top of page

Should You Get a Bigger Intercooler? (Complete Guide)

Updated: Mar 10

An engine is already scorching hot; with the addition of turbochargers and superchargers, an engine gets even hotter due to increased air intake temperatures.

However, too much heat in an engine may produce engine knock, either detonation or pre-ignition, none of which are desirable and can rapidly damage an engine.

Luckily, a pretty simple device known as an intercooler can help reduce this air intake heat and cool down the engine.

This is especially important in tuned vehicles, which is why you may want to upgrade your intercooler.

Get 50% OFF + FREE shipping on car accessories and more at LostSmoke

Table of Contents:


What Is an Intercooler?

Intercoolers are mechanical devices that are used to cool a gas after it has been compressed.

Sometimes an intercooler is also known as a charge air cooler or charge cooler, among other similar phrases.

Compressing a gas, such as air, increases the energy of the gas, which in turn raises its temperature.

An intercooler is usually in the form of a heat exchanger, which exchanges the heat from the intake air to the atmosphere.

RGB LED Car Vent Air Freshener

Shop Now: RGB LED Car Vent Air Freshener

You can find a wide range of uses for intercoolers in several products, including air compressors and air conditioners, refrigeration systems, gas turbines, and of course, automotive engines.

Generally speaking, they are utilised to enhance volumetric efficiency in a forced induction (turbocharged or supercharged) internal combustion engine.

This enhanced volumetric efficiency increases the engine's power potential and is achieved by raising the density of the intake air.

intercooler on a car
Example of an intercooler on a car.

How Does an Intercooler Work?

An intercooler is a type of heat exchanger, which means it exchanges heat from one thing to another.

In this case, it exchanges the heat from the compressed intake air to the atmosphere air.

Get 50% OFF + FREE shipping on car accessories and more at LostSmoke

It does this by flowing the charged intake air through an enclosed tube with lots of small metal fins inside; this enclosed tube has many other small metal fins attached to it externally, which air from outside travel through.

These many metal fins transfer the heat away from the pressurised air into the atmosphere air, thus increasing its density and power potential.

intercooler diagram
Intake & exhaust diagram showing intercooler function.

Types of Intercooler

There are two main types of intercooler, air-to-air and liquid-to-air.

In terms of an air-to-air intercooler, there are also two main types known as bar and plate and tube and fin intercoolers.

There are also many variations of placement, construction and features of an intercooler, which I'll explain further down.

NOS Bottle Soft Plushy

Shop Now: NOS Bottle Soft Plushy


When someone mentions an intercooler, the air-to-air kind is the one that most people think of.

This type of intercooler is usually visible from the outside of the car, especially if it is front-mounted.

There's a reason its prominent placement; it requires high airflow.

The ability of this cooler to have an effect on intake air temperatures is dependent on airflow through it.

An air-to-air system is also very efficient; nevertheless, it depends on airflow (which is determined by vehicle speed) to produce the necessary cooling.

Get 50% OFF + FREE shipping on car accessories and more at LostSmoke

When there is minimal or no airflow at idle, these coolers may be susceptible to a process known as heat-soak.

Heat soak may be even more of a problem if an air-to-air intercooler is located inside an engine bay; it may even overheat at idle when engine bay temperatures begin to impact the intercooler's performance.

The air-to-air intercooler is the most common and usually the most feasible type; therefore, this article will be based on the air-to-air intercooler.

intercooler design
Here's how an air-to-air intercooler is designed.


As the name suggests, the liquid-to-air cooler transfers heat from the air flowing through it by using the engines coolant.

liquid to air intercooler

The coolant and the air are in separate channels and do not directly touch one another.

Due to this type of intercoolers high efficiency and reliability, it has found its way into the engine compartments of a variety of OEM cars.

car tapestries

Shop Now: Car-Inspired HD Tapestries

Heat is transferred between the air and the coolant via small metal fins.

A low-temperature thermostat is usually used to control fluid temperatures in a system like this.

liquid to air intercooler diagram

When it comes to very powerful vehicles that generate a lot of heat, liquid-to-air systems are usually the better option when compared to air-to-air intercoolers.

This heat exchanger system is more complex than a typical air-to-air intercooler as it necessitates the installation of coolant lines and fittings and the installation of a coolant pump and possibly an additional radiator.

Get 50% OFF + FREE shipping on car accessories and more at LostSmoke

For the vast majority of cars, a more conventional air-to-air cooler is sufficient for both street and also track usage.

Bar & Plate

Bar and plate intercoolers feature more rectangular air galleries than other types of intercoolers, which allows a greater amount of compressed air to flow through the intercooler at one time.

bar and plate intercooler
Bar and plate style intercooler core.

However, airflow flowing through these galleries is more difficult since they are less aerodynamic.

They are less efficient than a tube and fin intercooler, but they are often more durable and can tolerate greater air pressure than a tube and fin intercooler

They are also heavier and tend to have a lower pressure drop.

Tube & Fin

Air galleries in tube and fin style intercoolers are curved on the edges.

tube and fin intercooler
Tube and fin style intercooler.

This is due to the curved borders, which reduces their total air capacity.

When ambient air is sent through the tube and fin intercooler to cool the compressed air, the tube and fin intercooler produces less resistance than other types of intercoolers.

Tube and fin designs are often more efficient and lighter than traditional designs, although they are not as robust, which could be a concern for some use cases.

RGB LED Car Vent Air Freshener

Shop Now: RGB LED Car Vent Air Freshener

As a result, they are unable to withstand as much boost pressure as bar and plate style intercoolers.

