Intercooler Vs Radiator: Difference Explained Thoroughly

Like many others, do the intercooler and radiator make you confused too? As both the devices are engaged for cooling purposes, it’s not surprising to mix up.

Intercooler vs Radiator, where do the devices differ? Basically, the Intercooler is a device that cools your car’s intake air by making it denser. As a result, the engine generates more power. The radiator, on the other hand, keeps the combustion engine cool by releasing coolant or antifreeze.

This article discusses the difference between an intercooler and a radiator in detail. Let’s read further. 

Intercooler vs Radiator: Comparison Chart

Difference  Intercooler  Radiator 
Cools the Intake air Yes No
Cools the Coolant No Yes
Used in  Turbocharger and Supercharger engine vehicles All internal combustion engine built vehicles
Built Materials  Aluminum alloy  Plastic and Aluminum, 
Types Air-to-Water Intercooler, Air-to-Air Tabular and Cellular core Radiator
Location Between the Turbocharger and engine Behind the Front Grille
Connected to  The intake manifold of the engine Thermostat housing through the radiator hose
Densifies air Yes No

Intercooler vs Radiator – Which is Better?

Before we jump straight into the difference between Intercooler and Radiator, let’s have a look at how a vehicle’s cooling system actually works. 

How Does A Vehicle’s Cooling System Work? 

Generally, a vehicle’s cooling system consists of a cooling fan, water pump, radiator, thermostat, liquid reservoir, and a heater core. However, Turbocharged and Supercharged engines need to have intercoolers in their cooling system. 

The combustion process produces heat energy by converting chemical energy through engine work. The produced heat energy pushes the piston of the engine downward and that’s how the vehicle gets its power to run. 

However, this process follows some deduction of heat by the exhaust gas through the exhaust valve, and the rest of the gas is absorbed by the engine.

As this remaining heat is run through the engine work, it needs to be at a normal operating temperature for the optimal performance of the engine. 

That’s where the coolant plays a vital part. The coolant absorbs the heat of the engine and keeps the temperature at a normal range.

The coolant reservoir and the thermostat are attached to the radiator, and the cooling fan and the water pump are placed right beside the radiator. 

The entire structure is recruited to keep the coolant temps normal before it’s sent to the engine. 

Intercoolers And Radiators Have Different Purposes

The intercooler is not a necessary device for all sorts of cooling systems. Conversely, all the vehicles that have internal combustion built engines need to have radiators. 

So, why it’s not necessary to have intercoolers in all vehicles? 

Basically, turbos use hot airflow in the cylinders of the engine to power up the compressor. In this case, the air intake must be kept at a normal temperature in order to refrain the engine and other components of the car from any harm. 

Both the Supercharger and turbocharged Engine need to cool down the air intake, thus both types of engines have intercoolers in their cooling systems. 

While on the other hand, radiators are used in all the vehicles to maintain the temperature of the coolant. 

So, What Are Intercoolers And Radiators? 

So what are these cooling devices play role in a cooling system? 

Intercooler 

The intercooler is a critical heat exchange component in a vehicle’s Turbocharger or Supercharger circuit. Its primary function is to reduce heat from the intake airflow and keep the vehicle’s internal components at the proper temperature for proper operation.

Excessive heat can harm or permanently damage the components of your vehicle. As a result, an intercooler removes heat from the inlet gas and cools the turbo-compressed air. Overall, an intercooler keeps the combustion going smoothly.

A low air density in the combustion chamber is essential for the performance of your engine. In this case, the intercooler is recruited for cooling the compressed air by the turbocharger or supercharger, allowing the air to densify and thus increasing the engine’s power.

Radiator

A radiator is a critical mechanical device in a vehicle’s cooling system that transfers thermal energy through the car’s channels to keep the internal combustion engine cool.

The combustion process releases energy in the form of heat when the chemicals and the intake air flow interact. This heat helps the engine to function.

However, if the heat exceeds the normal operating range, the natural function of the engine will be interrupted, and the components of the vehicle will be harmed.

A radiator works as a crucial heat exchange device to keep the internal system properly working by keeping the engine cool.

Radiators use plastic as materials for the tanks, while the metal cooling fins and tubes are mostly made of aluminum.  The location of the radiator is situated behind the car’s front grille.  

Intercoolers And Radiators Have Different Working Principles

Not only do these two cooling devices have two several purposes to extinguish, but their working process is quite different too. Let’s see what working principles these two heat exchangers follow.

Intercooler 

The turbocharger densifies and compresses the air before reaching the engine’s cylinders.

The cylinders squeeze more air and burn the fuel to provide more power for a vehicle’s engine. However, this process generates heat, and excessive heat, overall, interrupts the machine’s performance.

