Exhaust Manifolds vs Headers

Exhaust Manifolds vs Headers

Last Updated August 8, 2023 | Bill Tumas

Although some people use the terms headers and manifolds interchangeably, there are differences in design and material that warrant the distinction. If you're going to be upgrading your ride, it's important to know the difference between headers and exhaust manifolds.

What Is an Exhaust Manifold?

Exhaust manifolds are a part of the car's exhaust system that connects directly to the engine. They have openings that attach to each cylinder head and then lead the exhaust gases down into the catalytic converter, mid-pipe, and the rest of the exhaust system.

Top-down view of an exhaust manifold

Exhaust manifolds are usually made out of either heavy cast iron or stainless steel. Their thick construction is meant to combat cracking, but it leads to smaller, more restrictive passages for exhaust gases to pass through. This can slow down the gases, creating backpressure and reducing engine performance.

Backpressure happens when exhaust flow has to overcome resistance to exit the cylinder, and it depletes an engine's power rapidly.

Because exhaust manifolds are restrictive, many drivers upgrade to aftermarket headers for better performance.

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What Are Exhaust Headers?

Also called "tubular manifolds" or "extractor manifolds", headers are comprised of a series of tubes that connect individually to each of your engine's cylinders. This relieves the backpressure created when four cylinders empty into the same space at the same time (like they do with exhaust manifolds). Each of the individual pipes then comes together into a collector pipe. Because of the spacing of the tubes, some headers are designed so that the exhaust enters the collector tube at different times. This is how headers improve performance.

Top-down view of an exhaust header

While your stock exhaust manifold is typically made out of heavy materials, headers are made of lighter mild or stainless steel. Headers can come uncoated, painted, in chrome, or ceramic coated. Ceramic coatings can help keep your headers clean as well as resist surface and deep rust. They also keep the headers cooler. Chrome headers will rust over time depending on how they're being used, and while stainless steel headers are rust-resistant, the constant heat will turn them blue or brown in short order. All three finishes have applications they're well-suited to, but the ceramic coated is the best choice for most people.

There are two types of headers. Check out this article where we compare long tube vs shorty headers to find out which is right for your ride.

What Are the Differences Between Exhaust Manifolds and Headers?

Exhaust manifolds and headers serve the same basic purpose - to direct exhaust gases away from the engine and into the exhaust system. So it's understandable that people get them confused. Here are the main differences between the two:

  • Exhaust manifolds feature a single-piece construction, while exhaust headers are made of multiple steel tubes of varying lengths.
  • Headers are made from thin-walled stainless steel tubing, whereas exhaust manifolds are typically made of cast iron or thicker steel.
  • Headers are less likely to rust or corrode than cast-iron manifolds.
  • Headers create less backpressure than exhaust manifolds, resulting in more power.
  • Exhaust manifolds are used on most stock production vehicles, while headers are found on modified or high-performance vehicles.

Is Upgrading to Exhaust Headers Worth It?

In high-performance vehicles, headers are a great way to improve exhaust flow and increase performance. However, if you've got a standard everyday driver, installing exhaust headers can cause problems with the car's sensors. Ultimately, the decision of whether to stick with an exhaust manifold or upgrade to headers depends on your vehicle and build goals.

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