What does Torque in a Car do?

You’ve seen it a bunch of times when you’re reading the specs on a new car: the number of foot-pounds of torque that it puts out. Well, the 2009 New York Auto Show just happened, and I was reading the synopsis of a new Mercedes that just came out:

369 foot-pounds of torque, it says. (That’s 500 Newton-meters, for you mks/SI folks.) Torque is the amount of “turning power” you have, much in the same way you turn a wrench. 369 foot-pounds means that if you had a wrench that was 1 foot long, and applied a force of 369 pounds directly perpendicular to that wrench, you would get 369 foot-pounds of torque.

Well, what can this do to a car? The answer is: cause it to accelerate! The torque specification they give is the maximum torque of the internal-combustion engine, which is usually a higher value than the actual torque on the wheels. (See wikipedia for more details.)

But this torque can tell you a lot about how fast the car can accelerate. Let’s turn it into a physics problem. We’ll assume that this “500 Newton-meters” is an actual, legit value for how much torque the tires experience. We can estimate that the mass of a typical car is about 1500 kg, and that the typical distance between the center of mass of the car and the wheel’s rotational axis is about 20 cm; this gives us a moment of inertia for the car of 60 kg m^2. The car’s wheel size plus the sidewall radius of the tire is about 20″, or 51 cm.

The acceleration of this car? 4.25 m/s^2, or (more commonly), it can do 0-60 miles-per-hour in about 6.3 seconds. Want a car that can accelerate faster? Here are the things that can help:

  • more torque (duh),
  • a lighter car,
  • a lower center-of-mass (closer to the wheel axle in height),
  • larger diameter wheels & tires,
  • and an engine that can output this large amount of torque over a wide range of engine speeds.

Want to know which street-legal car hold the world’s record? This Sunbeam Tiger does 0-60 mph in 2.6 seconds!

So yes, it’s just a prototype, and in theory it can do it in 2.3 seconds, but that’s pretty good for some real-world physics, and now hopefully when someone brags to you about how much torque their car has, you’ll actually know what they’re talking about!

Comments

  1. #1 Alex R
    April 21, 2009

    A post on how engine torque relates to the acceleration of a car is really missing something if you fail the mention the gear ratio.

    Even if we ignore internal friction and such, the engine torque is related to the torque on the wheel by the gear ratio: if the total (transmission times differential) gear ratio is 10:1, for example, so that 10 revolutions of the engine results in one revolution of the wheels, then the torque exerted by the wheels is “geared up” by a factor of 10 over the torque exerted by the engine. For the Corvette referred to in the linked wiki article, this ratio ranges from 10:1 in 1st gear down to about 2:1 in 6th gear.

    In low gear, even with losses, the torque available at the wheel should be quite a bit higher than the torque at the output of the engine. Nothing comes for free, of course: the lower the gear (and therefore the higher the ratio as I’ve expressed it), the faster the engine must spin to make the car move the same speed, so the more power the engine must generate. If we had a perfectly lossless, infinitely variable transmission and drivetrain, it wouldn’t matter one bit how much torque the engine had at the output — the only thing that would matter would be power, which is the product of torque and angular velocity.

    I’ve hear car and motorcycle enthusiasts use “engine torque” as a shorthand for how much acceleration is on tap without downshifting to change the gear ratio…

  2. #2 David L
    April 22, 2009

    Only the axle he1ght is relevant to the resulting acceleration. The c of g height has only small secondary effects at normal car power levels. Powerful vehicles would experience pitching moments in response to differences between axle height and c of g height. In extreme cases, like rear wheel drive drag cars, maximum acceleration would be limited by the vehicle becoming unstable in pitch and flipping over backwards. (Unstable as any pitch-up puts the c of g even further above the thrust line, and eventually horizontally closer to the axle.

  3. #3 Ian
    April 22, 2009

    Car manufacturers: all torque and no action! It’s a pity they talk torque and turn green when you ask them how green their vehicle is….

