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What Do Common Car Specs Mean?

Radiator grill with Mercedes Benz emblem

If you’re planning to get rid of your old car and find a new one, you’re going to see a lot of car specs as you compare your options. Car specifications or specs are a type of jargon that can get a little confusing. Even so, it’s essential to know the meaning of these terms so you can make the right choice for yourself. 

While these aren’t every spec you might see, some of the more common are detailed below. 


Horsepower is the most frequent way to measure the output of an engine. One horsepower, technically speaking, is the power that would be needed to lift 550 foot-pounds one foot off the ground in a single second. That can sound a little strange, so to put it in more accessible terms, horsepower is a figure to consider when you’re looking at engine response. 

There isn’t one specific horsepower that’s ideal across the board. You have to weigh other factors in conjunction with horsepower, like the weight of the vehicle, the engine torque, and gearing. 

Torque is the force the drive shaft is subjected to. Torque and engine speed come together to determine engine power. 

All engines, whether they’re hybrid or gas will generate both horsepower and torque on some level. If you’re shopping for a vehicle, both can be used to give you an idea of the performance you might expect. 

Torque output is based on variables like engine size and design. 

Torque is what forces the wheels of a car to rotate, and you may see it written as pounds-per-feet. 

Miles Per Gallon (MPG)

When you’re in the market for a new vehicle, Mile Per Gallon is an important metric. However, be wary about those MPG listings. The official mileage figures you’ll see on a vehicle are estimates based on tests performed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

The vehicle manufacturer will always stipulate that mileage may vary, and that’s the reality. 

The EPA tests aren’t real-world use under different conditions. 

You’re very likely not going to get numbers as good as what’s on the sticker, so remember that. 

MPG is also broken down by city highway and average. 

Then, there’s another term which is Miles Per Gallon (Gasoline) Equivalent or MPGe. This spec is how the EPA compares gas and electricity fairly similarly. As electric cars become more common, this spec will grow in relevance. 

All-Wheel Drive and Four-Wheel Drive

All-wheel drive and four-wheel drive are different modes. 

A driver controls a four-wheel drive, and you can activate it with your console shifters or dashboard controls. All-wheel drive is automatic operation that doesn’t require a lot of input from the driver. 

With either, the idea is that you get more traction in conditions requiring it, but it does cause more fuel usage and maintenance to operate as an all-wheel or four-wheel vehicle instead of a two-wheel car. 

Both an all-wheel and four-wheel-drive system send torque to all four wheels of a car. A 4WD can typically handle terrain that’s more rugged than what an AWD can take on. They also come in two types which are full- and part-time. 

Whether or not you need either AWD or 4WD depends on where you live and the driving conditions you often find yourself in. 

If you live somewhere remote, you might want 4WD. 

 Interior of the new Porsche Taycan

Wheelbase and Wheel Size

The wheelbase is a car term that’s actually somewhat important when you compare vehicles. The wheelbase is the distance between the centers of the front and rear wheels of a car. 

One of the most relevant things affected by the wheelbase is the interior space. Most of your interior is between your wheels, so the longer that wheelbase measurement, the more spacious the vehicle’s interior. 

In some luxury vehicles, you might be able to choose between a standard or long wheelbase. 

If a car has a longer wheelbase, the quality of the ride is likely to be better too, because there’s more time between the wheels hitting bumps. 

There are downsides, though. A long wheelbase can make a car less agile. 

Wheel size is the diameter of a wheel, and sometimes the width, although that’s not common. The wheel size doesn’t include the tire that’s wrapped around it. Wheel size affects handling, appearance and the quality of the ride you will get with a vehicle. 


MSRP is an acronym that stands for manufacturer’s suggested retail price. This is the price manufacturers recommend a dealer sell a car for. The price is set so the dealer can make a profit. It’s just a recommendation, though. The actual price at which you buy a car can be lower or higher. 

The MSRP will include the base price for the given trim level and the prices for any options or extras. You’ll usually see features itemized individually and there will be a note of whether they’re included or you have to pay more. 

The standard factory warranty and service coverage are included in the MSRP, but extended warranties and accessories aren’t included. Taxes and fees are not part of the MSRP either. 

The sticker price is a term that also refers to the MSRP. You might also hear them referred to as the window price. 

You can negotiate the MSRP down depending on various factors, including how in demand the model is. 

Cargo Space

Finally, manufacturers will create their own cargo specifications, but a lot of third parties don’t feel like they’re accurate and they don’t provide a good comparison. Cars.com is one example of a third party that has its own measurement and evaluation methods for cargo space. 

Cars.com measures to the tops of the seatbacks, excluding seat belt guides and head restraints. If the trunk is enclosed, they measure the height from the floor to the top of the opening. 

They consider gradients in the cargo floor, and they put backseats that slide into their rearmost position.