Car Terms Explained

The Informed Car Buyer’s Guide: 20 Key Car Terms Explained

Car buying can be an overwhelming experience, especially when you come across technical terms and jargon that you may not be familiar with. To help you navigate through the process with confidence, we’ve compiled a comprehensive guide that explains 20 key car terms. By the end of this article, you’ll be well-versed in car-speak that navigating the used car adverts will be a breeze.

Car Terms Explained

1. Understanding Drivetrain Options: AWD/4WD/FWD/RWD

Drivetrain refers to the system that delivers power from the engine to the wheels, and there are four main types:

  • AWD is a system that automatically distributes power to all four wheels as needed, providing improved traction in various road conditions.
  • 4WD, on the other hand, is a more robust system designed for off-road use and typically requires manual engagement.
  • FWD vehicles send power to the front wheels, making them more fuel-efficient and cost-effective but less capable in challenging terrain.
  • RWD cars deliver power to the rear wheels, providing better handling and performance but may struggle in slippery conditions.

2. The Difference Between Hybrid/Plug-In Hybrid

Hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles combine a gasoline engine with an electric motor to improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions. The primary difference between the two lies in how the battery is charged.

  • In a standard hybrid vehicle, the battery is charged through regenerative braking and the gasoline engine, meaning you never need to plug it in to recharge.
  • Plug-in hybrids, on the other hand, can be plugged into an external power source to recharge the battery, allowing for a longer electric-only range before the gasoline engine kicks in.

3. Branded Title’s Explained

When purchasing a used vehicle, it’s important to understand the different types of branded titles that may be associated with it.

One common Branded Title is a Salvage Title, which means that the vehicle has been deemed a total loss by an insurance company. This can be due to various reasons such as collision damage, theft, or other incidents. In most cases, a salvage title vehicle cannot be driven on public roads until it has been repaired and inspected by a certified mechanic.

Another type of Branded Title is a Rebuilt Title. This means that the vehicle was previously salvaged but has since been repaired and inspected to meet state safety standards. While these vehicles can be safe and reliable, it’s important to have them thoroughly inspected before purchasing as they may still have underlying issues.

Hail and flood damage are also common causes of Branded Titles. A vehicle with hail damage may have a salvage or rebuilt title depending on the extent of the damage and repairs made. Similarly, a vehicle that has been damaged in a flood may also have a salvage or rebuilt title if the damage was severe enough to deem it a total loss.

Take note that there are many more Branded Title categories, so for a full list and explanations, check out

It’s important to keep in mind that while vehicles with Branded Titles may be less expensive than those without, they may also come with higher risks and potential issues. It’s always recommended to have any vehicle thoroughly inspected by a trusted mechanic before making a purchase decision.

4. The Importance of the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)

Every vehicle has a unique 17-digit Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) that serves as its fingerprint. The VIN can provide crucial information about the car’s history, including the manufacturer, model year, production location, and more.

You can use the VIN to check for recalls, verify the vehicle’s maintenance history, and confirm ownership details. Additionally, running a VIN check through a reputable service can reveal any accidents, thefts, or title issues that may impact your decision to purchase the vehicle.

5. Certified Pre-Owned Vehicles: What Are They?

A Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) vehicle is a used car that has undergone a rigorous inspection and reconditioning process by the manufacturer or dealership. CPO vehicles usually come with an extended warranty and may include additional benefits like roadside assistance and special financing options.

While CPO vehicles tend to be more expensive than non-certified used cars, the added peace of mind and extra perks can make it a worthwhile investment for some buyers. Be sure to compare the CPO program details and costs between different manufacturers and dealerships to find the best fit for your needs.

6. Car Safety Ratings: IIHS and NHTSA

Safety should always be a top priority when purchasing a vehicle. Two organizations conduct safety assessments for automobiles:

When comparing vehicles, be sure to consider both the IIHS and NHTSA safety ratings to ensure you make an informed decision.

7. Recalls Explained: How it Affects Car Buyers

A recall is issued when a vehicle or part fails to meet safety standards, posing a potential risk to drivers and passengers. Manufacturers are required to fix the issue at no cost to the owner, but car buyers must be aware of any outstanding recalls on a vehicle they’re considering.

You can use the VIN to check for recalls on the NHTSA website, which will provide you with information about the specific issue and whether or not it’s been resolved. If you’re purchasing a used car, be sure to inquire about any recalls and confirm that the necessary repairs have been completed before finalizing the sale.

8. Engine Performance: Horse Power, Torque, and Turbo

When evaluating a vehicle’s performance, three essential metrics to consider are horsepower, torque, and turbocharging.

  • Horsepower (HP) is a measure of the engine’s power output, with higher numbers indicating more powerful engines.
  • Torque refers to the twisting force an engine produces, which impacts acceleration and towing capacity.
  • Turbocharged engines use a turbine-driven forced induction system to increase power and efficiency by forcing more air into the combustion chamber.

Understanding these terms can help you choose a vehicle with the performance characteristics that best suit your driving needs and preferences.

9. CVT Transmission Systems

A Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) is an automatic transmission that uses a belt and pulley system to provide an infinite number of gear ratios, allowing for smoother acceleration and improved fuel efficiency.

CVTs have become increasingly popular in recent years, particularly in smaller vehicles and hybrids. However, some drivers may not like the feel of a CVT, as it can cause the engine to rev at high RPMs during acceleration. Be sure to test drive any vehicle with a CVT to determine if it’s the right fit for you.

10. Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC)

Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) is a sophisticated feature designed to assist and prevent drivers from plowing into the car directly in front. This system uses radar and/or cameras to monitor the distance and closing speed of the vehicle ahead, then adjusts your speed accordingly.

ACC can significantly reduce driver fatigue on long trips and improve overall safety by helping to prevent rear-end collisions. This may be a consideration when shopping for a used car.

Car Terms Explained

11. Regenerative Braking

Regenerative braking is a technology used in electric and hybrid vehicles to capture and store energy that would otherwise be lost during braking. This system converts kinetic energy into electrical energy, which is then used to recharge the battery, ultimately extending the vehicle’s range and improving overall efficiency.

While regenerative braking can feel different from traditional braking systems, most drivers find it easy to adapt to the change. If you’re considering an electric or hybrid vehicle, be sure to test drive one to experience regenerative braking firsthand.

12. Traction Control: Enhancing Vehicle Stability

Traction control is a safety feature designed to prevent wheel spin and maintain vehicle stability during acceleration, particularly on slippery surfaces. This system uses sensors to monitor wheel speed and, if necessary, applies the brakes or reduces engine power to maintain traction.

13. Timing Belt/Timing Chain: Understanding the Difference

The timing belt or timing chain plays a crucial role in synchronizing the engine’s camshaft and crankshaft, ensuring proper valve timing and overall engine performance. The primary difference between the two lies in their materials and lifespan.

  • Timing belts are made of rubber and typically need to be replaced every 60,000 to 100,000 miles.
  • Timing chains are made of metal and generally last the life of the engine, though they may require periodic maintenance.

When purchasing a used car, check the vehicle’s maintenance history to ensure the timing belt or chain has been adequately maintained or replaced as needed.

14. Car Pillars Explained

The pillars of a vehicle are the vertical supports that separate the windows and provide structural integrity to the roof. They are labeled A, B, C, and D, starting from the front of the vehicle and moving toward the rear.

  • The A-pillar is located between the windshield and the front door window.
  • The B-pillar sits between the front and rear doors (or behind the front door on two-door vehicles).
  • The C-pillar is found between the rear door window and the rear windshield.
  • The D-pillar is only present on larger vehicles, located at the rear of the vehicle between the rear windshield and the trunk.

Understanding the location and size of these pillars can impact your visibility while driving and may play a role in your purchasing decision, particularly if you prioritize a clear view of the road.

15. Running Boards

Running boards are a common feature on larger vehicles, such as SUVs and trucks, that provide a step up into the vehicle’s cabin. They can improve accessibility for passengers, particularly children and the elderly, and may also protect the vehicle’s exterior from damage caused by debris.

If you’re considering a vehicle with running boards, be sure to test them out to determine if they’re the right size and height for your needs.

16. Difference Between Crossover and SUV

Crossovers and SUVs are both popular choices for drivers seeking a larger vehicle with increased cargo capacity and off-road capability.

  • Crossovers are built on a car platform, making them more fuel-efficient and easier to handle than traditional SUVs. They typically have a unibody design, meaning the body and frame are integrated, and usually offer better ride comfort and handling.
  • SUVs are built on a truck platform, making them more rugged and capable off-road but less fuel-efficient and less comfortable on paved roads. They often have a body-on-frame design, meaning the frame and body are separate, and usually offer more towing capacity and cargo space.

When deciding between a crossover and an SUV, consider your driving needs, lifestyle, and budget.

17. Dealer Fees

Before purchasing a vehicle from a car dealership, it’s essential to understand the various fees usually written in fine print that may be added to the purchase price. These fees can include documentation fees, dealer preparation fees, and advertising fees among others.

It’s in your best interests to go over the extra fees listed on the purchase contract as every dealer comes up with different costs, some which are ridiculous. Be sure to review the purchase agreement carefully and ask questions about any fees you don’t understand.

18. Night Vision and Blind Spot Monitoring

Night vision and blind spot monitoring are two advanced safety features that can improve your visibility and awareness while driving.

  • Night vision uses thermal imaging cameras to detect objects beyond the range of your headlights, allowing you to see potential hazards before they become visible.
  • Blind spot monitoring uses sensors to detect vehicles in your blind spots and alerts you if there’s a vehicle in your path.

While these features can add to the vehicle’s cost, they may be worthwhile investments for drivers who frequently drive in low-light conditions or on busy highways.

19. Cross Traffic Alert and Lane Departure Warning

Cross-Traffic Alert and Lane Departure Warning are two additional safety features that can enhance your driving experience.

  • Cross-traffic alert uses sensors to detect vehicles and pedestrians approaching from the side, helping you avoid collisions when backing out of a parking space or driveway.
  • Lane departure warning uses cameras to monitor your vehicle’s position in the lane and alerts you if you begin to drift out of your lane unintentionally.

These features can help prevent accidents and improve overall safety on the road.

20. Comprehensive Insurance and Liability Insurance

  • Comprehensive car insurance covers damage to your vehicle caused by events such as theft, graffiti and vandalism, or natural disasters like tornadoes and floods.
  • Liability insurance covers any damage or injuries you may cause to other cars and their owners in the event of an accident.

While liability insurance is typically required by law, comprehensive insurance is optional but would definitely provide peace of mind in most circumstances.


By now, you should have a better understanding of 20 key car terms that can impact your car buying experience. From drivetrains to safety features to insurance coverage, these key car terms will help you make informed decisions as you shop for your next vehicle. Remember to take the time to research and test drive multiple vehicles, and don’t be afraid to ask questions to ensure you find the car that’s right for you.

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