Power and torque are words you’ve all heard of, but do you really understand what’s best and what’s more important in a car, power or torque? Well, we’re here to give you the full lowdown…

So what are power and torque? We all know they make our cars faster and therefore we want more. But explaining exactly what power and torque is, is complicated, boring and actually not that relevant to making a fast car.

That said, having more of both is a very good things to have, and the higher the numbers of each, the more overall performance your car’s engine has. However, things aren’t quite as straightforward as that. But that’s what we’re here to explain.

First up though, let’s turn the complicated science of power and torque, in to something basic that hopefully we all can understand…

Torque is the amount of turning force an engine has in one revolution. Power is the speed an engine can move a certain weight, over a certain distance

Due to a huge number of factors which we won’t get in to but can be classed as ‘volumetric efficiency’, the rpm where torque is the greatest varies depending on engine spec. And where power is the greatest varies too, as peak power is the point where the engine is spinning the fastest while still producing good torque.

What this means is power is simply a combination of torque and rpm. Your engine has a certain amount of turning force (ie torque) per revolution, and it can turn with that force a certain amount of times per minute, and that’s called power.

If you care (and you probably don’t as there’s countless calculators online to do it for you), the equation to calculate BHP from torque and rpm is: Torque (lb/ft) multiplied by Speed (rpm) divided by 5252 = POWER.

This is why cars with lots of torque at low rpm have good low down performance. But also cars with fairly low torque but the ability to rev very high feel similarly fast, but at the opposite end of the rev range. Simple, right?

car power torque guide

Units of measurement BHP, lb/ft, nm, PS, KW
Traditionally brake horse power or BHP is the unit of measurement we use in this country for power, and lb/ft the one we use for torque. But thanks to our German friends, PS or Pferdestärke is often seen, and Kilowatts or KW, is often seen on tuned cars in Australia. Newton Meters or NM, is often seen as measurement of torque in many other countries too. But how do these measurements compare to the BHP and lb/ft that we know and love?

Well Pferdestärke is German for horsepower, and the figure is almost the same as BHP – but not quite, just under 99 percent in fact. So 100bhp is just over 101ps, for example. Kilowatts, or KW, on the other hand is very different from BHP, about a third lower in fact. So if a car has a high KW number, it’s REALLY powerful in BHP terms, with 100bhp being just under 75KW.

Newton Meters or NM, gives higher numbers than lb/ft, with just over 1.3NM for every 1 lb/ft. Which doesn’t sound much different, but while 800nm of torque sounds like an insanely high number, in reality it’s a slightly more sane sounding 590lb/ft when converted into the terms we know and love.

car power torque guide

Flywheel power, wheels power, hub power, crank power…
The vast majority of rolling road figures in the UK are those numbers measured at the flywheel. However, that’s not the only place power is measured, and the place where it’s measured has a big effect on what number any given engine will show as producing.

As mentioned, flywheel power is the most common measurement used in the UK, but is actually the only one never truly measured. In fact it’s calculated from the wheel figures when using a rolling road. There’s a lot of debate on the accuracy of flywheel figures, and that’s the reason some countries, particularly the USA and Australia, rarely use them on tuned cars. But they are the most common number seen in this country.

Power at the crank is almost an identical figure to flywheel power, but is totally accurate as it’s measured directly from the engine before it’s installed, by using an engine dyno. This is the figure quoted on standard production cars, and many highly tuned cars also see the engine dyno before installed.

car power torque guide

The least common figure is power at the hubs, which is measured, unsurprisingly, by a hub dyno. Hub dynos literally bolt to the car’s hub instead of the wheels, and are used as this eliminates wheelspin problems that are common on powerful cars on conventional dynos. Hub power figures are lower than crank and flywheel figures, but a little higher then wheel figures.

Last, and least, is wheel power. This is the number usually quoted in the USA, and often considered the only true power of a car, as it’s your wheels that are the only part in contact with the ground.

Somewhat surprisingly, it’s ignored in the UK. Though that’s probably because it’s by far the lowest, so least impressive sounding, number. As cars lose a significant amount of power through the gearbox, diff and other transmission parts, wheel power tends to be 10 to 25-percent less than power at the flywheel/crank.

