There are hundreds of different exhaust systems to choose from. A complete exhaust system can have three, four, six, even eight different components. Then, you have a replacement, sports, racing, etc. It’s like information overload.
The reality is that it’s pretty simple when you know the basics, and this article will give you more than the basics, so read on!
The Main Components
While this list will differ from model to model, typically, an exhaust system comprises four different components; headers, center section, catalyst, and muffler. Easy.
For the purpose of the article, I’m assuming that it’s a street-legal car, not a racecar. Therefore, it will need to comply with local legislation. In other words, I won’t be telling you to strip out all of the power-sapping bits to replace them with straight-through horsepower pipes. I understand that some states are less restrictive than others. Just be aware of local practice.
Production vehicles come in their thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands. So, manufacturers need to make their headers a simple affair. One that isn’t going to cost them too much money on each vehicle.
For many years, we saw that even on performance-orientated cars, the maker would use a simple cast iron header. It was cheap, easy, and reliable. And it gave them an instant market to upsell to.
A few things happened to change that. Horsepower wars with other manufacturers, CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) legislation, the ‘green’ movement – lighter-weight, better mpg, and the manufacturing costs reducing. In fact, there were dozens of factors, but these highlight the issue perfectly.
Nowadays, most modern cars are fitted with a ‘branch’ style exhaust header. It’s a single tube going to each individual exhaust port, which then goes into a collector, that mounts to the center section. Doing it this way costs more. However, it gives increased bhp, better efficiency, lower weight and can help with emissions. It’s a win-win-win situation.
Is there anything worse than having a large capacity V8 and making it sound like a strangled eco-mobile? I don’t think so.
Many people associate more noise with more power. While there is a degree of logic there, it’s perhaps not quite as straightforward as they believe. So, if it’s the performance you’re after, then maybe just picking the loudest isn’t the best way to go. Equally, don’t be fooled into buying ‘big bore’ exhausts that have no restrictions, because they may not work as you’d expect either. But, under certain conditions, they can.
For me, the perfect car muffler balances performance with quietness. You may want to drive fast, however, you don’t need to shout it from the rooftops, especially when local law enforcement is hot on speeding.
This is perhaps the simplest bit of all. Connecting one end of the pipe to the other is its main job. It needs to fit around all the components underneath, be safely secured, not obstruct regular driving (like scraping on the pavement when it’s bumpy), and of course, not fall apart.
Pipe diameter and restrictions are less crucial here. So, upping the diameter isn’t going to harm performance (within reason.) However, the bigger you go, the harder it will be to fit in the space designed for the standard OE system.
Emissions are tightening up on a regular basis. Sure, there may be some places where you don’t have to worry about emissions. 100% of vehicles are fitted with catalytic converters now, and there really isn’t such a thing as a ‘performance’ cat.
A great many exhaust systems were fabricated from regular steel. It’s cheaper and easier to manufacture than stainless steel. Of course, the big drawback is that it won’t last as long. Also, if you have a show car, you’ll never get it to look as good as stainless.
Stainless exhausts are more expensive, by some margin. However, they last much longer than regular mild steel, can be made to look all shiny and will add a premium to a vehicle. There is however a minor downside to stainless. It can be prone to cracking under certain conditions. Also, it will either need specialist welding equipment to repair it or a complete replacement.
Best Exhaust Systems & Mufflers – Top Picks
We’ve picked a selection of exhaust components for this list – some quality mufflers and aftermarket exhaust pipes These are some of the best exhaust mufflers & pipes available.
Some of these may not be suitable for your vehicle. But, hopefully, you’ll have a better understanding of what to look for after reading through my choices.
- Rating: 4.1 / 5
- Brand: Flowmaster
This is the ultimate exhaust system (from the cat backward) for the serious off-roader. It’s been engineered to give maximum ground clearance from front to back. The muffler has been moved to the front of the center section (just behind the cat) so that it can be tucked up inside the frame rails. And the rear has been rerouted to go over the rear sway bar.
Due to the relocation of the single exit, Flowmaster recommends the use of an aftermarket metal bumper. It sits too close to the original plastic bumper. Also, there’s a chance that it could cause damage to the standard one.
Made from full stainless steel, the American Thunder provides just that, ‘thunder’ for your American Jeep. With that said, it isn’t too noisy. It has just about the right level of bass coming from it. Although, some users say it usually gets a little deeper with use.
