The Automobile Glossary For The Average Car Owner

Automobiles have a long list of terms and part names connected to them that may be unfamiliar to the average user. This article will try to provide readers with an extensive list of vehicle related keywords that can be used to better understand your vehicle. Hansma Automotive is a car repair specialist that focuses on providing vehicle repair, maintenance and detailing for drivers in the Kitchener-Waterloo region. Click here to contact us today.

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Anti-lock Braking System (ABS)

A braking system(s) that senses wheel rotation and automatically "pumps" the brake for the driver in emergency braking conditions. The pumping and the prevention of wheel lockup allows for the driver to retain steering capabilities during the braking emergency. Any one purchasing a vehicle with such a system would be well advised to insist on the dealership demonstrating proper use and maintenance. 

All-Season Tires

Tires designed to provide good traction in winter snow and slush without wearing too quickly on dry roads.

Automatic Transmission

A system that varies the power and torque to a drivetrain without the use of a foot-operated clutch.


A device that converts mechanical energy into electrical energy for the purpose of charging the car battery.

Brake Pad

Used in a brake disc system, it is a replaceable piece of backing plate and an additional friction lining. Brake pads apply pressure to the brake disc - a thick, round metal plate located behind each wheel - during braking.

Brake Rotor

A shiny metal disk that brake pads squeeze to stop the vehicle; hence the name disc brakes.


A metal shaft supporting the cams that cause the open/close operation of the intake and exhaust valves. The camshaft turns at 1/2 the speed of the crankshaft, and is connected to it either by gears, a timing chain or a timing belt. Learn more


A device that mixes air with fuel, delivering the mixture into the engine's combustion chambers. Only found on older vehicles. By the mid-1980s, new emissions standards led to the use of fuel-injection systems, which do not require frequent adjustment.

Catalytic Converter

A component of the exhaust system that creates a heat-producing chemical reaction to convert potentially harmful combustible byproducts into carbon dioxide and water. 


This drivetrain component is found between the engine and the transmission. It acts as a coupling device to engage and disengage the transmission from the engine when shifting gears. It is necessary to do this joining and detaching because the engine is turning at a relatively high rate (thousands of revolutions per minute). 

Disc Brakes

Shiny metal discs, called brake rotors, are attached to the wheel hub, rotating with the wheel. When the brake pedal is depressed, the brake calipers squeeze the discs to slow the vehicle. Diameter is given in millimeters. See Brake Caliper and Brake Rotor. 

Drum Brakes

A braking system that uses a metal drum. Brake shoes press against the drum to slow or stop the car. 


Vehicle components which act together to move the vehicle forward or backward. On a rear-drive vehicle, the drivetrain is the combination of the engine, transmission, differential and drive shaft. On a front-drive vehicle, it consists of the engine, transaxle and drive axles. 


A long metal cylinder located between the transmission and the rear axle in front-engine rear-wheel drive vehicles. The shaft is connected to the components on each end with a universal joint, which allows for movement up and down without bending the shaft. Learn more


The basic job of an engine is to take fuel and convert its energy to some usable mechanical form (burn gasoline to spin a shaft and, ultimately, the wheels). Its Cubic Capacity number [cc] represents the interior fuel space within it. The higher the cc number the greater the power it generates. Most vehicles today are fitted with what is known as a 4-cycle internal combustion engine. The four cycles are: Intake, Compression, Power, Exhaust. 


A body panel that lies below either side of the hood, between the front bumper and the front-most door edge, encompassing the wheel space in-between. 

Four-Wheel Drive (4WD)

A transfer case that distributes power to both axles in order to drive all four wheels. 

Front Wheel Drive

In a front wheel drive vehicle, the front wheels are powered by the engine/transmission, and the rear wheels just follow along. Generally speaking, these cars are more fuel-efficient than rear-wheel drive cars, and operate more easily in snow, but are more expensive to build and maintain.

