For many, the task of purchasing a new car can be a daunting one, particularly given how complex the process – and the machines themselves – can be.
We have assembled a collection of contemporary automotive-related terminology, some of which apply to the buying process, while others help decipher the growing list of high-tech gizmos and safety acronyms that carmakers are presenting to consumers these days.
Some of the terms are relatively new, while others have been around a while, but may have taken on new interpretations.
A household-style power outlet for vehicle occupants to power or recharge electronic devices inside the car; sometimes located in the cargo area, sometimes accessible to the passenger cabin.
Adaptive Cruise Control
An update to the age-old speed control function, modern adaptive cruise control systems can be set to a prescribed speed, but will sense slower vehicles ahead and slow down (or stop), and accelerate to maintain a safe distance. Some systems work in stop-and-go traffic.
While self-levelling headlights have been around for a while, current adaptive headlights will adjust the lighting aperture when cornering to give the driver a better view of where they are headed.
Also known as Adaptive or Active Suspensions, many manufacturers are employing shock absorbers that can be electronically adjusted to stiffen or soften depending on the driver’s wants. Some systems also enable the car to be raised to increase ground clearance, or lowered to improve stability at speed.
Where once these inflatable restraint systems were only found embedded in the centre of a steering wheel, most modern machines are equipped with several air bags designed to protect occupants throughout the cabin, including ones that could inflate from the steering wheel, dashboard, roof, pillar, and seat.
All-Wheel Drive (AWD)
A type of drivetrain with front, rear, and centre differentials to provide drive power to all four wheels. Systems include full-time and part-time all-wheel drive.
A system built into the vehicle’s infotainment unit enabling a familiar and highly integrated interface between the vehicle and user’s Android-based smartphone.
Anti-Lock Braking System (ABS)
An electronic system designed to prevent the brakes from locking up and causing the vehicle to skid.
A system built into the vehicle’s infotainment unit enabling a familiar and highly integrated interface between the vehicle and user’s Apple iPhone.
Automatic High-Beam Control
An electronic setting available on some new cars that automatically switches off high beams when oncoming traffic is detected, and switches them on again when the roadway ahead is dark.
In ideal terms, an autonomous car is one that can drive itself without human input. Utilizing a host of sensors, cameras, and highly detailed GPS mapping, several manufacturers are actively testing machines with varying levels of autonomy. To date, driver input to varying degrees is still required by law.
Capless Fuel Filler
Some new cars provide easier fuel refilling by eliminating the traditional screw-cap, instead featuring an integrated, spring-loaded flap behind the fuel-filler door.
While they don’t actually allow for shorter stopping distances, brakes made of carbon ceramic resist fading under very hard use on the race track. They also last upwards of 160,000 km or more before requiring rotor replacement. However, the downside to carbon-ceramic brakes is that they are very costly to purchase and replace.
Certified Pre-Owned (CPO)
All used cars must pass a safety certification before they can be licenced for road use. However, Certified Pre-Owned vehicles are those which have undergone a more stringent inspection process offered by the vendor. Most car manufacturers offer a CPO program at their dealerships, often adding attractive financing rates and extended warranties to help incentivize buyers.
Heated seats have been a nice-to-have function available for many years, but more recently, luxury manufacturers began offering small fan-based temperature control devices in their seats, helping to keep passengers cool in the summer. Several mainstream automakers now offer heated and cooled seats on many of their models.
Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT)
Without perceptible stepping from gear to gear like a traditional automatic, CVTs utilize a belt and pulley system to distribute power from the engine to the drive wheels. By keeping the engine in the optimal point of its rev range during acceleration, CVTs optimize efficiency.
Cornering Brake Control
A function of some anti-lock braking systems whereby braking force is applied to specific wheels to help reduce oversteer
Not long ago, motorists loosely defined a coupe as a two-door car with a fixed roof and a trunk. Today, however, manufacturers are taking liberties based on proclaiming low-roofed four-doors and even crossover SUVs as variations on the coupe theme.
