Dashing down the open highway, wind in your hair, engine roaring as you press the pedal to the medal metal. For many gearheads and speed demons alike, this is the essence of freedom. Yet that guttural growl from under the hood often leaves us craving more – more power, more speed, more roar. Luckily for adrenaline junkies, the aftermarket performance industry has an answer. Enter the cold air intake upgrade – perhaps the easiest and most cost-effective way to add noticeable horsepower gains to your ride. But how much extra horsepower can you expect to gain, exactly? Does it depend on the type of engine or intake brand? How difficult is it to install a cold air intake kit yourself? Let’s turbo-charge this 2023 guide on cold air intakes to find out everything you need to know before harnessing more horses under the hood of your hot rod.
How much extra horsepower does adding a cold air intake deliver? While results vary based on application, most vehicles see (15-50 horsepower gains!) Read on to learn how engine size, forced induction, filter types and other factors affect HP gains from cold air intakes.
Kicking things off, we will demystify cold air intakes – what are they, and how do they work? Next, we will break down the specific horsepower improvement ranges based on critical factors like engine specs and intake configurations. To max out your extra muscle, we will suggest the leading intake brands on the market. Since installs can be DIY for many applications, we’ll also provide some best practice tips. Finally, we will give our take on whether adding a cold air intake is really worth the coin.
By the time you cross the checkered flag of this guide, you will know if a cold air intake is the right mod to unleash more powerful performance from your vehicle – let’s get started!
Table of Contents
What Exactly is a Cold Air Intake?
Before diving into the horsepower numbers, let’s make sure we are all on the same page regarding what a cold air intake physically is and how it upgrades your vehicle’s air intake system.
In short, a cold air intake is an aftermarket upgrade designed to replace the factory air intake components. Most stock intake systems include the airbox, intake tubing from the airbox to the throttle body, and an air filter, usually made of pleated paper.
Performance cold air intake kits replace all those components with higher flowing tubes, smoother bends, and an exposed conical or cylindrical air filter that pulls in cooler external air, rather than hot air from the engine bay. Let’s break down the key upgrades:
- Intake Tubing – The tubes or pipes that carry the air from the air filter to the engine are upgraded to smooth mandrel-bent aluminum or composite materials. This allows air to flow faster without turbulent bends or ridges compared to factory plastic tubes.
- Air Filter – Paper air filters are swapped out for free-flowing conical or cylindrical cotton gauze or foam filters that increase airflow thanks to more surface area. Many are lightly oiled to trap small particles.
- Open Air Box Design – Sealing off the airbox and drawing air from within the hot engine compartment is ditched. An open filter placed in the fender well instead pulls in cooler ambient outside air.
- Couplers and Clamps – High quality couplers and clamps ensure perfect fitment and an airtight seal for smooth, uninterrupted airflow from intake to throttle body.
By upgrading all of the components that carry that precious cargo of air into the engine, cold air intakes enable your engine to breathe deeper. More air means more power can be produced when combined with fuel for combustion. That gives you the horsepower gains you are chasing.
Horsepower Gains from Cold Air Intakes
Now that we know what a cold air intake is and how it works to unlock more horsepower, let’s get to the good stuff – the HP numbers! How much extra horsepower you can expect your vehicle to gain with a cold air intake depends on these key factors:
- Engine size and existing modifications
- Naturally aspirated vs forced induction (turbo/supercharger)
- Cold air intake brand and materials
- Type of air filter – oiled or dry
Taking those factors into account, here are the typical horsepower gains you can expect:
- Naturally Aspirated Gas Engines: 15-30 HP increase
- Forced Induction (Turbo/Supercharged) Engines: 30-50 HP increase
Another way to break it down by vehicle:
- Smaller Displacement Naturally Aspirated Engines (4-cyl economy cars): 15-25 HP gains
- Larger Displacement Naturally Aspirated Engines (V6/V8 trucks and SUVs): 20-35 HP gains
- Forced Induction Engines (Turbo/Supercharged cars & trucks): 30-50 HP gains
Those are the average gains you can expect. Let’s take a deeper look at how engine configurations and induction types impact power.
NA vs Forced Induction Engines
Naturally aspirated engines rely solely on atmospheric pressure to draw air into the cylinders. Forced induction engines use a turbocharger or supercharger to cram more air into the engine under boost.
Forced induction engines see larger horsepower gains from cold air intakes for a couple reasons. First, the compressed air coming from the turbo or supercharger is very hot. A cold air intake reduces that intake temperature, allowing the turbo to spool faster while enabling denser cold air to flow in. Second, since they already produce higher horsepower, forced induction engines have more headroom to benefit from freer-breathing intake mods.
But even for NA engines, a cold air intake still provides noticeable improvements by reducing intake air temps while allowing more air volume into the cylinders. Bottom line – both engine types will see a nice horsepower kick, with bigger gains on boosted applications.
Engine Size and Mods
Larger engines have greater potential for horsepower increases compared to smaller motors. A V8 or V6 can better take advantage of the extra airflow, while 4-cylinders won’t reap quite as much benefit.
That said, other mods like free-flowing headers, high-flow catalytic converters, computer tunes, and full exhaust upgrades multiply the power-boosting effects of an intake. The more you open up the engine, the better intake mods perform.
Intake Branding and Materials
Not all cold air intakes are created equal. Quality of materials and design differences affect potential gains. Top brands like AEM and Injen use carefully engineered tube diameters, smoother bends, and heat-resistant components. This enables maximum airflow to the engine.
Less expensive kits often use cheaper aluminum tubing that is more likely to transfer heat or develop leaks. Stick with leading brands to get the full horsepower benefits.
