Intercooler Upgrades: Are They Worth It?

Does your Honda Civic need an upgraded intercooler? That's a great question. The latest generations of the Honda Civic have a factory turbocharged engine that is a stellar performer off the dealer lot. One of the topics we continually discuss with fellow enthusiasts is whether the Civic needs an intercooler upgrade to maximize its potential. Can an upgraded intercooler make more horsepower? Is it worth the money to upgrade? We have invested time with upgraded intercoolers to answer some of these questions, and to help you decide if you need an upgraded intercooler for your Honda Civic.


What is an Intercooler and What Does It Do?

An intercooler is a simplified heat exchanger used to cool a gas after it has been compressed. Heat exchangers are commonly used in conjunction with turbocharged engines, air compressors, air conditioners, refrigerators, and gas turbines. The primary function of an intercooler is to reduce the temperature of the gas contained after it has been compressed. Compression creates heat, and the reduced temperature creates a denser pressurized gas that can be used to create more power. In combustion applications, this denser gas (air entering the combustion process) decreases the chance of pre-ignition or knocking.



What Types of Intercoolers Are There?

There are three main types of intercoolers used for combustion engines:

  • Air-to-Air Design: These heat exchangers transfer heat from the intake air directly to the atmosphere. They are the lower priced option due to less complexity, and they are also less efficient in reducing temperatures. They require less maintenance after installation, and their effectiveness is limited by their core size.
  • Air-to-Liquid Design: This design of heat exchanger transfers the heat from the intake air to an intermediate liquid (usually water or water + coolant), which in turn transfers the heat to the atmosphere. This is what a typical liquid cooling radiator is. This design has higher cost and is typically more complex. It can be smaller in size due to its higher cooling efficiency, but it does require more maintenance to keep maximum cooling efficiency.
  • A Combination of Both Designs: Most automotive applications don’t mix air-to-air and air-to-liquid designs, but on a limited basis they can be used in combination to decrease the amount of heat in the system. These systems are very complex and are often required in high-horsepower systems that generate an incredible amount of heat.

Where Are Intercoolers Located?

  • Top-Mount (TMIC) - The top-mount intercooler (TMIC) is commonly used for OEM heat exchangers, with the most popular example being the Subaru WRX and STI. These are placed on top or above the engine and airflow is directed to the cooler via a scoop or ducting. This placement offers good protection from road debris, and minimal boost lag because the location is very close to the intake. One of the major downsides of this placement is heat-soak as the exhaust heat can overwhelm the cooler efficiency.
  • Side-Mount (SMIC) - A side-mount intercooler (SMIC) is located toward the front of the vehicle near one of the inlets of the front bumper. The size and efficiency of the cooler is limited due to the location and the placement can require longer piping out and back into the engine bay.
  • Front-Mount (FMIC) - A front-mount intercooler (FMIC) is placed directly in the front of the vehicle and can reduce the intake air temperatures the most due to the maximized airflow through the intercooler core. This location is the least impacted by size restrictions, but the placement may also incur extra boost lag due to the extra piping length from the cooler to the engine bay. It can also reduce the cooling potential of the engine coolant radiator since it typically is directly in-front of the radiator.


How Big Should an Intercooler Be?

When it comes to intercoolers, bigger isn’t always better. Two considerations for sizing an appropriate intercooler include the inlet and outlet diameter and the surface area for airflow through the core. If either of these are too small, you may not build maximum horsepower and suffer from heat soak. If you size either option too large, you can induce boost lag that reduces the response of your turbo system. You need to find the “Goldilocks Zone” where each is just right.


 The chart to the left shows that a 2.5” diameter is enough to support upwards of 600 horsepower.

Again, the core surface area for airflow should be just large enough to support the horsepower goal. The required surface area for 600 horsepower is just 55 square inches if you’re using a high-density core. That can be met easily with different shapes such as an 8” square or a 5” x 11” rectangle. Most aluminum intercoolers are offered with three different surface coatings: powder-coated, painted, or anodized. Each offers varying levels of protection and color options, but all offer a similar level of thermal heat dissipation if the core airflow is not affected by the coating process. The maintenance on each coating is similar, which includes keeping it clean and the core flowing air for proper cooling.


What Intercooler Options Does Two Step Performance Offer?

TSP offers multiple brands of intercoolers from many different vendors. Brands include Mishimoto, Skunk2, Injen, Garrett, Greddy, AFE, Wagner Tuning, PRL Motorsports, and 27WON. We recommend PRL Motorsports and 27WON as your first choices for an upgraded intercooler as we have experience with both and have verified capability of each brand.

This is what each recommendation offers:

  • PRL Motorsports FMIC Upgrade Kit: The PRL Motorsports intercooler upgrade decreases charge air temperatures while increasing potential airflow with its dense 550+ horsepower rated (though they have pushed 600+) bar-and-plate core and machined billet aluminum end tanks.
  •  27WON FMIC Upgrade: This intercooler features aluminum cast end tanks with integrated airfoils. With optimized tuning it can net 35whp & 25wtq with the potential to gain more low-end torque with a built engine. The height of the core was increased by 41% with the thickness increased by 47%. This results in a total core volume increase of 120%.

    *We believe both the PRL Motorsports and 27WON Performance intercooler kits offer similar performance gains and we can recommend the choice of either to all of our customers.



For the 10th generation (2016 - 2021) 1.5T engine:

For the 10th generation (2017 - 2020) Type-R 2.0T engine:

For the 11th generation (2022+) Civic/Integra 1.5T engine:

For the 11th generation (2023+) Type-R/Type-S 2.0T engine:



Worth it?

An upgraded intercooler can make additional horsepower with a simple tuning change, and for some it’s worth the money to upgrade. A larger intercooler can make your factory turbocharged setup better, and prepare the complete system for more airflow as you continually upgrade the car. We have invested time on the dyno to research upgraded intercooling systems and can help you decide if you need an upgraded intercooler to meet your horsepower and driving goals. The Front Mount Intercooler is your best option to upgrade, and our two recommendations have proven to be a capable and dependable upgrade.



Two Step Performance was founded in 2017, preceded by a lifelong passion for modifying and driving turbocharged imports. We began with a small assortment of handpicked brands that we have personally used and believed in. As the company and the community around us have grown, we have continued to add carefully selected product lines to our catalog. In addition to offering brands that you already know and trust, one of our favorite things to do is to identify innovative new products and emerging brands and add them to our catalog as well. We only sell products that we believe in. We also take great pride in offering the best experience to our customers every step of the way. If we can help answer questions on your next build, give us a shout on our contact page.

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