Intercooler Vs Cold Air Intake: Power, Costs & Tuning

By September 1, 2021Cold Air Intake, Intercooler

An intercooler and a cold air intake are 2 distinct components. They are independent of each other (unlike many beginners believe). 

Intercoolers are used to cool down compressed air (from the turbo) before feeding it into the combustion chamber. 

Cold air intakes are used to direct original intake forward so that cooler air may enter (away from the engine bay). It’s also less restrictive, allowing for greater amounts of fresh air at once.

I have personally tried installing both of these components in my Honda Civic (Reborn) 2006 and it was no doubt an amazing experience.

In this article, I will be comparing intercooler and cold air intake on the basis of their working mechanism, power, cost, sound, and installation. 

So, let’s see how they differ from each other.

Intercooler Vs Cold Air Intake

What’s Intercooler & How It Works

Intercoolers reduce the temperature of compressed air from turbo and optimize combustion necessary for increased engine performance. 

Intercoolers also reduce fuel consumption, increase engine power, and improve efficiency. 

Hot air running through intercooler will not be as cool as ambient. Air that’s too hot will have premature detonation – meaning it already explodes before the piston get back in the correct position (this causes wear and tear damages and is absolutely not good for power).

Moreover, an intercooler only works with turbocharged cars. 

A turbocharged or supercharged engine’s intercooler is designed to protect components from the excessive heat and preventing premature detonation during combustion.

air to air intercooler

Image of intercooler. It’s used to cool down hot compressed air coming from turbo.

What’s Cold Air Intake & How It Works

Cold Air Intakes are designed to bring in cooler, outside air for your car’s engine, into the combustion chamber.

Usually, the stock intake is deep inside the engine bay – which means it sucks in hot air. This is surely not good for the horsepower of your car’s engine.

That’s where the cold air intake kicks in!

Cold air intake helps reroute this intake (instead of inside engine bay, it can be moved lower nearer to the wheels – where air is cooler).

The cooler the air is the more HP you can gain from your engine.

However, Cold air intake is not required for turbo. Cold air intake can work with normal NA (Naturally aspirated) cars as well.

image of spectre cold air intake

Cold air intake is less restrictive than stock. It allows more air to enter your engine and can take in cooler air because it re-routes your intake away from the hot engine bay.


Intercooler Cold Air Intake
Functionality Cool down compressed air from turbo Sucks in cooler air for combustion
Cooler air Yes Yes
Cost ~$280 ~$300
Horsepower Gain 0 horsepower  5 horsepower
Sound Improvement No Yes
Installation Difficult Easy
Tuning required Yes (For turbo) No
Required for turbo Yes No

Cooler Air: Intercooler Vs Cold Air Intake

Cold air intake can bring in cooler air than intercooler.

An intercooler will cool down turbo hot air, but the air is still warmer than ambient air.

The intercooler effectively lowers the temperature of the air to a point that it can be used in the combustion chamber.

In particular, if it’s air-to-air intercooler, the above statement is absolutely relevant.

Because the intercooler air will not be cooler than ambient, it won’t offer horsepower on its own without a turbo.

Cold air intake can assist you in obtaining cooler air from the atmosphere – rather than hot air from the engine bay.

In non-turbo (NA) vehicles, air intake is not compressed, so they are not as hot to begin with – which makes air from CAI to be cooler than intercooler.


Horsepower Gain: Intercooler Vs Cold Air Intake

Cold Air Intake gives you a horsepower gain. However, intercoolers are not designed to increase the horsepower of your vehicle’s engine.

To produce horsepower, an intercooler (without a turbo) must be used alone. Because intercoolers can’t cool off air that has already been altered to atmospheric pressure.

Installing an intercooler without a turbo will just add to the list of limitations. As a result, you’ll lose horsepower.

It’s believed that installing an intercooler with a turbo improves the performance of the turbo. The boost comes from the turbo, not from the intercooler.

Cold Air Intake gives you the HP you are looking for. So, let’s see how it adds HP to your car’s engine.

Because the incoming air is cooler, it can provide a 5-horsepower boost via cold air intake. Because the air that comes in is denser and has more oxygen, it creates bigger combustion for greater power output.

Related article: Cold Air Intake Vs Air Filter: Usage, Power, Sound & Cost

Sound Improvement: Intercooler Vs Cold Air Intake

Intercooler doesn’t change any engine sound. You won’t notice any difference.

However, the cold air intake increases the sound of intake. When you accelerate you can hear the sound of air rushing into engine.

The sound of your car will be louder and more aggressive with a cold air intake. Instead of loudness though, a cold air intake changes the sound of your car engine. 

You will clearly hear the sound of air flowing into the intake – especially when you rev up the car and then release the throttle. This is a very satisfying sound that makes your car sound more aggressive and even faster. 

This is because cold air intake uses pod filters that are very wide and exposed.

What’s even better is that you will begin to hear a new unique sound from your engine – the sound of cold air rushing into the engine.


