The 10 Best Cold Air Intakes to Buy 2020

The 10 Best Cold Air Intakes to Buy 2020

Because they are typically the first modification anyone does when they want to improve their car’s performance, it’s no wonder drivers take their cold air intakes seriously. This passion runs deep, with many displaying their CAI brand as a decal in the window or the first line of their signature when participating in car discussions online.

This enthusiasm is also why cold air intakes are also one of the most hotly debated topics in the car community. Today, we’ll help you cut through all the noise and pick the best CAI for your vehicle.

Choosing the Right Intake

At AutoQuarterly, we want to make sure you get the most out of your car. Getting a cold air intake is a great first step to take if you want to learn about car performance or just become more comfortable with modifying your car in general.

There are tons of myths, misconceptions, and downright crazy claims surrounding them, though. We want to clear the air and present you with all the information you need to make a great decision. We’ll start with a straightforward guide for choosing one and a list of our recommendations. At the bottom, though, we’ll go straight into the science and mythology surrounding air intakes.

Choosing a CAI

Choosing an intake can be hard simply because there are tons and tons of options, and they all pretty much do exactly the same thing. An AEM intake with a pod filter is a pipe length with a filter on the end of fit, just like an Injen intake, and just like a K&N. Usually, the decision comes down to one of the following.

Brand and Street Cred

There are two main categories of intake: the big brands and the knockoffs. There’s nothing wrong with most knockoffs. They might be a little harder to install, but they are way less expensive than any of the major brands. Let’s face it, though. Having a big AEM logo staring you in the face when you pop the hood does feel good.

Included Accessories

The intakes on the market range from “everything included” to “a bunch of random parts in a box.” You have to decide how much DIY you want to do and what kind of accessories you want.

Fitment

Every car is different, so the intake that fits in one car probably won’t fit another. There are a few things that affect fitment with the CAIs. The biggest, most obvious one is the length and shape of the tubes. You need to get an intake for your car, or it won’t even fit under the hood.

There are a few other considerations, too, like the sensor holes and type of sensor attachments you need. Just make sure to get a system that fits your car; it’s effortless to double-check online.

Materials

There are a handful of different materials found on an intake. CAIs are made of rubber for fittings, aluminum or plastic for tubing, and oil or paper for the filter. Each has pros and cons; we’ll discuss them in depth down here. Basically: better, more expensive materials last longer.

Oh, and oiled filters have additional risks. We’ll talk about filters below, but just know that they need more maintenance than paper ones.

Cost

Everyone wants a full HKS engine intake upgrade. Very few people can afford it. Just be realistic about the cost. A cheap system will be lower quality than a more expensive one to a point, but you may be paying for the label with the higher cost systems.

Make Sure It’ll Fit Your Car

There are many really great intakes, but before we get to reviewing them, there’s something we need to stress.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to say for certain that each entry will fit every vehicle. While most manufacturers will make a variety of different sizes and configurations for various cars, some might specialize in or only make a small number of styles.

In this review section, we will focus more on the broad strokes and ideas when discussing CAIs. Think of it more as a brand and idea guide, and less like a specific guide for your car. The best thing to do is search for your car’s make, model, and year plus cold air intake online. Then read about what other people are using, and then match it with the brand and style you are looking for.

On Amazon, it’s easy to set up your car in the garage menu and let the interface double check the fitment for you.

Top 10 Best Cold Air Intakes 2020

1. Best Overall Pick: K&N Cold Air Intake Kit

K&N Cold Air Intake Kit

Why we like it: There’s nothing not to like about K&N intake systems. They are a great value, make a kit for any vehicle, and are one of the biggest names in automotive.

Editor’s Rating:

About the Brand

K&N Engineering is probably the most well-known performance filter brand on earth. They are primarily known for pioneering the reusable, oil-based air filter technology, and are probably the most trusted brand for aftermarket intakes.

Unfortunately, their size and universal application lower their credibility in the performance scene. Since they can be found on anything from lawnmowers, to minivans, to dragsters, the label can mark you as a noob who only sticks to what’s safe. We don’t believe it’s terrible to stay with something tried and true, but the performance world is usually about pushing the envelope and not staying safe.

What You Get in the Box

The oil-based, reusable K&N filter is probably the most important part of the system. It’s what they are known for, after all. They use an HDPE tube instead of aluminum to keep costs down, and their kits include heat shields and gaskets to isolate the pod filter. The guards make sure you aren’t sucking in hot, polluted engine air.

One of the crucial things you get in the box that you don’t get from most other manufacturers is the 50-state approved sticker. Californians, you need one of those stickers, or your car will fail smog. Only a few other companies are authorized.

