“Know your car” Series #4


Back pressure, Exhaust velocity and scavenging


As an avid reader of’s Forum section, it is quite intriguing to see just how misunderstood the need, or otherwise, is for backpressure in the exhaust system. There are comments that MX-5s need backpressure and those who see it as a bad thing. Often there is no real understanding of what backpressure is or of its consequences.


OK, so here is Backpressure 101.


The purpose of the car’s exhaust system is to evacuate gases from the combustion chamber quickly and efficiently. The exhaust gasses do not flow in a smooth stream. Because the gasses are vented at each opening of the exhaust valves there is a pulse of gasses from each cylinder. Just put you hand near the exhaust tip and you will feel the pulses. In a MX-5 engine there are four pulses per cycle (except if it’s John Pitt’s supercharged V8 then there are eight really big pulses per cycle).


The exhaust gasses produce a positive flow in the exhaust pipe. Backpressure can be likened to resistance to the positive flow of the exhaust stream. Taken to its extreme backpressure can lead to a reversal (albeit momentarily) of the exhaust stream.


Is Bigger Better or is Faster Best?


When contemplating a modified exhaust system there are those who want the biggest diameter pipe that can be had. Their idea must be that fatter pipes are more effective at venting than narrower pipes. This sounds reasonable but it is not quite correct. Sure wider pipes have greater volume and higher flow capacity, but that is just half of the story. Capacity is one consideration but gas velocity is the other factor.

An experienced exhaust designer knows that the best exhaust is one that balances flow capacity with velocity. A given volume/time of gasses will travel faster through a 2" pipe than the same volume of gas passing through a 3" pipe. So when taken to its extremes we can see that a too narrow pipe will create backpressure (restrictions to positive flow) problems and a too wide pipe will cause a very slow flow with no backpressure.

The optimum is where the fastest velocity is achieved with the least constriction possible.


This situation will arise when the pipe is wide enough so that there is the least level of positive backpressure possible whilst achieving the highest exhaust gas velocity.

The faster the exhaust gas pulse moves, the better it can scavenge out all of the spent gasses during valve overlap. The scavenge effect can be visualised by imagining the high-pressure pulse with a trailing low-pressure area behind. The faster the high-pressure pulse moves the stronger the draw on the low-pressure gasses and the gasses behind that. The scavenge action is like (but not exactly) suction on the gasses behind.


The greater the clearance burned fuel from the combustion chamber the less diluted the incoming air/fuel mix is. Scavenging can also aid intake on overlapping valves (where the exhaust and inlet valves are open at the same time) by drawing in the intake. These are good things to happen.


So instead of going for the widest pipe possible we should be looking for the combination of the narrowest pipe that produces the least backpressure possible. In this scenario we achieve the least restriction on positive flow and the highest gas travel speed.


Exhaust pipe diameters are best suited to a particular RPM range. If we used a constant RPM engine this would be easy to specify. But a variable RPM engine will mean that not one size suits all. It is possible to vary the size of exhaust volumes according to rpm but it is very expensive (Ferrari has done it). The optimum gas flows (volume and speed) are required at the RPM range that you want your power band to be located. For a given engine configuration a small pipe diameter will produce higher exhaust velocities at a low RPM (good) but create unacceptably high amounts (bad) of backpressure at high rpm. If you had a car with a low RPM power band (2,000-3,000 RPM) you would want a narrower pipe than if your power band is located at 5,000-7,000 RPM.


Urban Myth Number 42: "MX-5s need backpressure"


It is easy to see how this misunderstanding arises. Lets’ say that Max puts a 3-inch system on his normally aspirated car. He soon realises that he has lost power right through the power band. The connection is made in his throbbing brain…. put on 3" pipe = loss of backpressure = loss of power. Max erroneously concludes that you need backpressure to retain performance. He has ignored the need for exhaust gas velocity to get that scavenge effect.


If Max had chosen a 2 1/4" pipe he would have achieved better performance in the mid- to high-RPM power band. You need the combination of the least positive (close to zero) backpressure possible with the highest gas velocity achievable to create performance. The diameter of the pipe (and smoothness of internal finish and bends) will strongly influence if your exhaust change is going to create performance or lose power.

As a general rule, a normally aspirated MX-5 will get better high RPM performance with a 2 1/4" exhaust system (2 1/2" or above is just too wide to retain exhaust gas velocity for street driving). The general consensus is that a 2 1/4" system is for mid to high RPM petrol heads. Your mechanic should be able to advise you what exhaust system will best suit you driving style and needs.


Forced induction (turbo or supercharged) MX-5s perform better with the high volume pipes (2 1/2" to 3"), but that’s another story. The choice of a 4 into 2 into1 or a 4 into 1 header to exhaust set is yet another story.


Safe journey


Rob (Techno) Spargo

Mazda MKX-5 Club Victoria