experience may also differ with a manual or automatic vehicle. One thing that I did notice, when I enabled my cruise control, was that the E-Drive feels like it goes into Normal mode, even though the Power mode was showing to be enabled, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Something else that I tested were the three power options on the transmission; power, normal and hold, to see how the E-Drive affected these settings. Some may think that these provide much the same effect as an E-Drive or similar, but that’s not the case. All that the power and hold settings do is to make the transmission shift later (stay in a lower gear longer) or start in a higher gear (to avoid wheel spin) when applying the throttle. The E-Drive didn’t make these two settings perform any differently and so I just keep the auto transmission switch in the normal (A/T) mode (the camera really does show up the dust). Additionally, I didn’t bother connecting the reverse or brake wiring as, even at the maximum Power mode setting, I didn’t experience any issues and it’s all too easy just to press the mode button once and Normal mode pops up immediately, a second press and you have Economy mode. For manual vehicles it may be a different matter.
So, after three weeks of testing and use, is the E-Drive Advance 4 worth it? In a word, absolutely! The E-Drive is simply brilliant and there’s no way that I’d now go without, and any lingering doubts are quickly put to bed by simply setting the E-Drive back to Normal mode. Unfortunately, there’s no way that I can demonstrate the differences with a video, it’s just something that has to be experienced personally. When I ordered the E-Drive, it was really only to solve the off-road issues that I was having, which still needs to be tested, but I subsequently discovered that there’s a lot more to these devices than I thought. The Power mode has totally transformed the Patrol into a far better driving vehicle and, so far, I haven’t found one downside.
I’ll update as soon as I’ve tested the E-Drive in rough conditions but for now, rather than holding off on the story for who knows how long, I’ll post it as it stands.
Update. It’s been quite a while since I first posted this review and I finally managed to do one of our Cruises at the end of Oct and fully test the throttle controller on very rough and steep tracks and, to complete this review, I’d like to cover what I discovered on that trip. First off, the Eco (or low range) mode works superbly. If you get one of these controllers for no other reason than to moderate throttle inputs on rough tracks when driving around in low range, then it’s thoroughly worth buying.
I couldn’t believe how well the throttle controller damped the motion of the throttle, such that even on the roughest of tracks (and Mt Margaret is very rough in parts), there was no lurching or such. One thing that I did notice, is that you need to adjust the settings depending on how rough the track is and I started on Setting 3, but as things got worse, moved it up to Setting 5. Setting five was ideal for the likes of Mt Margaret, but I used Setting 3 for Billy Goat Bluff, which was quite moderate on that Cruise.
What I also found when we encountered heavy snow on Moroka Road, was that putting the throttle controller into Eco mode at Setting 5, made the snow driving more controllable, as there were no sudden throttle changes as you bounced/lurched about. With the snow being fresh and quite deep, and with us being the first through that day, a balanced, even and controllable throttle was perfect. Basically, any time that you are in low range, being in Eco mode makes driving so much easier.
So without the slightest hesitation, I would fully recommend the E-Drive Advance 4, especially if you go off-road. And if you do a lot of snow driving, I would also recommend the E-Drive Advance 4 to give you better control on slippery surfaces.
* To be fully open, I wanted to make a disclosure so as not to be accused of any bias. I know the supplier from around five years ago when I did a review (39 pages) on another of their products, the Chip Tuning Performance Module (an earlier version – which is still going strong), and found it so good that I bought it. I was given a wholesale price on that product because of the personal cost of time and fuel involved in the review, so when Chip Tuning made a similar offer with the E-Drive, after I made an enquiry about the product, I thought it well worth doing. There are no embellishments or such with this review, as I bought the E-Drive outright and, as with the performance chip review, Chip Tuning were committed to accepting what I wrote, warts and all. Mind you, there are no warts whatsoever.