The Real Power: Horsepower, Torque, and What You Really Need

Anytime you’re looking at the specs of a vehicle, two numbers are sure to come up: horsepower and torque. Most people use them for an at-a-glance value of the engine and how much power it delivers. But the two are actually pretty different and having the most isn’t always the best. We pull back the veil and explain what to look for behind the numbers.


Some might remember that horsepower was created when steam engines were being developed to rival the traditional work animals used by most. What it means today is the ability of an engine to do work. Specifically, one horsepower is the ability to move 33,000 pounds one foot every minute. This is why a car with more horsepower can accelerate faster. More horsepower means that it can pull more weight farther and at a faster pace.


So what’s torque? Let’s put it this way: if you had high HP, but no torque, you wouldn’t go anywhere. Torque is the force while turning. This is literally where the rubber meets the road. The only way your car moves is by how much force can be exerted when the horsepower reaches the wheel. For example, pickup trucks usually have higher torque because more force is needed to turn the wheels under a heavy payload. A compact sedan, on the other hand, is light enough that less torque is needed.

So What Do You Need?

It all depends on what you’re doing with it. If you’re driving a sports car, horsepower is more important than torque (though you need both). If you’re towing or hauling, torque is a bit more important than horsepower.