Are Cold Air Intakes Worth It? How To Decide

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Mazda Miata 2003 engine bay of a red car with a close up of the cold air intake

Air is one of the most important ingredients when it comes to running your car. If you could maximize the air that your engine gets, then your car could go faster and optimize its fuel efficiency. Auto manufacturers provide a stock air intake system, but it isn’t great at maximizing air inflow. If you want to do so, you’ll need a cold air intake.

A cold air intake (CAI) is an aftermarket mod that replaces your car’s stock engine air intake, and the changeover is relatively simple. A cold air intake (CAI) can offer more horsepower, better fuel efficiency, and faster acceleration. The downside is that it costs money, takes time to install, and has some potential problems that you’ll need to solve with additional products like airflow sensors and hydro shields.

In this guide, I’ll be talking all about cold air intakes. What are they, what do they do, how do they work, and what are their pros and cons of them? More specifically, are cold air intakes actually worth it? I’ll cover all of this and more as I help you decide if a cold air intake is worth it.

The Purpose of a Cold Air Intake

In any car, air intake is a huge part of running the vehicle. The air that comes in is used to cool down parts of the engine and is also mixed with fuel to create the perfect combustion ratio. Since oxygen is a combustible gas, it comes in handy under the hood.

How a cold air intake works sucking air and feeding it to the engine K&N illustration

Any stock gas-powered vehicle already has an air intake, otherwise, it wouldn’t run. The only issue is that stock cars don’t optimize these air intakes. Instead, they are designed to minimize noise and cost.

The air intake is responsible for things from your car’s horsepower to its fuel efficiency and overall performance. If you could find a way to get air through your car at a faster pace, then you could boost all of these values.

This is where the cold air intake comes in.

Cold Air Intake (CAI) vs Short Ram Intake (SRI)

There are pros and cons to both these aftermarket intake designs. Whereas the cold air intake is typically longer and further away from the engine intake manifold being able to draw cooler dense air, it’s also more prone to moisture, debris, and water which isn’t good at all. This is especially the case for cold air intakes (CAI) that are pointed downward towards the bottom of the engine bay.

K&N Cold Air Intake Kit For 2014-2020 Chevy/GMC/Cadillac (Silverado 1500, Suburban, Tahoe, Sierra 1500, Yukon, Yukon Denali, Escalade) V8

K&N Cold Air Intake Kit - High Performance, Fits 2014-2020 Chevy-GMC-Cadillac - Silverado 1500, Suburban, Tahoe, Sierra 1500, Yukon, Yukon Denali, Escalade - V8, 63-3082
K&N Cold Air Intake (CAI)

On the other hand, a short ram intake (SRI) might look similar to the OEM stock design air intake with the benefits of higher quality components and being able to install a shield that looks factory. This allows for air to take the shortest route possible. The downside is that it’s closer to the engine which can make it susceptible to ‘engine heat soak’ this can affect the short ram intake (SRI) if not shielded properly.

AEM 22-516R Red Short Ram Intake System

AEM 22-516R Red Short Ram Intake System - SRI
AEM Short Ram Intake (SRI)

Depending on what aftermarket company you go with and the design they implement for your specific year, make, and model, one might be more ideal than the other. Check out the performance improvement charts in horsepower if their website has those.

What Goes into Installing a Cold Air Intake?

On paper, installing a cold air intake (CAI) is pretty simple. It involves removing your current intake and putting in a cold air intake.

Actually doing the swap is a little bit more tedious, but it’s just as simple. Your current intake is tied into your throttle body (engine) and has an airbox and piping that runs along the side of your engine bay.

To swap it out, you’ll first remove all of these components and save the airflow sensor. A cold air intake is a single, bent tube, so you’ll be replacing all of those components with a single tube. It takes air from the bottom of your car, near the wheel well or the side of the engine bay, and passes it through the airflow sensor directly into your throttle body.

Pros of Cold Air Intakes

Now that we know how cold air intakes work, it’s time to dive into the pros and cons of this new system. I’ll start by listing off some of the major pros in this section.

More Horsepower

The biggest reason why people swap to a cold air intake in the first place is to improve their horsepower. A stock intake can be a bottleneck. Since the airflow is restricted as it goes into the engine, your car can’t perform as well.

K&N Cold Air Intake dyno test showing the improvement gains in horsepower between a stock OEM and CAI cold air intake setup
Horsepower comparison between OEM stock air intake and a cold air intake (results may vary)

A cold air intake maximizes the amount of air that flows into your engine. This allows your engine to work faster and create more horsepower.

