The 2.3L Mustang is a great engine that that can be made even better with a few bolt-on performance upgrades. In our 5 Best 2.3L Mustang Mods guide we discussed an intercooler as one of the best performance mods. Intercoolers provide some decent power gains but also help maintain consistent performance, in addition to offering some reliability benefits. This guide is going to discuss the benefits of upgrading the 2.3L Mustang intercooler and provide recommendations on some of our favorite products on the market.
2.3L Ford Mustang Intercooler Basics
Intercoolers are crucial for turbocharged engines. Turbo’s are essentially powered by exhaust gases which means they operate at very high temperatures and create a lot of heat. As the turbo compresses the intake air it also heats it up significantly. Since hot air is bad for combustion, the intercoolers job is to cool the compressed air before it enters the engine.
The 2.3L Mustang uses an air-to-air intercooler. The intercooler is located in the front of the engine, inside the front bumper. Outside air passes through the intercooler which cools the compressed air (or charge air) as it passes through the inside of the intercooler.
The factory intercooler is sufficient for stock and slightly modified Mustang’s. However, once you add an intake and a tune and start bringing more air into the engine, and compressing it further, the stock intercooler can easily become overwhelmed. Most aftermarket intercoolers increase cooling efficiency by increasing the air capacity of the intercooler itself. However, there are a few design considerations to factor in when picking an upgraded intercooler.
Mustang FMIC Design
There are two primary things to consider when upgrading your intercooler: sizing, and air gallery design. Sizing is relatively self-explanatory. Some FMIC’s are larger than others and therefore offer more internal air capacity. However, contrary to what you would think, bigger isn’t always better.
The second factor is in the design of the intercooler itself. There are two primary intercooler designs: bar & plate and tube & fin. These have to do with how the intercooler is built and impact the “air galleries” that are used to cool the charge air.
Bar & Plate vs. Tube & Fin
Air-to-air intercoolers work by using outside ambient air. The outside air passes through small external air galleries which cools the internal air. There are two ways these air galleries can be designed, which is the bar and plate design or the tube and fin.
Bar and plate intercoolers are more rectangular which means they have a greater volume of air capacity internally. Tube and fin intercoolers have curved air galleries which reduces capacity but increases efficiency. Bar and plate intercoolers tend to be a bit heavier but also stronger and more durable compared to tube and fin. Tube and fin intercoolers also have more pressure drop, which isn’t a good thing. Bar and plate designs have less pressure drop and can handle higher boost levels.
There are pro’s and con’s to each but we prefer bar and plate designs. They hold more air, have less pressure drop, can handle more boost, and are more durable.
2.3L Mustang Intercooler Sizing
The second and probably most important intercooler factor is sizing. Most aftermarket Mustang intercoolers have generic names, but you’ll notice some brands offer “Race” or “Competition” intercoolers in addition to “Street” or what we would consider more of a Stage 1 intercooler upgrade. The biggest difference between the two is sizing.
The two sizing factors are volume (air capacity) and surface area. Intercoolers with more surface area have more ambient air passing through them and therefore have greater cooling capacity. Larger surfaces are good for performance and cooling. Generally, the bigger the surface area the bigger the core volume. And there is a such thing as going too big.
The second important thing is core volume. A larger core increases cooling capacity and helps prevent heat soak. Most upgraded intercoolers for the 2.3L Mustang have core volumes that are 100%-200% larger. While bigger sounds better, the larger you go the more pressure drop you have. A larger volume means more room for the charge air to expand and therefore lose some of the boost/psi/pressure created by the turbo. This can also increase turbo lag and decrease throttle response.
Anything within the 100%-150% range is good for Mustang’s running the stock turbo. We don’t recommend going any bigger unless you are upgrading your turbo. A bigger intercooler will have more temperature drops but it will reduce pressure and increase lag to the point that is actually offers less performance.
2.3L Mustang Intercooler Upgrade Benefits
Benefits of a Ford Mustang EcoBoost intercooler include:
- 10-20whp with a tune
- 40+ degree lower IATs
- More consistent performance
- Reduced heat soak and chance of engine knock
- Better ignition timing
The 2.3L EcoBoost Mustang actually responds pretty well to an upgraded intercooler from a performance perspective. 10+whp gains are easily achievable when tuned. This is primarily because the stock intercooler becomes overwhelmed once more air is entering the engine and boost is increased.
However, one of the biggest performance benefits is consistent performance. You might not notice a huge difference on a cold day when you do one pull. But, hot days when you are doing back-to-back pulls is when you will really notice the performance benefits. Heat soak from frequent WOT pulls can actually decrease power by 10-20whp so an intercooler will add some power all while preventing that potential power loss.
Additionally, heat is the killer of all engines. An intercooler will lower IATs, improve ignition timing, reduce heat soak, and decrease the chance of knock, all things that are great reliability mods. While power gains are solid, and intercooler is an even better reliability mod for tuned Mustang’s.
Upgraded Intercooler Intake Air Temps
Power gains and reliability improvements all come from the fact that an upgraded intercooler results in lower intake air temps. The below chart shows the intake air temps on the stock Mustang intercooler compared to the CVF Street Intercooler.
