Cabin Air Filter vs. Engine Air Filter: What’s The Difference?

Your vehicle has a lot of filters. Here’s what you need to know about the difference between two air filters.

Engine air filter cabin air filterGetty Images

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Air filters are designed to trap contaminants like airborne particles, dirt, dust, and even noxious fumes. These inexpensive parts play a vital role in keeping the air going into your engine, and cabin, clean and free of the sort of junk you encounter driving.

Your vehicle has two common air filters: the cabin air filter and the engine air filter. Both need to be changed regularly to keep your car running in tip-top shape. Here’s what you need to know about the difference between a cabin air filter and an engine air filter.

What is a Cabin Air Filter?

Cabin air filters are designed to clean the air coming into your car's cabin and protect you and your passengers from everything from dust particles to mold spores, exhaust, and allergens. Typical cabin air filters are shaped like the filters used in home air conditioning units — they’re flat, with numerous surface pleats.

How often should you change the cabin air filter?

Regularly replacing your air filter can help keep your heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system running efficiently in both hot and cold weather.

Different manufacturers recommend different intervals for cabin air filter replacement, so it's important to consult your owner’s manual. In general, you should change your cabin air filter when you get an oil change. That’s every six to 12 months depending on how much you drive, where you drive, and your vehicle’s year, make, and model. Most dealerships can replace your cabin air filter for you, or you can pick up the right one at an auto parts store and do it yourself.

How much does a cabin air filter cost?

Cost varies depending on your vehicle’s year, make, and model. If you take your vehicle to your dealer for service, they will likely replace the air cabin filter with a manufacturer-approved version that can run from around $40 to upwards of $100. If you replace the filter yourself, it can be as affordable as $18 to $28.

What is An Engine Air Filter?

Engine air filters usually come in three shapes: round, conical, and flat. An engine air filter cleans the air that enters your engine before combustion so that the air that helps the fuel ignite is cleaner and free of particulates potentially causing longer-term issues. Think of it as your car’s lungs. For every gallon of fuel injected, roughly 10,400 gallons of air flows through the filter. An average 25-mpg air filter will clean about 6.2 million gallons of air over 15,000 miles.

How often should you change the engine air filter?

Most manufacturers recommend a new engine air filter every 12,000 to 15,000 miles, or about every three oil changes, but your owner’s manual will specify exactly. Your vehicle's year, make, and model will determine what type you need.

Most dealerships and mechanics will offer to change it for you, but you can save some cash by buying the right filter at an auto parts store and changing it yourself. Most engine filters are located under the hood toward the front of the vehicle, but consult your owner’s manual for the exact location and method for replacement.

How much does an engine air filter cost?

Most engine air filters will cost between $20 to $85, depending on the year, make, and model of your vehicle, and whether you do it yourself or take your vehicle to the dealer or a mechanic.

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Abigail Bassett
Abigail Bassett is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. There, she covers everything from automotive and business to travel and luxury. She has a passion for 1980s-era Volvo wagons, microcars, and dogs. She is also a World Car Juror.