So you should always remember to take that in to account when comparing US wheel horsepower figures to UK flywheel figures!

car power torque guide

So what makes cars fast? Power or torque?
Despite many, especially V6 and diesel owners, parroting the legendary Carroll Shelby’s famous quote: “Horsepower sells cars, torque wins races”, it simply isn’t true. In fact power is almost always the number one requirement.

For example, the Formula 1 V8 engines of the recent past had barely 220lb/ft of torque whereas a standard Mk5 Golf TDI has nearly 260lb/ft, but will a Golf TDI win a race against a F1 car or a Ferrari? Hell no. It will get obliterated. In fact, will it win a race versus a Honda S2000 that’s got around 100lb/ft of torque less than the Golf? No chance. So basically, no, torque doesn’t win races, power does.

But one thing you should never, ever, everrrrrrrrr forget, is that torque is still massively important.

If there are two cars, both with the same power but one with far more torque, the torque filled one will be faster, especially on twistier roads and tracks. In fact, if one car has a little more power, but much less torque, the torquey car will generally be faster.

The importance of torque depends on the use of the car too. Flat-out racing where you’re constantly at high rpm means torque as most of us know it (ie low-down grunt) isn’t as important. But in situations where you aren’t always at high rpm, be it due to racing on twisty tracks or simply on a road car, big torque makes for a much, much faster car.

And this leads us neatly on to the most important point of this feature…

car power torque guide

It’s ALL about the powerband
Peak numbers might be great for bragging rights, but in most situations they mean very little. What makes a car truly fast, and more to the point, fun, on road and track, is the spread of power and torque through the car’s rev range.

A good example of this is cars such as the Honda S2000 and various Type-R models. There is little doubt they are fast, indeed in a flat-out race they are around the same performance as any other car with a similar power to weight ratio. But overall, the small powerband makes them very hard work to drive to their true potential, especially on the road. To truly exploit the car’s performance you have to drop three gears from your usual cruising gear to go fast, so while you cruise at motorway speeds in sixth, you have to drop all the way down to third to accelerate hard. Things are the same in lower gears, where you need to drop to first below around 40mph to truly get the maximum performance from the engine.

On the flipside, most cars on the road spend most of their time at lower rpms. And where there’s a lot of tight bends that make it difficult to keep the revs high, modern turbo diesels (which while usually limited to under 5,000rpm, have got massive torque from around 1,500rpm) tend to be faster on the road than performance times would suggest.

It’s not only diesels though. As petrol cars such as the Mk2 Focus ST are much the same, thanks to the big 2.5ltr engine spooling up the turbo so it pulls as hard from barely above idle as it does at the redline, making them very easy to drive quickly.

This issue of small powerband versus big is magnified when tuning is involved, and it’s joined by a third issue too on big power engines – the smoothness of the powerband.

Engine tuning can often raise and narrow a car’s powerband. And while swapping a small turbo for a big one may gain you 200bhp, you might well have less lower RPM power than standard, and therefore be slower than standard up to 5,000rpm. Meaning you got to keep the revs up if you want to use any of the power you spent so much money achieving.

The powerband issue is magnified with naturally aspirated engines, as fitting wilder cams and so on to an engine that’s already got a narrow powerband may make it so small it makes them almost unusable without a close ratio gearbox fitted. In fact we’ve come across cars, both naturally aspirated and turbo, that due to the tiny powerband and poor gearing, totally drop out the powerband every time you upshift, making for a car that has high peak power numbers, but is actually very very slow!

Having said that, by adding forced induction, be it a supercharger or a turbo, to a naturally aspirated engine that originally has a very small high rpm powerband like the aforementioned Hondas, will actually widen the usable rev range – giving great power from whatever rpm the turbo kicks in, or indeed from idle on a supercharger. This totally transforms how the car drives, making it much easier to drive fast.

Another issue with tuned powerbands is mostly relevant to big power cars, and that’s how progressive and smooth the power delivery is. While high rpm only performance is often unavoidable, cars going from no power to an absolute explosion of power in the space of 500rpm, something quite common with big turbo engines, just creates traction issues and makes the car hard to drive on the limit.

car power torque guide

A similar issue is created by simply having too much torque. While a big chunk of torque at lower rpm, thanks to a big engine or a lot of boost, makes for a fun car to drive. Often it’s simply too much for the tyres to handle, so it’s just wasted in wheelspin, while a car with less grunt will accelerate off down the road.