Quality and Fitment

K&N is top tier in terms of quality and fitment but is not the best. Yes, they are the world leaders, but they also sometimes get a little sloppy with tolerances in favor of keeping costs down. It’s still really, really good quality though. The issues only really arise during installation. You find out a screw hole doesn’t quite line up, or a sensor hole isn’t quite the right diameter. Usually, it’s a simple fix, and it far outshines cheap kits like the Million Parts intake, but it does leave some room for improvement.

Our Take

You can’t go wrong with a K&N. It may not be as prestigious as AEM in terms of sticker value, but no one would ever argue that it’s a bad investment.

Pros

  • K&N’s filters are some of the best
  • They probably make an intake for your car
  • Most are 50-state legal

Cons

  • Fitment is good, but sometimes has little annoying issues
  • Oil filters can cause problems for some models

2. Best Premium Pick: S&B Filters Cold Air Intake

S&B Filters Cold Air Intake

Why we like it: The S&B filter system is made of high-quality materials and will probably outlast the rest of your car.

Editor’s Rating:

About the Brand

Go to any off-road event. Doesn’t matter if it’s for side by sides, prerunners or crawlers; just go to a big event. There, nestled nicely next to the Optima Batteries stand, will be S&B. They specialize in trucks. It doesn’t matter if it’s a diesel, gas, or hybrid. They make a filter that’s perfect for running the Baja 500 or towing your buddy out of the mud.

They are expensive, they are found on expensive toys, and they look seriously impressive. No, really, the clear plastic cover for the airbox makes even the oldest, ugliest truck look high tech. It may not have K&N’s instant brand recognition, but you’ll get a knowing nod by anyone that builds off-road rigs.

What You Get in the Box

There’s a lot to say about the parts you get. The air filter is probably better than K&N’s intake filters, which is really saying a lot. The parts and fittings are made of high-quality silicone so that they will last forever. The filter box keeps all the garbage out, making it one of the best units to protect your engine.

It also has this super cool clear cover. You get the exposed pod filter look and convenience without it actually being exposed to mud and gunk.

Quality and Fitment

Like the other more expensive, top-shelf systems, the S&B just needs to be snapped in place. Since they don’t manufacture the system for very many vehicles, they can afford to keep all the factory sensor locations. The stock locations make it 50-state legal and make it incredibly easy to install.

As for quality, there’s nothing higher. Like we pointed out previously, it uses premium silicone instead of rubber for fittings, which means it won’t crack over time. The filters are some of the best on the market, and the injection-molded plastic is less susceptible to bends and damage than the thin aluminum of other products.

Our Take

If you are serious about off-road, your choices probably come down to either the S&B or the Airaid kit. The Airaid is new and cool, but the S&B will protect your motor better. Out in the dunes or jungles, it doesn’t matter how good your motor is if you clog the filter with debris, and that puts the S&B on top.

Pros

  • Really high quality
  • Looks amazing
  • 50-state Legal

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Only offer kits for trucks and SUVs

3. Best Simple Kit: Spectre Performance Intake Kit

Spectre Performance Intake Kit

Why we like it: The Spectre Performance is less expensive than the K&N, but still top-notch in quality and design.

Editor’s Rating:

About the Brand

Spectre is not a big brand. It’s not really a brand you will see advertised on the windshield; no one will brag that they just got a new Spectre performance intake.

You will see them at track days and autocrosses, though. You’ll see them in the cars that are built to go without regard to show. The beat-up Miata that catches you off guard when the blowoff valve snorts in your direction has one, and the old CRX that just took away your poll position has one. Get the AEM if you need the yellow sticker. Get the Spectre if you like telling people that Spectre built the first gas-powered car to go over 400mph.

What You Get in the Box

Spectre intakes are meant to just be bare bones units, so you don’t get a whole lot of customization options. It’s an oiled filter, but they are cheaper, and you will probably just buy a new one instead of cleaning and re-oiling. The aluminum tube is on the thin side, but it’s polished and looks good.

The heatshield isn’t insulated, so it won’t work as good as other units. They do make the heatshields fit easily into your engine compartment. You won’t have to fight a universal fit shield like the Million Parts deal.

Quality and Fitment

The quality is good for the price, and the fitment is fine as long as you don’t expect too much. The Spectre is high on our list compared to other cheap offerings because of the adaptability. They are such a simple unit that you can configure them to fit in just about any condition.

