Cold Air vs. Short Ram Air Intakes

If you've ever started a camp fire, maybe you remember blowing on the embers to get it going. That's because combustion requires oxygen. That's why your engine needs air to burn its fuel. The air is drawn to the engine by the air intake.

It stands to reason that a better air intake, with better airflow, can improve combustion, and make your engine work better. That's why a lot of auto enthusiasts replace their stock air intakes with performance upgrades. Two of the most common types of performance upgrades are cold air intakes and short ram intakes. Cold air intakes draw air from outside the engine bay to give the engine cooler, denser air. Short ram intakes draw their air from inside the engine bay but give a short, smooth path to the engine. Each one of these systems has its own benefits and drawbacks. Let's look at the differences in terms of performance, practicality, and aesthetics.

Performance

An air intake
Stock air intakes give air a bumpy path to the engine.

Both cold air intakes and short ram intakes aim to bring more air into the engine. This results in better combustion and more power and torque. Some manufacturers claim that their intakes can add as much as 20 horsepower. Both cold air and short ram intakes provide a smoother path for air to follow to the engine. Stock air intakes have accordion shaped interiors to reduce noise (we'll talk more about intake sound in the aesthetics section). That makes it a little more difficult for air to reach the engine.

Short ram air intakes provide a shorter path (hence the name), which results in a better throttle response. When you step on the gas, the power is there quicker. Cold air intakes offer bigger overall improvements in power, though. They draw in cold air, which is denser. That means that there's more oxygen available for combustion which means more power. Short ram intakes draw air from inside the engine bay which is much warmer. This can get especially troublesome when the radiator fan kicks on. The fan will start blowing hot air into the intake. Some short ram intakes use a heat shield to keep from heating the air up too much. There is one advantage to the warmer air in the short ram intake. A warmer air temperature is better for a complete combustion of the fuel (that's the principle that exhaust gas recirculation works on, by the way), which means that short ram intakes give better gas mileage than cold air intakes. Either type will usually be the same or better than the stock intake, though.

Practicality

A performance air intake
Many performance air intakes use a heat shield.

In order to get air from outside the engine bay, cold air intakes are run to the fender or the wheel well. That can expose them to water. In the rain, that's probably not a big deal. Driving through a big puddle might be a different matter. If water gets into the air intake, it can get into the engine. That can lead to a condition called hydrostatic lock, or hydrolock for short. Hydrolock can cause the engine to stop working entirely. Even if your air filter gets splashed, hydrolock is rare, and there are shields and covers you can put over the air filter as well as bypass systems you can install to protect your air intake from water.

The location of the cold air intake also makes it more difficult to install and maintain than a short ram intake. Replacing air filters is much easier on short ram intakes due to their easily accessible location in the engine bay. The air filters for cold air intakes, found behind the fender or in the wheel well, are much harder to access. Finally, short ram air intakes cost less to buy than cold air intakes.

Aesthetics

Car modifiers can get pretty particular in their tastes, so they may prefer the look or the sound of one type of air intake over another. Many prefer the appearance of the short ram intake with its air filter visible in the engine compartment.

Short ram intakes and cold air intakes both make more noise than stock intakes. First of all, performance intakes don't muffle engine sounds like stock ones do. Secondly, they make a sucking noise as they draw in air. Short ram intakes tend to produce a lower pitched, throatier sound than cold air intakes, due to their reduced length. Many gear heads prefer the sound of short ram intakes.

So, Which One is Right for Me?

Which type of performance air intake you install depends on what you hope to get out of it. If you're all about horsepower, then you want a cold air intake. If you want to make your modifications at a lower cost, or you aren't keen on doing a whole lot of work, then you want a short ram intake. You might prefer the look or sound of one over the other. Once you've weighed all these factors, though, you can confidently make an informed decision about what type of intake to put on your car.

Looking to upgrade? 1A Auto offers a selection of performance air intake systems and high flow air filters from brands such as K&N for the automotive enthusiast looking to increase their vehicle's acceleration and performance. These simple to install upgrades for your vehicle will save you money by improving gas mileage and give it an extra "pep."