A Girl’s Guide to Torque: What Is It and Why It Matters for You

What Is Torque

Do your eyes glaze over when someone stars talking about pound-feet of torque? You’re not alone.

Torque is one of the most misunderstood aspects of any car, but it’s so important to understand when you’re in the market for a new vehicle. Imagine trying to explain to someone why they need to try your favorite food without mentioning the flavor, or why they should splurge on a luxury vacation without talking about why it’s worth the price. It’s impossible!

Seriously. Torque is that important. But even the biggest gear heads don’t always understand what torque is, or why those torque numbers matter.

Get ready, girl. We’re going to break it down for you step by step.

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What Is Torque?

Do you have a tube of lipstick or chapstick nearby? Grab it for me. Uncap it, then twist it it up. You’ve just experienced torque.

Now twist open a plastic soda bottle. Turn a doorknob. Pedal a bicycle. That’s all torque in action.

Torque is a science-y word that describes the force needed to twist something, and in the automotive world, it measures the twisting force of your engine when your engine is exerting itself. Let’s go back to our lipstick. You apply a force to the tube as you twist the lipstick up out of the tube. That amount of force is applied to the tube which raises the lipstick. Apply more force — aka, twist faster, or apply more torque — and you’ll change the amount of force input and therefore the speed at which the lipstick leaves the tube. Twist slower, and you’re reducing the force, so the lipstick doesn’t leave the tube as quickly.

Makes sense, right?

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Now, What Does That Mean for an Engine?

I’ll keep this simple, since we don’t all need to know the technical details to understand torque — but some folks might like the description.

In a combustion engine, fuel is mixed with air and then pushed into a cylinder. Your engine consists of a cylinder and a piston (or several cylinders and pistons!). The force of pushing the air into the cylinder and the expansion of that air as it heats up causes the piston to move. Pistons transfer the force of that expanding gas to the crankshaft, which then provides a rotational movement to the flywheel, which then helps send power through the transmission and drivetrain and into the wheels.

The keyword there is rotational force, which we now recognize as torque.

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Why Does Torque Matter?

If you’ve been car shopping for a while now, you might remember a time when the word “torque” didn’t matter. In fact, automakers didn’t even advertise it — if they shared that information with consumers at all.

But that’s because torque did suddenly kind of start to matter. We remember old cars as being heavy, but we expect so much more from our cars these days — they need to be everything from a tow truck to a mobile office — that they’ve become outfitted with extra technology, and torque has become more important.

Put pretty simply, then torque is power – albeit of a much different type than horsepower. Torque is what lets you get stuff done. Horsepower measures straight acceleration while torque is more robust. Horsepower is like a 200-meter sprint while torque is a marathon; if you’re trying to measure endurance or calculate an average speed, you’ll get better info from the marathon. But that doesn’t make the 200-meter sprint a lesser form of running; it’s just better for different kinds of measurements.

How to Evaluate Torque

Just like how your lipstick just doesn’t work if you don’t take into account how it works with the rest of your makeup routine, torque doesn’t exist in a vacuum. A torque number doesn’t mean all that much if you don’t consider it alongside your vehicle’s horsepower or its weight.

That being said, higher torque generally translates into better performance because an engine that can produce larger quantities of torque already has the capacity to produce more horsepower and therefore more speed. Higher torque also generally increases things like towing capacity.

However, you do want balance. Having an engine with tons of torque but no horsepower is a very inefficient engine, and it’ll probably be a pain to drive. Car enthusiasts will tell you that you want your torque number as close to your horsepower number as possible, since that means your vehicle both rotates and launches forward at a similar, predictable rate. But we’ll talk more about the relationship between torque and horsepower in a later article.

Some Differences

As you can imagine, not all vehicles are built the same. Take a diesel engine, for example. Diesel-powered trucks often make good tow vehicles because they offer more torque at lower revs, which means you get more grunt power without having to stomp on the pedal and wear out your engine.

Or consider electric vehicles. To create torque in a conventional gas-powered engine, you have to burn fuel to create power, so there’s a little lag between the time you press on the gas pedal and the time the engine gives you a response. An electric battery doesn’t need to burn fuel. You press the pedal, and the car moves forward immediately. You don’t have to fiddle with all those engine bits, so it makes things a lot more immediate.

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I'm Elizabeth Blackstock, managing editor of AGGTC, blogger, journalist, novelist, editor, MA/MFA graduate student, wife, motorsport fanatic, and bearer... More about Elizabeth Blackstock