  4. #4 Gingerbaker
    April 24, 2009

    If I understand it at least partly correctly, ‘torque’ is engine power at low rpms, while ‘horsepower’ is the same measurement, but taken at at a specific higher rpm.

    Some engines don’t develop their maximum power until higher rpms are achieved, while others, like diesels, achieve most of the power quickly at the lower rpms, and actually suffer power losses as rpms get higher.

    To accelerate quickly from a standstill, then, requires power at low rpms, thus, torque foot pounds is a much more reliable indicator of car acceleration performance than horsepower foot pounds would be.

    The whole discussion gets mixed up in most people’s minds because somehow over the years the concept of ‘torque’ and that of some kind of ‘twist’ have become entangled.

  5. #5 Ethan Siegel
    April 24, 2009

    Torque in an engine and horsepower are related, but are not the same. Horsepower is the total power output of an engine, while torque measures the “turning/torquing ability” of the engine.

    Practically, torque is a better measurement of how quickly your car will accelerate, while horsepower (relative to weight) is a better measure of your car’s top speed. I have two vehicles, a 1997 toyota with a top speed of ~110 mph, and a 16,000 pound school bus with an 8 L diesel engine, with a top speed of ~60 mph, going downhill on the highway.

  6. #6 Gingerbaker
    April 25, 2009

    here is a great explanation :) :

    http://www.4x4abc.com/jeep101/torque.html

  7. #7 Betto
    July 8, 2009

    That Awsome Sunbeam Tiger has awsome accelaration twice as the new 2010 chevy challenger.

  8. #8 Kevin
    October 7, 2009

    I believe the car “Red Victor” actually holds the record for the street legal car, doing 0-60 in about 1 second.
    Correct me if I’m wrong, please.

  9. #9 rahul
    October 9, 2009

    ^^^^ Red victor , yes. its knot to 60 in 1 second flat. theres a video as well on youtube. check it out.

  10. #10 sandy s
    April 4, 2010

    really nicely explained torque vs hp. I like the wrench example. Thx

  11. #11 Andy
    April 19, 2010

    Sorry but the fastest street legal car in the world is actually a 1970′s Vauxhall Victor thats running over 2000bhp. Has MOT and everything, Just look for it on Youtube, but it does 0-60 in about 1 second lol.

  12. #12 rakshpal singh salathia
    September 9, 2010

    Some engines don’t develop their maximum power until higher rpms are achieved, while others, like diesels, achieve most of the power quickly at the lower rpms, and actually suffer power losses as rpms get higher.I would like to know if the engine of 190Nm @2000rpm is better than the engine 140Nm @3000rpm?

  13. #13 sunil
    September 14, 2010

    Dear sir,
    i would like to know the cc,torque,displacement & bhp terms used in car.If you give me details with examples,i shall be thankful to you.
    Eagarly waiting your reply

    With regards
    Sunil Kumar(improvement team)

  14. #14 Hand tools
    January 5, 2011

    Hmm,,interesting article about the torque.I guess greater the torque ,lesser the force you need to use to complete the task.That is a bottom line i guess.

  15. #15 alvin
    February 9, 2011

    Hi, so if there are more torque available at the low end, does the engine consume more fuel?

  16. #16 alvin
    February 9, 2011

    Hi, so if there are more torque available at the low end, does the engine consume more fuel?

  17. #17 Degan
    February 15, 2011

    Torque isn’t a better indicator of a car’s acceleration power. Diesel engines have massive amounts of torque but this doesn’t guarantee exceptional acceleration. E.g.

    Audi A3 2.0 TDI’s make 320nm@1750rpm where Corsa GSi 1.6′s make only 150nm@3200rpm. Despite the 400kg difference in weight, according to this torque theory the A3 should have far more acceleration from standstill. But this simply isn’t the case, as even with its turbo boost the A3 only overtakes at 60mph, with the corsa quite far ahead during 1st and 2nd.

