Cold Air Intakes, Modern Vehicles, and Something About Hippies

They really don’t make ’em like they used to, do they? Remember the good ol’ days when cars were uh… worse? In a weird way, it’s kind of a shame how good and efficient engines are today. I mean, it’s objectively a good thing. Cars are more powerful, more efficient, and less polluting than ever before. But when I was coming up as a young buck, the cars I wanted (and could afford) were all choked out by emissions regulations, and overcoming those obstacles and letting the engine breath was cheap, easy, and satisfying.

You see kids, there was a time when just slapping an intake on your engine was all you needed to mark down some real gains on the trusty butt dyno. However, with all the advancements made since then, an intake on its own will give you some gains for sure (and some sweet induction noise), but unless you’re pairing it with other mods, you’re probably not accomplishing as much as you might hope, or that you once could.

So let’s say you want to get some modest power out of your modern daily driver. With all the advancements in efficiency manufacturers have made, what sort of things do we need to consider, given the state of engine technology as of the past 5-ish years?

Let’s lay the groundwork here and work our way up:

Look, to play devil’s advocate for a second here. If it were as easy as slapping a bigger tube and a different shaped filter on the car to make more power, get better mileage, and be more competitive in the market, don’t you think a modern company like GM would jump at the chance to do so?

Well, that’s the thing. They have other considerations when designing these components, such as making sure these parts work well in a wide range of climates, elevations, temperatures, and road conditions. And yes, they absolutely need to do their best to idiot-proof these engines, so people don’t hydrolock their pride and joy when trying to cross a flooded road that “didn’t look that deep.” However, even with those restrictions in place, manufacturers have teams of engineers who work to maximize intake efficiency within those parameters. The result of all this effort is that most modern engines are not as limited by how much air the stock intakes can feed them anymore.

Those big ugly air boxes actually do a pretty good job of sealing off incoming air from the heat of the engine bay as well. When’s the last time you saw a modern car that didn’t have a snorkel into the grille or fender to pull in outside air? Meanwhile so many claimed, “cold air” intakes actually remove those assemblies in the name of airflow, and in doing so, actively pull in hotter air than stock. This is mostly relegated to ram air intakes, or cheap kits you’ll likely find for $150 on eBay, but the point still stands. These engineers know what they’re doing.

“OK, OK, so what do we need to do to get even a modest improvement these days on a naturally aspirated engine?”

You know those annoying “holistic” and “homeopathic” remedies preached by so-called “healers” that you see all over the place? Well, they kinda have the right basis of things in the fact that just like with the human body, you really should look at the system as a whole. No comment on the rest of their quackery, but they at least have a point here. So if we’re looking at the entire mechanical and (importantly these days) electronic system that makes up a modern drivetrain, increasing performance one aspect doesn’t necessarily mean other components are set up to handle the difference.

You can pull your intake off completely and run a bare throttle body with the hood wide open, and your car’s ECM isn’t going to pull in much more air than would previously because it’s already taking about as much as it can handle. Now we need to take a look at the other side and look at where that air needs to go after combustion. Just like with intakes, your exhaust alone in all likelihood is not a limiting factor, which is why a cat-back exhaust itself isn’t going to do as much as it once did. This is where headers, high flow cats, and then a cat-back exhaust come together to actually make way for more air to be brought into the engine. At least now there is somewhere for added flow to go.

“But bro, you also need to become one with your body within like, your mind, man. You need to find true enlightenment”

…is something one of those annoying hippies might say next. And damn it, as an analogy to cars, I kinda have to agree with them again. You can have all the open airflow in the world, but if your car’s brain (ECM) doesn’t take advantage of this fact, then what good did all that do besides making more noise?

This is where we get into the reality of modern performance. It’s sad to say, but you just can’t solve all your problems with a wrench anymore. You need a keyboard as well. Or more accurately, you’re probably going to need access to someone else with a keyboard and some serious years of software programming under their belt, because as complicated as the mechanicals has gotten in recent years, the software has evolved tenfold. Hence the performance chip and tuner market that has just exploded.

That’s right. Modern tuning outfits are beginning to have less in common with legends like John Lingenfelter and Carol Shelby, and more in common with Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Ouch, I couldn’t even write that sentence without a grimace on my face, but that’s the reality of the modern age. Not only is it just software tuning that companies need to worry about, but even just gaining access to the software in the first place has become a serious hurdle. Many tuning companies now have entire teams of people just working on cracking the software before any work can be done to actually improve anything.

Some OEMs are worse than others, in terms of being tuner friendly here. On the extreme ends, you have people like Steve Dinan talking about how a large part of his staff is dedicated to just cracking BMW’s code (shout out to The Smoking Tire podcast for that tidbit), and then on the other end you have companies like GM and Ford offering tons of performance upgrades and software tunes that will still be covered by your factory warranty (for a premium, of course).

“OK, what if I kneel before the Altar of Boost instead?”

The 2015 Corvette Z06 features an all-new LT4 engine. The supercharged, 6.2L V-8 will deliver more than 625 horsepower, and 635 lb-ft of torque.

Well if we’re talking a turbo, then software really is your god and savior now. This is a great time to own a factory turbo-boosted car because you’re just a software tune away from a bigger increase in power than pretty much everything else I’ve talked about so far combined. Pair that with a few bolt-ons, and you’re achieving power gains that would require adding a decimal point or two to your budget in order to match on an NA motor.

For you supercharged guys, things are still more mechanically based, as you need to start swapping pulleys to make big changes, but the software is still a factor. For either method of boost, all the same, above points still apply as far as the hardware is concerned, except that you’ve got more choices for bolt-ons now. Things like intercoolers, downpipes, underdrive pulleys, etc.

None of this is to say anything of more hardcore mods, like getting into cams, high flow injectors, or god forbid, adding a turbo or supercharger to an NA platform. The landscape for casual power has changed.

If you want easy bolt-on power in 2019 and beyond, there are a lot more things to consider than ever before. Got your keyboard handy?

ed. note: This article was provided by Auto Anything, and we felt that the editorial merit was worth sharing it with you.

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About the author

Garrett Davis

Garrett has something of a sickness when it comes to cars, working on everything from Jeeps, to sports cars, to over-engineered German nightmares. Currently he is embroiled in an Audi Allroad offroad project, and is slowly losing his grasp on sanity.
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