Here’s the science behind it:

A cold air intake is designed to allow more airflow. This is done by having a wider surface area for the air to enter.

With more air – it doesn’t matter whether the air is cold or hot. More air almost always means more oxygen. And more air flow also means more noise!

Related Article: Does Cold Air Intake Make Car Louder?


Installation: Intercooler Vs Cold Air Intake

Intercooler is hard to install than cold air intake because it’s front mounted and takes up lots of space.

Installing an intercooler takes around 4-5 hours. If the mechanic has enough experience, it will take no more than 3 hours.

As a result, you may expect to pay anything from $300 to $500 to get an intercooler installed.

Installing a cold air intake is easier, taking less room, and can be completed by yourself.

Although it might be inconvenient if the cold air intake isn’t from a valid manufacturer or doesn’t include all the required tools.

It will take your mechanic around 30 to 90 minutes to install your cold air intake.

Replacing the stock intake system on your car with a cold air intake system cost between $60 and $100 of labor depending on the model.

Related Article: Best Cold Air Intake: Which To Get & What To Look For?

Tuning Required: Intercooler Vs Cold Air Intake

After installing a cold air intake, you don’t have to tune your vehicle. It’s costly to tune your car and optimizing it just for a cold air intake isn’t worth the effort.

However, it is required to tune an intercooler. Otherwise, your car will overheat, and its performance will decrease significantly.


Here’s why you don’t need to tune the cold air intake:

A cold air intake is a simple, low-cost upgrade that does not need to be tuned. It will function properly without being tuned and will not cause any damage to your automobile if it is left untuned.

The majority of people will not tune their vehicle’s cold air intake. The cold air intake will give you modest enhancements in performance and a beautiful transformation in engine sound without the tuning.

It also has a really cool aesthetic look when you open your hood. I believe that the benefits of adding a cold air intake without modifying outweigh the expense. There’s no need to go any further and have it tuned.

Don’t worry if you’re adding a cold air intake to your vehicle without tuning it. It’s very unlikely that it will harm your engine in any way.

The max HP you can gain from a cold air intake is around 5 HP. Therefore, tuning it won’t add much to it.

Tuning is only required for bigger modifications that have more impact like headers, downpipe and exhausts.

Related Article: Do I Need A tune After Installing Cold Air Intake?


Here’s why you need to tune your intercooler:

The intercooler is a common tool in performance tuning that allows you to extract more power from your turbocharged engine. It keeps the intake air cool and clean, allowing the engine’s efficiency to improve.

Intercooler is usually installed for turbo and turbo requires tuning – so yes tuning is required. In addition, the car will running too lean if you don’t tune the turbo. Also, it would overheat, and you may lose performance.

A turbocharger without a tune will result in an overabundance of air in the combustion chamber, which is detrimental to performance.

All turbocharged engines now have an intercooler. Coolers able to handle and withstand high levels of performance are essential for professional tuning and on-track use.

Required For Turbo: Intercooler Vs Cold Air Intake

Intercooler is required for turbo because it only works with turbo. On the other hand, cold air intake is not required for turbo. You can use cold air intake with turbo as well but it is not required.

There are a lot of people who confuse intercooler with radiator. Let me clear that confusion:

The intercoolers are meant to reduce fuel consumption while also improving engine power and efficiency.

The function of an intercooler is to cool the intake gas temperature, which helps to improve combustion by densifying the air needed.

In a nutshell, the radiator is the core component of a car’s cooling system. Its major purpose is to keep track of and control the temperature of a vehicle engine so that it does not overheat.

The radiator is used to keep the coolant in your automobile cool. Coolant is a liquid that is utilized to chill down an engine.


So, why is an intercooler required for a turbo?

An intercooler is required to install a turbocharged engine since an intercooler efficiently cools down compressed air coming from the turbo, preventing it from prematurely exploding.

Intercooler cools down compressed air coming from the turbocharger. This is important because hot air reduces horsepower and may detonate early in the combustion process.

Turbochargers work by compressing air from the environment into a higher-pressure air ball. This is packed with air but is extremely hot. Therefore, an intercooler is required to cool down the air before usage.

Compressed air can get up to over 205 degrees Celsius when conditions are extreme. For this reason, an intercooler is required for turbocharged engines.


But is cold air intake required for a turbocharged car?

Cold air intake is not required but does work on turbo cars – it can help you gain minor horsepower (1-5 horsepower) by delivering cool air into the turbo inlet.

This means the starting air temperature that gets compressed by the turbo is lower – resulting in an overall lower air temperature when used in the combustion chamber. 

Turbo radiates a lot of heat to the engine bay – which makes cold air intake a great addition alongside the turbo. 

However, don’t expect any massive power gain. It’s not significant and you can’t really tell the difference while driving.

If you still want to use cold air intake with turbo, the cold air intake will get mounted to the turbo inlet instead of throttle body.

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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