Types of Air Intake Systems

April 10, 2012

Learn how short-pipe, ram-air and cold air intake systems work, and the pros and cons of each type.

Air Intake System

Air intake systems are the first step in the process that makes the engine produce the power that moves your vehicle. Some cars come with factory air intakes that are well tuned to optimize power as much as possible, but for many cars you have the opportunity to increase the power of your vehicle by installing an aftermarket air intake system.

There are a variety of air intakes available for almost any new or late-model car. Many are tailor-made for specific vehicles to ensure the best fit and performance. Generally, aftermarket intakes fall into one of three categories: short-pipe, cold air and ram air. There are distinct differences between these types that offer different advantages and disadvantages.

Short-Pipe Intakes

This design usually includes an aluminum pipe and high flow filter. This increases the flow rate of air into your car's intake manifold which helps the engine make more power, especially at higher RPM. The main disadvantage of this type of intake is that it draws heated air from under the hood of the vehicle which tends to sacrifice some power, because heated air isn't as dense as cold air. This is the simplest form of aftermarket intake which means it's the easiest to install. Car owners with a little bit of mechanical savvy can probably do it on their own.

Cold Air Intakes

A cold air intake draws ambient air from a location away from the engine; since this air isn't warmed by the hot engine components, it's much denser. This allows the engine to burn more fuel which means more power. It usually consists of a system of longer piping that pulls air from the open space surrounding the wheel well or the front bumper, coupled with a high flow air filter. These intakes are more complex than short-pipe style intakes so installation is more difficult. Many people may need a little help from a more experienced friend or opt for a professional installation to make sure the job is done right.

Ram-Air Intakes

A ram-air intake draws cooler ambient air much like a cold air intake, but includes a special collector that forces extra air into the engine when the car moves forward. It operates using the simple properties of air resistance, just like the pushing force you feel from the air when you hold your hand out a car window while you're on the freeway. This type of intake will help your car make the most power because it actually pressurizes the intake charge as the car moves faster. Again, this allows your engine to burn more fuel, which means more power. A ram-air kit usually includes piping directing the intake air from a space inside the front bumper, a high flow air filter, and a collector cone to direct the air into the intake. This is the most complex and the hardest air intake to install. Anyone who isn't experienced in car repair and maintenance is going to need help or should opt for a professional installation.

Related Questions and Answers

Where Can I Get a Custom Cold Air Intake System?

Custom cold air intakes are specially designed for each individual make and model of car. This is done so that when you go to have it installed, the only modifications to your engine bay that will be required are the removal of the stock air intake tubing and air box and then replacing them with the parts from the custom air intake kit. These kits can be obtained from a number of sources. You can go down to your local auto parts store and buy one. Or, better yet, you can cut the middle man out and go directly to the website of the company that makes the best, K&N.

Will a High Flow Air Filter Increase MPG?

High flow air filters are designed to decrease resistance to air flow into your car's engine while still maintaining high filtration efficiency. High air flow into your engine allows more into the combustion chambers. This increased oxygen content benefits you both by giving more horsepower and torque and by increasing your fuel efficiency and economy. As long as you don't modify the air fuel ratio by adding more fuel to compensate for the added oxygen, you will see an increase of three to five miles per gallon.  The horsepower increase will vary by application, but will average between 10 and 20 horsepower.