Auto Alphabet Soup: Sounds Cool, but What Does This Thing Do?


  • Magnum AWD

    Magnum AWD

    That Thing Got…AWD?: This Magnum has something, but do you know if it's worth what they're charging? | March 18, 2010

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You're back at home from the dealership with your new car when the neighbors show up to gawk. They kick the tires, gasp at the beautiful paint and upholstery and marvel at the fresh-from-the-factory smell wafting from within.

But then the moment gets ruined when someone asks, "Cool, but does this thing have ABS? Or a DOHC engine? Or ESC? Or nav? Or EBD?"

You just keep nodding, but really have no idea what they're talking about. So that probably means you didn't know what it meant when the salesman was reeling off the list of features. Worse yet, if you paid for all that stuff, shouldn't you know what they do?

Truth be told, there's an avalanche of abbreviations out there, but they often are just different names for the same thing. Let's take a look at some of the most popular names so you're ready for any letter-loaded questions aimed at you. We'll start out with some of the latest technologies and close up with a refresher on the basics.

The New Frontier of Acronyms

This recent explosion in abbreviations and acronyms was created by a tidal wave of new technology in cars. Instead of old-fashioned brakes that just stop the car depending on how hard you push the brake pedal, we've got electronically controlled brakes that can stop you faster. Instead of depending on your seat-of-the-pants driving skill, we've got stability control systems that use computer chips to figure out exactly how to pull you out of a skid before it gets out of control. And these things all need names — often long, complex ones. So manufacturers started using abbreviations and acronyms. But they are often just different names for the same thing.

Stability Control: ESC, StabiliTrak, DSC, ESP, AdvanceTrac, RSC
One of the most popular new features you'll see on the dealer lots is stability control — a.k.a. Electronic Stability Control, Dynamic Stability Control. These are the same basic systems under different names, depending on the manufacturer. Stability control is an electronic system that keeps the car under control in the event of a skid by selectively braking and/or shifting power to tires that have traction. And if you've ever driven a car with stability control on slippery conditions, you know it's well worth the price if it helps you avoid an accident. These systems can immediately detect the loss of traction and react appropriately and without the panic with which a human driver would likely respond.

Traction Control: TRACS, ETC
Before stability control, there was traction control, a.k.a. Electronic Traction Control. Simply put, traction control helps to keep you moving in slippery conditions by automatically cutting power and/or applying the brakes to a spinning wheel or wheels. The system kicks in when it senses wheel spin by comparing the rotational speed of the wheels. Drivers in snow-prone climates have appreciated traction control for years. Unlike stability control, however, traction control by itself will not prevent a skid.

Advanced Braking Systems: ABS, EBD
Antilock Brake Systems, or ABS, have been around for some time now. In slippery conditions or in a panic stop, they can help decrease the distance it takes to stop your car by preventing locked-up wheels. The system actually pumps the brakes for you when it senses impending lockup so you can continue steering the car to hopefully avoid the trouble. When the system engages, it may feel like the brake pedal has given way followed by a series of often disconcerting grinding or crunching sounds as it cycles the brake pressure. Just keep your foot down and the ABS does the rest.

EBD, or Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, is a newer system that actually apportions the greatest braking force to the tires that have the most traction. This helps to keep the car from spinning and radically reduces stopping distances on slippery surfaces. These systems are often standard on newer vehicles that have stability or traction control systems.

Mapping Your Trip: Nav, GPS
You'll often hear the salesman tossing around the term "Nav," which is short for navigation. This system utilizes a DVD-based map program and a GPS — or global positioning satellite system — to show you exactly where you are at any given time.

Power to the Wheels: AWD, 4WD, 2WD, FWD, RWD
These terms refer to how many wheels on your car actually have power from the engine delivered to them. If it's AWD (all-wheel drive) or 4WD (four-wheel drive) then all four tires have power. This provides better traction on slick roads and makes the car more stable on rugged terrain. If it's 2WD, then only two tires have power. This is less stable, but uses less gas. You'll also want to find out if the car is RWD (rear-wheel drive) or FWD (front-wheel drive). When the power is only fed to the rear wheels, it changes the driving dynamics of the vehicle. Performance drivers prefer rear-wheel-drive cars. However, although the car handles better on dry pavement, it is more prone to spinning out in slippery conditions. The opposite is true with front-wheel drive, where the front tires seem to pull the car around corners.

The Old Guard: Some Classic Confusing Acronyms

Generally speaking, your engine is where the most technology exists for carmakers to brag about — and they've all come up with cool ways to brag about them. In this category, it's not necessary for you to understand precisely what is going on within the jargon. The only thing you need to understand is how powerful it is — which you'll understand by simply test-driving it — and what kind of mileage it gets.

But for marketing reasons, it sounds better to say you're buying "A 1.8-liter, four-cylinder VVTLi engine" than simply saying, "a small engine." So let's dive in:

Engine Lineups: Four-cylinder, inline six, V6, V8, V10, W12
This refers to the number of cylinders in the engine. "Inline" means that the cylinders are all lined up in row, while "V6" or "V8" means they are lined up in a "V"-pattern. The rarer "W" engine is set up like two Vs next to each other. There are other engine setups as well, depending on the manufacturer — like Mazda's rotary engine — but most consumer vehicles will use the four-cylinder, V6 or V8 designs. Whichever one you choose has some performance implications, but generally it is just something nice to know.

Displacement and Output: 1.8 L, 1.8-Liter, hp, 16 valves
The liter specification of your car is much more important for a consumer to understand. This is the actual size of the engine (or displacement) most commonly measured in liters. It is, in essence, the total volume of the engine's cylinders where the pistons travel. This number will vary greatly from car to car. Generally, the lower the displacement, the better the mileage you will get. The higher the displacement, the more power you will get. Combined with the liter rating, you'll see an "hp" or horsepower rating. This is how automakers show how powerful their engines are. Generally, more horsepower equals faster acceleration and lower fuel mileage. Valves control the openings where the engine pulls in air and kicks out exhaust. If you hear "16-valve, four-cylinder engine," that means the engine has four valves per cylinder, which means it "breathes" more efficiently, and thus makes more power, than a two-valve engine.

Engine Setups: VTEC, Vortec, VVTLi
These letters stand for complex concepts like "Variable Valve Timing and Lift, Electronic Control." They are usually proprietary acronyms that describe how certain components of the engine actually work. This may be important to people who are really into engine technology, but the average consumer can pretty much skip this if you're happy with the engine's performance on the test-drive.

Camshaft Jargon: DOHC, SOHC
These are common terms you'll see on the window sticker. You'll hear commercials refer to it as "dual-overhead cam" or "single-overhead cam." This refers to how the valves are operated. The "cam" or camshaft is a rod that spins and opens and closes the valves. Generally, a "dual-overhead cam" setup helps you get more horsepower from a smaller engine. While it has performance implications, this is fairly standard technology and shouldn't impress you too much.

Central to all these is that anything on your car that is actually worth paying for should also be fairly simple to describe. There are many technologies out there in the automotive world that are mind-blowing and incredible — but their benefits should be something made clear to you at the showroom.

If you run into an abbreviation that you don't understand, ask the sales staff for an explanation. And if they can't explain it to your satisfaction, you should probably either skip the option or move on to a different dealer.

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