Whether you have an older ride that’s overdue for a new exhaust, or a newer car or truck with a wimpy factory exhaust system, there’s almost nothing in the automotive aftermarket that can give you more bang for your buck than a new performance exhaust system. You can get it all: greater power, better sound, and shinier appearance, with just a few hours work.
Let’s cover some basics first. There are exhaust “kits” which include all needed parts, and are customized to fit YOUR particular year, make, and model. There are also universal mufflers and pipes which allow you to build your own set-up. Unless you’re an experienced fabricator, we recommend staying with the vehicle-specific kits, for both cost and ease of installation.
Another important fact: almost every car sold in the U.S. since the mid-1970s has been equipped with a catalytic converter. Trucks began “converting” to converters in the 1980s-early 1990s. The most straightforward approach is to look for a “cat-back” kit, meaning, an exhaust kit which will have everything you need, starting at the rear of your existing catalytic converter. We do not condone removal of emission control devices! You have the further option to consider exhaust headers, which replace factory exhaust manifolds. Due to their expense and complexity to install, they are outside of our scope today.
How do you start looking? Start by answering this question: which is most important, more power, louder sound, or better looks? If it’s power, look for kits from companies that post actual horsepower and torque gains for your engine. Exhaust systems can indeed improve your engine’s power output, and they do that by maximizing the efficiency of the exhaust flow. Several specific techniques which are used include converting from single to dual exhaust; utilizing straighter pipes with fewer bends; and making mufflers which have fewer baffles and restrictions.
If a throatier sound is your goal, you are in a much better position than those of us who were purchasing performance exhaust twenty years ago. Most reputable aftermarket exhaust manufacturers utilize “sound files” on their websites. Enter your vehicle info, select a system you’re interested in, and play the audio clip. Listen to 2 or 3 of them back to back, as what you’re really chasing is the relative distinction among them. When you’ve heard one you like, you have a pretty good idea of how your ride will sound.
If appearance is the number one priority, then look for systems which are made of polished stainless steel. These look especially good on trucks, the higher the lift the better, because obviously, you will be able to see more of the shine. Further appearance tweaks to consider are kits with optional side (behind the rear tires) exits vs. rear (under the bumper) exits, extended exhaust tips (the larger the diameter, the better!), and for certain pickups, vertical exhaust stacks that make your rig look like one of the big boys!
If you’re handy with tools, and more importantly, have a way to get your vehicle a few feet up in the air, installing a custom exhaust system is not difficult work. However, for older vehicles, you will likely be dealing with some rusty clamps and pipes, which will accelerate the frustration issue. If there’s any doubt about your ability to get this done, a professional who has access to a lift and power tools can knock out the job at minimal cost.
Whether you’re driving a 20-year-old econobox, a late-model muscle car, or a pickup truck of any vintage, you can completely transform your ride by bolting up a cat-back vehicle-specific exhaust system.