Dummies guide to car terminology

Since the invention of the first car with an internal combustion hydrogen engine in 1807, automotive terminology has confused those not “in the know”. We’ve listed the most common car terms and their meanings in order from most important to least important.


Rotational force. Torque is measured in pounds/foot. The more torque, the more you can accelerate how fast the wheels turn.

Sticker price or MSRP

MSRP stands for manufacturer’s suggested retail price, and it means the sticker price that the dealer can then add their profit to in terms of the price they advertise in the lot.

Safety ratings

Safety ratings such as the star ratings from ANCAP indicate how safe the people inside a vehicle would be if it crashed, as well as its ability to avoid a crash. These safety ratings are tested by crash test dummies and other technologies. ANCAP has a great explanation of safety ratings here.


a.k.a. kilometres per litre or miles per gallon. This is all about your fuel economy, whether it’s good or bad. Manufacturers say your mileage may vary compared to factory testing, and that’s true because factory testing happens under ideal conditions.


The measurement of an engine’s output. One ‘horsepower’ is the power needed to lift 550 pounds one foot off the ground in exactly one second. There’s no magic number for horsepower, since other things like torque, vehicle weight and gearing also greatly affect the power your engine can use.

Power-to-weight ratio

A vehicle’s horsepower relative to its weight. You want a lot of horsepower for your weight. A heavy vehicle with 200 horsepower will be slow as a wet week compared to a lighter vehicle with 200 horsepower.


How many seconds it takes the vehicle to reach 100km/h from standing still. This information is useful when you’re wondering whether your new car is going to be able to tackle getting up the ramp onto the highway easily or not.

Electronic stability control and traction control

Automatic control systems that ensure safety:

Electronic stability control means the computer senses any wheel slippage, and responds by applying a bit of antilock braking and limiting power to the engine to keep it driving straight.

Traction control means the computer senses wheelspin while you’re accelerating, and responds by limiting power to the wheels for more efficient acceleration. This doesn’t increase traction, but it can help the car to gain back some traction that it has lost.

ABS (Anti-lock Braking System)

Stops you skidding when you brake suddenly by preventing the wheels from locking, so that you can still control the car.

Resale value

How much the vehicle will be worth in the future when you want to sell it. The resale value depends on how much you drive it between now and then (mileage!), and whether it gets in any accidents.

Cargo volume vs. luggage capacity

Luggage capacity means the cubic-foot level of space in the trunk, and usually that’s what cargo volume means, too. But sometimes, the term “maximum cargo volume” is used to mean how much space there is when the back seats and folded down and the passengers in the front hold their breath.


a.k.a. a ‘blower’. A compressor that forces more air into your engine to help it work better.


A supercharger unit powered by an exhaust-fed turbine when the car accelerates. The turbine forces more air into your cylinders to help them work better.

4WD vs. AWD

Both of these are cars where all four wheels receive power from the engine. 4WD drive modes are controlled by the driver. AWD drive modes are controlled automatically.

VIN (Vehicle Identification Number)

A code of letters and numbers that is your vehicle’s birth certificate. The code tells you who manufactured the car, when, and where. When buying a used car, you can use the VIN to look up the car’s reported history.

Car handling

How your car’s wheels respond to your steering.

Cruise control

An electronic system where you set the speed you want the car to go and the car stays at this speed automatically without you needing to accelerate.

Hybrid engine

A combined traditional petrol engine and a zero-emission electric engine. The car runs on electricity at low speeds and uses petrol when extra power is needed.


Revolutions per minute. Measures how hard your engine is working.

Turning circle

The distance it takes your car to turn a full circle when the steering wheel is turned as far as it will go. Used as a measurement of maneuverability.

Wheel base

The distance between the car’s front and rear wheels.

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