Why Should You Install a Cold Air Intake?

By: Kristen Hall-Geisler & Christopher Neiger  | 

cold air intake
This sixth generation Ford Mustang has a Roush cold air intake system installed. Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 4.0)

In the ongoing quest to make our vehicles more powerful and fun to drive, we've come up with some great aftermarket systems. Of course there are lots of changes you can make to the engine, like adding a new exhaust system, supercharger or turbocharger but seriously, that stuff costs tons of money and you'll probably spend more than a weekend installing those parts.

And then there are cold air intakes.

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Cold air intakes are an inexpensive modification (typically a few hundred dollars) and easier to install than most other engine modifications. No, they won't add quite as much power as those other engine mods, but they will help your engine in some other ways.

Think of a factory air intake system as if you had a cold and your head is clogged and your breathing restricted. Now go running. You're not going to breathe very well, are you? A cold air intake is like the amazing medicine that allows your engine to finally "breathe."

How? Cold air intakes move the air filter outside of the engine compartment so that cooler air can be sucked into the engine for combustion. A cold air intake is installed outside the engine compartment, away from the heat created by the engine itself. That way, it can bring in cooler air from outside and direct it into the engine. Cooler air is denser, so it brings more oxygen into the combustion chamber, and that means more power.

The filters are usually moved to the upper wheel well area or near a fender where there is more access to free-flowing, cooler air and less hot air from the engine. Since hot air from the engine will rise, the lower placement also captures the coolest, densest air possible.

Not only does a cold air intake reduce the air temperature, but it also increases airflow. Aftermarket intakes remove the need for a box surrounding the air filter and instead use large-diameter intake tubes that are smoother, have fewer bends and are often wider than the original factory intake. Removing the air box and using smoother tubes gives the engine uninterrupted airflow.

Sounds pretty good right? But does it actually work?

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Does a Cold Air Intake Really Make a Difference?

Cold air and more air sound good in theory, but no one gives a hill of beans about theory when you're trying to pass someone on the highway.

The good news is that, although claims of actual horsepower and even increased fuel efficiency may vary, cold air intakes will in fact help increase your car's performance.

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By itself, you'll probably notice an increase in power when the throttle is fully open. Some manufacturers claim as much as a 5- to 20-horsepower increase for their system. But if you team up the cold air intake with other engine modifications, like a new exhaust, you'll create a much more efficient system. So think of it as just one part of many to increase your engine's performance.

There are a few drawbacks to consider when installing a cold air intake. If the air filter is too exposed and sucks up water, it'll go straight into your engine, and you'll be up a creek. Pun intended. It's pretty unlikely that you'd have any issues with hydraulic lockout due to a cold air intake, unless you drive through lakes every day. If you do, look into adding a bypass valve to keep this from happening.

Also, installing a cold air intake on some newer cars may void the engine manufacturer's warranty. So look into this situation before starting, or at least understand that it could become a problem later on. Keep in mind, too, that modern engines are more precisely engineered. Changing one part, even an air filtration system, might cause other parts of the engine to behave differently — and not in a good way.

Other than that, install that cold air intake and hear the magnificent sound of free-flowing cool air to your engine — and enjoy a few extra horsepower as well. It may be just what your engine needs.

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Originally Published: May 1, 2012

Cold Air Intake FAQ

Do cold air intakes increase horsepower?
Some manufacturers claim as much as a 5- to 20-horsepower increase for their system. But if you team up the cold air intake with other engine modifications, like a new exhaust, you'll create a much more efficient system.
Can cold air intake damage your engine?
If the air filter is too exposed and sucks up water, it'll go straight into your engine and you'll be up a creek. Look into adding a bypass valve to keep this from happening.
How much does a cold air intake cost?
Cold air intakes are a fairly inexpensive modification (typically a few hundred dollars) and easier to install than most other engine modifications.
Are cold air intakes worth it?
Install that cold air intake and hear the magnificent sound of free-flowing cool air to your engine — and enjoy a few extra horsepower as well. It may be just what your engine needs.
Do cold air intakes make a difference?
While cold air intakes will help increase your car's performance, claims of horsepower and increased field efficiency may vary.

Lots More Information

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  • Aptuned.com. "Cold Air Intake vs. Short Ram: What's the Difference?" Sept. 10, 2011. (April 20, 2012) http://www.aptuned.com/blog/cold-air-intake-vs-short-ram-intake-whats-the-difference.html
  • AutoAnything.com. "Air Intake Systems." (April 20, 2012) http://www.autoanything.com/air-intakes/50A5A115A1.aspx
  • Cobb. "Cold Air Intake Pros and Cons." July 15, 2019 (April 29, 2022). https://www.cobbtuning.com/cold-air-intake-pros-and-cons/
  • Cote, Mike. "Do Cold Air Intakes Work? What Kind of Horsepower and MPG Can You Expect?" Auto Anything. December 2, 2018 (April 27, 2022). https://www.autoanything.com/resources/do-cold-air-intakes-work-what-kind-of-horsepower-mpg-gains-can-you-expect/
  • Cotta, Rick. "What Does a Cold-Air Intake Do, and Is It Worth It?" Cars.com. March 27, 2022. (April 27, 2022) https://www.cars.com/articles/what-does-a-cold-air-intake-do-and-is-it-worth-it-448150/
  • Di Sabella, Marcus. "Will a Cold Air Intake Suck Up Water and Hydrolock My Engine?" HeelToe. February 1, 2016 (April 27, 2022). https://www.heeltoeauto.com/pitboard/will-a-cold-air-intake-suck-up-water-and-hydrolock-my-engine/
  • K&N. "What Are Cold Air Intakes and How Do They Increase Power and Efficiency?" July 6, 2016 (April 29, 2022). https://www.knfilters.com/blog/what-are-cold-air-intakes-and-how-do-they-increase-power-and-efficiency
  • Kim, Tae. "Horsepower Upgrades." Ask Men. (April 20, 2012) http://www.askmen.com/cars/car_tips_150/158_car_tip.html

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