Concept vehicles are machines built to demonstrate new styling exercises or technology, typically at auto shows to determine public interest, or simply to show off.
Traditionally a sport utility vehicle (SUV) was truck-based with a rugged body-on-frame construction. With the increased popularity of SUVs, manufacturers sought to meet demand for the better on-road performance and greater comfort of a car and created SUVs based on unibody car platforms with the appearance of a more rugged vehicle.
Also known as variable-displacement engines, some V8 and V6 engines can shut down some cylinders while in motion to reduce fuel consumption when the full engine’s power isn’t required to keep the vehicle moving at speed.
Machines used by the dealership to enable test drives for potential buyers, these vehicles are often significantly discounted, but are contemporary models with relatively few kilometres accumulated.
Also known as hill-descent control, it’s a system that enables a vehicle to drive a very slow, consistent, and controlled speed, even without the driver’s braking intervention, used primarily for off-road applications.
By spritzing fuel directly into each cylinder’s combustion chamber, a direct-injection engine is more efficient than a traditional fuel-injected gasoline engine that squirts fuel into the intake manifold.
Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG)
Essentially two separate manual transmissions contained within one housing, a DSG or dual-clutch transmission enables exceptionally quick gear changes without the use of a manual clutch or a torque converter.
An engine’s displacement is the combined swept volume of the pistons inside an engine’s cylinders. In years gone by, this was often presented in cubic inches, however, it is now typically given in litres.
A down payment is the value a buyer pays toward the purchase of a vehicle up front before leasing or financing payments begin. The down payment helps to reduce the amount owed on a machine, thereby also lowering the lease or finance payments. A down payment could come from cash or the equity available in a vehicle that is traded in.
With the increase of electronic intervention in automotive systems, drive modes can be used to transform a car’s driving characteristics to suit differing conditions. These can include steering rate, transmission shift aggression, and throttle sensitivity, as well as suspension stiffness to help a vehicle react more aggressively to driver inputs in sporty settings, or ride more comfortably or efficiently in Comfort or Eco settings.
Electric Vehicle (EV)
An electric vehicle or EV is a machine powered by at least one electric motor, requiring a plug-in electrical cable for recharging. Unlike a plug-in hybrid, a true EV has no supplementary combustion engine.
Electronic Brake Force Distribution
As a companion to anti-lock braking systems (ABS), electronic brake force distribution applies varying rates of braking power to each of a vehicle’s individual wheels to maximize braking effectiveness and driver control.
Emergency Brake Assist
Based on research from the 1990s, it was revealed that more than 90 percent of motorists fail to brake forcefully enough in emergency situations. As such, Emergency Brake Assist (EBA) systems were implemented to sense when a vehicle is likely in an emergency situation and intervene with maximum braking force.
Engine Auto Stop/Start
To minimize fuel consumption and emissions from internal-combustion engines idling, an automatic stop/start feature shuts down the engine when the vehicle comes to a stop, re-starting again automatically when the driver’s foot lifts off the brake, or in manual transmission cars, when first gear is selected from neutral. Typical fuel savings amount to 10 percent versus vehicles not using auto stop/start functions.
In Canada now, all new cars and light trucks must, by law, have a back-up camera. Designed to facilitate safer reversing and parking scenarios, many manufacturers are fitting multiple exterior cameras to their vehicles to enable a bird’s-eye view around the vehicle when parking; front-mounted cameras for off-road assistance; and passenger mirror-mounted camera for passenger-side blind spot checks (Honda’s LaneWatch system).
Automotive financing is the process by which a buyer can fund the purchase of a new vehicle beyond a single full sum payment. Financing can come from banks, private lending organizations, or even the car manufacturers themselves with their own finance divisions. Payments are made regularly (weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly) for a set duration until the car has been paid for in full. Typically there is a cost to borrowing the funds needed to finance a vehicle that is charged through interest, though some manufacturers will subsidize their financing to create more attractive rates, occasionally as low as zero percent to attract buyers.
A forced-induction engine utilizes a turbocharger or supercharger to force air into an engine’s intake system, generating more power.