In addition, the pressure loss in tube and fin intercoolers is greater.

Fin Density

The fins on an intercooler are a critical component in its construction, since they may mean the difference between a highly efficient cooler and a terrible intercooler.

high density fin intercooler
Here is an intercooler with a high-density of fins.

The number of fins increases the amount of heat exchange, as we have already said; nevertheless, this comes at the cost of airflow and restriction.

Changing the height and pitch of the fins generate variations in the total surface area of the fins, which will help to increase density and therefore cooling ability.

FPI (fins per inch) may vary considerably both inside and externally.

Low density fin intercooler
Here's an intercooler with a low-density of fins.

When it comes to internal and exterior fins, the pitch and height are usually the same. The main variation is the kind of fin used.

Get 50% OFF + FREE shipping on car accessories and more at LostSmoke

Fin Styles

Cooling fins, both internal and exterior fins, are available in a variety of forms.

When it comes to automotive intercoolers, there are usually two styles of fins.

  1. Straight fin

  2. Offset fin

In general, intercoolers have an interior fin with an offset design and an exterior fin with a louvred straight design.

This design creates turbulence inside the cooler, which improves heat transfer, while also allowing ambient airflow to travel freely through the exterior fins of the cooler's core for better cooling.

offset fin intercooler
An example piece of an offset fin style.

As you can see, the offset type fin seems to have much greater surface area for air interaction than the traditional form fin.

The offset type of fin seems to have much greater surface area for air interaction than the traditional straight fin.

NOS Bottle Soft Plushy

Shop Now: NOS Bottle Soft Plushy

This configuration will cause air to split many times as it travels through the core, thus increasing the amount of heat exchange that may be accomplished.

While this will result in improved heat transmission and reduced intake air temperature, it will also result in greater pressure loss, which you should consider.

Most high-quality aftermarket intercoolers will use an offset fin style to maximise intake air cooling.

straight fin intercooler
An example piece of a straight fin style.

Straight style fins are usually cheaper to produce and are used more often in OEM vehicles.

Which Type of Intercooler Is Best?

The most significant disadvantage of buying a liquid system is the expense, which may be as much as two to three times more than the cost of an air-to-air configuration, depending on the components utilised in the setup.

The majority of users will be able to obtain the necessary intake air cooling performance from an air-to-air configuration, which is much cheaper and usually easier to install and setup.

As for the variations of air-to-air intercoolers, the most effective for most use cases (assuming it will be front-mounted) seems to be a bar and plate type with a high-density offset-fin style.

Though, if the budget is lower then a bar and plate with a straight-fin style works as well.

car tapestries

Shop Now: Car-Inspired HD Tapestries

Placement of an Intercooler

There are three main places to mount an intercooler, as listed below.

  1. Top-mounted

  2. Side-mounted

  3. Front-mounted


The top-mount intercooler is a kind of heat exchanger that is quite popular for stock heat exchangers.

Subaru's and Mini's use this type of intercooler placement quite often.

top mounted intercooler
Here's an example of a top-mounted intercooler on a Mini.

The name refers to the position of the intercooler, which sits on top of the engine's cylinder head.

It is supplied with airflow via a hood scoop or some kind of ducting from the front grille for this type of cooler.

Placing the intercooler in the engine compartment offers a number of advantages.

Firstly, this cooler is in a secure position where it will not be damaged by road debris.

Suppose you are driving your turbocharged car down a race course when an uninvited stone finds its way into your front-mounted cooler and causes it to burst open.

RGB LED Car Vent Air Freshener

Shop Now: RGB LED Car Vent Air Freshener

The second advantage is a shortened path for pressurised air to travel through, reducing the turbo lag and improving throttle response.

However, there are certain disadvantages to using a top-mounted intercooler system.

Heat soak is likely to be the most significant issue.

Considering that the intercooler is housed inside the engine compartment, it will almost likely be subjected to the heat produced by your engine and exhaust system.

When using a top-mounted intercooler at idle, intake temperatures tend to increase significantly, which may have a detrimental impact on power output.

The installation of a bigger intercooler in place of the original one would undoubtedly assist to minimise the occurrence of heat-soak, but the only way to completely remove it would be to relocate the cooler to a different position.

Get 50% OFF + FREE shipping on car accessories and more at LostSmoke


A side-mounted intercooler is becoming more rare nowadays, although it was formerly standard equipment on a number of cars.

This cooler might be regarded a kind of middle ground between the top mount and front mount, and it is usually only available as a factory standard option.

side mounted intercooler
Here you can see an example of a side-mounted intercooler.

On one of the side intake openings of the bumper, a cooler is mounted to this system and is located toward the front of the car.

As opposed to the conventional bumper design, which blocks airflow via its central section, the side-mounted intercooler draws air in from the side of the bumper.

Because of space limitations, the size of this intercooler is often very restricted, which has an impact on the amount of power and airflow it can handle.

Additionally, pipes must be longer in order to transport air outside the engine compartment and back in again.

NOS Bottle Soft Plushy

Shop Now: NOS Bottle Soft Plushy

For these reasons, it is not usually used as an aftermarket option and is mostly replaced by front-mount intercoolers.


A front-mount intercooler is a modification that not only lowers intake temperatures, but it also adds some visual appeal to the vehicle.

Seeing a big intercooler installed on the bumper of a vehicle is a simple way to recognise a fellow petrolhead enthusiast.