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Intercooler vs Radiator (Difference Explained)

Updated: Jan 21

When it comes to keeping your car running at its best, two essential components you'll want to be familiar with are intercoolers and radiators.


But what exactly do these parts do, and how do they differ from one another? In this article, we'll explore the difference between an intercooler vs radiator, and explain how they work to keep your car running smoothly.



Table of Contents:


an intercooler on a car

Difference Between an Intercooler vs Radiator

An intercooler, sometimes known as a charge air cooler or aftercooler, is a component that is used to cool air that has been compressed by a turbocharger or supercharger, while a radiator is a device that is used to cool the engine coolant in your car.


While both components serve the important purpose of cooling, they do so in very different ways.



An intercooler is specifically designed to cool the compressed air that is produced by a forced induction system, such as a turbocharger or supercharger. This cooled air is then fed into the engine, where it can be more easily combusted, resulting in a more efficient and powerful burn.


A car radiator is used to cool the engine coolant, which circulates through the engine and absorbs heat as it goes. The cooled coolant is then returned to the engine, where it can continue the process of absorbing heat and keeping the engine running at its optimal temperature.


So, while both intercoolers and radiators serve the important purpose of cooling, they do so in different ways and for different parts of the car.



What Is an Intercooler & How Does It Work?

As mentioned above, an intercooler is a component that is used to cool the compressed air that is produced by a forced induction system, such as a turbocharger or supercharger.


A diagram showing the intake and exhaust on a turbocharged engine.
A diagram showing the intake and exhaust on a turbocharged engine.

Cooled air returning from the charge air cooler contains a higher density of oxygen and is then fed back into the engine, where it can be combusted, resulting in a more efficient and powerful burn.


But how exactly does an intercooler go about cooling the compressed air? Well, it works by using the surrounding ambient air to lower the temperature of the compressed air. The compressed air is passed through a series of tubes or fins, which are surrounded by a large heat sink.


As the compressed air passes through the tubes or fins, it comes into contact with the heat sink, which absorbs a significant amount of heat from the air. This cooled air is then fed into the engine, where it can be used more efficiently.


There are a few different types of intercoolers, including air-to-air intercoolers, which use the surrounding air to cool the compressed air, and air-to-water intercoolers, which use water / coolant to cool the compressed air.



What Is a Radiator & How Does It Work?

A radiator is a component that is used to cool the engine coolant in your car. The coolant circulates through the engine and absorbs heat as it goes. The heated coolant is then passed through the radiator, where it is cooled by the surrounding air.


a car radiator

A radiator is typically made up of a series of tubes or fins, which are surrounded by a large heat sink. As the coolant passes through the tubes or fins, it comes into contact with the heat sink, which absorbs a significant amount of heat from the coolant.


The cooled coolant is then returned to the engine, where it can continue the process of absorbing heat and keeping the engine running at its optimal temperature.



Do You Need an Intercooler and a Radiator?

If your car is equipped with a forced induction system, such as a turbocharger or supercharger, then you will likely need an intercooler.


The intercooler helps to keep the compressed air produced by the forced induction system at a lower temperature, which can help to improve the efficiency and power of the engine.


As for radiators, they are a vital component of any car's cooling system. Without a radiator, the engine coolant would quickly become overheated, resulting in engine damage and potentially causing the engine to fail.


If your car is equipped with a forced induction system, you will need an intercooler to help cool the compressed air produced by that system.


Regardless of whether or not your car has a forced induction system, you will always need a radiator to help keep the engine coolant at a safe temperature.