Fuel Injection System

Injects fuel into the engine's cylinders, using electronic control to time and meter the fuel flow. Learn more

Horsepower (hp, bhp)

Horsepower, abbreviated hp, or bhp (brake horsepower or net horsepower), is used to designate power produced by an engine. In general, the higher the horsepower, the higher the vehicle's top speed. One horsepower is the power needed to lift a 550-pound weight one foot in one second. 

Intake Valves

Valves that open passageways for fuel vapor to enter the cylinders but which also close them to maintain cylinder pressure during compression and combustion. Learn more

Manual Transmission

A transmission that varies the power and torque through a foot pedal controlled clutch and a floor-mounted or steering-shaft-mounted gear selection lever.


A chamber in the engine exhaust system used to suppress exhaust noise and smooth exhaust pulsations. Also referred to as a "silencer." Motorbike and moped owners sometimes remove these to beef-up their sound.


A solid, cylindrical shaped part that compresses fuel vapor within a cylinder (the compression stroke) and is thrust downward (the power stroke) by the force of the explosion that results when the vapor is ignited. Rocker arms connect the pistons to the crankshaft. 


The copper or aluminum device in front of the engine through which hot engine coolant is circulated and cooled. The liquid is then recirculated back through the engine block to cool it. Learn more

Rear-Wheel Drive (RWD)

A drivetrain in which power is applied to the rear wheels only, and the front wheels follow along. This type of drivetrain, while not typically as powerful as FWD, is usually cheaper to make and maintain.


The rotating part of a machine or mechanism. The brake disc itself is referred to as a "rotor," as is the center of a distributor or starter motor. 

Spark Plug

Converts voltage into an arc that passes between its electrodes; the arc ignites the fuel-air mixture in the combustion chamber. The mixture explodes, creating power by pushing down the piston. 


Serves the same function as a turbocharger but avoids lag time because it runs off an engine-driven pump. Both turbochargers and superchargers are used to produce more power without increasing engine displacement, but neither are particularly fuel efficient at low speeds, and both can require costly maintenance as vehicles age. 


Springs, dampers, shock absorbers, hydraulics, wishbones, roll bars, struts, and links used to suspend the frame, body and engine above the wheels.

Synthetic oil

Engine lubricant not derived from raw petroleum. It has superior engine-protection properties but costs as much as five times more than petroleum oil.

Timing Belt

On overhead cam equipped engines, an external belt is used to synchronize the operation of intake/exhaust valves with the compression/ignition process occurring in the cylinder head and engine block below. 

Traction Control

A system for limiting wheel slippage under acceleration, thus maintaining each wheel's contact with the road surface. Traction-control systems generally use the anti-lock braking system to stop wheel spin and reduce power from one or more engine cylinders when an electronic sensor detects unusual wheel spin.


The amount of friction between the tire and the ground.


The transmission is used to take the high-speed, low-torque power of the engine and convert it to a lower-speed, higher-torque output, which ultimately turns the drive wheels. Transmissions come in a wide variety of options, but they basically divide into three categories: Manual, Automatic, and Manumatic. Lower gears allow fast acceleration, higher gears provide better gas mileage. 


A device that compresses and forces extra air into the intake manifold to produce extra power. Both turbochargers and superchargers are used to produce more power without increasing engine displacement, but neither are particularly fuel efficient and both can require costly maintenance as vehicles age. By forcing fuel through the engine, this system allows the car to gather more speed. 


Occurs when the front wheels have lost adhesion or the driver is turning the steering wheel too sharply for the vehicle's speed. In an understeer, the front wheels do not follow the steering wheel angle, and the car refuses to turn. In motor sports, this is called push, or plow. The driver can regain traction by reducing speed. 

Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)

A seventeen-digit identification number, unique to each vehicle, which includes codes for the manufacturer, year, model, body, and engine specifications.

Water Pump

The pump that circulates coolant through the engine block, cylinder head and radiator. It is driven by the engine crankshaft.


Posted on January 28, 2015 .