Definitely a great choice if you’re into your outdoor excursions. This stainless exhaust is American-made and should last a good many years. It also has a limited lifetime warranty.
Although it’s described as a single outlet, it’s actually a dual output pipe. Designed and made specifically for the Ford F-150 range of trucks – 2.7 and 3.5 liter V6 EcoBoost and the 5.0 liter V8.
Made from T-304 high-grade stainless steel, the exhaust system features a huge 3-inch diameter pipe. This really helps to produce some noise. It’s about the loudest pipe you can get for the F-150. The amazing thing is, it’s pretty quiet when your cruising, only really coming alive when you’re getting after it.
It comes in 5 pieces, and really does need some technical experience to fit it. If you’ve never attempted something like this before, this definitely isn’t the one to learn on. It’ll take a pro around 2 – 3 hours to fit properly.
Yes, if you have the money, then the Borla Cat-Back has to be the #1 exhaust for an F-150.
- Rating: 4.6 / 5
- Brand: MBRP
Although looking pretty simple – one big pipe, a fair degree of thought has gone into this pipe. The idea behind it is to improve performance (and make some big noise). The MBRP does this by being larger than standard – 4 inches, having as few bends (with shallower radius) as possible which in turn gives a freer-flowing exhaust, and reduces exhaust gas temperatures, which all help boost power.
There is no muffler – just a straight-through pipe that connects to the turbo and exits at the rear. The only real minus point is that you’ll need a separate rear frame hanger assembly.
If it’s noise and power you want, the MBRP is the best turbo exhaust you’ll come across, and it’s super competitively priced. Buy one of these, you won’t regret it.
- Rating: 4.3 / 5
- Brand: Gibson
This exhaust has been designed for a Jeep, but there’s a number of reasons why I like it. It has no extra or internal packing. That means, in 6 months’ time, you won’t be getting an increase in noise level as it falls out. Everything is done by internal baffling and chambering.
Gibson has designed this specifically to give a little more power in the low to mid-range, up to around 3000 rpm (handy when towing). Of course, without dyno sheets, it’s hard to tell just how much difference you’d get or whether it’s a placebo effect.
It’s finished with a black ceramic coating, so rust shouldn’t be too much of a worry, even there is a limited lifetime warranty on the product.
Overall, the Gibson is a high spec exhaust that gives a good level of sound without being too intrusive. It should last well, with the added bonus of a little more mid-range. A great choice of Jeep exhaust.
- Rating: 4.4 / 5
- Brand: Magnaflow
Another muffler designed for a Jeep. Magnaflow says that this is dyno-proven horsepower. With a quality stainless steel construction and a satin black coating, this exhaust muffler should last extremely well.
The Magnaflow 15160 has a straight-through muffler design. This helps to increase the noise level and the bhp, but the noise isn’t intrusive or droning. It’s more of a rich bass sound. It may also help with fuel economy.
It probably does increase fuel economy when driven like for like. But, with a system like this, you’ll be using the loud pedal a little more just to hear the noise and then the mpg will lessen.
There is no such thing as free horsepower. Give an engine more bhp and it’ll use more fuel when you use that bhp, it’s that simple.
You should take a competent techie around 30 minutes to fit this system, much of that time being taken up with the removal of the old system. It’s a similar price to the Gibson, perhaps a little noisier, so the choice between the two comes down to brand preference.
Choosing an Exhaust
The key to choosing the best exhaust systems & mufflers for your car is to understand what it is you want first. Are you looking for a straight replacement, or want some noise, perhaps a little different in the styling department?
Of course, more popular vehicles will always have more choices, but even your humble compact could probably have a few options for you.
My advice would be to only buy stainless steel (unless you’re on a real budget). Make sure that everything fits together before trying to fit it onto the car.
When laying underneath a car with oil dripping on you, resting a heavy exhaust on your chest isn’t the place to find out it doesn’t fit. Besides, if your old system has been on a while, there’s a good chance that you’ll snap bolts or have to cut some bits off. It’s also possible that your new one won’t fit.
Fitting is usually straightforward. There are fitting instructions supplied. Make sure you read them just so you know that there’s nothing awkward about the exhaust you’re trying to fit.