Last week, we talked about the best coilovers you can choose depending on your needs and budget. This week, we’re going to take a look at a performance upgrade that adds power and hearty induction noises for yet another improvement with more than one purpose. The best performance intake systems you can choose on a budget are today’s topic, so settle in and learn about your options for what we think is the perfect first modification or an excellent way to tie a build together.
It’s worth beginning with some explanation. Induction systems are not all created equal and tend to have one of the largest, longest-running, and most heated debates online. You may have seen the Mighty Car Mods episode where they test stock intakes against ‘pod filter on a stick’ intakes and barely noticed a difference on the dyno, thus concluding that intakes are essentially aesthetic upgrades and nothing more. While results don’t lie, they also don’t tell the whole story.
There are a few different styles of intake systems, each with benefits and drawbacks, that are intended for different purposes. Those styles are:
Cold Air Intake
A true cold air intake system is designed to do two things: improve the rate of flow and volume of air by reducing restrictions with a highly efficient inlet piping and to decrease inlet air temperatures by relocating the filter away from the engine, usually in a fender well or against the air inlets on the front bumper. A cold air intake will also generally have an enclosure that further separates it from the rest of the engine bay for the coldest temperatures possible.
Short Ram Intake
This is a short inlet with a filter that is designed to do one thing only: maximize the flow rate and flow volume of air by forcing as much as possible into the engine. It is not worried about inlet air temperatures. This system is only concerned with how much air volume can be added.
Performance Air Filters
The simplest upgrade for an intake system, a performance filter is designed to improve the flow rate through the intake with a filter that is less restrictive than those used in OE applications. Generally, these filters are more concerned with reusability than adding true performance value but can make some difference.
So which is right for your application? In most cases, if you want a cleaner appearance under the hood of your car, better performance, and lower intake air temperatures, a true cold air intake system is the way to go.
The reason being, colder air is denser. With a less restrictive induction system that provides colder air to your engine, your computer will compensate for the additional air supply by adding more fuel and producing more power. Not only is there an intrinsic benefit the intake adds itself, but an extrinsic one as well. Cold air intakes are generally required for upgraded software tunes and work in conjunction with upgraded exhaust systems, intercoolers, bigger injectors, and other modifications you make to improve your overall power output.
With all that in mind, what are some of the best cold air intakes out there that are both effective and affordable?
ECS Tuning Luft-Technik Induction Systems
Ok, shameless self-promotion time. Our in-house developed intake systems are available for most of the popular models we support. They have options for either carbon fiber or aluminum and silicone construction, which means you can tailor your intake to your budget. The different constructions don’t affect power or performance but do allow you to choose between options that work best for your style, build, and parts budget.
All of our Luft-Technik intakes are dyno tested and list their measured horsepower/torque gains on each product page, so you can know exactly what to expect when you install one. We measure flow rate, intake air temperatures, and power increases across the RPM range for the assurance that our systems are not just flashy showpieces that make a cool noise.
Turner Motorsport Intakes
Also designed in-house by the Turner Motorsport team, their line of intake systems (BMW exclusive, sorry VW/Audi owners) are for the discerning enthusiast who needs an intake that both maximize the efficiency of the induction system and maintains the quality and style of your BMW.
Each of the Turner Motorsport intake systems are also dyno-tested for accurate performance measurements to ensure you know exactly what you’re installing and what to expect with a Turner Motorsport intake.
APR Performance Intakes
Primarily for Audi/VW applications, APR is well known in the aftermarket performance community for their approach to tuning. They produce some of the most aggressive software options for Audi and VW models, which they test alongside their intake systems. For a comprehensive build that sticks with the same manufacturer throughout, APR is an excellent choice.
APR also tests their induction systems on flow benches and a dyno to provide accurate estimates for performance gains with the intake alone as well as common supporting mods, like their software and exhaust systems.
Another major player in performance induction systems, aFe Power primarily develops intakes and filters designed for maximized efficiency and functionality. They develop their own air filters as well as fully enclosed cold air intake systems for a high degree of control over their finished product. For an intake system with proven results, aFe Power offers one of the best in a budget-friendly price point.
While they primarily cater to BMW performance, Burger Motorsports offers effective and affordable intake systems. They focus on retaining as much factory aspects as possible while still creating a system that improves power and efficiency. These are perfect if you are looking for something that is primarily functional and designed to fit like factory (in most cases) for an easy install that doesn’t hurt your wallet too much.
With a focus on Audi and Volkswagen performance, CTS Turbo is known for their improvements to induction systems and turbochargers designed for maximum efficiency. Their cold air intakes are an excellent option for improved intake performance and decreased intake air temperatures due to the construction and isolation of their intake with a heat shield enclosure. While not exactly designed to be eye-catching under the hood, you’ll certainly notice the increase in power and intake noises from a CTS system.
Known for their performance software and billet aluminum goodies, IE intakes are both incredibly attractive and incredibly efficient. IE knows engine performance, especially when it comes to VW/Audi engines. Their talented team of engineers produce some of the most efficient intakes on the market and advertise some of the biggest gains for the price point while still being a true cold air intake system.
To be honest, there are more options than listed here. We chose to primarily examine the most popular choices that were exclusively cold air intake systems within a budget of under $400. When it comes to induction systems, the important things to remember are out-of-the-box performance, looks, and installation. A system that is extremely flashy, with carbon fiber construction, a beautiful enclosure, and lots of intake noises might not perform any better than one that doesn’t look quite as pretty. When you are modifying your car primarily for performance and function, it is best to find the system that works best and offers the most benefits within your budget. If you had to choose between a $350 system that offers the same power as a better-looking system for twice the price, always go for the one that fits your budget first.
Again, intake systems are not by themselves something we would say is going to offer you an extremely noticeable upgrade. You will hear them more clearly than the factory induction system, but they won’t provide an extreme bump in power. Their biggest benefits are the lower intake air temperatures and the room to improve as you continue modifying your car. Once you have an intake, you’re ready for an exhaust upgrade and then a tune. With that, you can move up to more aggressive modifications, should that be the route you’ve chosen.