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Best Exhaust Systems: Bolt on and Get Loud

Don’t replace your exhaust with factory parts when better performance is available for less money.

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BYMichael Febbo/ LAST UPDATED ON May 20, 2022

Well-engineered, bolt-on replacement exhaust systems are a relatively modern advancement. Up until the early 1980s, enthusiasts were forced to replace a rusted-out mess of mild steel piping with more OE heartache or have a system custom built from generic off-the-shelf mufflers and resonators with the results totally dependent on the fabricator’s current state of focus, karma, and sobriety.


While the automotive industry was switching over to longer-living stainless steel for exhaust components, the aftermarket was figuring out how to make reliable performance gains in a package that enthusiasts could bolt on with no fabrication or welding necessary. But with tightening fuel economy standards and car companies’ increased computing power, getting big gains from an aftermarket exhaust didn’t last long.Today, aftermarket exhaust systems are still a way to get better sound and looks while usually being more affordable than a replacement exhaust from the dealer. Reputable exhaust companies spend hours testing their systems for both sound and performance, so a kit designed specifically for your make and model is almost always superior to something put together with universal components. So let’s take a look at The Drive’s favorites.

Best Overall

Borla Cat-Back Exhaust System

Summary
The originator of the modern aftermarket exhaust is still at the top of the list. The best materials, designs, and sound add up to the best all-around package.
Pros
  • T-304 stainless is the best all-around material for exhausts
  •  Easy installation, even at home
  • Great sound and looks
Cons
  • Some applications are nearly as expensive as factory replacement
  • Backorders aren’t uncommon
Best Value

MagnaFlow Street Series Axle-Back Exhaust

Summary
For buyers looking for the sound and looks without the expense of a complete system, MagnaFlow’s axle-back is an easier solution.
Pros
  • All the sound without the huge price
  • Installation takes minutes
  • Available black finish flies under the radar
Cons
  • Limited options in tips and sound profiles
  • Some applications are literally pipe and exhaust tip
Honorable Mention

Corsa Performance Cat-Back Exhaust

Summary
It doesn’t offer as many fitments and they aren’t always as readily available as bigger competitors but innovative RSC tech makes Corsa a good alternative.
Pros
  • Multiple quarter-wavelength resonators allow for very specific sound tuning
  • Compact designs free up space under the car
Cons
  • Limited applications compared to larger companies
  • Some enthusiasts find it too quiet
Best Exhaust Systems: Bolt on and Get Loud

Our Methodology

This guide was assembled using years of experience with aftermarket exhaust systems. Of all the cars I’ve owned or built as projects, my current daily driver is the only one to keep its factory exhaust system – it’s a VW Tiguan with a 2.0-liter turbo B-cycle engine and it will not benefit in performance or sound from any exhaust modification currently possible with earthling technology.

I have used exhaust systems from some of the biggest names in the business all the way down to custom-built track exhausts. All the dyno-testing, scraping over speed bumps, swapping components, and loss of hearing will culminate in the next few thousand words, all for you, Dear Reader.

When choosing the exhaust systems you see here, I considered everything from sound, to durability, to value and even looks. On modern cars, gaining any real performance is tough to do with an emissions legal system; car companies are far too good at optimizing everything that affects mpgs or 0-to-60 times. So, while some of these might net you a new pony or two, be skeptical of any company making big gain claims.

As my experience is mostly with performance cars, online ratings from actual users were also reviewed. Sound clips across the internet were also reviewed and quickly disregarded as I realized that neither the videographer’s smartphone nor my laptop possess the audio chops necessary to replicate the bellow of the big pipes.

Why Trust Us

Our reviews are driven by a combination of hands-on testing, expert input, “wisdom of the crowd” assessments from actual buyers, and our own expertise. We always aim to offer genuine, accurate guides to help you find the best picks.

