The Differences Between Horsepower and Torque

What You Need to Know About Torque and Horsepower

Diamondback Truck/Flickr

Nearly every truck and car review you read tell you the vehicle's horsepower and torque ratings -- but they don't usually explain what the terms mean or why they're important to you as a driver. And when you do see an explanation, it's often in tech language that still doesn't make sense on a level that most of us understand. So here goes -- a basic explanation of horsepower and torque, in everyday English. No tech experience required.

Horsepower abbreviated hp, and torque are two separate measurements that help reveal the capabilities of your truck or car's engine. Don't worry too much about how they are measured or exactly what the abbreviations you see with them mean. Just look at the numbers and the specs for revolutions per minute (rpm).

How Horsepower and Torque Differ

  • Horsepower is responsible for moving the vehicle along and gives it the ability to cruise on the highway and accelerate in normal conditions.
  • Torque is the force that helps the vehicle start moving from a stop and pulls it up steep hills. Torque steps in again to provide power when you're hauling items or towing something behind the vehicle.

Published Horsepower and Torque Specs

  • Automakers state peak hp and peak torque at specific revolutions per minute -- rpm, the numbers you see on a tachometer.
  • Hp and torque both drop off before and after their peaks.

How Do You Use Your Truck?

When you look at pickup truck specs, think about how you drive. If the majority of your driving is in town and at 60 to 70 mph on the highway, your vehicle's engine is spending most of its time in the 1800-2500 rpm range. An engine that produces its peak horsepower or torque at 5500-6000 rpm might not be the best choice (unless it's the only choice for the vehicle you're considering) because that's not your typical rpm range.

Choosing Horsepower and Torque

  • Higher torque ratings are more important than high horsepower ratings if you pull a trailer, haul heavy loads or drive on roads with long, steep grades.
  • If you like to see how fast you can get from stoplight to stoplight -- or if you do a lot of other quick acceleration driving -- horsepower is more important.

Keep in mind that horsepower and torque don't necessarily peak at the same rpm. They can differ by a small to a wide range. Reviews don't always include the peak rpm for horsepower ratings, but they're available in factory specifications.

Don't assume that you need the truck that's advertised as having the highest horsepower or torque in its class. If it suits you in other ways, sure, go ahead and buy it. Put some thought into how you use the truck before you decide to spend the extra money now -- and pay more for gas later -- to buy a truck with more power than you need.