The place where things can fall apart is sensor installation. Which is to say that Spectre does not offer any variation for sensor type in their products. You have to either eliminate the sensor or use stock components. That means no smog, and you’ll have to fight with newer cars.

Our Take

If looks and brand don’t matter, but you still need a good quality filter, then Spectre has you covered. Unless you have to pass smog, then it’s probably better to pay the extra money on a different brand like K&N.

Pros

  • Clean and simple
  • Very adaptable design
  • Inexpensive for the quality

Cons

  • Not 50-state legal
  • No dedicated sensor install points

4. Best for Modern Muscle Cars: BBK Intake

BBK Intake

Why we like it: The BBK CAI is 50-state legal, so you can pass smog in California. That puts it in a pretty exclusive club.

Editor’s Rating:

About the Brand

BBK is synonymous with Mustang Power. They build a lot of parts that make Ford Mustangs go faster, and they have since the 80s. If you have ever seen a Fox Body destroying the competition at the drags, chances are there’s a big blue BBK stamp in at least four places under the hood.

Recently they have branched out and created beautiful intakes for Camaros and Challengers too. Well, those and Raptors, but going from one big Ford V8 to another isn’t exactly groundbreaking. If you have an American V8, wearing the BBK badge is a sign that you speak the power language.

What You Get in the Box

Most of their kits contain a polished metal tube, a polished metal heatshield, and an oversized oiled filter. There’s nothing remarkable about the bits and pieces that come in the BBK kits. It’ll be a recurring theme as we talk about it. BBK only makes a handful of different intakes, so each kit is trimmed down and meant for the motor they are going to be attached to.

The polished heat shield is a little unique and goes really well with the polished tubing. BBK also chose blue as their color, probably to stand out against K&N’s dominating red and orange, so you are in luck if you like blue.

Quality and Fitment

The quality and fit are fantastic. The benefit to the BBK philosophy of only building parts for big American motors means that they have a lot of experience with making things that fit big American motors. The polished aluminum piping is sturdy, the couplers have grooves that hold the clamps in place, and it comes with its own bolts to replace the off-color stock ones.

Those of you who have ever tried to clamp a pipe in place with a hose clamp that’s sliding all over the place will know just how much little design elements can remove the frustration out of an install.

Their biggest strength is also where you find their biggest letdown. If you have a 2009 Mustang GT, the fit is amazing. Install it, the sensors just line right up, it’s legal in California, everything will be perfect. If you own a WRX? You are just out of luck. BBK does not make any universal kit pieces, and they do not care about imported sports cars. Stick with AEM.

Our Take

It costs less than the K&N equivalent, you get a great horsepower bump, and you can’t beat the polished metal look. If they made kits for more models, it would be in the running for the best cold air on the market. They don’t, though, so they will have to settle for being a really good product that won’t be the right choice for a lot of people.

Pros

  • Offers some of the best performance for the money
  • BBK is a very well known, established brand
  • 50-state legal

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Really only available for modern American V8s.

5. Best Budget Pick: Million Parts Air Intake System

Million Parts Air Intake System

Why we like it: The Million Parts system is very inexpensive, and it works. That makes it a perfect entry level part.

Editor’s Rating:

About the Brand

Million Parts is a lesser known Chinese manufacturer. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s not the curse it used to be. It’s just, well, you’d never tell people what it is if you got it. You might brag about how little you paid for it, but we guarantee that you won’t remember who the manufacturer was after a year. In fact, you’d probably have trouble finding it again because they will have changed names.

In the industry, we’d call the entire lot of generic parts “eBay” parts because of how prevalent these random brands are on the site. It doesn’t matter what the brand actually is; it’s just an eBay intake. They go great with eBay turbos and eBay mufflers.

Again, they work, and they are great for cheap builds. It’s not like it won’t suck in air or damage your engine or anything. Just don’t lie about what it is when asked. You’ll get more cred owning up to it than is worth risking in a lie.

What You Get in the Box

There will be a bunch of fittings, tubes, a decent filter, and a heat shield in the kit. It’s something you’ll find with any cheaper kit. To keep costs down, the manufacturer will make many elbows, pre-bent tubes, and couplers to be used across any platform. Usually, even the heat shield is just a simple bent piece that can fit in a lot of different cars.

The one thing that sets the Million Parts kit apart is the filter. These inexpensive kits can have really bad filters, to the point where to get the most out of a kit, you should just buy a cheaper K&N filter to stuff on the end. The Million Parts paper filter is not bad; you don’t have to worry about it letting a bunch of dirt through. Plus, you get to choose the color.

