Car Specs

Cars Spec Explained: Automotive Terms, What do They Mean

It’s been said that researching the best car to buy can get confusing when you don’t know all of the terminologies. Here are the most common car terms, like torque and horsepower, that can help you make some of the best purchasing decisions.

Some car specifications just make sense, to many people. For example, “Eight airbags” means a car has eight airbags. But specs like torque, wheelbase, and even more familiar ones like horsepower and weight, are often can be misunderstood. That is in terms of their relevance to the steps of selecting a car to buy. Too many car specs are seen as a means rather than results.

Car Spec Terminology

0-60: This term is the minimum amount of time a car needs to accelerate a standing stop to 60 miles an hour.

12V/120V/5V: The three kinds of power traditionally found in a car. 12 volts DC is what comes out of what we used to call a cigarette lighter outlet. It is still inefficiently in the mold to light cigarettes. 120V (also labeled as 110V and 115V) is, of course, house current and is AC. 5V DC is the power delivered by a USB port, but supposedly nobody refers to it by its voltage.  

CD, or the coefficient of drag: You’ll often see this when a new version of a car comes out. Carmakers seem to tout about how they reduced a vehicle’s drag or friction passing through the air. What’s important to think about is how the car’s fuel economy, acceleration and top speed (if that matters to you), and wind noise. The CD that helps with those are of little to no concern. 

Displacement: Often seen as “2.0” or a similar badge on the rump of a car. This is the amount of space in the engine’s cylinders where air and fuel cross beams to combust and create power. Pay attention instead to the car’s acceleration, fuel economy, and towing capacity. What is important is how much displacement a carmaker uses to deliver those are peripheral. Moreover, especially with turbocharging and hybridization blurring the line between what various engine displacements can accomplish. 

Headroom/legroom:  It’s important to just sit in the car.

Horsepower: The standard measure of a vehicle’s engine expressed as work. 1 horsepower equals the work needed to lift 550 pounds 1 foot in 1 second. Examine and check into the 0-60, towing load and MPG figures instead.

Kilowatt hours (kWh): This is a measure of battery capacity in an electrified car, especially important in a pure EV. It’s analogous to the size of a gas tank. The more kWh, typically the more electric range, but also the bigger hassle it is to recharge the car.

MPG (city, highway, average): Most of us understand miles per gallon, or we like to least think we do. Lesser know is an inherent distortion in this spec. That itself may bias your view of cars you compared based on it. Supposedly, Europeans know this. That is why they express fuel economy as consumption-per-distance (Liters/100 km) as opposed to our distance-per-consumption rating (MPG).

MPGe: Miles Per Gallon (Gasoline) Equivalent is how the EPA makes apples-to-apples out of gas and electricity. A gallon of gas has an energy potential of 115,000 BTUs. That is equivalent to 33.7 kWh of electricity. This number should help you evaluate the efficiency of a car that can run on combustion or electricity at various times. This will become a more important spec as electrification marches on. 

MSRP: This one’s easy: Don’t pay it.  

Torque: This spec means how hard the car’s engine can twist something. The term twisting is the whole idea behind moving a car. The engine twists the guts of the transmission which twists the drive shafts which twist the wheels and off you go down the road. This is a really important comparison spec that too few people are familiar with. 

Track: The wheelbase’s “middle-child syndrome.” It is the distance between the wheels, side to side across the car.

Watts (audio): Audio systems can range from 200 watts to 600 watts, 1,200 watts, or more. They suggest how many speakers it has or, what is more important, how elegantly it can portray transient moments in music when a lot of power may be needed momentarily. Listen to the system with a piece of music and medium (phone, USB, CD) you’re familiar with.   

Weight: Curb weight is an empty car with a full tank of gas. It is perhaps the least important weight. Gross weight is that of a car and all the people and stuff it can be safely loaded with. Towing capacity is what a car can pull and bring to a stop. Those last two weights are important specs you can’t empirically judge by driving a car.  

Wheelbase: The distance between the two-axle lines, or centers of the wheels, on one side of a car. This can have an important effect on handling, ride quality, and vehicle appearance. Judge those attributes directly. It is advised to not to worry about the wheelbase that delivered them. 

Wheel size: This refers to the is the diameter of the wheel, less often its width, and is without the added dimensions of a tire wrapped around it. It has a significant effect on a car’s handling, ride quality, and appearance. It can be a good snapshot when comparing cars or trim levels, but you still have to drive the car to see how the quality of drive factors play out with given wheel size.  

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