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Understanding Mustang Cold Air Intakes & Ram Air Intakes

Written By: Andrew Cilio

Understand the difference between a cold air intake and a ram air intake for your Mustang, so you can choose the one that offers you the performance you want.

Mustang Intakes and Their Variants

The stock intake system was designed to be the quietest piece in the engine compartment. This is great for the driver because it decreases the amount of noise being put out, but it comes with a price. The location of the stock intake in the engine compartment means that the Mustang isn’t running as efficiently as it could be. There's a number of ways you can upgrade your pony's intake system, so never fear. But first there some things to cover.

  • Hot air is less dense than cold air and limits power
  • Aftermarket filters are useable and cleanable while being more efficient than the stock filter
  • Aftermarket tubes provide a more direct path for incoming air
  • Cold air and ram air intakes are two options each with their own pros and cons
  • Adding on a tune along with an intake will net more gains, but are not always necessary

The Risk of Heat and How to Counter It

If you’ve ever put your hand near a running or recently turned off engine, you know how hot they get. Now imagine that heat running through your stock air intake, into your engine, and through your exhaust pipes. Not a very nice picture, is it? The stock tube has a number of bends and turns, so the air doesn’t flow as freely as it could. The air itself is also heated by the engine which reduces its volume. The result is a less than ideal mixture in the combustion chamber. The further from maximum efficiency the mixture is, the bigger the decrease in power.

Replacing your stock intake with an aftermarket cold air intake (CAI) will take care of these issues by:

  • Relocating the air box from the engine compartment to the wheel well, so cooler air is being drawn in
  • The larger intake tube increases volume of air being drawn into the combustion chamber, which allows for better burn. Better burn means more power
  • The shape of the tube allows air to take a more direct route
  • The air filter is higher quality and less restrictive

Parts of a Mustang Cold Air Intake

Air Filter
Usually conical in shape, with grooves and folds. Some of the benefits of an aftermarket performance filter include:

  • Although smaller than the factory filter, it has more surface area which allows air to be drawn in from every direction
  • Most aftermarket filters are reusable, and only need cleaning every 30,000 to 50,000 miles. The stock air filter needs to be changed every 15,000 miles, and must be thrown away
  • Aftermarket filters draw in a higher volume of clean, cool air. Expect more power, improved acceleration, and even better gas mileage

Intake Tubes

  • Specially designed to straighten air flow as much as possible, while looking good in your engine compartment
  • Aftermarket pipes are typically mandrel-bent so there is no crimping of the pipe diameter at the bend

How Much Horsepower Will My Mustang Gain From A Cold Air Intake?

The question on everyone's mind is how much horsepower you'll gain from swapping your stock intake for an aftermarket one. There are manufacturer's that will promise a gain of 15-20 hp, but that's a bit of a stretch. 

  • The typical power increase is 5-10 HP, but can be up to 15-20 HP in newer 5.0 motors

Mustang Ram Air Intakes

Much like a cold air intake, a ram air intake (RAI) pulls in cooler air from outside the engine compartment. Unlike a CAI, though, the Ram Air on a Mustang uses a shorter tube, which causes the air to be pushed into the throttle body with much greater force. There is a larger volume of air which, in turn, leads to more engine power.

As you increase the speed of your Mustang, wind pressure is forced through the intake manifold and filter. It’s almost like having a turbo charger, but without the additional parts. The downside to the Ram Air is that it will not be very noticeable until you are traveling more than 35 miles per hour.

‚ÄčOther than those differences, the Ram Air Intake is the same as a cold air intake. The power gains are also similar at a typical increase of 5 - 10 hp with a ram air intake.

Mustang Cold Air Intakes (CAI) Vs Ram Air Intakes (RAI)

Here is a quick Pros & Cons list to help you decide which is better for your mustang.

Ram Air Intake:

Also known as a Short ram intake. This type of intake uses the straightest possible tubing with a large filter with heat shield to get the maximum air flow. Does not go into the fenderwell.

  • Pros: Pulls in more air, usually cheaper due to less piping.
  • Cons: Air pulled in is warm from the engine compartment.

Cold Air Intake:

Uses a curved pipe to go in and sometimes down the inside of the fender to pull in air that is not heated by the engine. Uses a smaller filter than a Ram Air Intake and will not pull in the same volume of air as the Ram Air Intake.

The design of the cold air intake relocates the air filter to the coldest part of the engine compartment or through the inner fender to the wheel well. This allows the intake to pull colder, denser air into the motor. By pulling the colder air, combustion efficiency is increased, and in turn, creates more power. An added benefit of the efficiency in some cases is increased fuel mileage (typically 1-2 mpg).