Quality and Fitment

Quality is just something you won’t find with these types of kits. The aluminum pipes are super thin and prone to scratching, the hose clamps that hold the couplers together are difficult to work with. Chances are that even though you ordered the right kit for your car, you will have to fight with the installation to get it to fit right.

You also are not going to get any sensor variety or 50-state legality. Most of the time, when installing a kit like this, you’ll end up keeping parts of the stock air intake. That’s not unique to cheap parts; AEM is the same way. It’s just that unlike, say, the S&B intake, it’s not a direct drop-in replacement for the entire system.

Our Take

We get it. We call cold air intakes an entry-level modification, something that is for beginners. However, even the inexpensive quality ones are still hundreds of dollars. That puts them out of reach for people like students or people just barely getting into automobiles.

The good news is that generic parts are not as bad they were in the past. The Million Parts intake is good enough to look the part, sound the part, and introduce someone to car modification who doesn’t want to drop over $100 on a length of aluminum pipe.

Pros

  • Less expensive than the big brand names
  • Can be used in a lot of motors
  • Included filter is surprisingly good

Cons

  • Couplers are low quality
  • Not legal everywhere due to lack of sensor space

6. Best Compatability: Injen Technologies Intake Systems

Injen Technologies Intake Systems

Why we like it: Injen’s polished, high flow tubings and low restriction filters are the best things you can get if power is your only concern.

Editor’s Rating:

About the Brand

Injen was the company that started the polished tubing craze in the 90s. Injen and AEM dominated the tuner market, and Injen grabbed a lot of the Euro market too. You can still see their influence anytime you see a drift build on IG; they invented that style.

Nowadays, in addition to being worthy of mentioning in your forum signature, they also pride themselves on making performance parts for any car. 1992 MR2? They have it. 2015 Infiniti Q50? They have that too. They are a lot like the high-tech cousin to K&N. If K&N is the most popular kid in school, Injen is the kid everyone comes to when they need help with their math homework.

What You Get in the Box

The linked product is a short ram intake. We will discuss the specific different types here, but depending on your car’s make and model, it may not be short. The bits and pieces you get when you order any Injen intake are all pretty much the same, though. It will include a bent piece of polished aluminum tubing and a filter.

The assumption with high-end performance-oriented upgrades like the Injen or AEM is that you will source the other parts. If you want an air filter box or a heatshield, you will have to find it yourself. In the modding scene, it’s really common for every part to be separate so that you can find custom parts for your build. Pre-built kits usually won’t work since you will probably have modified the features they are meant to attach to.

Quality and Fitment

The quality is right on par with the other big players like BBK. It’s honestly better than K&N; the polished pipes bring a durability level that molded plastic pipes can’t achieve.

The quality and simplicity also lead to really easy installs. There’s just not much to do, and the parts are so high quality that you don’t have to think very hard to attach it to your motor. Just understand that it’s not a complete system like the Airad. It won’t have a MAP sensor hookup because they expect you to be modifying your car and may not even have the sensors in the stock locations.

Our Take

Injen or AEM. That’s probably where you are, and we’ll be honest, it’s a really, really tough decision. They are both great companies that make great products for an astounding range of different makes and models. The one thing that makes the Injen stand out is the ease of installation. Injen just focuses a bit more on fitment, not adaptability as AEM does.

Pros

  • Injen makes an intake for every car
  • Parts are good quality
  • Easy install for most models

Cons

  • Not 50-state legal
  • No heat shield

7. Best for Modified Motors: AEM Cold Air Intake

AEM Cold Air Intake

Why we like it: AEM is one of the industry standards when it comes to tuning. The California company does tons of testing so that you can get the most performance possible.

Editor’s Rating:

About the Brand

Even if you only know about performance cars from seeing them on screen, you know AEM. Their stickers are plastered all over the cars in Fast and Furious right alongside other tuner focused companies like Sparco, Toyo, and HKS. That’s because the original Fast and Furious cars were actually enthusiast cars that the studio rented for the close-ups, and tuning enthusiasts since the 80s have relied on AEM for parts.

Now their reputation for building adaptive kits for high-performance motors is legendary. If you are swapping in a 2JZ, they sell an intake kit for it. We pointed out earlier that K&N is pretty good at making something for everyone, but they still hang out in the realm of normalcy. AEM goes full-on nuts with entire pre-bent tubing kits and silicone couplers that can be made to adapt to even the most insane engine builds.

The downside is that the pure performance focus makes them unfriendly towards beginners. Other companies give you a nice set of instructions with big pictures. AEM gives you a box of parts and gets frustrated if you need help figuring out how to install them.

