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.

Comments

  1. Thats what i said … i have an 01 monte ss … with l67 swap and hd trans … true cold air setup around $300 to $375 i believe … i have a pacesetter header to a high flow cat and out the gsx slp exhaust … true 3″ all the way to y pipe and i believe its like 2″ or 2.5″ at that point … dont know price on that … came with the regal gs i bought for the motor …

    its been programmed with hp tuners but that was only $118 roughly … boost controller … no need its a stock eaton m90 and stock pulley so not really going to over boost anyway and other than smaller pulley idk how you could turn it up … which also costs … so with the boost controller id need a pulley … looking more than $500 already lol …

    synthetic already ran in it … prefer mobile 1 … used it in my 06 cobalt ss and you can feel a difference from dirty to clean … but thats not really adding power … more of restoring … and im also not looking for more power out of a cold air intake …

    ive learned that the eaton m90 builds alot of heat … so ive had to install autolite 104 plugs … 180 degree thermostat … tuned to cool acording to that so pretty much my car treats 194 degrees as 200 or 214 or whatever for the high fan … but temps usually dont rise but maybe half way to the next bar before cooling

    I dont like articles like this … very misleading … cold air helps retain power doesnt really increase … you could get more cooler air … helps with flow … will feal better but not going to give hardly anything in numbers … ive tried it and looked stupid then lol

    People read these articles and mess their engines up trying things they dont understand … like an engine running normal oil for all its life and then switching to something thinner … easier to pick up by the pump … is going to clean the gunk out of the old gaskets and start leaking … had this happen on my monte … again i looked stupid …

    Theres more to the way an engine runs and what you need to do to put more power down along with keeping durable … rather than throwing some bolt ons on there pushing the motor to far and blowing it …

    Are internals forged? New seals? Has the throttle body been worked to get performance increases out of the cold air? … many questions left unanswered simply because numbers are different from motor to motor

    Hell i was trying to put a supercharger on my na 3.8 till i found out i had to lift heads for lower compression … internals cast from what ive been told … i would have killed my motor with bolt ons

    Niw dont get me wrong there are some truths in this … but just throwing bolt ons at a motor in ignorance will leave more than a $500 performance bill

  2. There are also other ways to upgrade hp for 500 bucks you can upgrade to a aftermarket throttle body. Headers if you install yourself the headers will give you a torque increase too ! A high flow k&n air filter. Underdrive pullies. You can also get a throttle body spacer. They also make a electronic throttle controller which plugs in under the gas pedal and it increased throttle response Doesn’t increase horsepower but it does give you a kick in the seat performance gain that you really feel. If you have a older car 500 bucks can go a loooooooooong way to make hp

  3. Be careful when buying a performance air intake. I see a lot of so called performance intakes that are worse than stock. Almost every late model vehicle comes with a cold air intake. A lot of cheap “performance” intakes are actually low performance, hot air intakes. make sure it draws air from in front of the radiator, not from the engine compartment.

  4. I have a 2008 ford fusion sel v6 i would like to turn it into a sleeper car i just dont kno exactly what i should upgrade any tips would be great

  5. I liked the tips in the 5 ways to boost HP article–my quetion is — i have a 2012 dodge ram – is the intake manifold already tuned for max hp or is there room for improvement–also does Amsoil make the air intakes featured in the video that are installed on the nissan–thanks — i am an amsoil dealer 324867

    1. Hi Stephen,

      I can’t speak to whether the intake manifold on your RAM is tuned for max hp from the factory; I suggest you call the dealership. I can tell you, however, that AMSOIL does not make the air intakes on Nissans to which you refer.

      Thanks for reading!

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