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Should I Intercool My Mustang?

Written By: Chris Bowman

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Forced induction is fine and dandy, but making sure your engine can take the extra pressure with aplomb is grand. Intercoolers and fuel delivery parts will maximize the power from boost while making your Mustang that much more reliable.

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Most mustang owners understand that a turbo or supercharger will provide a significant gain in horsepower. However, when air is compressed, the temperature of that air increases significantly. An intercooler reduces the temperature of the air and provides more horsepower and torque.

American Muscle

What is an Intercooler?

An intercooler is basically a radiator, or heat exchanger. It is usually located on the front of the car in front of the engine’s radiator. When the intake charge from the turbo travels through the intercooler (air to water type), the heat of the intake charge is dissipated through the cooling fins. This results in a cooler, denser intake charge. 

Types of Intercoolers:

  • Air-to-air: mounts before the throttle body, good for turbos and centrifugals
  • Pros and cons: Reliable, but not as efficient as air-to-water
  • Air-to-water: utilizes the engine’s coolant to cool the intake charge, good for top mount superchargers
  • Pros and cons: can bring temps below ambient air temps, but for daily street machines heat soak is possible
Turboed 2014 Mustang on the Dyno at the AM Show

Air-to-Air Intercoolers

There are two types of intercoolers out there, air-to-air and air-to-water. In an air-to-air intercooler, the intake charge itself travels through the intercooler and then enters the intake plenum through the throttle body. As the air is forced through the intercooler, the heat is dissipated via the fins of the intercooler. They are generally used on turbocharged and centrifugal supercharged applications.

Turboed Drag Mustang at the AM 2014 Show

Ait-to-Water Intercoolers

An air-to-water intercooler works much like the engine’s radiator. Water circulated by a pump is circulated through the intercooler, effectively cooling the intake charge. Typically these are used on twin-screw and whipple type superchargers. There is a heat exchanger located in the intake plenum, under the supercharger. The water absorbs the heat from the intake charge, and carries this heat to the intercooler where it’s released. Cool water is then pumped back to the intake plenum.

Whipple Supercharger on a Coyote Powered Mustang

Air-to-Water Pros and Cons

Since a whipple, or twin-screw style supercharger mounts directly to the top of the engine, the air-to-water set-up is about the only option available. Ford chose this type of intercooler for the Eaton supercharged ’03 Cobra, and it has proved to be very efficient. Many drag racers like this set-up because it allows them to run ice water through the intercooler. This will cool the intake charge lower than the ambient temperature outside.

On street applications, icing the intercooler coolant is not really an option. And after a while, the coolant becomes a bit warm. This causes heat soak in the supercharger. Although it won’t cause engine damage, it does result in a power loss. There is a noticeable difference in power and torque when the coolant hasn’t warmed up yet.

Pros:

  • Very high efficiency
  • Efficiency can be exaggerated by using ice, or other chemicals to produce lower temperatures
  • Can be mounted anywhere along the charge pipe route.

Cons:

  • Requires a water pump, a reservoir, a heat exchanger, et cetera
  • Since it is more complex, it naturally causes more opportunities for problem, like leaks
  • Can become heat-soaked when used for long period of hard driving
  • Since it uses water, and additional components, this set-up weighs more
2003 BAMA Mustang Cobra Project Car

Air-to-Air Pros and Cons

The air-to-air intercooler has gained popularity due to its simplicity and reliability. There is no need for an external pump, and as long as the intercooler unit is in good working order, it functions without a hiccup. Many mustangs prefer this unit for street use because of the reliability factor.

The main drawback of the air-to-air intercooler is the limited cooling capability. Due to the fact it uses air to cool the intake charge, intake temps really don’t get any lower than the ambient temperatures outside. They’re also quite bulky, so they take up a little more room.

Pros:

  • Requires no power to work
  • Easier to set-up
  • Requires no liquids to work and therefore, no chances for leaks
  • Does not suffer from heat-soak as long as the intercooler is seeing sufficient air-flow

Cons:

  • Efficiency is only as good as the ambient temperature
  • Efficiency is only as good as the amount of airflow the intercooler is exposed to
  • Cannot be mounted anywhere; must be mounting in an area that is exposed to high volumes of air flow
Shelby 1000 Mustang with an Air-to-Air Intercooler

Whichever You Choose, It's Worth the Investment

Obviously, pick the intercooler that best suits your mustang’s needs. An intercooler is definitely a must-have on a forced-induction mustang. It will allow the engine to safely squeeze out more power. Often times boost pressures can be increased after adding an intercooler due to the cooler intake temps.

Classic Mustang Dragster with a Supercharger Setup
Fitment includes: 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, GT, Cobra, LX, SVO