How many times have you read the word horsepower and had almost no idea what it actually means? We explain the difference between power and torque.

They’re terms we hear all the time, but what really is horsepower? And while we’re at it, what’s torque? And how are they different?

Okay, let’s start at the start. The purpose of a car’s engine is to propel it. To do that it has to produce a twisting force which can, ultimately, act on the wheels and tyres and physically move the car. That force is, essentially, torque, and it relates to how much force the engine can muster. Torque is measured in Newton-metres (after 17th century English physicist Sir Isaac Newton).  This is a Newton Metre (or force) applied to a lever that’s one-metre long.

A Newton Metre (Nm) is sometimes mistakenly referenced as being a 1kg force applied to a one-metre-long lever but this is wrong. Rather that 1kg force applied to a one-metre long lever actually works out to be equal to 9.8 Nm. So, the stick and the weight analogy is totally useless when trying to explain torque. All you really need to know is that ‘torque’ is measured in Newton Metres, meaning a force applied to a one-metre-long lever.

Chevrolet Silverado 1500 selling australia HSV

Horsepower, meantime, is merely a mathematical expression of how fast the engine can produce that torque; a multiplication factor, in other words. In practical terms in a car engine, that more or less means that horsepower equals torque times rpm. Torque is real, horsepower is abstract.

In the real world, horsepower is what makes a car go fast, torque is what makes it feel fast. That’s because a high-torque engine may only rev slowly, limiting its ability to move things along quickly. But that same, slow, torquey engine will still give you a shove in the back when you hit the throttle, and that’s one of the things that makes driving fun.

Generalising again, race cars work best with high-horsepower engines (for acceleration) while off-road four-wheel-drive thrive on torque (for hauling them through bog-holes and over logs).


2021 Motorclassica cancelled


Avida Silverton Motorhome Walkthrough

About Author

Practical Motoring

The team of journalists at Practical Motoring bring decades of automotive and machinery industry experience. From car and motorbike journalists to mechanical expertise, we like to use tools of the trade both behind the computer and in the workshop.


  1. Power is torque x revs. That’s why diesels have low power compared to torque. They don’t like to rev when compared to a petrol engine.

    But it also puts the spotlight on the importance of torque. Diesel grunt feels great … and grunt means torque.

    And it’s why turbo engines feel strong. Turbos increase mid range torque. Compare the Honda S2000 to the Nissan 200 SX. The Honda made big power at big revs. But the turbo grunt of the 200 SX made it feel very strong in real world road driving.

    Ben Tate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Check Also