Cold Air Intake Vs Exhaust (Which One First?)

By October 7, 2020Cold Air Intake, Exhaust

If you are a beginner enthusiast and wants to install your first mod, then you are on the right track! Cold air intake and exhaust are the best first mods to install. But if you have to choose just one – which one should you go for?!

If you are tight on budget and like the sound of wind rushing through your car when you accelerate, then install cold air intake first. Otherwise, if you have more budget and are more concerned with horsepower and aggressive sound, then install an aftermarket exhaust first. 

Actually there are more reasons you should consider before choosing either one. In this article, I will go through all of them in detail.

To understand exactly why we would choose one over the other, we must understand how each one works and what you will spend your money for. I will keep the recap sections brief 🙂 You can skip them only if you are 100% clear on how they work. Otherwise, read on!

Recap: How Car Generates Power

Car generates power by creating combustion in the combustion chamber. Combustion is an explosion that is created using fuel and air (Oxygen). If you want more horsepower, your car needs to create bigger combustion – which means more fuel and air!

Getting more fuel is easy, your car can just inject more. Getting more air is the tricky part. Most performance mods work by increasing the amount of air in the combustion chamber. This includes cold air intake, aftermarket exhaust and turbos. 

If you want to know how turbos work, I cover them in this article. Which Is Better: Supercharger Or Turbocharger? For cold air intake and aftermarket exhaust, I will cover them below. 

anatomy of combustion chamber
Air enters combustion chamber.
Fuel is injected into combustion chamber and ignited.
Combustion generated.
Exhaust gases leave combustion chamber.

Recap: How Cold Air Intake Works

Remember I said if you want more horsepower, you need more air (oxygen) in the combustion chamber? Cold air intake achieves this by relocating your air intake away from the engine bay – where it’s cooler (below the engine bay, closer to the tires). Thus, allowing it to suck in colder air into the combustion chamber. 

Colder air is more dense – allowing them to hold more oxygen. Which means if your car is sucking in cold air, it will have more oxygen particles in the combustion chamber to generate bigger combustions! 

Cold air intake is completely exposed and equips a less restrictive air filter. Which means aside from sucking in colder air, they also allow much more air to pass through – further increasing the amount of air (oxygen) in the combustion chamber. 

If you want the in depth of cold air intake, I cover it here Do Cold Air Intakes Add Horsepower?

K&N Cold Air Intake
Air filter in cold air intake is exposed and they are less restrictive.

Recap: How Aftermarket Exhaust Work

I mentioned a car needs to generate combustion for power. What I did not mention is that combustion creates toxic exhaust gases as byproducts – which need to leave as quickly as possible to give room for more air in the next combustion cycle.

Aftermarket exhaust has a wider piping which reduces air pressure in the exhaust system. Knowing that air particles travel from high pressure to lower pressure areas, we also know that if the air pressure in exhaust is reduced, exhaust gases will want to leave the combustion chamber quickly and enter the exhaust system.

Aside from wider piping, aftermarket exhaust also equips less restrictive muffler and catalytic converter (CAT). This reduces restriction in the exhaust system, allowing the exhaust gases to quickly leave the car and escape into the atmosphere.

image of flowmaster axleback exhaust
Exhaust pipe is wider. Allowing exhaust gases to flow easily.
Muffler is less restrictive. Allowing exhaust gases to flow through easily.
Resonator exhaust pipe is equipped here. This makes the exhaust sound to be louder.

Why Cold Air Intake First?

Here are the reasons why you should install cold air intake first. 

1. Cheap

Cold air intake is cheaper than aftermarket exhausts. A good cold air intake costs about $300. That may sound like a lot. I actually agree that it’s pricey but never go cheap on performance mods. 

You don’t want any problem or headaches that come with cheap eBay products – they will cost much more to fix in the future.

2. Unique Sound

Cold air intake is always marketed as a performance mod to increase horsepower. But believe me, the best thing about a cold air intake is the sound improvement. Forget about the performance gain, it’s not much really – maybe 5-10 horsepower. 20 if you are lucky.

After installing a cold air intake, you will hear the sound of air rushing into the combustion chamber every time you accelerate. This is a very satisfying sound that makes cold air intake the perfect first mod for me. 

Check out this video. Skip to 3:59 to hear exactly what I am talking about. You can find more YouTube videos that showcase the sound from cold air intake. Search them, listen to them and save your money for the cold air intake! 🙂

If you want to get one, I recommend you look into the K&N cold air intake. They are my go to. I have an article here where I talk about what you should look for in a cold air intake.

3. Easy Install

Cold air intake is much easier to install than an exhaust. You don’t need to be an expert and the process should take less than an hour. You also don’t need to do any cutting or welding – it’s all plug and play. 

If you have troubles installing a cold air intake, I am sure any decent car workshop can help you out without charging too much.

4. Looks Good Under The Hood

Cold air intake usually comes with bright colours like red. When you install them, your hood will look great as hell 🙂 Every car head will have a cold air intake under their hood. If you are a beginner, this could definitely be your first move. Before you become one, you gotta look like one.

Cold Air Intake Image
Bright colored cold air intake under the hood.