  • Pros: Pulls in cold air for better combustion.
  • Cons: Pulls in less air, usually more expensive. 

Do I Need to Tune my Mustang if I Upgrade my Cold Air Intake?

  • 1987-2004 Mustangs - No tune is required, but strongly it is strongly recommended to maximize the performance.
  • 2005 Mustangs - Most will require a retune, but some are designed to be used without one. The intakes for the 2005 Mustangs that do not require a retune will not achieve as much increased power as the ones that do. 

Oiled vs Non-Oiled Mustang Filters

Back in the day of classic, carbureted vehicles, oiled filters were much more dominant when compared to non-oiled counterparts. The difference is the methods of filtration. An oiled filter uses oil to catch potential contaminants from entering the combustion chamber. As a result, the oil must be reapplied every so often in order to properly dispose of the contaminants previously caught.

A non oiled filter, on the other hand, is a result of improvements in technology. The non oiled filter does not require any maintenance except for when the filter is substantially dirty and requires cleaning. Cleaning is primarily utilizing a cleaning agent or dish washing soap and letting the filter hand dry.

How To Clean A Mustang Cold Air Intake Filter

1. Remove air filter from intake tube by loosening clamps with a flat head screwdriver

2. Wash thoroughly with a hose, getting in every crevice

3. Allow filter to dry completely

4. Reinstall filter onto intake tube

Some filters may require you to apply a cleaning solvent before you wash it and depending on what kind of filter it is, you may need to apply an oil coating to it before reinstalling. It is best to check the manufacturers website and consult forums on what is the best procedure for cleaning, but the process should not deviate too much from the above directions.

Who is C.A.R.B. and What is a California EO Number?

C.A.R.B. stands for California Air Resources Board, and this is the board of governance who decides what modifications are legal and are not legal for use on vehicles in a state that enforces C.A.R.B. compliance. These regulations only apply to parts that could potentially alter the emissions output of the vehicle. These parts include anything on the intake such as: cold air intakes, throttle bodies, throttle body spacers, EGR spacers, intake manifolds, and forced induction. C.A.R.B. is a part of the California EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) which is tasked with enforcing air quality regulations in California. 

These regulations also apply to anything modifying the exhaust manifolds (putting short or long tube headers on), or the mid pipe (putting an H or X-pipe on, or modifying or removing the factory catalytic converters in any way, shape, or form).  These regulations do not apply to any other parts such as styling or suspension; only to parts in the powertrain that could affect emissions output.

To see if a part is C.A.R.B. compliant, look for the C.A.R.B. EO number on the products page of the part you're interested in (i.e. CARB EO Number: D-269-28). If a part is C.A.R.B. compliant, it will also come with a sticker with its C.A.R.B. EO number. This sticker is of vital importance. You'll have to keep this stick either in the car, or stuck to the part that it pertains to in order to prove its legality.

EO stands for executive order. A C.A.R.B. EO number means it has been tested and approved by C.A.R.B. which allows for the approved part to be installed on a vehicle and still remain complaint to the state's regulations. Parts with a C.A.R.B. EO number are allowed to be legally installed and pass testing while intakes without C.A.R.B. EO numbers are not legal in the state of California.

If a part does not have a C.A.R.B. EO number, assume it's not legal for use in states that enforce C.A.R.B. compliance. When a part is not C.A.R.B. legal, not only will it not pass C.A.R.B. states' smog testing, if you get pulled over, the police can fine you and even go as far as to impound your Mustang indefinitely for using illegal parts on public roadways. Aftermarket parts without an EO# cannot be shipped to the state of California unless they are for an off-road application only.  

Supporting Mods: Mustang Throttle Bodies

After upgrading the air intake, I would suggest to upgrade from the stock, restrictive the throttle body next. The throttle body is the part that connects to the air intake and the intake manifold. This is also the part hooked up to the throttle linkage which controls a flap on the inside which is what allows air to enter the motor. An aftermarket throttle body can help you gain up to an additional 10 horsepower. The bigger the intake tubing, the more air that will flow into your motor and the more power you’ll make. Like installing a cold air intake, theway to get the most power of this upgrade is to get a tune for your Mustang.

Throttle Body Spacers

Throttle body spacers bolt in-between the throttle body and the intake manifold. A little bit of power may be gained with this upgrade, but the major impact you’ll feel is your throttle response increasing. This is a perfect first mod for the Mustang owner who has a stock Mustang, or little experience working on their car. A throttle body spacer installs very easily, taking only about a half hour and basic hand tools. It is also possible to gain better gas mileage after this upgrade and it adds a unique whistle sound to your intake because of the bore design which forces the air into your intake manifold.

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