The stock intercooler shows an increase of 55 degrees during a wide open throttle 2-4th gear pull. The CVF Street intercooler only showed an increase of 15 degrees, therefore resulting in intake air temps 40 degrees cooler than the stock intercooler.
In comparison to the Street intercooler, CVF also offers a Race intercooler. Their Race intercooler shows a -10 reduction in IATs vs a 82 degree increase from the stock intercooler, for a 92 degree drop. Keep in mind that this was tested on a different car with different mods so there are other factors at play. However, the Race intercooler is about 2x the size of the Street intercooler and therefore is about 2x more effective.
Just keep in mind that the Race intercooler is going to have a lot more pressure drop if you don’t have an upgraded turbo.
Best 2.3L Mustang Intercooler Upgrades
There are probably a dozen FMIC options available on the market. Our general recommendations are to stick to bar and plate designs and to stay with smaller intercoolers unless you have or plan on upgrading your turbo. You’ll also see options ranging from $350 to $1,000+. As long as fitment isn’t an issue, we don’t see any need to go with the top end intercoolers unless you are shooting for 800+whp.
One other thing to touch on – most intercooler companies also sell chargepipe and intercooler piping kits. These kits are solid if you can afford them, but they aren’t necessary again unless you are upgrading your turbo and looking 500+whp.
1) Mustang 2.3L CVF Street Intercooler
CVF’s Street intercooler is the best bang-for-the-buck intercooler on the market. The Street intercooler is a bar and plate design and has a core size that is approx. 120% the size of the stock core. During street testing it pulled 40 degree lower intake air temps. Fitment on the CVF intake is great, it’s a simple bolt-on and doesn’t require any modification. The high-flow end tanks offer great efficiency and to the cold side piping.
At $360 you’re not going to find a better intercooler on the market. Quality is great, performance is great, and the price is unbeatable. Additionally, it comes with a CVF lifetime warranty and their customer support team is fantastic. Overall, this is our most recommended intercooler for anyone looking to keep power levels under the 500whp mark.
Buy Here: 2.3L Mustang CVF Street Intercooler
2) CVF Race Intercooler – 2.3 EcoBoost
In addition to the Street intercooler, CVF offers a Race intercooler that is about twice the size. The Race intercooler has a core volume that is 200% bigger than the stock intercooler. Additionally, it showed IAT decreases of 92 degrees during street testing. It has the same high-flow end tanks as the Street intercooler and has a massive surface volume. In addition to the larger core volume, the surface volume is about twice that of the Street.
If anyone wants to go big on their intercooler, this is the best on the market. It is currently used on the record setting 805whp 2.3L Mustang by Engineered Motorsports. We really only recommend getting something this big if you are running an upgraded turbo. If you aren’t, then the Street is plenty as you’ll likely experience a good bit of added lag and pressure drop from an intercooler this big.
Again, for an intercooler this size you’re not going to find a better priced product on the market. The one noteworthy mention on this intercooler is that the hot-side and cold-side piping hookups are 0.5″ wider than the stock intercooler. This makes fitment a bit more challenging unless you also purchase their hot and cold side intercooler piping.
Buy Here: Mustang 2.3L CVF Race Intercooler
3) Wagner EVO1 and EVO2 Intercoolers
Wagner is a worthy mention since they make some great intercoolers. Their products are a bit on the pricier end, but if you are looking for quality and performance and don’t have a budget, these are great choices. They also have an even bigger intercooler than CVF for anyone who needs or wants 1000whp+ capabilities.
The Evo1 offers a 45% larger surface area and 130% larger core volume. Wagner’s IAT testing shows about 30-40 degree lower temps which is in line with the CVF Street. Their Evo2 intercooler has a 175% larger surface area and a 226% larger core for massive cooling power.
Both of the EVO intercoolers are great options. We would recommend them for heavily tracked vehicles. For your daily driver, they are a bit expensive for our tastes when you look at the performance and quality delivered by CVF for half the price.
Price: $750 (Evo1) and $990 (Evo2)
2.3L Mustang Intercooler Summary
An upgraded intercooler is one of the best performance and reliability mods for the 2.3L Mustang EcoBoost. In addition to offering 10-20whp gains it also offers more consistent performance, reduced heat soak and chance of engine knock, and better ignition timing. All of this results in more reliable power and performance for the Mustang.
The two factors to consider in intercooler selection are sizing, and bar and plate vs tube and fin. We prefer bar and plate designs since they have more air capacity, are more durable, and have the least pressure drop. For intercooler sizing, sticking with a smaller intercooler is sufficient unless you have an upgraded turbo. Larger intercoolers do offer better cooling but if you aren’t pushing enough air through them they will also decrease air pressure and increase turbo lag.
CVF makes our favorite EcoBoost intercoolers on the market. Their Street and Race products are the best bang-for-the-buck and can handle anything up to the 800whp mark. Upgrading the intercooler piping isn’t really necessary unless you are pushing crazy power levels, but can be worth it for those with upgraded turbos who can afford it.
Check out our 5 Best 2.3L Mustang Performance Mods post, which features an intercooler upgrade among a tune, intake, downpipe, and chargepipe.