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What is the Difference Between Torque vs. Horsepower?

Author: Sherryn de Vos
Date: 2017-03-22
The crash-course on cars begins with the difference between torque and horsepower. What do each mean, and how do they work together?
When describing a car's performance, you are usually assaulted by a series of numbers that encapsulate the car's performance. If you are anything like us, most of these totally fly over our heads. One of the biggest mysteries to most of us, is the difference between torque and horsepower. Manufacturers love boasting about the cars brake horsepower and add images of beautiful stallions galloping through open fields. This just confuses everyone even more, leaving us all thinking that about 230 horses would power the car. If you have no idea what 230hp and 340kw means, this guide is for you!  We take a closer look at the difference between torque and horsepower.

Talk About Torque

Not everyone is a physics bof, so torque is a bit of a mystery. It’s one of the listed specs describing a  car’s performance.  For some reason, they always pause after mentioning torque and everyone looks really impressed. Faking that impressed face can only get you so far, so here is what it is. This is the simplest explanation we can give you. Power is how fast you hit a wall. Torque then is how far you take the wall with you when you hit it.
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Torque is essentially the measure of the force generated by the engine rotating the shaft. Because the crankshaft moves up and down to make the engine rotate, torque is this rotating force created. The more torque created, the greater ability the engine to do work. Torque can be created without any movement actually taking place. The more torque produced by the engine, the more potential for movement. The amount of air flowing to an engine is proportional to the amount of torque created. Remember that air is needed for the combustion to make the engine work. Large engines pump more air and, therefore, produce more torque. Torque allows the car to get off the start mark and horsepower is what allows it to reach its top speed.  

The Power of Horsepower

Horsepower is the energy available to do work. So, while torque is the capacity to do work, power is how quickly this work can be accomplished. Let’s think about it as the inventor, James Watt intended it. Horsepower was created to describe how much work a horse could do in certain circumstances. Think of a horse pulling coal out of a mine. He found that a horse, by itself, could raise 330 pounds of coal up 100 feet in a minute or 33 pounds of coal, 1 000 feet in a minute. This then became the standard equation used to this day to describe how much power is being produced, even by engines. One unit of horsepower (hp) is equivalent to 746 watts. This is, therefore, the amount of power being produced.

Horsepower And Torque Together

The torque will be translated into real-world applications, it will be moved to the transmission and axels. Imagine a racecar and a tractor next to each other. The racecar will have a lot of horsepower, while the torque will assist the speed during gearing. Every time you shift a gear, the engine has to rebuild capacity to make it go faster. Because supercars are relatively light, there is not a lot of torque needed for the weight of the car, so more of it can be used for speed.  A tractor can then have exactly the same size engine as a supercar, producing the same amount of horsepower. Because the tractor can’t reach high speeds, the horsepower is pushed to the gearing and used to push and pull huge amounts of weight.
As Jay Leno famously quoted; “Horsepower sells cars, torque wins races.”