Automotive Terms Explained

"What's a carburetor—" My teenager's question shocked me. Didn't he learn anything from all that time he spends on car websites? Then it struck me: He was an infant when the last carbureted new car was sold in the U.S. To him, carburetors are ancient technology, like flintlock muskets and Windows 98. When something's dead, it's dead. Here are definitions for commonly used automotive terms that confused him (and probably a lot of others, too.), and that everyone might like to understand. Carburetor Carburetors were the analog version of fuel injection. Carbs did a great job of mixing fuel and air to meet an engine's varying needs. They were relatively inexpensive and largely reliable. However, they were made extinct by computer-controlled electronic fuel injection, which allows engines to produce more power, better fuel mileage, and, most importantly, cleaner emissions. Carbs are still used in some non-automotive engines, such as lawn mowers, and are mandated in NASCAR. Torque and Horsepower Torque is a twisting or rotational force. No motion is required. Imagine trying to turn the pedals of a bicycle wedged in a bike rack with its rear tire held firmly to the asphalt: The pressure put on the pedals is torque. Torque is measured and expressed in pound-feet: If that bike's crank is one foot long (it's a really long crank) and my son stood on one pedal, that's 135 lb.-ft. of torque.

Horsepower is a calculation. The formula: engine revolutions per minute (rpm) multiplied by the torque at that engine speed, divided by 5,252. In most passenger-vehicle engines, torque nears its peak early and remains fairly constant until it falls away due to friction and the weight of the moving parts. Horsepower rises with engine speed and hits its peak when increasing rpm no longer offset falling torque in the math formula.

Which is better—torque or horsepower—depends on what the vehicle is designed to do. Here are two extremes: Some 18-wheeler engines make about 1,300 lb.-ft. of torque at just 1,200 rpm, however they top out at only 300 horsepower near the engine's 2,100-rpm limit. Recent Formula 1 race engines are reported to approach 900 horsepower at a mind-boggling 19,000 rpm and have a torque peak of 500 lb.-ft. at around 14,000 rpm. Without radically modifying the clutch, the F1 engine couldn't move the 80,000-pound semi. The big-rig's diesel would make for a very slow F1 car, partially because it'll almost double the weight of the racecar.

In comparable passenger vehicles, an engine with more torque at lower rpm will provide better acceleration from slower speeds. It's a different story on the racetrack. Take two otherwise completely identical cars (weight, suspension, gearing, tires) to the dragstrip. Car T has an engine that makes more low-end torque, while Car H's engine builder traded low-rpm torque for more high-rpm horsepower. Car T will take an early lead, but the driver will have

But importantly. . V-10) means the engine's cylinders are aligned like the letter V: The angle of the V can vary depending on a number of factors. and the ability to more quickly reach higher engine speeds. Displacement This is the engine's internal size: It's the pistons diameter multiplied by how far they travel on each stroke multiplied by the number of cylinders. complexity. precision.0-liters) or cubic inches (366 ci). lose the torque-multiplying effect of the lower gear. Traditional American V-8s. the rise in horsepower may be small. increasing displacement usually increases torque and horsepower. Production tolerances cause variations. Everything else being equal.to shift to second gear sooner and. If there are separate cams for intake and exhaust." This lone camshaft works all the engine's valves through a system of rods and levers (called pushrods and rocker arms). Car H will take the lead. If one camshaft operates both intake and exhaust valves. A DOHC "V" engine has four cams: Two over each of its heads. one for each valve operated by that camshaft. liters (6. thus. Disadvantages include cost. V-8. Sometimes the actual horsepower is higher than advertised: Rev it a bit more and it'll yield more horsepower. Two years later the marketers will be able to tout the car's 10 additional horsepower. Here's another factor: Horsepower and torque reported by manufacturers are not exactly what every engine produces for its entire life. (An engine valve looks like a broken wine glass: The stem is intact but the bowl—the part that holds the fluid—is gone. "V" (commonly V-6.) Today. It's expressed in cubic centimeters (6. have a single camshaft located in the valley of the "V. weight. A "V" engine is usually shorter and slightly wider than an inline with the same number of cylinders. which was there all along.000 cc). with DOHC." Inline means the cylinders are in a straight row like dog food cans on a counter. the marketing department has a huge impact on the numbers reported. it's a dual overhead camshaft (DOHC). and. Inline engines tend to be smoother and lighter. Camshaft This is the device that opens valves to let the air/fuel mixture in and burned gasses out. These are overhead camshafts. it's a single overhead camshaft (SOHC). On a camshaft are several egg-shaped lobes. When the camshaft is rotated. Wear makes power rise and fall. But if the increased displacement reduces the engine's rpm potential (bigger pistons are heavier). By the time Car T shifts to third (and maybe sooner). the more pointy end of the cam lobe pushes the valve open and the rounded end allows it to close. called overhead valve (OHV) engines. most cams are located on top of the engine above the cylinder head. A camshaft looks like a boiled-egg kabob assembled by someone who didn't care which way the small ends were pointing. The advantages of overhead cams are efficiency. The cam lobe can work either directly on the valve stem or through a linkage. V What? Almost all of today's internal combustion auto engines come in two flavors: Inline and "V.

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