How Much Should An Exhaust System Cost?
Cost has two components – parts and labor. Here are some good rough estimates for both.
Exhaust System Parts Costs
Most after-market exhaust companies offer four types of components:
- Cat-back exhaust systems – anywhere from $300 to $1200 – The final cost will depend on steel thickness and type, as well as muffler quality.
- Axle-back exhaust systems – same as above
- High performance mufflers – $75-$300 – The quality of the muffler’s materials inside, as well as the type of steel and thickness used, impact the final price.
- Exhaust system tips – $25-$150 per tip – Almost all cat-back or axle-back systems include a quality exhaust tip. However, if you’re building your own system, you can purchase an exhaust tip to “dress up” your factory pipe.
The schematic below shows where the “cat” (a.k.a. catalytic converter) is in relation to the engine. While many companies sell high-performance catalytic converters, they are fairly expensive and usually don’t restrict exhaust flow too much, so we’re not going to worry about them here.
On some vehicles, the muffler is mounted behind the rear axle. In this case, exhaust manufacturers sell “axle-back” systems. The only difference between a cat-back and an axle-back exhaust is the length of tubing – both include a new muffler. Therefore, there’s not a lot of cost difference between the two. Both cat-back and axle-back systems include tubing, a muffler(s), and then all the hardware needed to mount the new system in place of the factory system. Most of the time, these systems use the factory exhaust hangers to make install as easy as possible.
Since a high-performance muffler is a part of a cat-back or axle-back exhaust system, buying a muffler by itself is usually the least expensive option in terms of parts cost. Keep in mind, however, that mufflers have higher labor costs. They’re not necessarily less expensive by the time all the labor costs have been accounted for.
Muffler Only vs. Cat-back or Axle-back
The biggest advantage in purchasing a full cat-back or axle-back system is that install is really simple. Many of these systems can be installed at home with basic tools. Conversely, installing a muffler at home may not be so simple – cutting and welding may be required. What’s more, some after market mufflers require significant re-routing of your stock exhaust tubing…and that can get expensive very quickly.
The other advantage in a full cat-back or axle-back system is that they are often tuned to your specific vehicle and the included muffler(s). All things being equal, a cat-back or axle-back system will perform slightly better than a muffler only.
Stainless Steel vs Aluminized or Galvanized Steel
The main difference between a stainless steel exhaust system and an aluminized or galvanized system is durability. Stainless systems will last a lifetime due to their ability to resist corrosion, with 200 300 series stainless systems being more resistant than 300 200 series systems (only the difference is slight). Some manufacturers will try and convince you that one type of stainless system (200, 300, or 400) has better sound quality than another, but there’s no evidence we’re aware of to support these claims. In fact, stainless steel tends to be slightly thinner than aluminizied steel. If anything, an aluminized system may have better sound quality.
Having said that, the muffler itself is the biggest factor in sound. The steel used in the system isn’t as important as some make it out to be (at least in terms of sound quality).
When it comes to choosing between stainless and aluminized systems, it’s important to consider your local environment. If you live in an area where corrosion risks are high (such as cold-weather areas that use salt to de-ice roadways), stainless steel may be a reasonable upgrade because it will resist rust. On the other hand, if your local environment is dry and the corrosion risks are low, the only reason to buy a stainless system is for looks.
There are probably thousands of different exhaust system tips available. Generally speaking, you get what you pay for. Stainless steel tips are very resistant to corrosion, but they don’t shine up as nicely as chrome. Also, stainless steel tips are more likely to “blue”, or change color during use. Titanium is also a material used to make exhaust tips – it’s incredibly corrosion resistant, but just like stainless it’s prone to blue during use. If you like the blue coloring, titanium is probably your best choice. If you want the shiny look, chrome is the way to go. If you want a tip that you can shine up every once in a while – but that’s also resistant to the elements – stainless is a smart choice.
Exhaust System Labor Costs
If you purchase a cat-back or axle-back exhaust system, labor costs are often very low. These systems bolt-on and use the existing factory hangers. In fact, many performance shops will install a cat-back exhaust system free of charge if you purchase it directly from them.
If you decide you want to purchase a muffler only, you’ll want to get an install estimate from your local exhaust shop BEFORE you buy that muffler. Sometimes, installation is very straightforward and the cost is as little as $100. Other times, fabrication is required and the cost can be as high as $300 (or more). If the installation requires a lot of fabrication, you may be better off buying a cat-back or axle-back system instead.