Buying a car

Car terminology: just what do all those car terms mean

02 February 2018

Ever tried to decipher a car review and understand what all those automotive terms mean? Latest estimates of acronyms (words made up from the initials of other words), technical terms and other jargon, so beloved of car companies and motoring writers suggest there might be as many as 3000 of them, and there are more coming into common usage every day.

Here’s a simple guide to many of the common and not-so-common expressions you’ll find in the auto industry.

Your easy-to-understand glossary of car terms


Antilock Braking System – Prevents the wheels from locking during emergency braking.


Adaptive Cruise Control – Monitors traffic ahead and reduces or increases the car’s speed based on the flow of traffic.


Autonomous Emergency Braking – Uses radar to recognise an imminent collision and applies the brakes.


All-Wheel Drive –Power is fed to all four wheels, otherwise known as four-wheel drive or 4WD.


Brake Horsepower – Brake horsepower is the horsepower of an engine measured by the degree of resistance offered by a brake, that represents the useful power that the machine can develop.


Continuously Variable Transmission – A single speed transmission that can change seamlessly through a continuous range of effective gear ratios.


Direct Diesel Injection – Atomised diesel fuel is sprayed directly into the combustion chamber of each cylinder, improving performance and fuel economy.


Direct Fuel Injection – Fuel is injected directly into the engine instead of mixing it with air before it reaches the intake valve passage.


Diesel Particulate Filter – Traps impurities in a diesel-engine vehicle’s exhaust and then burns them off at high temperatures.


Daytime Running Lights or Daytime Running Lamps – Low energy lights that switch on automatically whenever the vehicle is in operation to increase the visibility of the vehicle to other road users.


Dynamic Stability Control – see Electronic Stability Control (ESC) or Electronic Stability Program (ESP).


Direct-Shift Gearbox – A dual-clutch gearbox which allows either full automatic operation or semi-manual control via the floor-mounted selector and steering wheel paddles.


Extended-Range Electric Vehicle – A vehicle that uses an electric motor for propulsion but also uses an internal combustion engine to generate electrical power and maintain a minimum level of charge in the battery when it gets low.


Electronic Stability Control – An electronic program that applies the brakes to a specific wheel when a loss of steering control is detected. Also known as Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) or Electronic Stability Program (ESP).


Electronic Stability Program – see ESC.


Electric Vehicle – Any type of vehicle that is primarily powered by an electric motor. Can include Extended-Range Electric Vehicles (E-REVs), Plug-in Hybrids (PHEVs) and Hydrogen Fuel Cell (HFC) vehicles.


Front Wheel Drive – Engine power and torque is channelled to the front wheels only.


Global Positioning System – The network of satellites that provides the location and time information used by a vehicle’s Satellite Navigation (Sat Nav) system.


Horsepower – The measure of an engine’s work rate, which is torque (twisting force) multiplied by speed (how fast it is spinning).


A hybrid vehicle uses two or more distinct types of power, such as internal combustion engine to drive an electric generator that powers an electric motor.


The international standard attachment for child safety seats which permits a compliant seat to be fixed to anchor points on the car rather than secured solely by the seatbelt.


The kilowatt (kW) is equal to one thousand watts. This unit is typically used to express the output power of engines and the power of electric motors.


Lane Departure Warning System. Cameras and onboard sensors warn if a vehicle is drifting out of marked lanes.


Light Emitting Diode – a type of light source that requires less power to run than conventional filament bulbs, often used on modern cars for low-beam headlights, brake lights, indicators and daylight running lights.


Limited Slip Differential – If one wheel loses traction a standard differential will feed 100 per cent of the power to it. A limited slip diff prevents all the power being transmitted to the spinning wheel, instead allocating a proportion of the power to the other driven wheels that have grip.


Liquid Petroleum Gas – A flammable mixture of propane and butane that can be used as a vehicle fuel.


Long Wheelbase – A lengthened version of an existing vehicle chassis, often available as an option for luxury saloons.


Noise, Vibration and Harshness – A measure of the noise and vibration characteristics of vehicles as well as a subjective measure of the quality of the ride.


Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle – A type of Hybrid vehicle with a larger on-board battery that gives better range in pure electric power. The propulsion battery can be plugged into an electrical supply and charged.


Torque is part of the basic specification of an engine: the power output of an engine is expressed as its torque multiplied by its rotational speed of the axis. Internal-combustion engines produce useful torque only over a limited range of rotational speeds (typically from around 1,000–6,000 rpm for a small car).


Revolutions Per Minute – a measure of the frequency of rotation, specifically the number of rotations around a fixed axis in one minute.


Rear Wheel Drive – Power from the engine is sent to the rear wheels only.


Sports Utility Vehicle – A tall-bodied vehicle with some off-road capability. SUVs may have four-wheel drive, but may also be two-wheel drive.


Traction Control System – an electronic system that contains wheel spin by cutting engine power and/or applying brake pulses.


Thin Film Transistor – An advanced LCD (liquid-crystal display) screen used to display information about the car’s functions and controls.


Vehicle Identification Number – a unique number, usually 17 digits, given to each vehicle during the manufacturing process.

Author Bio:

This article is written by Paul Murrell.

Paul Murrell has always had a deep interest in all things automotive. After a successful career in advertising, creating campaigns in Australia and overseas for many companies including Holden, Mercedes-Benz, Mazda, Toyota, Volkswagen, Land Rover and Renault, he relocated to the Adelaide Hills and began writing car reviews, advice and opinion pieces for specialist motoring magazines (Survivor Car Australia, Australian Classic Car, Man & Machine, Classic & Sportscar UK, Unique Cars), lifestyle magazines (SA Life, Highlife, Tasmanian Life) and websites (Practical Motoring).


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