    “Horsepower is another measure of engine power, but it is based on torque. Horsepower is the abiltiy to do work over a period of time. Other things are taken into account, but it is based on torque so the two will follow each other to some degree. Torque comes on first because it is the instant twisting force. Horsepower is built as you get going and things like momentum of engine components come into play. “

  18. #18 richard
    April 19, 2011

    Hi there i have a query about torque and kilowatts.
    if i car for example has 3oo torque yet 200 kilowatts and another car has 175 kilowatts and 500 torque what would be faster or more quicker acceleration wise.

    cause one car has more kilowatts but alot less torque yet the other one has less kilowatts but more torque?

  19. #19 Wow
    April 19, 2011

    Max speed depends on power, acceleration at low speed set by torque. Acceleration at high speed needs torque to kick the car faster but you need excess energy to allow work to be done.

    But, since maximum legal speed is ~70mph and you can maintain that on the flat with less than 50bhp with modern efficient bodyshapes, you don’t really need much power to drive legally.

  20. #20 George
    October 5, 2011

    Sorry people, you are mixing units left and right, confusing power with force or torque. For acceleration it is the torque AT THE WHEELS per unit mass of the vehicle that counts. The amount of torque at the engine output shaft does not matter a diddly squat as the torque can be increased by gears. The engine power is proportional to the product of the torque and RPM. So the initial acceleration is limited by the grip of the wheels, the acceleration at higher speed is limited by the engine power (per unit weight) as at higher wheel RPM the more powerful (HP)engine can deliver higher torque. From the car operation point of view a flat torque / RPM engine characteristic as it is more important: it is more forgiving of gear shifting.

  21. #21 Harshal
    January 11, 2012

    ya i want some detail of torque….in deep…plz help me

  22. #22 nitin kumar
    March 4, 2012

    how doea i find torque of a car by a simple technic

  23. #23 Vladimir Abramov
    March 12, 2012

    To calculate motor full-load torque, apply this formula:
    T = PH x 5252/rpm where T = torque (in lb-ft)HP = horsepower
    5252 = constant;rpm = revolutions per minute.
    There was wrong way to get focus to motor development, its torque and interior acceleration system by gas or magnet field from 0 to 60 when energy was inexpensive in USA at long time ago.
    However the way of saving energy and right car power calculation is focus to friction between wheels and land that moves the land vehicle according to Third Newton’s law. The simple formula T= vehicle weight with load x coefficient of friction x radius of wheel= 3,000 x 0.7 x 0.04=82 lb-ft is sufficient motor torque that moves car from stop that requires highest torque than in movement process.
    This torque magnitude is not requiring large motor power because first Russian car without gear-transmission has motor of two horsepower and 18 mph forward speed at 1896 and motor of 30 hp produces 70 mph with sufficient torque at 1911. Other words, acceleration system by gas or magnet field uses too large motor power because torque magnitude is reduced by increased revolution of its shaft according to upper formula where motor power has constant magnitude of physical volume.
    Today USA patent 8,011,274 at 09/06/2011 discloses revolutionary way to save energy by using shift gearbox apparatus designs to move car without acceleration by needed speed as will and they use only idle speed or maximum torque of motors that open opportunity to reduce its cost, emissions, and noise.

  24. #24 parinay
    April 9, 2012

    sir i want to know that why the torque is provided in front wheels in new cars? what is are benifits?

  25. #25 francis mwangi
    May 18, 2012

    please help me know how a torque comes about from a magnetic flux

  26. #26 Clinton
    Solomon lslands
    June 27, 2012

    Guys,help me out in simple themes,mayb torque can accelaretes cars more quickly in startpoint 4 e.g some sport artlecte do have accelecration,but loss power in long run.correct me,if am wrong.