To avoid this issue, a centrifugal supercharger from the likes of Rotrex or Vortech is usually used, as unlike a turbo or a positive displacement supercharger, boost increases linearly with rpm. So you get a tiny bit of boost almost from idle speed, but it increases steadily until full boost is reached at the rev limiter, meaning a smooth powerband and the maximum traction.

Providing you do have the grip to use it, can you really have an engine that has ridiculous amounts of power and torque right across the rev range? Well the answer is of course, yes, when you start with a big V8 or similar. But we can’t all have massive V8s, and despite the well known phrase “There’s no replacement for displacement”, there really is, and that’s boost!

While it takes a talented engine builder to create an engine to the correct spec, it’s amazing how much power and torque a fairly small engine can make at both low and high rpm when it’s running a lot of boost. In fact it’s quite easy to make a turbo engine have more performance from around 3,000rpm to 7,000rpm-plus than a normally aspirated engine with over three times the capacity. An extreme example of this is the 2ltr turbo rallycross engine, which runs huge amounts of boost and has up to 700lb/ft of torque and similar amounts of power when the inlet restrictors are removed. These make huge power from low rpm to high, and even the 8.4ltr Dodge Viper V10 only makes 600lb/ft, and not until nearly 5,000rpm. A top spec Rallycross engine will cost you over £60,000 though…

car power torque guide

Dyno graph comparisons
One of the easiest ways to understand how a car will drive is to look at the dyno graph. This shows you where the performance is and, most importantly, isn’t. Making it very easy to see if a car has a small high rpm powerband, a torquey low rpm one, or anything in between. It’s also good for comparing different engines and modifications, and can be a massive eye-opener when you see how good, or sometimes how bad, certain engines can be.

What everything means on a dyno graph is pretty self explanatory, but relating it to the real world can sometimes confuse people. The easiest ways to look at it is maybe to ignore what line is power and what line is torque, and simply see how high the top lines are, and for how long. A car with a massive rev range will have a lot of torque at low rpm, and a lot of power at high rpm, so the top line of the graph will be high right across the rev range, and when you’re driving you can’t feel the difference between power and torque as such anyhow, all you feel is the car is damn fast when either figure is high!

While a sudden increase in power or torque on a dyno graph is a good indication of where the main powerband starts and where it begins to drop can indicate where it ends, it’s worth taking a good look at the numbers, as things can be deceiving. For example, where a car has 450lb/ft at 4,000rpm, but ‘only’ 250lb/ft at 3,000rpm, it might look on the graph like the performance is all 4,000rpm up. But the fact is, even 250lb/ft is a lot of torque, so the worthwhile powerband is far bigger than it might seem at first glance.

Peak power and torque issues are similar. Many think there’s no point revving beyond peak power. Some people even believe there’s no point revving beyond peak torque. But it’s always worth revving long beyond peak torque, and in many occasions beyond peak power too.

The reason is exactly the same as previously mentioned. That the car might make 500bhp at peak, but if it still makes, for example, 400bhp after that at even higher revs, it’s still very fast – and is often accelerating faster than it would in the next gear up at a lower rpm!

power torque guide

Naturally aspirated vs turbo conversion, vs big turbo on an EP Civic Type-R
The high revving Honda 2ltr lump from the Civic Type-R is one of the most common examples of a powerful engine with surprisingly little low rpm performance, and one that even with a large turbo fitted, gains a huge amount of both midrange and high-rpm performance, as soon as the turbo starts making any boost pressure at all. And with boost starting at under 3,500rpm on the smaller turbo and 4,500rpm on the large one, both give the car a wider powerband, as well as making it hugely more powerful…

power torque guide

Getting the right spec has a HUGE effect on the powerband…
It might be hard to believe, but this dyno comparison is using the same engine for both graphs! It’s a BMW M3 3.2ltr, fully strengthened internals, and turbocharged. The first graph was the original setup – while it made great power, it had pretty badly designed manifolds and a poor overall turbo setup.

The second graph is the same engine, in fact the same basic size turbo, but with specially designed manifolds and turbo setup. As you can see, despite running the same size turbo at the same boost pressure, it spooled it up so much sooner, turning the car into a real torque monster.

