Sometimes car talk seems like a foreign language. The auto industry is full of jargon and obscure terms insiders toss around like they’re as common as “brakes” and “steering wheel.”
But honestly, who knows what a “refreshed model” is? Maybe one that just had a sip of sparkling water?
What’s the difference between a supercharger and turbocharger — a cape?
Making it worse, many automakers use proprietary terms for items for features that could easily be covered by an industry-wide generic. The cynic in me figures they’re trying to bamboozle buyers into thinking the feature is something only that automaker offers, not something you can get from any brand.
Ford, for instance, insists on referring to blind-spot alert — a common feature that warns the driver with a light or sound if there’s a another vehicle just behind to the right or left — as “BLIS,” a not-quite acronym for blind spot information system.
There’s a move afoot to get automakers to use industry-wide names for safety features so shoppers can compare, but it’s got a long way to go.
From “facelift” to DLO and CHMSL, here’s a guide to obscure and sometimes infuriating terms that car fans, auto executives and even auto critics use.
• Torque: the rotating force the engine sends to turn your vehicle’s wheels.
The difference between loosening a rusty, stuck bolt from a nice new one is the difference between a lot of torque on the frozen bolt and a little to the slick new one.
Torque is the force that slowly but surely turns the wheels when you start moving pulling a heavy trailer. It’s the most prized statistic for pickups: Having more torque is the first step toward being able to tow a bigger trailer.
• Driver assistance systems: These are increasingly common features that warn if your vehicle wanders out of its lane, or when you merge when there’s a vehicle in the way. They cover everything from warnings about vehicles in your blind spot to systems that step in and apply the brakes if you’re about to back into a wall, or rear-end the car ahead of you.
• PRNDL or ‘Prindle’: the lever, dial or buttons you use to select a gear in an automatic transmission. The name comes from the order of the gears on the shifter label: Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive, Low.
Electronically controlled transmissions allow automakers to experiment with other layouts. The term PRNDL is commonly used for all of them.
• All-wheel-drive, four-wheel drive or 4X4: These all mean the same thing, but marketers like to pretend they’re different. The Society of Automotive Engineers, which sets standards for everything from towing capacity to how you measure an engine’s output, says all-wheel drive or AWD is the preferred term for any system that sends the engine’s power to all the vehicle’s wheels, instead of just two.
Many people think “four-wheel drive” or “4WD” means the vehicle has extra gears that help a vehicle to get through deep snow, mud and over rocks. That’s not true, but it doesn’t keep marketers from using 4X4 and 4WD when they want to suggest a vehicle is has more off-road capability. There are no rules, so they can get away with this.
There are three basic types of AWD:
Full-time, when power from the engine always goes to every wheel.
On-demand, in which two of the wheels always get power. They’re called the “driven wheels.” Power automatically goes to the others when one or more of the driven wheels starts to slip.
Part-time, in which the driver uses a switch or button to go from two-wheel to four-wheel drive
• A-pillar, B-pillar, etc.: the metal frames that surround windows and support the roof. The A-pillars are on either side of the windshield. Moving to the rear, B-pillars are between the door and the rear door or back-seat window. C-pillars separate the back seat window from rear window The rear window is occasionally called the “backlight” by people who have decided to get on my last nerve.
• Electrified: This DOES NOT mean it’s an electric car. Automakers use “electrified” to blur the line between conventional engines, hybrids and electric vehicles. It covers a range of features that use electricity to reduce fuel consumption and emissions. Nearly every new vehicle has some of these features. The most common is “auto stop,” which shuts the engine off when idling in park or at a traffic light on vehicles with stop-start (see below).
• Auto stop or stop-start: Common in new vehicles, stop-start originated in hybrids. It shuts the engine off if it’s idling and the vehicle isn’t moving. This reduces fuel consumption and emissions significantly. The engine restarts quickly when the driver begins to lift their foot off the brake. The engine also restarts if the temperature inside the vehicle goes above or below the thermostat setting. This keeps your passenger compartment warm or cool.
• CHMSL: Pronounced “Chimsel,” it’s the brake light in the center of a vehicle’s trunk, tailgate or roof. It’s short for “center, high-mounted stop light.” Before 1986, vehicles sold in the U.S. weren’t required to have these lights. They were added to reduce accidents by allowing drivers to see the brake lights of several vehicles ahead of them in traffic.
• Battery electric vehicle: All electric vehicles have batteries, of course. (Every car has a battery, but let’s not go there now.) The term “battery electric vehicle” or BEV is used for vehicles that don’t have any onboard power source except electricity from the battery.
There’s no backup engine for longer drives. BEV also excludes fuel cell vehicles, which will turn hydrogen into electricity, if they ever become practical.
If somebody says “battery electric” or “BEV” to you, ask if they’re taking about an electric car. If yes, ask them why they didn’t just say so.
• Supercharger and turbocharger: These are engine components that increase power by compressing air and forcing it into the engine. The compressed air is called “charge air.” Compressing air increases power, but with lower fuel consumption than if you just used a bigger engine to generate more power. Superchargers and turbochargers use turbines to compress the air on its way into the engine. A supercharger’s turbine is powered by a belt, chain or gear connected to the engine. A turbocharger’s turbine is spun by exhaust gases coming out of the engine.
• ACC, or adaptive cruise control: ACC uses radar and other sensors to keep your vehicle moving at the speed you select and slow down automatically when a vehicle’s in your way. Once the obstacle is gone, it accelerates back to your chosen speed. Some ACC systems will bring your vehicle to a full stop in traffic and accelerate when the vehicle ahead of you resumes motion. Others require the driver to use the accelerator to start moving again.
Early ACC systems shut off at low speeds, forcing the driver to resume control with little warning. That was a terrible idea. All good modern ones will bring you to a full stop.
Terms I hate
• DLO: I swear these are the dumbest three letters in an industry that never met an abbreviation it didn’t like. DLO stands for “Daylight Opening,” and it means the windows, windshield, side and rear. It also includes the metal pillars that surround the windows and support the roof. The term is frequently used in design presentations: “The DLO increased,” means bigger windows.
Not to be confused with ELO, which rocks.
• Facelifted, refreshed, midcycle update: These are mild changes to keep a vehicle competitive in between bigger updates. They frequently include new lights, grille, bumpers and wheels; sometimes electronic features that can be added with software and no major investment.
A facelift or freshening changes the vehicle’s appearance mildly, and costs much less than changing its shape with new metal panels like the hood or fenders.
Facelifts and midcycle updates typically come three to four years after a vehicle goes on sale and two to three years before a new model is due.
• Unit: a vehicle. For reasons somebody may understand, but I don’t, auto executives often talk in terms of how many “units” they built or sold. Who knows? Maybe they think accountants sound smart. They mean vehicles.
• All-new: The word “new” has been devalued as automakers try to make each year’s model sound innovative and exciting.
Not all of them are. Just about every vehicle gets some updates every year: new colors, upholstery, a few more horsepower, etc. Automakers advertise them as new, which means they wanted a more extreme term when they introduce a vehicle that’s entirely new from the ground up.
The usual development cycle calls for a vehicle with a new body, engines, etc. every five to seven years. The basic underlying structure of the body — think of it as a car’s skeleton, the frame under the skin — usually lasts through two generations, around 12 years.
• First ever: A painfully redundant term marketers use to draw attention to a vehicle in a segment where the brand hasn’t previously sold anything. Also used when an existing model gets a new name, like when the Lincoln MKX got a facelift and became the “first ever” Lincoln Nautilus last year. It’s testament to how much advertising has devalued the word “new” that somebody decided we also need “first ever.”