  27. #27 azam
    pakistan
    September 11, 2012

    Please can you guide me about the torque which effected when engine was running high R.P.M

  28. #28 alongusP
    Hertfordshire ,UK
    October 10, 2012

    wants to remap audi a4 B6 model 1.9tdi,130bhp with 150000k on the clock.She is in very good condition but needs to be waken up.Can she take the extra power if i
    if i get her remap.Please help.

  29. #29 Jasper
    USA
    October 15, 2012

    Guys, The article was about giving people new to trucks/cars a SIMPLE understanding. While it was fun reading your hilarious conversation that was ridiculously disjointed and failed to explain the complexities of it all, you probably just confused a would-be car enthusiast for life.

  30. #30 sudheeshkumar
    india
    May 2, 2013

    sir,
    why the condition of maximum BHP and maximum torque
    does not coincides?
    what does the BHP contribute for acceleration and weight lifting?
    ?

  31. #31 Ravi
    Chennai
    June 22, 2013

    Thanks to “Gingerbaker” for an excellent link.

  32. #32 Max
    August 6, 2013

    Never thought I’d say this but “Thanks Zanfief For teaching me science!”

  33. #33 Satwant Singh
    Faridkot (Punjab) India
    August 27, 2013

    Dear sir,
    i would like to know the cc,torque,displacement & bhp terms used in car.If you give me details with examples,i shall be thankful to you.
    Eagarly waiting your reply

  34. #34 Rick
    United States
    September 7, 2013

    2 things wrong in this article, “The torque specification they give is the maximum torque of the internal-combustion engine, which is usually a higher value than the actual torque on the wheels” FALSE, through gearing torque at the wheels will be considerably higher, with 1st gear averaging 3:1 and the differential averaging 3.5:1 an engine producing 100 lbft of torque will apply 1050 lbft of torque to the wheels (neglecting friction losses) the second wrong point int he article is that bigger tires will result in faster acceleration, FALSE it does exactly the opposite, the bigger the tire results in less force being applied to the ground resulting in less acceleration. Larger tires give you a higher top speed but will take you considerably longer to get there.

  35. #35 Wow
    September 8, 2013

    Rick, I severely doubt you are correct here.

    Unless the wheels are 1/3 the size of the connecting rod for the pistons to the crank, 3:1 gearing won’t do that.

  36. #36 Dani
    New Jersy
    September 21, 2013

    Guys help me out, I’m having a hard time understanding torque. My husbands trucks drive shaft twisted and broke off entirely, and it was said too much torque was applied. The fact is the truck was brand new, and been just put on the road for work. Now, my husband has over 30 years of truck driving experience, and certainly knows how to handle this truck properly. When the truck (2012 International 4300) become disabled, the truck was about 3/4 full loaded with wood chips, and broke down within city limits of 25 mph. We thought this would be covered under warranty, but it was denied for the reason of external damages. A few weeks prior the trucks drive shaft broke, all tires were stolen off the truck and the truck was left on wood pieces. This happened at a place where we had work done at the truck, where the truck was left overnight. Could the drive shaft have been damaged by being raised lets say with a lift gate at that time and then just broke down a little while later ?

  37. #37 Dan dantes
    Philippines
    February 12, 2014

    I’m planning to buy a pick-up truck and please give me an idea which is better, one having a maximum torque of 294 N-m @ 1400-3400 or one with 343 N-m @1400- 3200 rpm?

  38. #38 edison alerta
    Cebu, Philippines
    February 12, 2014

    Please advise me which 3.0 L pick-up truck is better based on manufacturer’s torque specs. One with 294 N-m @ 1400-3400 rpm or the one with 343 N-m @ 14000-3200 rpm?

  39. #39 Kartik
    March 30, 2014

    This might be a stupid wuestion but i dont understand how a lower COM will help, doesnt a closer COM mean lesser radius thus implying lesser moment of inertia?

  40. #40 Roemer Timbre
    Antipolo City
    July 25, 2014

    In a car, when the torque of motor/engine is max what should the driver do? upshift or downshift? the objective is to reduce fuel consumption and increase efficiency of the car power.