Faster Acceleration

Another benefit of this faster intake of cold air is that your car will accelerate faster. As I just mentioned, you can expect your horsepower to increase, but it’s more than just that. The throttle response will be much quicker since air is coming in faster and denser.

Throttle response refers to how quickly your car accelerates after you hit the gas pedal.

With these two improvements, your car is able to accelerate faster. That translates to a faster 0-60 time, quicker quarter-mile, and better times on your local racetrack. It also means getting to the posted highway speed limit faster as you safely drive home from work.

Better Fuel Efficiency

Since more oxygen is being pumped into your car, you’re able to optimize the explosions that are going on within your engine block. An oxygen-deficient car will burn more fuel in order to get the right ratio.

Close up of a BMW instrument cluster dash odometer with the center info display showing the fuel efficiency of the MPG

In the case of a cold air intake, your mileage will boost immediately. It might not be a dramatic change, but it should be noticeable.

Deeper Engine Roar

One dramatic change that you’ll notice is the changed engine note. Once the filters and restrictive tubing of a stock intake are removed, your engine is allowed to breathe better. The result? You’ll hear a deeper roar as you idle or drive around.

It’s effectively the same effect as straight-piping your vehicle and getting rid of all the exhaust pipe turns on the bottom of your car.

I mentioned earlier that a stock intake’s focus is on providing a quiet, cost-effective option for bringing air into your engine. A cold air intake is going to produce a louder, nicer note while your car is running.

No More Replacing Intake Filters

Replacing an air intake filter isn’t difficult, it’s just annoying. It has to be done every 15,000 miles or so (based on your make, model, and year), which roughly translates to once a year. The filter costs anywhere from $20 to $50.

Close up of an aftermarket air intake cone

For me, it’s less about the money and more about remembering to change the filter. If you go too long without changing it, your engine’s air intake will get choked and your performance will suffer a lot.

With a cold air intake, you don’t have to worry about this filter anymore. The only filter with this part is a cone filter at the base of the tube where it pulls in air.

Lower Engine Temperature

A stock intake will grab air as it comes into your engine bay. It pulls air very close to the moving parts of your engine, where the car is the hottest.

A cold air intake grabs air from your wheel well or corner of the engine bay. These intake positions are much colder, so the air there has a lower temperature.

Coolant gauge detail

In my guide about unsticking a thermostat in your car, I talked about how important temperature is when it comes to operating your engine. If a car runs too hot, it can fail catastrophically.

In a less dramatic example, an engine that runs too hot will offer fewer horsepower and a worsened acceleration. All of the peak performance values for your car are taken when the engine is within its ideal temperature range.

A cold air intake is one way to keep your engine running at the perfect temperature.

Longer-Lasting Engine

Another downside of an engine that runs too hot is that it dies sooner. If you’re someone who wants to put a lot of miles on your car, that’s not good news for you.

There are a lot of ways to make your car last longer, and this is one of them. When your engine is running at the perfect temperature, it’s happy and will last longer.

Cons of Cold Air Intakes

Now, let me talk about some of the downsides when it comes to the cold air intake. Consider these before we determine if you should upgrade to a cold air intake.

Time Required for the Swap

Like any aftermarket modification, there’s a time associated with installing a cold air intake. The process could take a few hours or a few days, depending on a few factors.

If you’re working alone and don’t have a lot of mechanical experience under the hood, that will prolong this project. If you can grab your mechanically-inclined buddy, then this project will get expedited.

An air intake being removed from the vehicle with tools visible ready to install the aftermarket air intake

Removing your current intake can be a tedious process. You’ll have to go hunting for hidden bolts that fasten your tube and filter box to the sidewall of your engine bay.

Installing a cold air intake also involves finding a spot for fasteners to keep the tube sturdy while you drive.

At the end of the day, this swap takes time. If you’re willing to sacrifice a weekend in order to get the benefits I described in the earlier section, then this isn’t a problem.

You Need to Pick the Right Filter

Since this isn’t a stock part, you can’t just open your owner’s manual and find out which filter you need to replace. It also means that the mechanic you take your car to for your quarterly maintenance won’t have the filter in stock.

Close up of the aftermarket air intake with the cone and heat shield visible in blue color

You’ll need to replace the filter on your cold air intake, and you need to understand which option is right for your system. If you can grab a product number from the filter included in your kit, reordering filters will be a lot easier.

