Exhaust 101: What You Need to Know

You just bought the next car you’re going to modify. You know you’re going to bolt on a few parts and make the car stand out and be your own. You’ve been eyeing a few exhaust systems but are stuck because there is so much information available, which leads you into analysis paralysis.



If price is your only concern for an exhaust system, you might need to walk away from this article. There are a lot of options at various prices for exhaust components, but ultimately you will get what you pay for. Prices will jump from brand to brand regarding mufflers, piping, headers, etc. The difference in price also reflects a difference in performance, quality and sound.



The biggest jump in price comes from the material of the exhaust parts. On the budget friendly end is mild steel. The middle price is aluminized steel or coated mild steel, and the very top of the line is stainless steel.

If you are blessed to live in the South or the West, stainless steel is not a requirement. If you live in the northern parts of the U.S. or anywhere road salt or sea salt is prevalent, stainless steel will work in your favor.

Mild steel parts can come in bare or painted configurations. They will rust faster than any of the other materials. If you have a track-only car, or plan on keeping your car in the garage and away from inclement weather, this could be a desirable choice for you. It is also a budget friendly choice for the do-it-yourselfer who can coat the parts at home.

Ceramic coating is an option for some parts, which is a great alternative to stainless steel. The ceramic coating will reduce temperatures under the hood, as well as slow rust. It will not last forever on a daily driver, but individual climates will vary the lifespan of the parts.

When it comes to longevity of a part, stainless steel reigns king. If the price jump for mild or aluminized steel to stainless isn’t going to break your bank – buy it!

Here’s a quick comparison between 98-02 F-Body LS1 Headers listed on Summit Racing:

Pacesetter Steel Painted Long Tube Headers $359.99
Pacesetter Ceramic Coated Steel LT Headers $549.99
Kooks Stainless Steel Headers $1,542.14

Note that the cost of stainless is over four times as much as painted mild steel. Ceramic coated headers are one-third of the cost of stainless steel. Although brands and configurations vary for this setup, price increases remain the same for various platforms.



Everyone wants a great-sounding exhaust system. The tone from the exhaust is attributed greatly to the muffler, as opposed to other components such as the exhaust manifolds/headers, catalytic converters or straight pipes and the rest of the system.

Volume can be changed through the removal of intermediate pipe resonators, as well as catalytic converters. Changing your entire exhaust system except for the factory installed muffler will only increase the volume, with very minor changes to the tone.

If you fear a raspy exhaust system, you need to be careful with the piping diameter that you choose. Too small of a diameter will cause rasp, as well as bad merges and poor-quality parts. If you have a smaller V8, choose 2.5” piping at minimum from the exhaust manifold or header. Larger V8s should have 3” piping. If your factory exhaust is a single system, remember that upgrading to a true-dual system in 2.5” will outflow a single 3” system.

Exhaust 101: What You Need to Know



Adding an exhaust to your car will add power, or rather, it will remove restriction from the engine. Exhaust systems lose the most power through smaller diameters, bends, catalytic converters and resonators.

Aftermarket exhaust systems are typically made with smooth mandrel bends and a larger than factory diameter, and delete sound resonators and other restrictions. To remain street legal, a high flow catalytic converter is a must, but these outflow factory converters.

Exhaust 101: What You Need to Know

Above is a comparison between a factory catalytic converter on the left and a high flow aftermarket one on the right. Note the spacing between the “honeycomb” mesh.



Exhaust 101: What You Need to Know

Every brand has a specific sound to their exhaust systems. The author suggests attending car meets and experiencing firsthand the exhaust system you want to hear. Some of the top brands for muscle cars are Borla, Flowmaster and Magnaflow. These three brands have the highest reputation for sound, fit, and longevity of parts. Other popular brands include Kooks, Hedman, Hooker and Edelbrock.

Exhaust 101: What You Need to Know

Kooks Headers are known for their stainless parts and excellent craftsmanship.

Buyer beware: just because off-brands are sold on the internet, it doesn’t mean they will have a “direct” bolt-on installation. Some internet brands require serious modifications to subframes, K-members, control arms and even to the parts themselves, such as milling the flanges straight. Quality is reflected with price. Research is paramount concerning brands not popular amongst enthusiasts.


Budget Friendly Planning:

Most exhaust systems are broken into sections of the car. Installing long tube headers on a factory exhaust system can prove to be difficult or even impossible because of flange differences, diameters and the need for modifications of parts.

The best way to piece together a full exhaust system is to start from the tailpipe and move forward. Most cat-back exhaust systems are direct-fit and ready to be bolted onto the factory catalytic converter. For the time and money, cat-backs will bring the most amount of change in the sound of your exhaust, and they will add a few ponies to the pavement.

Aftermarket high-flow catalytic converters and headers should come after the cat-back is replaced if you can’t afford to change everything at once. Most cat-backs will bolt up to an aftermarket cat, but the cat won’t bolt to the factory manifolds.

Decide on your full exhaust system, then start purchasing and installing parts. Great resources for specific vehicles can be found through online forums.

After Installation:

It should be noted that after installing a full exhaust system, a dyno tune will become a necessity. The car most likely can be daily driven, but depending on the system, there might be check engine light codes or the engine will start running rich. A dyno tune will fix the problems the computer is experiencing, as well as inform you of how much power your car is making. A good dyno tuner can solve your problems and increase your engine’s output as well.

Happy Modding!

Image Credits:
Borla: https://www.borla.com/productImages/misc/140028_xlarge.jpg

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