Using Intercooler Without Turbo (NA Cars) As Cold Air Intake

By August 12, 2021Turbocharger

Using an intercooler on NA cars is not recommended because it restricts intake flow. Intercooler is used to cool down hot compressed air from turbo – using it on ambient air is no use.

Cars without turbo (NA cars) do not compress air – meaning the intake air coming from the fender is already at ambient (cool enough) temperature. 

Using an intercooler to cool the air even further is pointless. Air from the intercooler will not go cooler than ambient temperature. 

I personally have tried installing an intercooler on my NA Honda Civic 2015, and it was a silly idea.

I noticed that my car was less efficient, and I confirmed this by checking the pressure loss in the intake. 

In this article, I will go into everything you want to know about intercoolers. This includes:

  1. Reasons you shouldn’t install Intercooler on NA cars (without turbo)
  2. The working mechanism of an Intercooler
  3. Horsepower gain from Intercooler without turbo?
  4. Intercooler Vs. Cold Air Intake
  5. Intercooler Vs. Radiator
  6. My recommendations

I will make sure that you don’t have any questions left after reading this article.

Why You Shouldn’t Install Intercooler on NA Cars (Without Turbo)

For cars without turbo (NA Cars), the air intake is already at ambient temperature. An intercooler cannot cool it down even further – causing it to only act as restriction instead.

Intercoolers are typically used on cars with turbochargers as they lower the air temperature making it more efficient for pushing the hot exhaust gases out of the engine. 

They are designed to reduce the temperature of compressed air by removing excess heat produced during its expansion. Therefore, cars with naturally aspirated engines do not get any benefit from an intercooler. 

Air intake in naturally aspirated engines is already cool enough and will not go even cooler by using an intercooler.

How Does Intercooler Work (& Why It Works with Turbo)?

Intercoolers work by cooling down hot compressed air coming from the turbo before they are used for combustion.

As air travels through intercooler, heat is transferred from the air to the cooling fins in radiator. 

Intercoolers only work with turbo because air coming from turbo is extremely hot.

Let me explain a bit more how an intercooler works:

Turbochargers compress air, increasing its density before reaching the cylinders of the engine. This compresses more fuel into each cylinder, creating more power with each explosion.

However, compressed air is very hot and less dense. To achieve peak performance, we need to ensure the compressed air is cooled down and becomes more dense – packed with oxygen. 

Related article: Which Is Better: Supercharger Or Turbocharger?

Image of turbocharger

Turbo compresses air from surrounding and deliver it to engine for more power. However, compressed air is very hot and needs to be cooled first.


This is where an intercooler comes in. An Intercooler have lots of openings which allow hot air to dissipate heat as they pass through the intercooler.

This improves performance, minimizes the risk of an engine overheating – while also ensuring every piston gets a safe amount of fuel and air.

Interesting. Isn’t it? But do you know why an intercooler only works with turbo?

An intercooler is a piece of equipment found only in turbocharged engines. They are responsible for removing heat from compressed air – which a single radiator can’t do by itself.

Turbocharged engines produce a lot of heat as they compress and pack more air. More air equals more power and better fuel efficiency.

However, compressed air gets hot, so it loses density and oxygen. As a way to make use of compressed air, it needs to be cooled, which means that the Intercooler is used.

image of intercooler

Hot air enters from one end of intercooler and gets cooled as they pass through. Intercooler have openings and cooling fins which allow hot air to dissipate heat.

Horsepower Gain from Intercooler Without Turbo

Cars without turbo engines will lose horsepower when working with an intercooler. Instead of helping to cool air down, an intercooler becomes a restriction instead.

You will see a loss in horsepower even with the best Intercooler available.

The Intercooler, in addition to adding extra space between the air intake and intake manifold, also restricts the flow of air through small channels connected to fins that dissipate heat.

If you do not have a turbo, the best solution is to get a cold air intake or icebox.

Turbo-less Intercooler setups do not deliver a positive boost in horsepower. Instead, you will see a decrease in horsepower. 

Intercooler Vs. Cold Air Intake

An intercooler is a heat exchanger that lowers the temperature of compressed air as they pass through an intercooler.

Whereas Cold Air Intakes are designed to bring in cooler, outside air for your car’s engine. 

If you have an NA car and want cooler air, cold air intake is a much better choice. In this section I compare intercooler and cold air intake. 