Four-Wheel Drive (4WD, 4X4)
A type of drivetrain with front and rear differentials, plus a transfer case to provide drive power to all four wheels.
Cars with four-wheel steering utilize subtle movements to the rear wheels to either turn the same direction as the front wheels (allowing for more rapid lane-changes), or the opposite of the front wheels to allow more responsive steering and a tighter turning radius.
When a transmisison can disconnect the engine’s propulsion from the drive wheels while in motion to conserve fuel, it is called freewheeling.
The rate at which an engine uses its fuel. In Canada, this is measured in litres consumed per 100 kilometres travelled (L/100 km), with official rates given for highway driving, city driving, and a combined figure based on 55 percent city and 45 percent highway driving.
Head-Up Display (HUD)
Originally developed for fighter aircraft applications, many auto makers are now utilizing head-up displays to project crucial drive information such as speed, engine revs, and navigation instructions as a transparent graphic directly within the driver’s sightline through the windshield.
By utilizing tiny electronic wires embedded in the windshield glass, a heated windshield can be cleared of ice and frost much quicker than in a car that relies on the HVAC system to do the same job.
Horsepower is the measure of force generated by an engine. In North America, mechanical horsepower is commonly used when promoting a machine’s power output at the flywheel, before parasitic drivetrain losses as the power goes to the wheels. One mechanical horsepower equals approximately 746 watts of energy.
A hill holder mechanism prevents a car stopped on an incline from rolling backward before the clutch is engaged to allow forward motion.
Hybrid vehicles offer two means of propulsion – an internal-combustion engine and an electric motor. These differ from plug-in hybrid vehicles in that they have battery packs that are recharged by the engine and/or regenerative braking. Hybrids are programmed to maximize the efficiency of the electric motor during slow-speed, stop-and-go driving when combustion engines are most inefficient. Hybrids will also utilize the combined energy of both the engine and the motor(s) to deliver higher performance.
With trip computers, maintenance monitors, audio/entertainment systems, GPS navigation, and even a means by which a manufacturer can communicate with car owners, the infotainment system has become the hub of control for many of a vehicle’s functions. Infotainment systems also allow connectivity with a user’s smartphone, enabling many of the phone’s apps and communication functions to be seamlessly integrated into the car. Most infotainment systems feature a colour screen mounted in the centre of the upper dashboard.
An electronic system that enables a driver to start a vehicle by pushing a button if an electronic key is detected within the vehicle, as opposed to inserting and twisting a traditional key into the ignition
Lane-Departure Warning System
A passive safety system that notifies the driver if the vehicle deviates from detected lane markings without a turn or lane change being indicated.
An active safety system that detects a vehicle’s departure from within lane markings, and physically assists the steering of the vehicle back into the lane.
Leasing is the process by which a consumer pays for the use of a vehicle over a set duration of time. The manufacturer maintains ownership of the vehicle while the lessee is permitted to use the machine for a term typically between 24 and 60 months. Generally, the majority of the cost covers the depreciation of the car’s value, based on estimated residual values of the vehicle, plus interest.
The Make of a vehicle is the manufacturer that produces the vehicle.
Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP)
The recommended price at which a manufacturer recommends the dealers sell a vehicle. Dealers are legally able to sell vehicles for prices that differ from the MSRP.
The model of a vehicle refers to the individual types of vehicles produced by a manufacturer.
This one seems pretty straightforward, but it can be deceiving. A model could be “All-New” from the manufacturer’s standpoint, meaning a completely updated machine, possibly including drivetrain, body, and interior. Or, it could mean an entirely new model altogether, filling a void in the manufacturers product lineup. Strictly speaking, to purchase a “new car” means to acquire a car that has not been previously owned or served as a demonstrator.
Supplementary safety system utilizing infrared technology to provided added visibility in low-light situations
As defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), oversteer is a term referring to the driving dynamic whereby the vehicle steers in more than the driver intends. Amongst driving enthusiasts, oversteer can be desirable to “drift” the rear of the car in a skid or slide, causing the front of the car to turn in more rapidly.