There’s also a larger market for conical filters than there is for stock air filters. You’ll need to do a little homework to find the right option.

Concern for Hydro-Locking

Hydro-locking is especially a concern for cold air intakes that pull air near the wheel well. Hydro-locking happens when enough water or moisture gets into your engine through the throttle body.

A stock intake doesn’t have to worry about this unless the engine bay is underwater. At that point, your car has bigger problems to worry about.

Since the air is being pulled so close to the road with a cold air intake, simply driving through a puddle can provide enough water to hydro-lock your car.

A small red color compact car driving through a puddle of water with rain pouring down hard with floods

After all, this intake is just a wide-open tube by design in order to get the most air possible to your engine.

The good news is that you can buy a simple “hydro shield” that fits over the intake of the pipe. This product lets air pass through but not water. It keeps water out of your intake tube which means that it won’t get to your engine in the first place.

It’s Louder

A cold air intake will make your car sound nicer when it runs, but it also makes the car louder. If you’re looking to keep your ride quiet, then you’ll have to stick with the stock intake your car has.

For one, cold air intake tubes are a lot larger than stock intakes. With bigger tubes, more air and noise can pass through. In addition, the added oxygen and performance both contribute some extra noise to your car.

The Swap Costs Money

As it stands, your car has an intake that works fine. Swapping to a cold air intake doesn’t only take time, but it also costs a little bit of money.

A person staring at a red sports car with money in their back pocket can be for a purchase of a car or car repair bills

If it weren’t for the performance upgrades, I would say that it’s not worth it. However, you’re spending a little bit of time and money in order to get a faster, more fuel-efficient ride that accelerates quicker.

The whole swap will cost you between $100 and $400, depending on the quality of the parts. If you take it to a mechanic to do the swap, then you can expect to pay around double for the installation. I would highly suggest doing this swap on your own to keep the price down.

It’s Not a Huge Difference

I hate to say it, but you won’t notice a huge difference after swapping to a cold air intake. You won’t suddenly beat Porsches at red lights or rival Priuses with your miles per gallon.

However, you’ll still notice a difference. I just want to make sure you’re not expecting to have a racecar after swapping your intake. What you’ll get is a car that sounds nicer, goes a bit faster, responds to the throttle quicker, and accelerates a little quicker.

If you’re doing this on your daily driver, you’ll definitely feel the impact of the swap, but it won’t be jaw-dropping.

Potential Issues for Mass Air Flow Sensor (MAF)

The stock mass airflow sensor (MAF) in your car is used to reading air from a stock intake. If you reuse the sensor for your cold air intake, there’s a potential issue.

A lot of people who upgrade to a cold air intake say that the sensor is getting weird readings while they drive. This might not seem like a big deal, but your sensor is plugged directly into your car’s computer.

Close up of the mass air flow sensor - MAF that goes before the intake manifold

The computer takes these airflow readings and then determines how much fuel needs to be added to get the perfect air-fuel ratio. If it thinks that air is coming in much faster or slower than it really is, then the ratio will be ruined, and your car’s performance will suffer.

The simple solution is to upgrade the airflow sensor into something that’s compatible with a high-quality cold air intake.

Are Cold Air Intakes Worth It?

Personally, I think cold air intakes are worth it. It offers more horsepower, faster acceleration, better fuel efficiency, a nicer engine note, and lower engine temperatures. The trade-off is that you’ll need to spend some time and money to do the swap the right way.

In reality, I wouldn’t just upgrade a cold air intake. If you’re looking to make your car faster and improve its performance, I certainly wouldn’t start here. If you’ve already done some mods and want to further improve your car’s performance, then it’s definitely time to swap to a cold air intake.

Conclusion

I hope this guide on the pros and cons of a cold air intake was helpful. This aftermarket mod is a quick way to get way air into your engine. I would suggest holding off on this mod until you’ve upgraded other parts of your car, but it’s definitely worth it to get a cold air intake.

If you have any other car questions, take a look at my site. There’s a chance that I already answered it in one of my DIY car guides. I also have a list of recommended car products that you should check out. As always, drop a comment below and let me know what you thought about this guide.

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Ernest Martynyuk

An automotive enthusiast who's been tinkering with vehicles since I was 15-years old. Repairing automotive electronics has been my main job for over a decade now and have a passion for everything technical regarding cars.

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