The intercooler is the key component here to mitigate the heat and keep the combustion in the cylinders at an optimal level. This cooling device carries abundant oxygen and allows the turbocharger to burn more fuel in order to create more power.

The mounted intercooler is placed between the turbocharger and the car’s engine. When the turbocharger intakes the outer air, it then burns the fuel and generates heat.  Then the air passes through the intercooler instead of directly reaching the engine.

The heat passes through a network of cooling fins and tubes of the intercooler. There the heat of the air is balanced and then cool air is fed to the engine’s intake manifold.

Radiator

A radiator’s operation is based on a simple construction. It has a water inlet pipe on one side and an outlet pipe on the other.

The pipes are linked together by an aluminum network of parallel tubes, and there are numerous metal fins attached to the tubes. A cap is also placed on top of the radiator.

The radiator’s job begins when the coolant in the car engine heats up. The thermostat, which is located next to the engine, monitors the engine’s temperature. The thermostat sends coolant from the engine to the radiator’s coolant tank as the engine heats up.

The radiator’s inlet pipe absorbs hot coolant and allows it to flow through the tube and aluminum fins before ejecting cold coolant through the outlet pipe.

The colder coolant is then sent back to the engine, and that is how the cool coolant maintains the engine’s air temp within normal limits.

By absorbing cool ambient air, the fins stay cooler. The attached metal fins release cooler air temperature to the coolant as the hot coolant passes through the radiator tubes. As a result, the coolant becomes colder as it passes through the radiator.

Air-To-Water Intercoolers Have A Complex Structure

Because of the lightweight, low-cost, and simplicity, air to air intercoolers are widely used as cooling devices in turbochargers and supercharged engines. 

On the other hand, the air-to-water intercooler setup is comparatively complex. Unlike the air-to-air intercooler, the air-to-water intercooler uses liquid to remove heat from the inlet air.

As the intake air flow is compressed in the turbochargers, it becomes hotter. In the case of air-to-water intercooler applications, the hot air passes through a liquid (mostly water) tube where the heat is removed before it reaches the engine.

The hot compressed air in the turbocharger is fed directly to the intake manifold, where the intercooler is placed. The air-to-water intercooler has a water (or liquid) end tank, which constantly removes heat from the intake air.

The heat exchanger sends coolant to the liquid (or water) tank so that intake air constantly remains cold.

Plastic And Aluminum Radiators Are Commonly Used

While talking about the basic built types of radiators, two types can be generally seen.

  1. Tabular core radiators
  2. Cellular core radiators

But, based on materials, a radiator can be of various types. Brass and Copper made radiators were commonly available until the 1980s. They were too expensive. 

Later, manufacturers decided to shift to a cost-efficient radiator type:

Aluminum and plastic radiators. These types of Radiators are most commonly used in vehicles and they have plastic-made coolant reserve tanks and aluminum-made cores. 

Completely Aluminum-built Radiators have cores and tanks are both built with aluminum.    

People Also Inquire

Can An Intercooler Be Used As A Radiator?

Both intercoolers and radiators are heat exchanger devices, but the function of an intercooler is different from a radiator.

The intercoolers are used to cool the intake air, making it denser, thus increasing the power of the engine. Radiators cool the water or liquid that keeps the engine cool.

Does Intercooler Affect Radiator?

Both intercoolers and radiators are used for cooling purposes, but their tasks are different. The turbocharged and supercharged engines have intercoolers in their cooling system.

In contrast, most internal combustion engine-built vehicles have radiators. The placement of these heat exchanger devices is different.

Do All Turbo Cars Have Intercoolers?

Turbo and supercharged engines are recommended to have intercoolers. The turbo and supercharged engines produce heat in the combustion.

To mitigate the compressed heat transfer, it’s necessary to have an intercooler so that the produced air remains denser and keeps the internal components at a normal operating air temperature.

Can an intercooler be used as a radiator?

The function of an intercooler is to cool the inlet gas in a vehicle by keeping it denser. While on the other hand, a radiator’s task is to keep the coolant/liquid/water cool and send it to the engine. The task of both the cooling devices is different. 

Does all cars have a radiator?

All the vehicles that are built with internal combustion engines should have radiators. Radiators keep the engine at a normal operating temperature by sending cool coolant or liquid to the engine.

An Intercooler is not an Alternative to a Radiator

When it comes to Intercooler vs Radiator, many people confuse them. Both the devices are crucial cooling devices and are used as heat exchangers, but in fact, they are not the same. 

The intercoolers are mechanical devices that are used to remove the heat from the Intake air, while on the other hand, a radiator’s task is to cool down the engine coolant that gets heat up during the work. 

Because of their different structure and role in the cooling system of a vehicle, an intercooler is a completely different thing from a radiator, and they cannot replace each other.

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