Cruising down the open road, wind in your hair as your trusty ride hums along. Nothing beats the freedom of the open highway. But as gas prices yo-yo up and down like a rollercoaster, every driver starts to wonder – how can I improve my gas mileage and keep more of my hard-earned cash?
One popular solution drivers turn to is installing a cold air intake. Cold air intakes promise to boost engine power and increase MPG by bringing cooler outside air into your engine. But do cold air intakes actually deliver on those MPG gains? Or are they all hype?
Let’s cut to the chase – can slapping a cold air intake on your ride really improve your gas mileage?
The answer is: it depends. Cold air intakes CAN increase MPG, but the gains depend on your specific vehicle and driving habits. In optimal conditions, you may see MPG boosts of 2-3 MPG or more. But poor installation or improper tuning can erase any benefits.
In this detailed 2023 guide, we’ll dig into the facts on cold air intakes and MPG:
- How cold air intakes work to supposedly improve efficiency
- Independent dyno testing on MPG gains
- Real-world MPG estimates from actual drivers
- What factors impact MPG benefits
- The BEST cold air intakes for improving MPG
- Proper installation and tuning guidance
- And the final verdict – are MPG gains really worth it?
So strap in and get ready to separate fact from fiction on one of the most popular bolt-on upgrades. Let’s unlock the secrets of cold air intakes and MPG gains!
Table of Contents
How Do Cold Air Intakes Work?
Before analyzing if cold air intakes actually work, let’s break down what a cold air intake is and does under the hood.
Your engine needs air to mix with fuel for combustion. The factory air intake sucks in outside air through the front grille into the airbox. But that air quickly absorbs heat from the hot engine bay.
A cold air intake replaces the factory airbox with an aftermarket intake tube that draws cooler air from outside the engine bay. Popular intake sources include the front bumper or fender well.
The aftermarket intake tube is also smoother than the factory airbox. This reduces intake restrictions for improved airflow into the combustion chamber.
With cooler, denser air and less restriction, a cold air intake aims to:
- Increase engine power for acceleration
- Improve combustion efficiency
- Reduce intake air temperatures (IATs)
In theory, the efficiency gains allow you to burn less fuel while maintaining performance. And that translates into improved MPG. But does the real-world data support those claims? Let’s dig into the test results.
The Science Behind MPG Gains
Why exactly would cooler air provide MPG benefits anyway? Has science proven the theory?
As an engine inhales air, it’s compressed before combustion. The cooler and denser the intake air, the more oxygen it contains per volume.
More oxygen concentration allows for better air/fuel ratios. The engine can precisely tune the optimal amount of fuel to mix with the boosted oxygen levels.
That complete combustion equals greater efficiency – converting more of the fuel’s energy into usable power.
Less fuel is then required to produce the same output. And the unused fuel isn’t wasted but passed as exhaust.
Multiple studies have demonstrated the positive impacts of reduced intake air temps:
- In this study, lowering IATs by 20°C reduced brake specific fuel consumption by 1.2%.
- This analysis found 10°-20°C lower IATs improved fuel efficiency by 2-3% depending on load.
- Researchers in this study identified a 2.2% fuel reduction from 20°C cooler intake air.
So the science confirms cooler charge air can provide measurable efficiency and fuel economy benefits. But even a 2-3% reduction would only translate to a fraction of a MPG in the real world.
Next let’s move out of the lab and into independent dyno testing to reveal just how much MPG gain cold air intakes truly deliver.
Dyno Testing Results
While the science tells us cooler intake temps should increase MPG, lab conditions are not the real world. Independent dyno testing allows us to quantify real MPG gains from cold air intakes.
Multiple sources have tested cold air intakes vs stock airboxes under controlled dyno conditions. Here are some of the observed MPG improvements:
- Mustang Cold Air Intake Dyno Test: In this test of three cold intakes on a Mustang GT, the K&N intake delivered a 2.7% MPG gain over stock. The Airaid gained 2.1%, while the JLT showed no measurable improvement.
- 5.0L Ford Dyno: This dyno test found 1-4% fuel economy gains from different cold air intakes on 2011-2014 5.0L Mustangs.
- Truck Dyno: During dyno runs on a 5.3L Silverado, AEM’s cold air intake delivered 5 more MPG vs stock at 60 mph.
- 350Z Dyno: Dyno testing showed AEM and K&N intakes increased 350Z MPG by 2.9% and 2.4% respectively over stock.
Across different applications, independent dyno testing generally confirms small but measureable MPG gains from most cold air intakes. 2-3% seems to be the average, with potential for slightly higher.
How much would that 2-3% translate to in real world driving? Let’s crunch the numbers next.
Real-World MPG Increase Estimates
Cold air intakes averaged 1-4% better MPG over stock during controlled dyno runs. But how many more miles per gallon would that net you in reality?
The math isn’t perfect due to factors we’ll cover soon. But we can make some educated estimates based on common MPG baselines:
- 30 MPG: 2% gains = 0.6 MPG, from 30 to 30.6 MPG
- 25 MPG: 3% gains = 0.75 MPG, from 25 to 25.75 MPG
- 20 MPG: 4% gains = 0.8 MPG, from 20 to 20.8 MPG
Of course, different vehicles, mods and driving factors will produce variation. But for many everyday drivers, cold air intakes seem likely to deliver in the neighborhood of 1-3 additional MPG.
For a 15 gallon tank, that could mean an extra 15-45 miles before empty. Nothing to scoff at with today’s pump prices!
Now those are just estimates under perfect conditions. Let’s look at what impacts cold air intake performance in the real world.
