Intercooler vs. Radiator: Differences Explained

By: Tim Miller

Intercooler vs. Radiator: Differences Explained

Intercooler versus radiator, what is the difference? Radiators and intercoolers are heat exchangers. They reduce the temperature of the fluid that flows through them. However, they serve different purposes in your car.

A radiator is present in any automobile with an internal combustion engine. Its purpose is to aid engine cooling by absorbing heat from the coolant. Meanwhile, an intercooler absorbs heat from compressed air from the turbocharger. You can only find it in vehicles with turbo engines.
Read on for detailed information on the difference between an intercooler and a radiator.


What is an Intercooler? How Does it Work?

An intercooler is an apparatus found in vehicles with forced induction systems. Intercoolers can be equipped in some vehicles, such as SUBARU WRX or Ford Mustang. Its function is to cool the compressed air from the turbo/supercharger, making the air denser and richer in oxygen. That improves the overall efficiency.

The two types of intercoolers are air-to-air and liquid-to-air heat exchangers. Liquid-to-air or water-to-air intercoolers are present in small, high-power engines because of their small size. These are usually put before radiators to compliment them. But how does it work?

Hot air from the turbocharger goes into the intercooler and moves to the fins, which absorb heat from the hot air and radiate it. Cool air currents over the fins aid heat dissipation. The cooler air after going through the intercooler goes to the engine’s manifold.

Air-to-water intercoolers also use the same principle. The only difference is the introduction of water. Water is pumped through the unit to absorb heat from it. Hot water from the intercooler goes to the radiator for cooling, and the cycle repeats. This type of intercooler has a better performance. However, it is not common in most vehicles because it is relatively big.

What is a Radiator? How Does it Work?

A radiator is a heat exchanger, a component of a car's engine cooling system. The system cools the coolant and keeps the internal combustion engine from overheating. A radiator ensures the engine remains at a working temperature. But how does it work?
This compartment uses the same principle as other heat exchangers. It receives hot coolant from the engine block and pushes it to its metal fins. They absorb heat from the coolant and dissipate it with the help of air currents flowing over them as the vehicle moves. Some vehicle manufacturers add fans to enhance airflow over the radiator fins.
The heat which the radiator absorbs and dissipates depends on the temperature difference between the engine coolant and the air around the radiator fins.

Intercooler vs. Radiator: Here’re Main Differences

Intercoolers and radiators may seem the same because they share some attributes. Both intercoolers and radiators are designed to keep the engines cool and ensure it runs more efficiently. However, they have distinguishing features. To better comprehend that, let's take a look at the comparison chart below.

Intercoolers and radiators are both heat exchangers. However, their roles are different. A radiator removes heat from hot liquid from the engine block. On the other hand, the intercooler cools hot air from a turbocharger. They coexist in vehicles with turbo engines, but non-turbo vehicles have only radiators. That implies radiators are a vital component of all cars with internal combustion engines.


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