5. Legal In All 50 States Of US

Depending on the cold air intake, they could be certified legal in all 50 states. Just make sure the one you purchase has an Executive Order (EO) number. If it does, then it is street legal. You don’t have to worry about inspection or anything like that 🙂 

Sounds like a great first mod huh? 

Why Aftermarket Exhaust First?

Here are the reasons why you install aftermarket exhaust first. 

1. Great Sound

Aftermarket exhausts usually come with a less restrictive muffler. Which means your car exhaust will sound much louder and growl deeper. You just have to be careful of the model you buy. Some exhausts are way too loud that they are illegal and deafening. 

If you are like me, who likes an aggressive sound but not super loud – then look for Flow II exhausts by Flowmaster. It’s hands down my favorite exhaust. I cover all the things you need to look at when purchasing an aftermarket exhaust in this article. Best Aftermarket Exhaust – Which To Purchase And What To Look For?

2. Performance Gain

Aftermarket exhaust provides more horsepower gain than a cold air intake. I would say 20 horsepower gain is normal. You can get 30 if you are lucky (or if you tune your car after the install). 

This also depends on what type of exhaust you install. Header-back exhaust will obviously give you the most horsepower but is very expensive. Whereas Axle-back exhaust will give you the least horsepower but cheap.

I like to go in the middle where horsepower gain is noticeable but it’s not so crazy expensive that you cannot save up for it. Which is why i would recommend you to look into Cat-back exhaust instead.

3. Great Looking Exhaust Tip

When you install an aftermarket exhaust, everybody will know. Great exhaust sound is one thing, and your car will also look more aggressive because of the exhaust tip. I mean look at it, who doesn’t want an exhaust tip like these? 🙂 

Image of header back exhaust
Aftermarket exhaust tip. These make your car look aggressive.

Don’t Do Straight Piping

Now that I have mentioned the pros of aftermarket exhaust, I want to specifically mention not to do straight piping. If you don’t already know, straight piping means removing the CAT and muffler from the exhaust system. 

This means your exhaust system contains only a straight pipe from the header all the way to the tip. Your exhaust system will not have any restriction – allowing exhaust gases to leave quickly. 

The pros are of course improved performance and very aggressive sound (no muffler!) But the cons are way way worse. 

    1. Horrible emission. You will definitely fail your emissions test – no matter the state. It’s also bad for the environment and bad for you!
    2. Deafening sound. The exhaust sound coming from straight pipes is ridiculously loud. It’s deafening even from the inside. Definitely not for daily driving.  
    3. Illegal. I wonder how many tickets you will get when you drive a straight piped car on the street?

There are actually many more cons to straight piping. But this article is not about straight piping! Point is, don’t ever do straight piping if you are on a daily driver.

Image of straight pipe exhaust
Straight pipe without any muffler or CAT.

My Recommendation

With all that being said, if I am a beginner enthusiast and this is my first ever mod, then I would go for the cold air intake. It’s cheaper, easy to install, provides amazing sound and it’s 100% legal. 

As a beginner enthusiast, your first performance mod should be hassle-free and gives you enough satisfaction to motivate you on your journey as a car head. Just make sure you get a good cold air intake. Again, I have an article over here where I discuss what you should look for in a cold air intake. Check it out if you are interested in one.

I recommend you to look into aftermarket exhaust as your second performance mod. Once you have the cold air intake and the aftermarket exhaust, you can then bring your car to a tune. You will gain even more horsepower and can make your car feel much more aggressive by tuning values like Engine Torque Map.

If you want to know more about tuning, I have an article here. How Much HP Do You Gain From A Dyno Tune? 

Cheaper Alternatives For Aggressive Sound

If all you care about is just the sound improvement, then I have alternatives you should look into. They are both much cheaper and can provide just as good sound improvement.

1. Performance Muffler

Performance muffler allows you to choose exactly how you want your car to sound. Do you want it extra loud? Very aggressive? Or with deep tones. I am sure you can find the aftermarket muffler for those. 

For an aftermarket muffler I suggest you get one that’s aggressive and louder but not so loud that it causes deaf ears for you and the people outside. If you agree with me and you are looking for a performance muffler, then I suggest you look at the Flowmaster Super 40. 

I have an article here where I discuss what you should look for when choosing a performance muffler and why the Super 40 is my go to. Check it out if you are interested. 

Flowmaster super 40
Flowmaster Super 40 Muffler

2. Resonator Exhaust Tip

Resonator exhaust tip is a small device that you clip onto your exhaust tail pipe for sound improvement. It’s cheap (about $30), legal, makes your car exhaust look sexy and is extremely easy to install. Surprisingly, it works quite well. You will definitely hear the sound change and your engine noise will sound more aggressive. But it won’t be as loud as you want it to be.

Here’s a YouTube video showing before and after resonator exhaust tip.

Ifandi L.

Ifandi L.

Passionate about everything mechanical. Ifandi has been involved with motorcycles and cars since the old days - in his family's auto parts shop. Want to keep in touch? Scream "STRAIGHT PIPEEEEE" at the top of your lungs and Ifandi will show up.

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