5 Ways to Boost Horsepower for Under $500

Boost horsepower in your car or truck
Upgrading the intake is a simple way to boost engine power.

More power.

It’s the rallying cry of gearheads across time and place, whether you secretly wish you were Brian O’Connor when passing cars in your Mitsubishi Eclipse or Cole Trickle when tossing your 1984 Camaro around town.

In making this list of power upgrades, we limited it to what most mechanically inclined people with a free weekend, an open garage stall and a few hundred bucks can perform.

1. Upgrade the air intake

Most budding gearheads start here. Upgrading to a cold-air intake is relatively simple and can provide a noticeable power boost.

An engine is essentially an air pump. The more air it takes in, the more power it can put out. Cold-air intakes help eliminate the sharp bends and restrictive air passages inherent to some stock intakes. Abrupt transitions and sharp edges in the intake create turbulence, which leads to power loss.

Increased airflow triggers the computer to add more fuel to the fuel/air mix. More fuel/air equals more power. Cold-air intakes also, as the name implies, draw cooler air from outside the engine compartment. Cooler air is more dense, again resulting in the computer increasing the amount of fuel, helping the engine make more power.

2. Upgrade the exhaust

More air in naturally means more air has to exit the engine. While many stock exhaust systems can handle the added air from an upgraded intake, consider upgrading to a catback exhaust or high-flow catalytic converter, especially if you’ve already modified your engine to make more power.

A catback exhaust includes everything installed after the catalytic converter, including the resonator, exhaust piping and muffler. It’s typically designed with larger-diameter parts compared to the stock exhaust, allowing greater airflow. Since it includes everything after the catalytic converter, you don’t run the risk of disrupting your vehicle’s emissions system by messing around with the catalytic converter.

Even so, a stock catalytic converter can restrict airflow and reduce power, making it a prime target for an upgrade. A high-flow catalytic converter features larger openings on either end, increasing airflow and power.

3. Install a performance tuner

Sometimes called “chips,” performance tuners plug into the diagnostic port. They modify the fuel and timing maps to increase performance, typically at the expense of fuel economy. Some performance tuners can improve fuel economy, though.

Tuners are especially popular among diesel owners. They’re about the simplest upgrade to install available on the market.

4. Install a boost controller

If your engine is equipped with a turbocharger or supercharger, it arrived from the factory to deliver a preset amount of boost, measured in psi. Installing a boost controller allows you to adjust the boost level produced in the intake manifold. It’s a good idea to install a boost gauge as well so you don’t overdo it. A good rule of thumb is to increase boost no more than 15-20 percent more than the factory setting.

Bear in mind that increasing boost too much will damage your engine. Do your research, be careful and consider reaching out to a professional for guidance.

5. Upgrade to synthetic lubricants

All this added power and heat can invite engine wear and harmful deposits if your oil isn’t up to the challenge. Upgrade to synthetic motor oil. While you’re at it, upgrade to synthetic lubricants throughout your vehicle. They offer improved wear protection and resistance to heat. But they also maximize power due to their ability to reduce friction compared to conventional lubricants. Less friction helps maximize power to the ground.

One final word of advice: performing numbers 1-4 on this list can void your warranty, so check your vehicle owner’s manual and proceed with caution.

Thankfully, your ‘84 Camaro is out of warranty, so happy wrenching.

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