Learn more

Car Exhaust System Reviews & Recommendations

Specs

  • Material: T-304 stainless
  • Warranty:1 million miles
  • Customizable:Choose from multiple sound levels and exhaust tips

Pros

  • Great materials and build quality
  • Most fitments have multiple sound choices
  • Unique sound from Polyphonic Harmonizer
  • Easy bolt-on installation

Cons

  • All this R&D doesn’t come cheap
  • Sometimes have to wait for a production run

There was a time when Borla was quite literally the only name in bolt-on replacement exhaust systems. While the industry has exploded with competition in its 44 years of existence, the original is still right at the top in terms of fitment, performance, and sound. Borla’s exhaust systems are built from T-304 stainless steel, which is good for corrosion resistance and surface finish. It is also an austenitic stainless, meaning it won’t harden with heat exposure. A more malleable exhaust may be more likely to dent, but a hard exhaust is more likely to crack. From the beginning, Borla has been known for sound. First with multicore mufflers which employ different sized pass-throughs in a single muffler to attenuate specific frequencies and more recently the development of Polyphonic mufflers. These use varying chamber sizes designed with Pythagorean Music Theory to create an exhaust note that produces chords, rather than notes. Science is awesome.

Specs

  • Material: 409 stainless steel
  • Warranty:Lifetime for defects, one year for finish
  • Customizable:No

Pros

  • Good sound enhancement while maintaining factory middle section
  • Easier at-home installation than full cat-back
  • Stealth black finish cleans up undercarriage

Cons

  • Some systems are literally just pipe and tips
  • Black finish isn’t bling enough for some enthusiasts

Car companies are good at building cars — full stop. Even economy cars don’t have power gains left on the table anymore. There is very little performance benefit in any legal exhaust modifications, so many enthusiasts are just after a little more and better sound with better-looking exhaust tips. MagnaFlow, which also builds every option of exhaust imaginable, builds what’s known as axle-back systems, which replace the factory exhaust behind the car’s rear axle; usually just a muffler or mufflers on dual-exhaust set-ups. MagnaFlow is known for providing a more aggressive exhaust note while improving flow as much as possible. Its axle-back systems are dyno tested, made from 409 stainless steel and are 100 percent emissions compliant, and won’t affect your car’s warranty. The truncated systems are also easier for the average enthusiast to install in their driveway with basic hand tools. While you can find less expensive alternatives, many of them will also match the description of cheaper. MagnaFlow covers its kits with a lifetime warranty for defects in materials and construction. At present, the website lists over 80 different applications but that number is always increasing.

Specs

  • Material: T-304 stainless
  • Warranty:Lifetime for materials and manufacturing defects
  • Customizable:Multiple sound levels and tip styles

Pros

  • RSC Technology eliminates drone while optimizing flow
  • Most applications offer multiple sound-level options
  • Every kit uses components designed specifically for that application

Cons

  • Not as many applications as larger competitors
  • Some owners find them too quiet

There are basically two types of noise attenuation in a car’s exhaust system, absorptive and reactive. Corsa Exhaust systems rely on the latter method which involves reflecting sound waves back at the source to disrupt the sound wave before it exits the tailpipe. The patented Reflective Sound Cancellation (RSC) Technology is the brand name given to what’s otherwise known as a quarter wavelength or Helmholtz resonator. Instead of packing a muffler full of sound deadening material to absorb noise, Corsa mufflers are divided into a variety of different shaped chambers all sized to cancel particular frequencies. Technically, most exhaust companies use some form of reactive attenuation in their systems, but not exclusively like Corsa. Most owners, myself included, have had positive experiences with Corsa exhaust kits. While I was completely happy with the kit I got for my2015 VW GTI, most people who heard it in person felt it wasn’t loud enough — it was barely louder than stock. It did have an excellent tone and I appreciated the fact it sounded better without sounding louder.

Specs

  • Material: T-304L stainless steel
  • Warranty:Lifetime for materials and manufacturing defects
  • Customizable:Multiple tip choices

Pros

  • Built using modern methods and materials but faithful to period look and sound
  • Supporting cars that don’t make financial sense
  • Designed by and for enthusiasts of that particular model

Cons

  • Kit might be a quarter of the car’s value
  • You may have to wait for the next production run

