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Learn how to speak car

The ultimate guide to all the nonsense car terms and acronyms you need to know

Learn how to speak car
By Jo Taylor
Apr 23, 2020
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When it comes to cars, the number of acronyms and bizarre terminology can leave anyone baffled. It’s helpful to know the basics if you’re looking to buy – and if you’re looking to sell and give your car the best bio – so we’ve compiled a handy guide to help you translate the nonsense. 


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This stands for Miles Per Hour, which is how we measure speed. If you’re buying a car, it’s top speed, or max MPH, shouldn’t make much of a difference to you unless you enjoy a bit more speed… drive safe!

Horsepower (HP) and Brake Horsepower (BHP)

HP refers to the total amount of energy an engine can create. BHP refers to the amount of energy left in an engine after things that cause power loss – like a gearbox, alternator and water pump. Typically, the higher the BHP the more powerful the engine.


Torque is the power of the turning wheels, it’s essentially a measure of how quickly your car can use up the energy it creates (it’s BHP), and you get different amounts of torque for different cars and at different speeds (and revs – that other big dial on your dashboard next to the speed). Torque only really matters if you’re keen to get off the mark quickly.

Litre engines

On standard cars (without any turbos etc.) you can typically say that the more litres, the more powerful the car. This is because the bigger the size of the engine in terms of litres, the bigger the space the pistons (important part of the engine) have to work in, meaning they can push through more fuel and air through the engine, giving better engine performance.


MPG stands for Miles Per Gallon, and this is usually a measurement used to state how fuel efficient a car is. MPG tells you have many miles you can travel (in a fairly typical setting and in a sensible driving manner) to each gallon of fuel (it’s roughly 4.5 litres in a gallon here in the UK). If you do long trips or spend a lot of time driving and you’re looking to bring your fuel costs down, look for a car with a high MPG score.


You’ll often see cars being tagged with how quickly they go from 0mph to 60mph, this is a standard and easy way for car makers to give you a look at how well the car performs. It takes into account all of BHP, torque and litre engines malarkey, so essentially does all of the work for you. If you’re looking for anything that’s better than average, try looking for a car that achieves 0-60mph in less than 10 seconds. But if you’re looking for something really impressive, the quickest road-legal cars you can get will reach 60mph in less than 3 seconds.

Engine types

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Diesel engines, powered by diesel fuel, work by igniting the fuel through compression of air which increases temperature. This is all done in the engine’s cylinders which feed the pistons which power the motor in your car. You typically get more miles to your gallon of fuel with diesel than with petrol, but you’ll only see the difference if you drive fairly frequently and long distances. Diesel provides much more torque (pulling power) which is why large cars and towing vehicles (lorries etc.) are often diesel as they carry heavier loads.

Petrol engines, powered by petrol fuel, work in a very similar way, but require an electrical spark to initially ignite the fuel, which is why these engines are fitted with spark plugs. Petrol engines are more commonplace and because they’re typically lighter than a diesel engines (and sounds a lot nicer than the low grumble of a diesel) they’re used in sports and performance cars more regularly. Petrol engines also allow a lot more revving, meaning they can be a bit more fun to drive!

EV stands for Electric Vehicle, which will be our only choice of cars in the UK come 2040. EVs are solely powered by electricity and are refuelled by being plugged in to charge. Electric cars require no clutch and no gearstick at all, so they’re often more spacious as you don’t have a centre console taking up room. Because EVs don’t have a combustion engine like traditionally-fuelled cars, they’re incredibly quiet, and they don’t rely on a process of fuel being ‘fed’ to the engine so are often quite responsive to your foot on the accelerator, too.

Hybrid vehicles are a cross between petrol and electric and use a combustion engine and an electric battery. While you’re driving, the car will switch between each energy source to drive it forward, as often acceleration requires more energy and so a petrol engine is needed.

PHEV stands for Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle. A PHEV is exactly the same as a hybrid in that it has both a petrol combustion engine and a battery that provide its power, but a PHEV uses these slightly differently. A PHEV will rely on its electric battery until a pre-determined level of charge is left, when this happens, the battery will switch into charging mode and use the petrol engine as a generator to extend how far it can travel on its charge.

Car Styles

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  • Saloon: Any car which has a boot space that is half the height of the passenger area, ie it dips back down to bonnet height at the back
  • Estate: A car that has extended roof space behind the rear passengers for additional boot space
  • Hatchback: Any car that has a boot that lifts like a hatch at the back, i.e. lifts up over, that shares the rear space of the car between passengers and boot
  • Coupe: A car with a fixed roof with (generally) only two doors
  • Roadster: A (typically) two-seater car which is ‘open’ ie has no weather protection
  • Convertible: A car which has a retractable roof and can be driven with the roof up or down
  • MPV: This is short for Multi-Purpose Vehicle - a type of car generally favoured by families needing more space than a regular hatchback, often coming in seven-seat form.
  • SUV/ 4X4: This stands for Sports Utility Vehicle, so a car that has been designed with a high ride height and off-road capabilities. Also known as a 4x4 or 4 by 4 as these cars are often made to be four-wheel-drive which makes them more agile and responsive to steering to perform well off-road
By Jo Taylor
Apr 23, 2020
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