What You Get in the Box

The particular linked product is for a WRX, one of the most modified cars on earth, and it really demonstrates what AEM will give you in a kit. It’s got a crazy bent tube with a bunch of holes and brackets, a gasketed dust shield, and a really nice dry paper filter.

All of that is geared towards modifying the car for power. The paper element filter is more likely to work in any configuration. The bent pipe relocates the factory pickup out of the way and cleans up the engine space, making it easier to work on. The clamps are quick on and off style clamps because AEM knows you’ll be pulling it off to work on things frequently.

Quality and Fitment

The quality is top of the line, which is what you’d expect for what can be the most expensive intake on our list. We say it can be because, on average, the S&B intakes top out the cost chart. However, if you are piecing together a custom intake using AEM parts, it can easily reach 500+ dollars.

The ability to piece together anything is their biggest selling point, though. They sell parts with and without sensor inputs. They sell their own sensors if you don’t want to use the factory ones, and they sell their own controllers so you can override the stupid check engine light that will flash at you if you unplug the factory sensors.

You lose out on an easy install. There’s nothing easy about having to work out your entire build ahead of time and double-check all your routing options before ordering.

Oh, and despite the ability to include all the sensors, AEM intakes are not 50-state legal. They won’t even ship through Amazon to California. Just order from somewhere else and claim it’s for off-highway if you live in a place that Amazon refuses to ship to.

Our Take

You don’t need our take. If you know who AEM is and know what they do, you already know if you are going to pick them over the others. In a very real way, the sticker is worth the cost. Your car makes a statement, and that sticker states, “enjoy staring at my tail lights.”

Pros

  • AEM is the gold standard for tuner performance
  • Fits anything. Even if they don’t make a specific intake for your car, they sell parts to DIY it
  • Filters are top-notch

Cons

  • Not 50-state legal
  • Not good for beginners

8. Easiest Installation: Airaid Intake System

Airaid Intake System

Why we like it: Airaid uses precision molding to make low-restriction tubing that conforms to all sorts of unusual shapes and sizes. That makes them fit as good as a factory part.

Editor’s Rating:

About the Brand

Airaid is the newest player on the block. Where most of these companies were around in the 80s, or even earlier if you are K&N, Airaid was barely a company in the late 90s and wasn’t really a player on the market until the 2010s.

What they’ve done is try to take on the S&B and BBK market, building mostly systems for off-road and muscle. They are becoming really well known in Jeep circles, and are gaining popularity all over the place for their focus on simple, easy to install upgrades.

What You Get in the Box

When you order an Airaid kit, you get a molded plastic part that looks like it was made by your car’s manufacturer. The black plastic fits right in with the rest of the motor. The airbox looks like a factory airbox that’s just designed better, and the gasketing will blend right in with the rest of the modern compact motor.

You can choose paper or oil filters; both are of good quality. What you can’t get is the 50-state legal sticker. You can get extra pieces to make them lawful, and some kits do include those parts, but the standard kits won’t include that all-important sticker.

Quality and Fitment

The quality is good. The filter isn’t as good as others, but it will keep the dirt out. If you really want ultra-high quality, grab the S&B intake instead.

Airaid instead focuses on easy installation. They just drop in. You won’t find a more straightforward modification to install. The molded plastic is lightweight, so it’s even easy to position and clamp down.

They are still a new company too. Right now, they really only make parts for large displacement motors or off-road-focused vehicles. Their product line is constantly expanding, and they will likely achieve 50-state legal status in the near future.

Our Take

It’s always exciting to see a fresh company take on the giants with new innovations, and that’s what Airaid feels like. They aren’t top tier yet; they need to get that California stamp of approval before they can take all the number one spots. You definitely won’t be disappointed with them, though.

Pros

  • Factory fitment, even in tight engine bays
  • Air-box helps maximize performance without relocating stock placement
  • Molded intake tubes are lightweight and easy to work with

Cons

  • Only 50-state legal with additional parts
  • Only fits newer Trucks and SUVs, and the occasional V8 muscle car

9. Best Universal System: K&N Universal Air Intake System

K&N Universal Air Intake System

Why we like it: It doesn’t matter what you drive; you can route this intake to suck cold air in with this K&N.

Editor’s Rating:

About the Brand

We already covered one K&N CAI kit here. but if you really want to see how into the whole “we dominate the market” thing they are, check this product out. It wasn’t enough that they made an intake system for just about every vehicle, including motorcycles. They had to make something that’s just a tube you can attach to any motor ever.

