Radiators vs Intercoolers | What’s the difference

Turborevs features a detailed guide on the difference between radiators and intercoolers.

Being complex machines, vehicle engines have myriad functions being performed within them, ranging from ignition to internal combustion. These processes produce an immense amount of heat, resulting in engines being overheated and losing efficiency. To combat this issue, vehicles tend to have a cooling mechanism installed within them, specifically designed to cool down the engine optimally.

With that being said, there are currently two major cooling devices commonly used in vehicles – radiators and intercoolers. Both devices essentially perform the same function; however, the process through which they cool the engine differs significantly. In this article, Turborevs explains the difference between radiators and intercoolers.

Radiators vs Intercoolers

Radiators and intercoolers differ from each other on various fronts. However, the critical difference is that intercoolers are commonly reserved for turbocharged vehicles, while radiators are only used for non-turbocharged vehicles. Setting this fact aside, the two devices majorly differ based on their functioning, as explained below.


A radiator is essential to cool down the engine

Radiators were one of the earliest devices developed to cool down vehicle engines. This device can exchange thermal energy between two mediums – the key process that cools down the engine. In short, radiators absorb the extreme heat the machine produces, in turn cooling it down.

However, the functioning of this device is what truly sets it apart. Radiators work by circulating a liquid coolant through thin metal fins that are exposed to the hot air produced by the engine. The coolant absorbs all of the heat, leaving behind cool air for the engine to breathe in. The liquid that has gripped the heat then moves towards the primary radiator device, where it is cooled down as cool air is blown across, resulting in an exchange of heat with the atmosphere.

The coolant limits how much heat it can absorb, which is why radiators are only limited to non-turbocharged and less heavy-duty vehicles.


intercoolers are limited to turbocharged vehicles

Despite serving the same purpose as a radiator, intercoolers differ significantly from their counterpart. The main difference lies in the process used to cool down the engine. Instead of employing a liquid coolant, intercoolers use air to lower the engine’s soaring temperatures.

Intercoolers are reserved for turbochargers and supercharged vehicles – and rightly so. Turbochargers work by compressing the air before it is fed into the intake manifold of the engine to boost performance. However, the same process emits immense heat, causing the air to lose density and the engine to start overheating. This is where intercoolers come in; a device meant to cool down the compressed air to allow the engine to breathe easily.

In short, intercoolers are air-to-air cooling devices perfect for optimising turbocharged vehicles. However, they also have another type – air-to-water intercoolers. As the name suggests, these intercoolers employ a liquid coolant instead of air as the cooling agent.

Types of Intercoolers

Since intercoolers are pretty complex devices, their placement within the engine can differ based on different vehicle models. Based on their position, intercoolers come in two types – front mount intercoolers and side mount intercoolers. Both types offer pros and cons; however, front mount intercoolers are generally more opted for. For instance, front mount intercoolers for the BMW series are pretty standard since these vehicles require immense cooling. Similarly, intercoolers for Volkswagen Gti series are quite common among the automotive industry.

The Bottom Line

Despite performing similar functions, radiators and intercoolers differ significantly based on workings and performance. Understanding the difference between the two is essential for choosing a suitable cooling device for your vehicle. For those opting for a turbocharged car, an intercooler is a must. On the other hand, regular vehicles can work perfectly fine with a radiator.

Find the best intercoolers for your vehicle at Turborevs and take your car’s performance to new heights.

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