An intercooler draws in cool outside air through its front mesh screen into its metal fins which have been “wetted” with water, so they act as an evaporator or condenser (depending on ambient temperature).

An intercooler is a device designed to reduce the temperature of air that has been heated by compression (like turbo). This type of air gets hotter and less dense as it comes out from under the hood.

Therefore, an intercooler helps cool the compressed air down before sending it into your engine for combustion – very suitable for a turbocharged engine.

A cold-air intake on the other hand, is designed to replace the hot, humid outside air entering your engine with cooler, denser inside air from under the hood. 

A cold air intake (CAI) is also an intake system, but unlike an IC (Intercooler), CAI does not use refrigerant or heat exchange fluids – it just takes in cooler air from the surrounding. 

Air enters the CAI through ducting in front of the radiator and runs over a screen filter that prevents debris from entering your engine.

A cold air intake works on both NA and turbo cars. 

Related article: Does Cold Air Intake Add Horsepower?

K&N Cold Air Intake

Cold air intake reroute your car’s intake – allowing your car to take in cooler air. In a stock car, air intake is located inside the engine bay where air is hot.

Advantages of Intercoolers

  1. Intercoolers can lower temperatures by up to 40 degrees Fahrenheit 
  2. Intercoolers ensure the temperature of exhaust gases is not too high and the emission system functions. Higher combustion temperatures cause high levels of exhaust gas emissions, which are illegal everywhere in the world now. Therefore, adequately even in extreme conditions.
  3. The cooling power of an intercooler is much more significant because it can cool the air to a greater degree. 
  4. Intercooler allows turbocharged engines to operate much longer – preventing any overheating issues.


Advantages of Cold Air Intake

  1. Cold air intake reduces heat soak in your engine bay on long drives. This means a lesser chance of overheating.
  2. Cold air intake can give you a slight performance improvement when driving at high speed on a long range like highways or track
  3. Cold air intake allows you to install other types of filters with different sizes, materials or even colors. 
  4. Cold air intake provides sound improvement to your car. When accelerating, you can expect to hear the sound of air rushing into your engine (very satisfying).

If you are looking for a way to increase your car’s horsepower and fuel efficiency, then an air intake system is the answer. 

Air intakes work by replacing the factory air filter with a larger one that can offer more air for your engine to use.

Related article: Does Cold Air Intake Make Car Louder?

Intercooler Vs Radiator

A car radiator is used to cool down liquid coolant in your car after they have done their job. 

On the other hand, Intercoolers reduce air temperature by having openings and cooling fins that allow hot air to dissipate heat into the surrounding.

Many enthusiasts confuse intercooler and radiator , thinking they are the same. This is not true. Both radiator and intercooler work similarly and are used for cooling.

Except, intercooler is only used in turbocharged or supercharged engine to cool down compressed air. Whereas radiator is used in most vehicles to cool down engine coolant.

Engine coolant is a liquid found in every vehicle to cool down engines and also used as lubricant. You can find liquid coolant flowing all over the place in your vehicles.

Liquid coolant cool things down by absorbing heat. Which means, these liquid coolants must also be cooled.

This is where the radiator comes in. It’s used to cool down liquid coolant in your car! Do not confuse it with intercooler and think they can be replaced with one another.

Intercooler Without Turbo: My Recommendation

To get more power from a naturally aspirated engine, I recommend installing a cold air intake system. It is no doubt the most cost-effective way to power up your naturally aspirated engine.

A naturally aspirated engine is a car engine that does not use turbochargers or superchargers to increase power. 

These engines are typically more economical and environmentally friendly than their forced induction counterparts, but they can’t produce the same level of performance. 

For most drivers, this trade-off means an increased fuel cost for every mile driven versus a smaller initial investment in the purchase price. 

In order to get more power from your naturally aspirated engine, you should start by adding a cold air intake system which will allow cooler air into the combustion process, which will improve efficiency and lower emissions.

If you have a naturally aspirated engine, get it upgraded with cold air intake for increased horsepower and sound.

Moreover, one of the biggest investments you can make is improved cooling, including a bigger radiator and oil cooler.

To enjoy more power from a naturally aspirated engine, you may want to try teaming up cold air intake with a new exhaust.

I believe I have covered everything you needed in this article. I hope your car turns into a beast!

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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