As long as cars have been on the road, different car-related acronyms, terms and slang have followed. At best, it can all be confusing; at worst, it's a little intimidating.

We hate to see you fake your way through your conversations with your buddies -- or worse, a salesperson. There's no shame in not knowing, but there's also no excuse for not getting educated. For this reason, we’re running down some basic car specs and terms over the course of a two-part feature.

Since manufacturers love to bombard us with endless numbers for marketing dazzle and extra confusion, we'll weigh the relevance of each term on a scale of 10 -- 1 being general information that's nice to know, and 10 being must-know terminology.


The common measurement of an engine's output. By pure definition, one horsepower is the power needed to lift 550 foot-pounds one foot off the ground in exactly one second. In simpler terms, horsepower is one figure to consider for mid- and upper-range engine response. There's no magic number for ideal horsepower, as other variables like engine torque, vehicle weight, aerodynamics, and gearing all play supporting roles in the car's overall performance.

Significance: 9


The rotational equivalent to force measured in pound-feet. Pound-feet isn't some kind of tortuous fetish; one pound-foot equals the twisting force produced when a one-pound force is applied at the end of a one-foot-long lever. You'll see the pound-feet measurement of torque touted with horsepower, even though horsepower often gets all the credit for an engine's performance. Remember, though, low- and mid-range response is where torque plays a big role.

Significance: 10

Miles Per Gallon (MPG):

This may be understood for its face-value definition as the U.S. standard measure of a vehicle's appetite for fuel, but don't leave it at that. When manufacturers quietly mutter, "Your mileage may vary," believe it. The official mileage figures are estimates based on results of Environmental Protection Agency tests, which don't include real-world use under varied conditions. So guess what? When you see the MPG rating on the vehicle sticker, it's a safe bet your numbers won't be quite as good. Take that into account along with roulette-wheel gas prices as you research and shop.

Significance: 10


This term refers to the length in seconds to accelerate to 60 miles per hour from a standstill -- sometimes listed for imports as 0-100 kilometers per hour, which equates to 62 mph. It's not uncommon for sports cars to clock four-second runs, while a typical SUV trails behind at around nine seconds or more. Bear in mind these numbers are typically gleaned by the factory and/or professional drivers on a test track under optimal conditions. Beyond bragging rights and for real-world practicality, it's good to know this figure as an indication of how quickly a vehicle can accelerate to highway speeds.

Significance: 8


This is an acronym for manufacturer's suggested retail price. MSRP is also known as "sticker price," and it's the point from which all showroom theatrics begin. Unless you have absolutely no problem allowing strangers in short-sleeve oxfords and clip-on ties to dictate how much of your money you should give them, it's critical to research a car's MSRP beforehand.

Significance: 10

Safety ratings:

We can't avoid manufacturers bragging about how their vehicles have this safety award and that crash rating, but besides frat boys on spring break in rental cars, who's wrecking all these rides? The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is a nonprofit organization that gets its funding from auto insurers -- the pillars of nonprofit business themselves. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is the government body performing much of the same work and issuing their multiple-star ratings for a vehicle's crashworthiness.

Significance: 10

All-wheel drive vs. four-wheel drive:

By definition, the commonly understood difference between an all-wheel drive and a four-wheel drive boils down to your involvement with the vehicle's power train operation. Four-wheel drive modes are usually controlled by the driver, engaged either by dashboard controls or console shifters. All-wheel drive typically refers to automatic, seamless operation with little or no driver intervention. Either way, you get extra traction in many conditions at the expense of more fuel and maintenance to run an all-wheel/four-wheel drive vehicle versus a comparable two-wheel drive model.

Significance: 2

Manumatic/clutchless manual/CVT transmission:

Transmissions have evolved into role players. Manuals want to work like automatics, automatics are into getting shifted around like manuals. You always knew there was a reason they were called "trannies," didn't you? Transmissions have become highly sophisticated. While some interchange the terms, many refer to a manumatic as an automatic featuring a separate driver-operated, gear-changing mode. On the other hand, clutchless manuals may require full-time gear selection by the driver for the smoothest shifts, but usually feature a separate fully automatic mode.

A CVT automatic, meanwhile, is a continuously variable transmission. It infinitely adjusts its ratio in response to factors like load and throttle position without the perceptible gear changes of a conventional automatic. From the driver's seat, the response feels much more linear. Depending on the setup, a CVT can also return better gas mileage versus an old-school slushbox.

Significance: 3


As long as there have been cars, there have been car terms. And just as cars are constantly evolving, so is automotive slang. We've only just begun to cover a few of these terms; look for Part II of our feature, in which we'll jump into some more sophisticated terms. In the meantime, go explain to your dad why you laughed when he announced he wore out another tranny in his Buick.

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