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Torque – Exactly what is it?

One of the most favourable adjectives you might see applied to a vehicle is ‘torquey’, with its overtones of power, speed and sheer fun. But what is torque, and what does it really mean for your driving or riding experience?

Torque WrenchTorque is a force, like a push or a pull, but in this case the force is rotational, a turn or a twist. In a vehicle engine, it refers to the rotation produced at the crankshaft. In the UK, torque is still usually measured using the imperial system of pound-feet. Elsewhere in the world, you are more likely to find measurements in newton metres, or Nm. 

Torque isn’t the same thing as power, but a car’s torque and horsepower are closely related. An engine with high horsepower can produce power quickly, while an engine with a lot of torque has a great deal of power to deliver. One way to think of the two is to picture torque as what gets your car moving from a standstill, and horsepower as what keeps it rolling at speed.

When consumer magazines or the motor trade refer to torque, it will generally be at a specific number of revs. This is because torque isn’t the same across a vehicle’s rev range, and there will be a point where maximum torque is reached. Cars that reach their maximum torque at low revs will accelerate quickly and have good performance across the whole range. Once the higher rev bands are reached, it’s the car’s horsepower that takes over providing speed.

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Cars with electric motors generate their maximum torque right at the outset, giving them their characteristic excellent acceleration whilst maintaining it across their whole rev range. Many modern cars are large and heavy, requiring high torque to get them going from a standstill and to prevent sluggish performance. Torque figures are less important for smaller lighter city cars.

Lower torque can also help you keep a grip on surfaces with poor traction, this makes it a good insurance policy against skidding on snow, gravel, or just a wet road. Therefore, a high gear is advised for icy conditions when you might think it would make more sense to use a low gear to keep the speed down.

Torque can be an important consideration when buying new and used cars, whether you’re looking to be first off the line at traffic lights, or maybe you’re looking for a car that will reliably tow your caravan or trailer up a steep hill.