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Ask A Mechanic: Why Do Some Vehicles Have A Down-Flow Radiator?

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While you may hope you never have to replace the radiator on your car, if you need to change this crucial part for some reason, you may sometimes face a choice between two types of radiator. A mechanic or parts supplier may refer to cross-flow or down-flow car radiators, but if you have no mechanical knowledge, you probably won't understand the difference. Find out how these different types of car radiator work, and learn more why some vehicles have a down-flow radiator and some have the cross-flow variety.

What is the difference between down-flow and cross-flow radiators?

The radiator in your car is a vital part of the vehicle's cooling system. The car radiator circulates coolant around the engine, passing through the engine block and absorbing the excess heat. Hot coolant then goes back to the radiator core, where the fluid cools down, and the process starts again.

The main difference between cross-flow and down-flow radiators is that the coolant tank(s) are in a different part of the engine. A cross-flow radiator has a tank on the side of the radiator core, while a down-flow radiator has coolant tanks above and below the radiator core.

How do down-flow and cross-flow radiators affect the performance of your cooling system?

The size and design of the vehicle you drive can make a big difference when it comes to deciding which type of radiator is better. Crucially, on a level playing field, the performance and efficiency of these types of radiator are largely the same. With the same surface area, construction material and fin design, you would get the same cooling efficiency from a down-flow or a cross-flow radiator.

However, it's almost impossible to find two vehicle models with the same engine design, so variations in performance will exist. Down-flow radiators are normally tall and thin. As such, this design works well in trucks or vehicles where you don't need to worry about a lower profile car bonnet because the engine is deep. In other vehicles, especially small city cars or sports cars, a cross-flow radiator is a more efficient use of space and offers better cooling power. A down-flow radiator in a car with a low bonnet wouldn't have enough surface area to adequately cool the car.

Why do sports cars normally have cross-flow radiators?

With the coolant tanks on the top and bottom of the radiator core, the radiator cap must sit on the end tank because there's nowhere else for the part to go. Unfortunately, the end tanks are where the cooling system is under the highest amount of pressure. When you drive hard and the engine gets hot, the spring-loaded bypass valve in the car is more likely to open sooner. While this is an essential way to release the pressure, this also results in lower cooling efficiency. As such, cross-flow radiators are better for performance cars, as this type of radiator offers better cooling efficiency.

Is one type of radiator more prone to leaks?

Some problems are more likely to affect a cross-flow radiator than its down-flow counterpart. For example, the joints on an older cross-flow radiator will sometimes break due to the temperature difference between parts of the radiator. What's more, if these joints break, the radiator is more likely to develop a leak. However, down-flow radiators can also sometimes develop faults, and neither type is more likely to develop a fault or leak than the other. That aside, you should always arrange for a skilled mechanic to install the part.

Cars and trucks can use down-flow or cross-flow radiators. Talk to a mechanic for more information and advice about radiator repairs or replacements.