Look, we understand if you don’t want to like K&N. They are everywhere, and their commercials play way too frequently. However, you have to respect a company that is willing to look at their incredibly impressive lineup and say, “Yeah, but what about that one guy over there? We don’t make a product specifically for him, let’s remedy that.”

What You Get in the Box

A funny-looking rubber hose and a pod that looks like it came off a spaceship. Inside the funny pod is one of K&N’s famous oiled filters. The big thing that separates this setup from everything else is the flexible rubber hose. Unlike rigid metal or plastic intakes, you can route the intake wherever you want.

The downside to the UFO pod is that it’s more restrictive, and the long hose adds in even more restriction. It’s not really a product for high-performance applications. It’s more a way to get a K&N lifetime filter and clean intake onto anything.

Quality and Fitment

The quality is fine, but you have to work everything out to install it. There are no mounting holes; you need to work that out yourself. There are no sensor holes; you’ll have to figure out how to install those yourself, and so on and so forth. That’s the downside to a universal product. Being universal means that they can’t predict where any part needs to be, so they just don’t bother.

It is really cool that you can throw a low restriction K&N filter on anything, though. We’ve even seen them on old tractors. The price might seem steep for that, but no one makes stock replacement parts for old or unique machines anymore. With the lifetime filter and universal fit, this thing can quickly become a lifesaver.

Our Take

Is it the greatest thing ever? No, but you can attach it to a boat if you want to. It’s got their instantly recognizable orange band black logo, it uses oiled lifetime filters, and it’s in a metal housing. What more could you want?

Pros

  • Fits a wide range of applications
  • K&N filters are among the best
  • Will last a long time

Cons

  • Can be hard to install
  • You won’t notice much performance gain

10. Best Bare Bones: Partol 3” Universal Intake

Partol 3” Universal Intake

Why we like it: Sometimes, you need to buy something cheap so you know why you should have bought something expensive. The Partol at least looks really good.

Editor’s Rating:

About the Brand

Partol doesn’t mean anything. Scroll down to the similar products section on their sales page, and you’ll see the exact same unit for about ten different names. It’s just like the Million Parts intake, but somehow even less of a real brand. It takes a certain talent to be a knock off of a knock off.

Just like we said before, you’d never brag about having a strange, brandless eBay intake. What they are is a good place to start. You buy one, it looks good, you start learning about modifications, and then you ditch it in favor of an Injen.

On the note of looking good, we want to draw attention to that. Even though Million Parts and Partol are just brandless, random intakes, they actually look good. Partol, in particular, does a great job with fake carbon fiber; they look impressive even if they aren’t.

What You Get in the Box

The kits come with tiny fake carbon fiber or blue aluminum tubing, a filter, a single coupler, and a little filter. It’s not great or anything. The tiny filter element is probably more restrictive than your stock air intake, and you probably won’t be sucking up cold air because the tube will be too short.

It also comes with a breather tube, which most companies don’t include. It feels like they know that their product isn’t that good, so they give you a length of rubber hose as a consolation prize. But hey, it’s like $30 bucks. You can’t expect it to compete with a $200 Injen intake.

Quality and Fitment

The quality is bad, and the fitment is meh. Sorry, we know you’ve probably seen the same thing said about cheap intakes everywhere you have gone to try and validate buying one. They are “universal” in that you can force it onto most engines, but you will get a check engine light blinking at you because there are no sensor holes. It’s easy to mount because it doesn’t have any proper mounting.

Our Take

We know there’s a lot of people itching to buy the cheap, bottom of the barrel products just to see if they really are that bad. The truth is, they aren’t that bad. They just aren’t good, and you will be left wanting more out of a product. The Spectre intake is not that much more expensive and will actually add throttle response to your car’s driving characteristics. The Partol will just add a bit of noise.

Pros

  • Really cheap
  • Looks pretty cool
  • Will make your car louder, and isn’t that all that really matters?

Cons

  • Parts are low quality
  • Not 50-state legal. Might cause you to fail inspection in up to 6 states, actually, since it will probably cause leaks.

An In-Depth Look at Cold Air Intakes

We said above that we’d get into the science and details, so let’s get into it. Just tread carefully; many internet arguments have been started over these devices.

What Is a Cold Air Intake?

In short, your factory airbox is really restrictive. It’s a mess of plastic boxes and tubes because the people who built your car designed it to be cheap, comfortable, and foolproof. A cold air intake replaces the mess of plastic with sleek tubes and pod filters, so there is a lot less restriction. Good cold air intakes also relocate the pickup to a place that will suck in cooler, denser air for better power. In theory, we’ll discuss that a lot more in the bottom section here.