Factors That Impact MPG Gains
While the peaks numbers sound enticing, cold air intake performance relies heavily on your specific setup. Many variables come into play that can minimize or erase expected MPG benefits:
Trucks and SUVs with huge engine bays will see greater reductions in intake air temps compared to smaller, tighter spaces. Engines already tuned for efficiency see smaller gains than less optimal factory tuning.
Big V8 and V10 motors have more room for efficiency gains vs optimized 4-bangers. Turbo engines may see smaller gains since intake charge is already compressed.
Performance gains can entice aggressive driving and jackrabbit starts that guzzle gas faster than MPG savings can offset. Granny drivers see the most MPG benefits.
Manual transmissions able to keep the engine precisely in it’s ideal efficiency band extract the most MPG gains. Automatics are at the mercy of programming.
A proper tune optimizes fueling for the increased airflow from the intake. No tune can mean wasted potential MPG gains.
Climate and Weather
Colder, denser air during winter provides greater molecular boosts than heat soaked summer air. Weather, humidity and elevation all impact density.
Install and Maintenance
Leaky, loose or disconnected intakes lose potential airflow and velocity benefits compared to ideal installations. Filters must be cleaned regularly.
As you can see, the real-world dictates that advertised MPG gains are best case scenarios. But choosing the right intake and staying on top of maintenance can help maximize your results.
The BEST Cold Air Intakes for MPG
Assuming your vehicle can benefit, which specific cold air intakes deliver the top gas mileage? Based on third-party testing and owner reviews, these consistently rise to the top:
AEM Brute Force Intake
AEM’s patented air straightener smooths airflow to the turbo for optimized velocity. Stainless steel construction ensures cooler intake temps. $311 on Amazon
+ PROS: Proven MPG gains across models, sturdy materials, smooth bend-free path
- CONS: Expensive, limited vehicle fits, requires custom tuning
K&N Cold Air Intake Kit
K&N is almost synonymous with cold air intakes. Their oiled cotton gauze filters flow high volumes of air. $239 on Amazon
+ PROS: Broadest vehicle applications, impressive dyno numbers, washable filter
- CONS: Exposed filters risk sucking in water, oil needs reapplied
Volant Air Intake Kit
Volant’s stacked-cone filter and airbox isolate the filter from hot engine air. MPG focused design. $300 on Amazon
+ PROS: Proven MPG and power gains, cooler intake design, smooth bending
- CONS: Limited fits, expensive, requires tuning upgrade
Injen Cold Air Intake
Injen’s one-piece sealed intake path eliminates leaks. Hydro shield prevents water ingestion. $312 on Amazon
+ PROS: Tight bends maintain velocity, hydro shielding, cooler air direction
- CONS: Needs additional tuning, expensive, less filter access
Airaid Cold Air Intake
Airaid combines airflow components from racing teams into street intakes. Modular intake tubes simplify customization. $251 on Amazon
+ PROS: Patented air smoothing and cooling tech, quality components, broad fits
- CONS: Long replacement timeframe, needs tuning upgrade, expensive
While AEM and K&N come out on top for proven everyday MPG gains, match the intake design to your specific needs. Keep proper installation in mind as well to maximize results.
Proper Installation Key for Max Gains
Slapping any old intake in your engine bay won’t automatically raise MPG. You’ll need a quality kit with optimized components installed properly:
- Ensure the intake piping is sealed tight with no air leaks between connections. Use clamps or silicone couplers where needed.
- Position the intake opening as far from hot engines components as possible. Intake air should be noticeably cooler.
- Make smooth bends without kinks that limit airflow velocity into the throttle body or turbo inlet.
- Fasten all components securely to avoid intake movement that could detach or suck in debris.
- Upgrade fuel tuning via an engine management chip or programmer to match the intake’s less restrictive airflow.
Avoid potential installation pitfalls like:
- Connecting the intake piping backward blocking airflow
- Severely loosening the MAF sensor disrupting readings
- Skipping gaskets causing vacuum leaks
- Filter coming loose allowing unmetered particulates
Any issues like the above can trigger check engine lights that require correction before MPG benefits activate. When in doubt, have your intake installed by a qualified professional to maximize performance.
The Verdict: Are MPG Gains Worth It?
We’ve covered the facts on how, why and when cold air intakes can potentially improve MPG. But are those measly MPG improvements ultimately worth the cost, install hassle and tuning requirements?
- For budget builds and gas guzzling trucks, 1-3 MPG means fewer trips to the pump. Just be sure installation is done right.
- Expecting huge 10 MPG jumps is unrealistic. But even small gains add up over thousands of miles.
- Skip intakes on turbo cars or econo-boxes where efficiency is already maximized from factory.
- Must pair intakes with proper ECU tuning to avoid “robbing Peter to pay Paul” when it comes to performance vs MPG.
- Cost may outweigh benefits for leased or borrowed daily drivers that are replaced frequently.
- If you prioritize power over MPG, a less restrictive intake still provides noticeable acceleration gains.
- Compare costs to other mods like low rolling resistance tires that may offer similar MPG gains.
For most personal, tuner, or workhorse vehicles, the 1-3 MPG bump of a cold air intake can pay dividends against rising fuel prices. Just choose quality components installed properly to maximize your potential mileage gains.
So while cold air intakes may not work magic, they remain one of the simpler “set it and forget it” bolt-ons to put more miles between fill ups. And that means more money left for the fun upgrades down the road.
How about you – what questions or feedback do you have on cold air intake and MPG benefits? Share your experience in the comments!