Intercooler vs Radiator: Understanding the Differences

When it comes to understanding the workings of a car engine, it’s essential to know the difference between an intercooler and a radiator. These components are crucial in keeping the engine cool but have very different functions.

In a nutshell, a radiator is responsible for cooling the engine coolant. Where are an intercooler is responsible for cooling the air forced in by a turbo or supercharger. The two components are often confused because they usually sit at the front of the vehicle.

What Is an Intercooler?

An intercooler is most commonly constructed of aluminum and features a series of fins and plates that dissipate heat. The intercooler works by cooling the air passing through it, forced in by a turbo or supercharger before it enters the engine for combustion. More cold air forced into the engine means more fuel can be burnt, and the faster a car can accelerate.

There are two different types of intercoolers; the most common use is the air passing through the front grille as you drive to cool the air inside the intercooler. The other is a charge cooler, which uses water to cool the air forced into the intercooler. Charge coolers aren’t very common on standard road vehicles and are typically an aftermarket upgrade on very high-performance cars when there isn’t much space for a larger intercooler.

What Is a Radiator?

A radiator is a heat exchanger responsible for cooling the coolant passing through a vehicle’s engine, keeping engine temperatures down. Radiators are almost always fitted to the front of an engine to allow the air to pass through them. Radiators usually have a cooling fan fitted in front or behind to increase the airflow and thus the speed at which the coolant is cooled when the temperatures start to creep up.

Radiators are constructed of plastic end tanks and an aluminum core on most modern vehicles. In older cars, you might find copper or brass core radiators which are expensive to produce, which is why those materials aren’t used. Regardless of construction, the core usually has thin flat tubes that carry the coolant running horizontally across the core, which is connected with fragile metal fins. The metal fins absorb the heat from the coolant passing through the tubes and disperse it into the surrounding air. This is where a cooling fan operation is essential when the car is not moving or traveling slowly to force the hot air out of the engine bay to keep temperatures down and complete the cooling cycle of the engine.

Intercooler vs Radiator: Visual Differences


Radiators are typically located in the front of the engine bay, where they can receive airflow as you drive. They are usually positioned behind the grill and in front of the engine. On the other hand, intercoolers are often placed just in front or to one side of the radiator and, on occasion, mounted on top of the engine when the hood of the car has a large scoop to direct the air.

car intercooler


Radiators are designed with metal tubes and fins inside a plastic housing on modern vehicles. Usually, a radiator core can occupy the whole space between the front headlights and the front bumper’s bottom lip.

Intercoolers have a similar design, with tubes and fins that help dissipate heat from the compressed air. However, intercoolers are usually much smaller, and there are rarely any plastic ends to an intercooler. Modified turbo-engine cars typically have a large intercooler on display just behind the front bumper.


Radiators use water and antifreeze as the coolant filled through the coolant reservoir and circulate through the engine block by rubber coolant pipes. Intercoolers use air passing through to cool, so they don’t have fill points for coolant and typically have a pipe coming straight from the turbo.

Intercooler vs Radiator: Similarities

Despite the similarities, intercoolers and radiators are designed to perform different tasks. Every car has a radiator, while only vehicles with a turbocharger or supercharger have an intercooler.

Another similarity between intercoolers and radiators is that they require proper effective maintenance. A dirty or clogged intercooler or radiator can lead to reduced performance, overheating, and even engine damage. Regular cleaning and inspecting both components are crucial to ensure optimal engine performance and longevity.


Although both systems are heat exchangers, they serve different purposes and cannot be interchanged. It’s important to note that intercoolers are only found in turbocharged or supercharged engines, while radiators are found in all types of vehicles.

It’s essential to regularly maintain and inspect both systems to ensure they function correctly. Any issues with the intercooler or radiator can lead to reduced performance and potential engine damage.

My name is Tom although my friends call me Tommy. Messing around with cars and bikes has always been a hobby of mine even from a young age. So I made it my day job 17 years ago. I am a fully qualified mechanic as you would expect. I've worked in all different areas of the motor trade, valeting, panel beating, engine repairs, I'm sure you get the idea. I enjoy sharing my wealth of knowledge and experience with others, which is the reason I spend a lot of time here writing for this website.

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