The Pros and Cons of Cold Air Intakes

Before you jump into buying one for your car, you should know the potential downsides. In many cases, they don’t outweigh the benefits, especially if you plan on doing more modifications down the road. but to make a good decision, you should know both sides of the equation.

Pros

Here’s the good. You’ll notice we don’t include fuel economy on this list; we’ll address that in the section below.

Looks

Stock air boxes are a mess of plastic and rubber. Most CAI intakes are clean, sleek pieces of hardware with big, colored filters. Even sort of stock looking devices like the one S&B produces really clean up the engine bay and make the whole compartment look better.

The intake is one of the first things people notice when you look at a motor. Even if you know nothing about engines, you know that the way it pulls in air translates to how much power you make. The blower-style intake on Mad Max’s interceptor, the big turbos that every video game focuses on, and the big pod filters that sit on top of every single modified engine on every single auto magazine cover or movie poster. No matter how you slice it, adding a CAI can make your car’s motor look good.

Sound

Factory air intakes are meant to help silence your motor. The average person doesn’t want to hear their engine; they like quiet, sealed cabins. That can be really boring, though. If you are trying to get better performance out of your engine, you probably want it to sound like it’s performing better.

A CAI gets rid of all the insulation and sound stifling rubber tubes so that you can hear the air being sucked in and turned into torque. Especially with simpler units like the Spectre CAI that just have nothing to deaden the sound.

Power

The box claims 10hp!” That meme was born from the marketing of pod filters on cold air systems. It’s not true. At least, not as a blanket statement. It’s been discussed on YouTube by MCM, Engineering Explained, Donut, and countless others, so if you want to see the debate in action watch, any of them.

The truth is that you may notice some performance gain, but mostly in the form of top-end HP or minor increases in acceleration from improved throttle response. Video games and parts store clerks would have you believe it leads to massive power gains, but testing over and over again has just proven that it’s marginal.

Again, just watch any of the previously linked videos. Mighty Car Mods actually has a whole series testing intakes on turbocharged cars as well as cars with very weak motors.

Cons

CAIs are awesome, but there are downsides. Not enough to outweigh the good parts, especially if you are here and already know you want one, but they should be discussed.

Cost

A CAI costs a lot more than a stock system. Not just because you are spending extra money on the intake itself, but the filters are more expensive and need to be replaced more often. Unless you get a reusable filter, but those are much more expensive upfront. We go into oiled filters here in the myth section.

Risk

Risk comes in two flavors: risk to your engine from debris and risk to your engine from incompatible intakes. Except for the more off-road oriented filters like the Airaid kit, aftermarket intakes that relocate the filter make them more susceptible to debris.

A cold air intake that moves the filter down into the cold under-car air is especially susceptible to sucking up water from puddles. If water gets into your motor, your motor will hydro lock and stop functioning.

The other issue that can arise if you throw on a filter and don’t set it upright. Sensors that run your car rely on information from the air to determine how much fuel to add per rotation. That’s really simplified, but the short of it is that if you don’t install the sensors correctly, your car will run poorly. The longer your car runs poorly, the more damage to the engine you can cause.

Legality

Dual short ram intakes on a large v8 motor

Some states have smog laws that will prevent you from passing inspection if you modify the intake. California is the most notorious one. The state is pretty much a constant thorn in every modding scene; it makes the fact that the Fast and Furious films take place in LA hilarious.

That’s why we tried hard to point out which intakes were 50-state legal and which ones weren’t. Companies like K&N had to spend a lot of money, and they had to do a lot of paperwork to get that stamp.

Myths

The myths surrounding cold air intakes are legendary and spark flame wars across the entire world wide web. We don’t want to get into that; we just want to dispel some of the more prevalent ones.

Myth #1: Your Factory Air Intake is Garbage

This is just one of those things that everyone sort of believes, but isn’t really rooted in reality. Your factory airbox is meant to be a compromise between a lot of things, like cost and ease of changing the filter. That doesn’t make it bad. In fact, most cars have engineered air intake boxes that already are cold air intakes. Plus, they include cool features like a Helmholtz resonator that helps pull in more air. You can read about them here; they are pretty awesome.

The truth is that if you are trying to convince yourself to get a new CAI, don’t go blaming the engineers that spent years developing the airbox in your car for making a bad intake. They did a fine job; just admit that you want your car to look and sound better.

Myth #2: You’ll Get Better Gas Mileage

This ties into the previous myth. It turns out engineers who get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to make your car efficient are pretty good at it. In the early days of heavily restrictive air boxes, it was true that switching to a more open intake would improve efficiency, but that hasn’t been true in over 40 years. Sorry, we know the box at the parts store says that it totally will improve your fuel economy, but chances are it won’t.