Classic cars represent an interesting business case for exhaust manufacturers. Sure, classic Camaro and El Camino exhausts probably fly off the shelves like Milk Duds at movie theaters, but what if you drive something that isn’t boomer auction fodder? That’s where a specialty manufacturer like Milltek Classic comes in. These are kits that most manufacturers will look at the business case and laugh them out the door. But, luckily some parts makers will see it as a chance to make enthusiasts, read someone higher up in the company who owns the car, very happy indeed. Milltek leans on years of experience designing and building everything from pro-level race exhausts to road-legal systems for everything from Suzuki to Lamborghini and applies it to classic fits. It’s almost poetic that an exhaust for a 40-year-old MK1 GTI may benefit from lessons learned in the development of an application for a 2020 Lamborghini Urus. Classic systems are built from T-304L stainless using modern techniques like laser cutting and computer-controlled mandrel bending. They are warrantied for life and unlike most modern cars, installing an exhaust kit on a car three or more decades old is almost certainly going to get you a performance increase you can actually feel. Milltek may not build a kit for your particular project, there are only a few applications at this point. But, I would encourage you to seek out specialty manufacturers associated with whatever brand is in your garage before resorting to a chop-and-weld job with off-the-shelf mufflers.

Specs

  • Material:Titanium and Inconel
  • Warranty:Two years from the date of purchase
  • Customizable:No

Pros

  • Titanium provides big weight savings
  • Unbelievable attention to detail
  • Your exhaust costs more than most people’s first car

Cons

  • Your exhaust costs more than most people’s first car
  • Huge weight savings in literally worst possible place

Look, all of us here at The Drive totally get it; you worked really hard your entire life to get that job at your dad’s firm as an executive financial bond liquidity account representative. It’s time to treat yourself with the best exhaust system money can buy for your AMG GT — that coincidentally also came from the company as a “signing bonus” when you were hired. With your mid-six-figure salary, dropping a 10-spot for the weight savings and exclusivity is well worth it. You are worth it. Akrapovic is based in Slovenia, where it mainly operates foundries and factories producing aerospace-grade parts from titanium and Inconel using processes that make other exhaust manufacturers look like they’re operating in the Mesolithic Period. It also happens to produce, probably, the best exhaust systems in the world which, definitely, come at laughable prices. Most full titanium exhausts are built from numerous “pie-slices” hand cut and hand welded into the radii required. Although this method produces an artistic piece, it’s mostly done because titanium is difficult to bend. Not only are Akrapovic’s exhausts made with beautifully smooth bends, but pieces like X-pipes and valves are made from castings, unique to each fit. A full titanium system can save you dozens of pounds. Keep in mind that weight is coming from the very lowest point on the car and the bulk of it behind the center of gravity. It is however impossible to deny the cool factor of Akrapovic exhaust kits. Is the performance increase worth the price? Well, it’s been shown that your average Timex is more accurate than your average Rolex, but people still lust over the latter.

Our Verdict on Exhaust Systems

A quick internet search shows the average consumer has exactly, far too many choices when it comes to replacing their factory exhaust. As the overall best pick, I chose the Borla Cat-Back Exhaust System based on reputation, price, material, and build quality, as well as hands-on experience with every brand here and probably a dozen others. It’ll fit like factory, sound better and last the life of your car.

Consider Secondhand

When we start shopping for tools and products, we never overlook the secondhand market. In fact, it’s usually the first place I look. Whether you’re scrolling through Amazon’s Renewed section, eBay for car parts or tools, or flipping through the pages of Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist, you have hundreds of thousands of used tools, parts, and gear ready to be shipped to your doorstep. Refurbished to like-new status, they’ll be willing to give you many more years of faithful service all while saving you money.

If those options don’t have what you need, your local salvage yard is great for car parts, while swap meets are a great resource you should tap. Just Google either and head on down. 

Secondhand Tips

To make your secondhand search easier, here are two tips to finding the best deals and making sure your new-to-you stuff wasn’t destroyed by the previous owner.

●  Verify the exhaust’s legitimacy with serial or at minimum part numbers.

●  Don’t buy anything with signs of modifications or parts replaced.

What to Consider When Buying Exhaust Systems

Spending the extra money on a high-quality replacement exhaust for your car is something you will appreciate daily. If you drive your car in anything but completely dry conditions, you want something made from stainless steel, and make sure it is good stainless; there’s plenty of crap out there that will still corrode. If you are concerned with noise and the manufacturer has multiple product lines, look for words like Touring, Street, Comfort and stay away from anything with Track, Attack, Blitz, and especially anything purposely misspelled.

Types of Exhaust Systems

Cat-Back

If you need a replacement exhaust because the factory system has rusted, cracked, or is otherwise pushing up daisies, you will want to replace the entire thing with a cat-back. As the name implies, this is a system that starts at the car’s catalytic converter and replaces everything from there back to the tailpipe(s). Since the original catalytic converter is untouched, these are emissions-legal in 50 states and won’t void your car’s warranty except in unusual cases.

