By Mike Cote - September 18, 2019
At its most basic, your car or truck engine is one big air pump. It works by creating a series of precisely-timed explosions that pull in and push out ever-essential air. So it makes sense that the way to increase the power of your engine—to up its horsepower and torque—is to find ways to move more air in and out of it.
There’s an ongoing debate among car enthusiasts about the importance of horsepower vs. torque. It doesn’t matter which side of the argument you’re on: they are both key components in powering your vehicle. If you’re looking to see gains in either area, check out these ideas from our team of experts for getting your engine to perform at its peak.
Upgrading to a performance cold air intake (CAI) system is one of the easiest and most affordable ways to increase horsepower. Here’s how it works: As air gets colder, it also gets denser. Your engine operates by taking in air, blending it with fuel and burning the mixture to produce power. The denser the air, the more oxygen in the same amount of space—and the more power the engine will produce. Cold air intakes pull cool air in from outside of the engine. They are also designed to reduce air flow resistance and unwanted turbulence within the pipes, which ultimately reduce airflow into your engine. Two potential downsides: Unrestricted air flow can mean a noisier engine. And, not all cold air intakes are created equal; be sure to choose one from a reputable manufacturer. AT has a wide selection, and thousands of on-site reviews to help you make the right decision.
In combination with your fuel injection system, the throttle body regulates the air flow that goes into your engine. This system is an important part of your vehicle because, as with all combustion, air is required for your engine to fire properly. Installing a large-diameter throttle body with bigger flaps allows more air to flow into the engine. Doing this increases several aspects of performance, one being—you guessed it—an increase in horsepower. And it’s no subtle shift. You’ll feel faster acceleration and a surge in engine power of up to 25hp. To squeeze some more juice out of your engine, you can install a throttle body spacer which looks like a small circular metal ring. It creates just a bit more space for air to enter into the manifold, enhancing your fuel economy and giving you even more torque. Don’t expect to find your factory-fitted car with a throttle body spacer. This is an aftermarket update for people who really want to increase horsepower.
Automakers need to meet emissions requirements and keep production costs low—and one result is that stock exhaust manifolds, the systems that move poisonous air to your exhaust system, aren’t as efficient as they could be. This makes aftermarket exhaust headers a good place to find extra horsepower and increase torque. Exhaust headers work by making it easier for exhaust to flow out of an engine’s cylinders. How much horsepower one will add depends on the style and length of the header you are installing—plus the kind of vehicle you’re dealing with. Both long-tube and shorty headers will boost your vehicle’s performance by moving air faster and more effectively. But long-tube headers do the best job of building torque and horsepower from mid-range to top-end RPMs. They’re a good choice for high-revving super rides. Meanwhile, shorty headers deliver more HP and torque in the lower RPM range. If you search “how much HP do headers add?” you’ll get an array of answers, but we feel comfortable telling you to expect an increase of horsepower somewhere between 10 and 30.
When it comes to functionality, high-flow catalytic converters aren’t all that different from what comes installed in your car or truck. A high-flow cat also reduced emissions by creating a chemical reaction between various metals and exhaust—but it does the job faster. It achieves this by using a less dense internal cell count and increased volume surrounding the catalyst itself. Along with your other exhaust mods, a high-flow cat is focused on increasing the flow capability of your engine to help it make more power. It’s a small part that packs a big punch. High-flow cats increase power across the full RPM range, but you’re going to notice the biggest boost of both torque and horsepower in the lower RPM range. Plus, you’ll be reducing the toxicity of your exhaust emissions while you’re at it. That’s a win-win in our book.
Cat-back exhaust systems get their name from their placement—behind your catalytic converter—and replace your restrictive stock muffler and factory exhaust pipe. If you’re already updating your catalytic converter, it makes sense to add this on, too. Look for systems with large-diameter, mandrel-bent pipes to see the most impressive gains. Cat-back systems also feature straight-flow mufflers to further contribute to the freedom of airflow through the exhausts for even more power.
We like this one because it’s like having the cheat sheets to your car or truck. The computer that controls your engine is factory-programmed to comply with certain emissions and fuel octane requirements. And while that doesn’t sound so bad, the truth is that it leaves a lot of performance capabilities on the table. By utilizing power programmers and performance chips to adjust your vehicle’s settings—like fuel-to-air ratio, turbo boost, and ignition timing advance—you can easily increase horsepower to performance levels you never thought possible. Performance software is easy to use and usually features plug-n-play installation that connects directly to your OBD-II port. You can customize your vehicle’s settings to your heart’s delight. Or, if you want to skip right to “more power,” they come programmed with pre-set tunes, too. But be aware that a chip that disables your vehicle's emissions controls is probably illegal.
Forced induction systems, like superchargers or turbochargers, compress the air flowing into your engine and offer the greatest potential performance increase. It’s not uncommon to increase horsepower and torque by over 50% with the help of forced induction. Seriously. The more an engine has, the more fuel it can mix in. A charged engine produces more power overall, which significantly improves acceleration. If this is the way you decide to amp up your vehicle, it’s good to know the difference between the two devices. A supercharger is powered by a belt that connects directly to the engine, while a turbocharger gets its power from the exhaust system. Turbochargers are considered more efficient since they use “wasted” energy from the exhaust stream as their power source. But you’ll also have to wait a little longer to feel the power. Superchargers offer almost instant power when you step on the gas and are usually easier to install.
If you’re wondering how to get more horsepower under the hood, look no further than AT’s lineup of aftermarket performance parts. With a few decades of experience building and driving performance cars, we know a thing or two about pushing our vehicles to the limit. And we stock everything you need to beef up the horsepower and torque in your own ride. So, start small or go big. Or start small, then go big—the choice is yours!