Myth #3: Oiled Filters Are the Best Filters

K&N’s biggest claim to fame is its oiled air filters. They claim they last a lifetime and offer better airflow than any paper filter. Most performance intakes are available with oiled filters for that reason, even cheaper ones like the Spectre intake on our list.

It’s not totally true. First, unless you clean them fairly often, oiled filters can be more restrictive than paper filters. Oiled filters get dirtier faster than paper filters, and keeping a filter clean is the most important thing to do if you want good airflow.

Second, the oil can actually separate from the filter and then gunk up sensors and other things inside your engine. That’s because most people use too much oil when they clean them. Companies like S&P sell these intakes with filters pre-oiled to avoid that mistake, but eventually, you will have to wash and re-oil it yourself. That is when the danger comes in.

They do work great and save money over your car’s lifetime if you regularly service them. The average person doesn’t regularly service their air cleaner, which means the average person probably won’t see that benefit. Honestly, the average person is probably better off with a paper element filter that they replace more often.

Myth #4: It’s Not Really Illegal

Myth 4 is a weird one that you’ll see if you hang out on Facebook car groups. You’ll get someone who claims to know a guy who had a full intake kit on his Civic Si and totally got it smogged at a gas station in San Diego. Therefore it’s not something they really care about.

That is false. There are ways to smog a car in California or other areas that require inspection that are not legal. That doesn’t magically make it legal to install a modification to a piece of emissions equipment. You can get a ticket for it. You can fail smog and have your car labeled a gross polluter, and you can incur extra fines if your car is impounded because it won’t be considered road legal.

If you are hell-bent on installing a non-compliant CAI in California, at least keep your stock intake for when you get told to pull off the aftermarket one or get fined.

Short Ram, Ram Air, and Warm Air

These terms get confused a lot, especially when an intake can be all 3. We’ll keep it brief since the type of engine and type of car will dictate the shape more than your wants will.

A ram air intake is designed to funnel more air into your motor. 80s Camaros were famous for coming from the factory with ram air snorkels. Engineered cold air intakes like the Airaid intake we mention incorporate elements of a ram air system into their design.

A short ram intake is the same as a ram air, just short. The idea is that the air will have less distance to travel and can therefore make it into your engine with greater efficiency. It’s something that’s not totally true, there are drawbacks to the short design that can outweigh the advantage of a less restrictive pipeline. You can read about the pros and cons on this website; they do a good write up of intake knowledge in general.

Warm air intakes are just what they suggest. Older motors have a carburetor that sits on top of the engine. The air filter sits directly on top of the carb. Unfortunately, that means that the air going into the motor was heated by the engine.

Engines are just air pumps; the more air you can get into them, the better they run. Hot air is less dense than cold air, so you want cold air for performance. As we mentioned above in the myths section, most modern cars already have a snorkel for drawing in cold air instead of heated engine air. Some, mostly cheaper, cold air intakes can become warm air intakes if installed incorrectly. The Partol intake we mention on our list is especially susceptible. It’s hard to get that tiny pipe far enough away from the motor to suck in cold air.

Installing a Cold Air Intake

Each intake is a little different, but there are some universal steps. Always make sure to check the instructions, and if you are stuck, all the major manufacturers have helplines. Injen and S&P, especially, you can call them any time and get help.

  1. Disconnect the negative battery terminal. That’s just something you always do whenever you work on a motor.
  2. Remove the factory air box cover and factory filter.
  3. Carefully disconnect and remove the sensors. Some cars use a ring style sensor that comes out as a unit, some just have a length of hose going to a little black box. If you don’t know what the sensor looks like, double-check by looking it up online.
  4. Remove the rest of the factory air intake. The factory intake ends at a throttle body on some cars, and the entire intake will be really short. Others have miles of rubber hose.
  5. Install the couplers for the new intake and mock it up. It’s easier to know what to do if you do a dry run and make sure there won’t be any problems during the install.
  6. Make any adjustments necessary. Sometimes there will be things in the way that you have to remove and relocate.
  7. Install the new intake.
  8. Install the sensors into the new intake.
  9. Connect the battery back up, and you’re good to go.

Let Your Engine Breathe

Hopefully, none of the myth talk or convoluted terms scared you away. Buying and installing a CAI is a rewarding thing to do and can help you connect with your car. That alone is worth it, even if it won’t add 100 horsepower and 20 mpg like the video game says it will.