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We’ve all been there at some point: In the middle of a conversation with a car lover, they begin rattling off weird terms and numbers like a quarterback calling an audible at the line of scrimmage. Since you haven’t the foggiest idea what this stuff means, you just nod every now and then and hope you don’t get busted. And yet, this is stuff you should know -- not just for the sake of your pride and manhood and holding up your end of the conversation, but so you can make better car-buying and maintenance decisions.


Cargo volume

Not to be confused with the decibel level of the kids in the backseat, this term refers to the cubic-foot rating of how much junk you can fit in the trunk. This is at least moderately important for buyers, since they’ll probably be filling their vehicles with luggage, groceries and other cargo from time to time. When comparing cargo volume between vehicles, pay attention to how the total volume is identified: “Luggage capacity” often refers to the volume in the trunk/area behind the seats; “maximum cargo volume” typically reflects the volume when the rear seats are folded, the storage bins are filled and when all passengers resist the urge to exhale.

Power-to-weight ratio

Power-to-weight ratio is a big factor that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. This formula is derived from a vehicle's horsepower relative to its weight. With greater horsepower and lower weight, the power-to-weight ratio is favorable. As you shop for vehicles, remember that the horsepower figure is just a fraction of the performance equation; you need to consider the power-to-weight ratio if you care how well the vehicle will accelerate. This partly explains why a 2,000-pound Lotus Elise with 190 horsepower and a 5,600-pound Bentley Continental Flying Spur with 551 horsepower both cover the 0-to-60 mph dash in a whisker less than five seconds.

Electronic stability control/traction control

Many vehicles are now equipped with a host of control systems that ensure safety. In a vehicle with electronic stability control, computerized sensors are on guard for any wheel slippage. When slippage is detected, the system gently applies each wheel’s antilock brake and may even curtail engine power to keep the vehicle on its intended path.

Traction control works when you’re trying to accelerate but the surface is slick. When wheelspin is detected, the system limits the power sent to the wheel or wheels for more efficient acceleration. Contrary to the belief of some, this doesn’t translate to increased traction and the ability to plow through snowbanks.

 


Resale value

Resale value refers to your car’s future value, which can be affected by many things like the amount of mileage you’ve put on it or how many times it has been in an accident. Unless you own a Ferrari Enzo and can keep Eddie Griffin out of the driver’s seat, your car’s value will probably depreciate by 50% or more during a five-year ownership run. This percentage varies, so it’s a bit of a crapshoot picking a good long-term investment. Traditionally, severly discounted cheapos are among the loss leaders, while high-demand models often give you the biggest bang for your buck in the long run.


Turbocharger

A turbocharger is a supercharger unit that’s powered by an exhaust-fed turbine under acceleration. The turbine powers a pump that directs more air into the cylinders when called upon, resulting in better pickup. Due to their part-time work schedule, past turbos were infamous for lag between the time the accelerator was pressed and the boost was felt, plus the boost would spike suddenly without linear response. Present-day turbos are generally better in both respects.


Supercharger

You may not want Air Supply on your sound system, but you’ll definitely want a greater air supply going through your engine. A supercharger is a big helping hand in this department. Also known as a blower, it’s a compressor that forces more air into your engine than it would ordinarily capture. While this term technically applies to all types of compressors (even turbochargers), it commonly refers to mechanically driven units. Since a supercharger is always on duty, the lags and peaks suffered by turbos are non-existent.


Kerb weight

Kerb weight is the best way to measure a car’s weight. The term refers to a vehicle’s heft with all its standard equipment and fluids onboard (fuel, oil, coolant, etc.), which cumulatively account for more pounds than you might think. Dry weight figures are occasionally quoted, but they are pretty useless unless you’re going to attempt to operate the vehicle remotely without any fuel or lubrication.