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What are horsepower, bhp and torque in a car?

: If you’re not already confused by terms like horsepower and torque, then acronyms like HP, BHP, PS and Nm might see you off. So, what do they all mean?

You’ll see horsepower (hp) and torque figures discussed whenever we talk about vehicle performance in our car reviews. In a nutshell, a car’s horsepower and torque explain how much ‘oomph’ the vehicle has. The numbers matter as they have a direct impact on how fast a car will feel when you put your foot down on the accelerator.
You may also see terms like brake horsepower (bhp), pound feet (lb ft) and Pferdestarke (PS) around the internet, but what do they all mean? Here, we break it all down. Before we dive in, it’s important to note that Pferdestarke (PS), horsepower (hp), kilowatt (kW) and chevaux vapeur (CV) all relate to the same thing – they just use different unit sizes and measurement methods. It’s a bit like how miles and yards are different units of measuring length, and Celsius, Kelvin and Fahrenheit are different measures of temperature. Different manufacturers and outlets use different units to measure horsepower. Here at Auto Trader, we've historically used brake horsepower (bhp) as the unit of measurement for power and some of our older reviews and articles will feature this unit. However, from mid-2017 onwards, we switched to using PS for power to reflect increasing adoption of these units across most of the motoring industry. PS stands for pferdestarke, which is the German word for horsepower. However, it's important to note that, while we use the PS figure in our reviews, we refer to it as 'horsepower' rather than PS to make it clearer and easier to understand.

What is horsepower?

Horsepower (hp) is a measure of power. In cars, it refers to the power produced by the engine.
As a general rule, the higher the horsepower, the more power the engine generates and puts out. For context, a small entry-level city car will have from around 75 horsepower while mid-sized family cars usually have between 110 and 200 horsepower. Generally, you’ll be able to feel the speed of the car with anything more than above 200 horsepower. Volkswagen’s Golf GTI, for example, has upwards of 245 horsepower. Cars with power ratings above 300 horsepower will usually be serious performance vehicles, and modern supercars will have more than 500 horsepower. Although horsepower figures will give you a rough idea of performance, you can’t directly link power to vehicle speed. The speed of a car will depend on, among other things, its power-to-weight ratio – which is the amount of power a car can produce in relation to its weight. For example, a city car with 150PS will be considerably faster than a large, heavy SUV with the same amount of power.

What is brake horsepower?

Brake horsepower or bhp refers to the horsepower of the car after taking into consideration friction between a car’s tyres and the road.
In other words, brake horsepower accounts for the power loss due to friction, which is why brake horsepower is always less than a car’s horsepower. Thus, bhp and hp do not mean the same.

BHP vs HP

A simple yet crucial difference between BHP and HP is how they’re measured in the car.
While horsepower measures the power generated by the engine, brake horsepower measures how much of the power produced by the engine is sent to the wheels which makes the car accelerate. Here at Auto Trader, we've historically used brake horsepower (bhp) as the unit of measurement for power and some of our older reviews and articles will feature this unit. However, from mid-2017 onwards, we switched to using PS for power to reflect the increasing adoption of these units across most of the motoring industry.

What is PS?

PS stands for pferdestarke, which is the German word for horsepower. However, it's important to note that, while we use the PS figure in our reviews, we refer to it as 'horsepower' rather than PS to make it clearer and easier to understand.

What is torque?

Torque is a measure of force. More specifically, it’s a rotational force that results in acceleration.
A unit of torque can be expressed as pound feet (lb ft) or Nm (Newton metres). While some of our older articles may still use pound feet as a measure of torque, we’ve now switched to using Nm as a standard unit of torque in our expert reviews and other articles.

So, what is torque in a car?

A car’s torque figure refers to the car’s strength. Torque means how much force the car’s engine generates.
Vehicles like trucks and buses that need to get a lot of work done, but not particularly at a fast speed, deliver higher torque figures over horsepower. Torque is responsible for how quickly a car accelerates from nought to 62 – the higher the torque, the quicker the car will achieve the 0-62 mph mark. Torque is also important when you need to drive uphill on a steep road.

Torque or horsepower

Both torque and horsepower are measures of the engine, yet both indicate two different things about the car - horsepower represents the rate at which an engine works, while the torque figure tells you how much force it generates.
A good analogy is riding a bicycle. The amount of force you can push down on the pedal is torque, whereas the speed at which you can spin the pedals is power. If you can put loads of power down on the pedals then you can haul heavyweight, but if you can’t spin the pedals very fast, you won’t go too quickly. Conversely, it’s not much use being able to spin the pedals quickly, if you can’t put much force through them.
So now you know a bit more about the difference between horsepower and torque, the next step is to work out which is most important to you. Do you need a vehicle for performance, and so with higher torque, or is horsepower and speed more your thing?
Within that, work out which body type would suit best – check out our guide to that here. Whatever you’re looking for, you’re sure to find it on Auto Trader. With a wide choice of used and new cars and over 40 years of experience, we’re Britain’s Biggest Matchmaker. Find your match today.

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