Automatic Car Expert: The L.A. Driver Dictionary, P to Z

Still think “torque” is a movie from 2004 starring Ice Cube? Check out the final installment of our three-part L.A. Driver Dictionary

Plug-In Hybrid


While standard hybrids use electric and gas-powered engines working together to power a vehicle, plug-in hybrids rely more heavily on the electric motor, and can be plugged into a wall outlet or a charging station to refill the onboard batteries. Plug-in hybrids can also operate longer in electric-only mode, enabling quiet driving for a limited number of miles.

Ex.: “I’m thinking of trading in my Prius for a Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid.”


(acronym) / pē-zev/

Yet another descriptor for relative eco-friendliness, in this case describing a Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle. The government-assigned PZEV classification describes internal combustion vehicles with super clean hydrocarbon emissions, sometimes surpassing those of hybrids.

Ex.: “My Honda Accord is PZEV-certified, even though it doesn’t have a hybrid badge.”

Range Extender


Does the idea of an electric vehicle fill you with anxiety about getting stranded after the battery runs out of energy? The answer, my friend, may be found in a range extender-equipped vehicle which adds a tiny gas-powered engine that acts as a generator to charge the battery, and/or power the electric motor, often doubling an EV’s range.

Ex.: “I bought the range extender option on the BMW i3 because I don’t want to end up in a horror movie situation if it runs out of power on my way to Big Bear.”

Stability Controle


Front-drive cars cram the engine and transmission at the nose of the vehicle, which eliminates the need for a bulky rear differential and opens up room in the cabin. While boy racers critique front-drive configurations for their nose-heavy weight distribution, engineering advances have made this layout better handling than ever.

Ex.: “You’d wouldn’t guess that the Volkswagen GTI front wheel-drive; it corners like a dream.”

Stability Control


As anyone who’s slalomed through the Malibu canyons during a rainstorm will tell you, there’s no substitute for driving skill. Except for maybe stability control technology. Using computers quicker and more powerful than your old Atari 800, stability control senses when a vehicle is losing grip of the road, and individually applies brakes to help it “steer” back on course.

Ex.: “I would have flown over the edge of Latigo Canyon if it weren’t for stability control

Limited Slip Differential


Hardcore driving geeks don’t think of hallucinogenic drugs when they refer to LSD. They’re part of a select few who know that a “limited slip,” as they lovingly refer to this mechanical technology, is part of what keeps wheels from skidding as you peel out from a red light.

Ex.: “My Subaru’s limited-slip differential will smoke your Miata off the line.”

Steering Feel


Another diehard gearhead term, this refers to the feedback you get at the steering wheel that communicates how well the tires are gripping the road. Though the spread of electric steering has had a numbing effect on steering feel, all but the most outspoken luddites will agree that the technology is improving by leaps and bounds.

Ex.: “The Porsche 911 lost a lot of its steering feel, but I’ve gotta say the new Boxster is much better.”



The eternal frenemy of turbochargers (which boost engine power using the flow of exhaust gases), this engine technology uses the engine’s momentum to redirect air into the combustion chamber and hike output, generally with less of a delay than turbochargers.

Ex.: “My old Mercedes-Benz AMG had a supercharger that made it feel like a rocket.”


(noun) /tôrk/

A term that describes the push you feel against your seat when you press the gas pedal. Not to be confused with horsepower, which becomes more plentiful as an engine revs higher, torque is usually enhanced by superchargers, turbochargers, bigger engines—or in a trifecta of sweet excess, all three.

Ex.: “I couldn’t beat that Bentley at the last stoplight; it’s got monster torque.”

Traction Control


The Fast and the Furious franchise would be a lot less interesting with traction control, a technology which limits wheelspin by cutting engine power when a loss of traction is detected.

Ex.: “I would have fried my rental car’s tires doing drifting stunts, if only I could have figured out how to turn off traction control.”



“Turbocharged” is one of the most overused adjectives to describe stuff that’s been infused with a sense of vigor, but that’s exactly what a turbocharger does to an engine by recycling spent exhaust gases and pumping more back air into the powerplant. While the gearhead battle between turbochargers and superchargers isn’t over yet, a proliferation of the former has been attributed to their ability to run more efficiently.

Ex.: “My Lotus Elise would be even quicker if I added a turbocharger.”



If you’ve ever cranked the wheel hard and the car didn’t turn, you had a firsthand encounter with understeer. You’re also a terrible person who needs to go back to driving school. But seriously, understeer is a handling dynamic that’s the opposite of oversteer, and can be cured by an instant belief in a higher power and a quick dab of brakes.

Ex.: I knew I was going way too fast when I felt my car understeer on the 10 freeway onramp.”

Part One: A to D

Part Two: E to O