However, it’s almost impossible not to spin the wheels now it’s got over 700lb/ft. So it’s a good job it’s a drift car…

power torque guide

You CAN have the performance to match a big V8 with a much smaller engine…
We all know you make a small engine create much more power than a V8 engine by adding boost to it. But as long as you run a sensibly sized turbo and a lot of boost, you can actually even have as much or more low- to mid-range grunt as well. And that’s something most people probably wouldn’t expect…

power torque guide

Torque or horsepower?
As an extreme example of how different engines behave, this comparison is the ultimate. One is a well modified 1.9TDI VW engine with a hybrid turbo pushing out very respectable performance; massive low rpm torque, but only revving to 4,500rpm.

The other is a 1.5ltr Formula 1 Turbo engine from the 1980s, which pushes out over 1,000bhp, 800bhp more than the diesel. But it has the low rpm performance of a typical 1.3ltr modern engine (ie very slow indeed).

There’s no doubt that above around 8,000rpm it’s insanely fast, in fact at its peak it’s more powerful than a Bugatti Veyron, but if installed in the same car, the 1.9TDI lump would easily out-drag it unless the driver kept the F1 Turbo lump spinning at 8,000rpm plus, and the savage power delivery, with power jumping over 200bhp in the space of 500rpm at high rpm, means it’s only really suitable for high speed circuit and drag use on a car with huge amounts of grip.

power torque guide

Can you have too much power?
As fun as ridiculous amounts of power sounds, aside from a drag car with giant slick tyres and a perfect glued surface, engines really can make far more power than you can ever put down on the road.

With 450lb/ft anywhere beyond around idle speed, 1,000lb/ft of torque by just 4,000rpm, and well over 1,200lb/ft at high rpm, no matter what gear or speed you’re in, the tyres will just turn to smoke with this engine. This is a dyno from a 7ltr twin turbo drag car engine, and there’s quite a few around with double this power…

WHAT'S MORE IMPORTANT POWER OR TORQUE?

There’s more to fast acceleration than big power and torque 
While having a lot of grunt is important, that’s not the only way to go fast. And in many cases there are lots of much cheaper ways too…

LIGHTNESS
Power to weight ratio is the key to performance, and it’s why cars like Caterhams and indeed many motorbikes, are supercar fast despite having less power than a lot of hot hatches. Conversely it’s why big busses and trucks are slow, despite having more power than most supercars. If your car can have a decent amount of weight removed from it, and you can live without the creature comforts, a lighter car is a faster car.

One thing that’s especially noticeable with a lighter car is that a lack of low rpm torque becomes less of an issue, as when there’s less weight to lug around, less grunt is needed to get the car moving quickly.

GEARING
Standard road car gear ratios tend to be a compromise between performance and fuel economy, and depending on what you use the car for and the type of powerband your engine has, you can drastically improve your acceleration without touching your engine spec. By simply changing gear and diff ratios.

On rear-wheel drive cars, the easy thing to do is change a car’s diff for one from another model with a shorter gear ratio. This is often a straight swap, and you can drastically improve acceleration, meaning that while your top speed may only be a little, or possibly no lower, you will get to these speeds faster than even increasing the engine power by quite a large amount would achieve.

The other gearing option, while often not as cheap, is adjusting the gearbox’s individual gear ratios. This is a job for the professionals and tends to involve fitting a competition spec gearbox. But with closer ratio gears you can give the car lightning fast acceleration, and also make it easier to keep engines with peaky powerbands in their optimal rev range. What many= competition cars do is run a longer first gear, as most standard first gears are far too short for performance use, a standard ratio second gear, and closer ratio gears beyond that, giving a lower top speed, but a constant wave of hard acceleration in every gear.

GRIP
Does your car have 100 percent traction under the hardest acceleration possible in every single gear? If not, you’d go faster if you had more grip. The reason many production cars such as Evos and Imprezas have 0-60 times that are often two seconds faster than front and even rear drive cars with the same power, is they have the grip to use every last bit of it. Rocketing off the line even when launched at full throttle and maximum rpm – and without any wheelspin.

The difference a set of wide sticky track tyres or an LSD can make to traction can transform a car, and it’s not uncommon for a powerful car that wheelspan even in high gears with skinny cheap rubber and a standard diff to have full traction in all but first gear once it has a proper LSD and sticky tyres fitted. This amounts to changing the performance from something that most hot hatches can pull away from in to something that can keep up with supercars…

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