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Decoding Automotive Alphabet Soup

alphabet soupDo your eyes glaze over when you read some descriptions of new car models? I know mine do occasionally. It’s not because the new car isn’t exciting or anything like that. It’s the alphabet soup. Yes, I know that a lot of technical mechanical terms are rather long winded and it’s easier to just use an acronym.  Who talks about deoxyribonucleic acid instead of DNA?

However, if you’re not particularly mechanically minded and are just on the lookout for a new car, all these strings of letters can be a bit confusing.  Do you want an SUV with EBD and DOHC? Or an MPV with LPG and A/C?  To make things worse, one marque might use a particular string of letters for a particular feature but another manufacturer will use a completely different acronym.

So just to help you navigate this alphabet maze, I’ll try to be a GPS (global positioning system – uses satellites and a grid system to pinpoint exact locations across the planet. Often involves maps which update themselves with “You are Here” dots).  There – that’s one taken care of!

DOHC: Double overhead cam(shaft). One of the camshafts operates the engine intake valves while the other operates the exhaust valve.  Engines with DOHC are more efficient than those with SOHC (single overhead cam).

EBD: Emergency Brake Distribution. Usually found alongside ABS brakes (see below). This system makes sure that when you bang on the brakes, the right amount of power gets to the right wheels to stop safely depending on your vehicle’s load and speed, plus the conditions…. without skidding.

ABS: Anti Brake Skid. Stops your wheels locking up with sudden braking. If your wheels lock up during emergency braking, you are likely to skid and lose control.

BA: Brake Assist. A cunning device that “reads” how hard you’re stamping on the brake pedal and supplies extra power to the braking system if it thinks you’re doing an emergency stop.

LPG: Liquid petroleum gas.  A fuel for your car that usually (a) costs less and (b) doesn’t produce as much nasty stuff in the exhaust. Needs the engine to be converted. Popular with family cars with big engines (e.g. Ford Falcons ). LPG is the stuff that comes in the cylinder for your gas barbecue. Don’t attempt to fill an LPG car from one of these cylinders or vice versa.

AWD: All Wheel Drive. Means that the drivetrain powers all four wheel. Yes, this is the same as four-wheel drive (aka 4×4 or 4WD). Usually used for city vehicles that are too sophisticated to associate themselves with tough, rugged Outback-style 4x4s.

SUV: Sports Utility Vehicle. A kind of cross between a big classic 4×4 and your typical family station wagon. Usually has AWD and a bit more ground clearance.  Has lots of towing ability and seating space.

ESC: Electronic Stability Control. This usually combines all the anti-skidding stuff in brakes plus traction control to make sure that the car stays on the road more or less where you want it to during a skid or during cornering.  Also known as ESP (electronic stability program), VDC (vehicle dynamic control) and heaps of other names – every manufacturer seems compelled to come up with their own acronym.

MPV: Multi Person Vehicle. A big car with lots of seats (usually seven) spread over three rows. Has more of a nose on it than a van.

CVVT: Continuous Variable Valve Timing. Inside your engine, the valves controlling what’s going in and out of the combustion chamber could open and close at the same rate. Not with CVVT – this fine-tunes how long each one’s open for to make your engine burn more efficiently.

A/C: Air conditioning. Do I really need to explain what this is?

EFI: Electronic Fuel Injection. A very precise way of delivering the fuel to the engine. Another efficiency measure. It’s all about efficiency these days.

HEV: Hybrid Electric Vehicle. A car with an electric motor to back up the fossil-fuel fired one.  You also hear about PHEVs. This stands for “plug-in hybrid electric vehicle” – same sort of thing but easier to charge.

RPM (usually rpm): revolutions per minute.  Used to measure the speed at which your engine is turning over.  Your rev counter probably drops the last three digits off.

LSD. Not the hallucinogenic drug from the 1960s and 70s. Not “pounds, shilling and pence” either. This stands for “limited slip differential”. This system makes sure that if one of the wheels slips, all the power goes to the other wheels instead. Usually seen in four-wheel drives.

LED: Light-emitting diode. Glows like a regular lightbulb but doesn’t use as much power or blow as often as regular ones.  Because they produce bright lights, last for ages and don’t use much electricity, they’re becoming increasingly popular. More common in cars than in homes… at least for now!

LCD: Liquid Crystal Display. What an information display panel probably uses.  Most screens use this technology these days.

VTOL. Vertical take-off and landing. If you are looking at a vehicle that has this, it isn’t a car.  You are looking at a jet.

Safe and happy driving,


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