What Is a Cold Air Intake?

What Is a Cold Air Intake?

Last Updated March 9, 2021 | Meghan Drummond

A cold air intake (CAI) is an aftermarket device that replaces the factory air intake system on a vehicle. CAIs have been popular since the introduction of electronic fuel injection in the 1960s. While designs have changed over the years, their affordability and impact on performance have made cold air intakes one of the most universally recommended vehicle mods.

What Does a Cold Air Intake Do?

a cold air intake that’s been installed in a Jeep Wrangler

The factory air intake pulls air from the engine bay, which gets hot quickly. A cold air intake is further away and pulls cooler air in. Cool air is more oxygen dense than hot air. This creates more powerful reactions in your engine, resulting in increased power.

Aftermarket cold air intakes also use other techniques to reduce the temperature of the air they pull in. Many are made from materials with low heat conductivity or use a heat shield. Often the intake tubes are less restrictive.

The air filter itself is also an upgrade over the standard paper air filter. While the paper filter catches more dust, it also gets dirty and needs to be replaced. Cold air intakes typically come with higher-quality reusable filters. These are less restrictive, allowing for better airflow. You can also simply wash your air filter instead of replacing it.

Do Cold Air Intakes Make a Difference?

In short, yes. Cold air intakes make a big difference. After installing cold air intakes, people have seen significant horsepower and torque gains. Some cold air intakes tout dyno-tested evidence that they can improve engine output by up to 30 horsepower. Of course, your vehicle’s current setup and existing equipment will impact your specific gains.

In addition to increasing horsepower, CAIs improve throttle response. And since fuel is being used more efficiently, fuel economy is also better.

Can a Cold Air Intake Damage Your Engine?

A Mustang with a cold air intake installed

A cold air intake, when properly installed and maintained, will not damage your engine. One of the great things about cold air intakes is that they are so low risk. Of course, if you purchase a cold air intake that requires a tune, then part of properly installing it includes tuning it correctly. A tune-required cold air intake that’s installed with no tune could cause engine issues.

Will a Cold Air Intake Void Your Warranty?

It's good to be familiar with your car's warranty information. However, it's even more important to be familiar with the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act of 1975. This law states that if an aftermarket part isn’t related to the repair, then the warranty is still in effect.

That means if you install a cold air intake in a vehicle that later has a faulty transmission, the repair would still be under warranty. There’s no way that a cold air intake could damage a transmission. But there are instances where you could be denied coverage under your warranty. For example, if the installation of the cold air intake was faulty and caused the engine to become air deprived, your warranty might be void.

While a cold air intake won’t generally void your factory warranty, a tune is a more intense and less warranty-friendly process. If you’ve got a factory warranty and keeping it is essential, then you should talk to your dealer before making any modifications.

Can You Install a Cold Air Intake Yourself?

A Focus with a cold air intake installed

If you’re purchasing a cold air intake that’s specific to your vehicle’s make and model, installation is very straightforward. But first, you’ll need to establish whether you’re looking at a tune or no-tune required cold air intake. While no-tune required cold air intakes are an easier install, adding a tune does improve the overall performance.

Tune required cold air intakes usually have a larger mass air meter. From the factory, the diameter of the mass air meter (or MAF) is set to allow only a certain amount of air into the engine. As the air passes through it, the mass flow sensor captures the air mass data and passes it on to the car’s computer. The computer then determines how much fuel gets injected into the engine. If you change the diameter of the mass air meter, you need a way to communicate that to the car’s computer. Therefore, a tune is required.

Once you’ve selected your CAI, you’ll simply follow the installation instructions that come with it.

Watch the video below for an example of a cold air intake install on an S550 Mustang. While your individual process will be different, this shows how simple this mod can be.

What Is a Cold Air Intake?

Cold air intakes are able to improve power and performance by pulling colder air into the engine. This allows for more oxygen-rich airflow that improves engine efficiency. In addition to being easy to install, most cold air intakes won’t negatively impact your warranty. This makes them a very desirable modification.