Paddle shifters, generally located behind the steering wheel rim, enable a driver to select a specific gear when desired in vehicles equipped with automatic, DSG, or CVT transmissions. While transmissions are typically tuned for efficiency and comfort, in sporting situations, selecting a lower gear, or holding a gear can produce better performance.
An active feature that utilizes sensor technology to allow a vehicle to park itself. Systems vary between driver assist and fully autonomous parking capability.
Bumper-mounted sensors that measure the distance between the car and nearby objects, using audible and/or visual warnings to assist the driver when parking.
Pedestrian Protection System
Pedestrian protection systems utilize electronic sensors to detect pedestrians who may enter the path of the vehicle. The car will warn the driver of the pedestrian, and if the driver fails to react, may cause the vehicle to brake to avoid the pedestrian.
Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV)
Like a hybrid vehicle, a plug-in hybrid offers two means of propulsion – an internal-combustion engine and an electric motor. While the battery packs can be at least partly recharged by the engine and/or regenerative braking, Plug-in hybrids can also be charged through an external electrical source (such as household power). Plug-in hybrids tend to be able to drive greater distances in full-electric mode than normal hybrids.
Just as it sounds, these are used cars that were formerly used as rental fleet cars. Rental car companies generally turn over their machines within a year or two, giving consumers the opportunity to buy late-model machines with moderate mileage, and often at a price that’s lower than average. While most rental cars are well maintained, it is reasonable to assume the machine may not have always been treated with the same respect an owner would when driving it. Like with any used car purchase, a thorough inspection by a trusted mechanic is a wise idea.
Windshield wipers that can automatically turn on/off and adjust wiper speed based on rainfall sensors in the windshield.
The process by which an electric or hybrid vehicle’s electric motor converts the vehicle’s kinetic energy into electricity to assist in recharging the vehicle’s battery packs.
Tires that can be safely driven for short distances after the loss of air pressure by utilizing stiff, reinforced sidewalls.
Unlike traditional terrestrial radio (FM and AM), satellite radio is broadcast to a much wider area by distributing the signal from satellites. Subscription-based, Sirius XM’s transmissions can be accessed across Canada and the United States.
Smart Key System
Cars equipped with a smart key system (aka proximity key system) enable the car to be locked or unlocked by touching a button or sensor on the car, rather than needing to retrieve the actual key from one’s pocket or purse.
Sport Utility Vehicle
Traditionally built on light truck platforms, sport utility vehicles (SUVs) originally had wagon-like bodies with increased ground clearance and often four-wheel drive. Today, SUV is a popular, all-encompassing term applied to both traditional truck-based utility wagons (like the Chevrolet Tahoe or Toyota 4Runner), crossovers (like the Chevrolet Traverse or Toyota RAV4), and other, coupe-like machines (like the Range Rover Evoque or BMW X6). SUVs are available in sizes ranging from subcompact to full-sized offerings.
Stability Control (Electronic Stability Control / ESC)
Active safety feature that detects vehicle skids and utilizes individual wheel braking pressure and/or engine power retardation to correct the skid.
Engine component driven by a belt, gear, or shaft connected to the engine’s crankshaft that directly forces air back into an engine to increase power output.
Traction Control System (TCS)
Active safety feature that reduces wheel spin by applying brake pressure and/or reducing engine power output.
Turbo / Turbocharger
A turbine attached to an engine powered by exhaust gasses that forces air back into an engine to increase power output.
Understeer is a term referring to the driving dynamic whereby the vehicle steers in less than the driver intends. This results in the front of the vehicle “pushing” or “sliding” to the outside of a corner.
The broad term applied to any car, SUV, or light truck for sale that is not new from the manufacturer. Certified pre-owned, demonstrators, and previous rental offerings are all used cars.
Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)
The vehicle identification number (VIN) is an individualized 17-digit code featuring both letters and numbers. The VIN includes a serial number for the vehicle, as well as information about the specific machine’s attributes, its assembly location, and the world manufacturer identification. This is like a vehicle’s fingerprint.