Axle-Back

For enthusiasts looking to change the sound of their car and add different exhaust tips, this is a more budget-friendly option. As the name implies, these kits replace just the rear section of your exhaust, although this may be just before or even well behind the rear axle. The center section of your factory exhaust usually contains a resonator designed to remove very specific frequencies in your car’s sound profile. Leaving it intact will allow it to still remove those unwanted frequencies, while the replacement rear section will allow more of the good sound out the tailpipe.

Turbo-Back

These exhaust systems are almost always illegal on public roads, as they replace the factory emissions equipment. These replace everything from the exit of the turbocharger back, meaning the catalytic converter. The time period varies by state, but the kit must reuse the factory cat — yes it must be the same exact part number that came with your car — or these will not pass inspection. For more information, I would suggest you start here.  

Exhaust System Key Features

Muffler

We all know what a muffler is right? It’s that thing in your exhaust that does shushing. That is pretty much right, but it’s more complicated. A muffler does attenuate noise. It does so with absorption, using sound deadening material which turns the sound waves into heat energy. A muffler will absorb all frequencies, meaning it reduces the entire sound level.

Resonator

A muffler and a resonator are often confused. While a muffler may sometimes contain resonators, they function differently. As the name implies, resonators use resonance chambers to decrease specific frequencies through reactive interference. The soundwave is directed into a chamber of a calculated volume where it reflects back into the stream in the opposite direction and 180 degrees out of phase. A resonator is used to cancel out the frequencies that cause droning and are known to be the most problematic in terms of noise.

It’s fairly common for companies to offer exhaust systems in both resonated and non-resonated versions for the same car. Resonated versions are often referred to as sounding smoother or less raspy. What is an annoyance for you may sound sportier to someone else. Before making the choice, I would encourage you to listen to examples — in person if possible — from both outside and inside the car.

Exhaust Tips

These may seem like purely cosmetic pieces of exhaust jewelry, because they mostly are. However, these are most likely the only portion your exhaust the world will ever see and do have a couple of functions. Functionally, you will find some tips which are resonated, so will change the sound of your exhaust slightly. A double-walled tip will also isolate the outer more visible part of the tip from the inner, hottest part. This can help keep your plastic valance from discoloring as well as saving your lower legs from burning when you accidentally brush up against the tips as you’re getting something out of your trunk. Ask me how I know.

Most companies offer tips in a variety of sizes, shapes, and materials with some exotic pieces that cost nearly as much as an entire exhaust kit. Carbon fiber, titanium, and Inconel all look awesome, but a rolled double-wall stainless tip will serve the same function at a fraction of the cost.

Exhaust System Pricing

Average exhaust kits are going to cost you anywhere from $500 for a basic axle back to upwards of $1,800 for a complete cat-back system. To a point, you get what you pay for. Buying a $300 kit from a fly-by-night online brand will get you something that won’t fit well. They tend to use generic off-the-shelf components that may or may not isolate the annoying frequencies specific to your car, and will likely be made of inferior materials. You and the rest of the world are forced to listen to your exhaust every single minute your car is running. Keep that in mind when choosing your kit. 

FAQs

You’ve got questions. The Drive has answers.

Q: Can I install an exhaust system at home?

A: If you have done any car maintenance, you can likely install a quality exhaust kit at home.

Q: Will an aftermarket exhaust system void my warranty?

A: In almost all cases no. Your car’s warranty provided would have to prove a component failure was caused by the aftermarket part, which is unlikely with an exhaust.

Q: Are aftermarket exhaust systems emissions legal?

A: Exhaust kits are legal as long as they don’t interfere with or replace/remove emissions equipment. Check your local laws to see time requirements for replacing emissions equipment with aftermarket parts.

Q: Are all exhaust systems street legal?

A: Your state and even local laws may have different noise standards than federal law. Some local governments are trying to make “modifying a car’s exhaust for the purpose of sound” illegal.

Q: How much horsepower will I get from a cat-back exhaust?

A: The real question is how much performance difference will you see. Some exhausts gain a little power at one rpm but lose the same or more at other rpm. Modern car companies are good at what they do, so performance benefits are few and far between in bolt-on parts these days.

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