Air Filter Types
Most performance intakes use either dry conical reusable filters, or cylindrical oiled gauze filters. The lightly oiled filters have superior airflow thanks to the oil tackling tiny particles, though they require periodic reoiling.
Some testing shows oiled filters can provide a couple HP more gains compared to dry filters, though results also depend on the specific media used. Either filter type will provide extra airflow over stock paper filters.
Other Benefits Beyond Peak Horsepower
While the peak HP numbers are important, a cold air intake produces other meaningful benefits:
- Improved Throttle Response – Thanks to less restrictive intake flow, your engine reacts more quickly and delivers faster acceleration when you put your foot down. Makes it feel significantly quicker than stock.
- Enhanced Sound – The whistle from the intake and throatier tone from the engine combine to provide way more aggressive auditory feedback. Music to any auto enthusiast’s ears!
- Gas Mileage Gains – Though counterintuitive, the engine efficiency benefits of cooler denser air often translate to 1-2 MPG fuel economy improvements in real world driving.
So on top of the peak dyno horsepower gains covered already, you get a snappier throttle, enjoyable soundtrack, and extended gas tank range with a cold air intake installed.
Best Brands for Max Horsepower Gains
While conceptually simple, an effective cold air intake requires carefully engineered components to realize the full horsepower benefits. Here are three top intake brands known for maxing out power:
One of the leaders in cold air intake kits, AEM is synonymous with top-tier performance. Their intake tubes are a specific diameter determined ideal for each application through advanced flow testing. Bends feature AEM’s smoothed ‘MR Technology’ to prevent turbulence. Expect big gains from AEM’s intake designs.
Known for their iconic red oiled air filters, K&N offers complete intake kits with an eye towards maximum airflow. The oiled cotton gauze filters minimize resistance as air passes through. Well-engineered mandrel bent aluminum tubes route the air. Great for high-horsepower applications.
Injen stands out for their use of composite heat-resistant intake tubes instead of metal, which insulation from engine bay heat. Their ‘MR Technology’ also tunes tube diameter and creates smooth bends. Injen is a great blend of innovative materials and performance designs.
Other intake brands like Spectre, Volant, and Weapon R can also boost performance. Ultimately, sticking with the major players helps ensure your cold air kit was designed properly to unlock the full horsepower potential.
Installation – DIY or Professional?
Once you select the right cold air intake kit, next comes the fun (or frightening) task of actually installing it. The good news – it’s one of the easier beginner mods to tackle yourself if you are willing to get your hands dirty. Here’s an overview of the process:
- Safely elevate the vehicle using a jack and jack stands, or access the intake through the hood.
- Locate the stock airbox, intake tube, and air filter housing. Use a socket wrench to loosen clamps and disconnect tubing.
- Unhook the mass airflow sensor (maf) electrical connector, breather hoses or any other sensors attached to the intake tract. Remove airbox.
- Transfer over the maf sensor into the new cold air intake tubing and ensure perfect fitment when installing.
- Fasten new intake tubes using provided clamps and hardware. Double check airtight connection.
- Mount or position the new air filter in the fender well or bumper opening so it gets unobstructed airflow.
- Reconnect battery, start engine and verify no intake leaks before enjoying the added horsepower!
If this sounds complex, you can always pay an experienced mechanic $80-$150 to install the cold air intake properly. But with patience and care, first-timers can handle the job in their own garage and save on labor costs. Just be sure to disconnect the battery before starting work.
Either way, once the new performance intake system is dialed, it’s time to experience the horsepower high firsthand! Just take care to avoid puddles or deep water that could hydrolock the now exposed air filter.
Is Adding a Cold Air Intake Worth It?
We’ve covered what a cold air intake is, the horsepower gains it can provide, top hardware brands, and how to install it. Now the big question – is upgrading your intake worthwhile?
In our opinion – absolutely!
Here’s a recap of why a cold air intake is such a smart bolt-on:
- 15-50 HP for minimal cash – Where else can you get 15+ ponies for as little as $200-$300? Hard to beat value.
- Easy DIY Install – Simple hand tools and basic skills are all you need. Low barrier to entry versus more complex mods.
- Transformative driving experience – The sound, response, and power kick make driving exciting again. Puts a smile on your face every time!
- Long-term upgrade – Set it and forget it. An intake is not something you constantly change. Get performance benefits for the long haul after 1-time install.
Like any good performance mod, a cold air intake delivers smile-inducing improvements at a reasonable cost. For almost any build, it’s a foundational upgrade to unlock more horses under the hood. We give cold air intakes a big thumbs up!
Conclusion – More Air, More Power
Just like giving CPR breathes life-giving oxygen into human lungs, upgrading your ride’s air intake system breathes new horsepower potential into the engine. More air and lower intake temps equal bigger power output.
- Naturally aspirated engines can gain 15-30 horses with a cold air intake kit.
- Even bigger power comes on forced induction vehicles, with gains of 30-50 additional horses thanks to colder, denser charge air.
- Leading brands like AEM, K&N, and Injen use optimized tube diameters, smoother bends and heat-resistant materials to maximize gains
- With careful work, most intakes can be user-installed in your own garage for big savings.
- Beyond raw power, expect better throttle response, intoxicating intake growl, and sometimes increased fuel mileage.
So whether you are working on a 4-cylinder econobox, big American V8, or boosted import, a cold air intake is one of the best bang-for-buck mods out there. With this comprehensive guide’s insights, you can now make an informed decision if unlocking 15-50 extra ponies with a cold air intake is right for your ride!