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Car Buying

Car Specs: Why They're Important

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author photo by Doug DeMuro

Understanding car terminology can be a challenge. What exactly do they mean by "wheelbase"? How do you define "headroom"? And why are these car specs so important? We've researched it and defined several important terms for shoppers looking for a new or used car.

Approach, Departure and Breakover Angles

Sometimes, searching for an SUV will turn up one or all of these three terms. While they sound technical, they can be useful. Approach angle is the angle of a hill an SUV can clear without scraping its front end. Departure angle is the same thing, just with the rear wheels. Finally, breakover angle measures the angle between your car's underside and its tires. That can be useful if you're on top of an object and you don't want to scrape the bottom of your car. And all three terms may be helpful to shoppers who enjoy off-roading -- or even just those who have a steep driveway.

Cargo volume

Cargo volume is the total cubic feet of space in a car's cargo area. In SUVs, minivans and hatchbacks, this measurement is often given twice, once with the seats up and a second time with the seats folded down. That gives drivers an idea of their typical cargo volume and their possible cargo volume for that occasional trip to the furniture store.

Headroom

Headroom is measured as the distance from a car's roof to its seat bottom. (A more appropriate name might be "torso room.") Sometimes, you'll see maximum and minimum values published, since most cars have seats that adjust up and down.

Height

Height, like length, is a simple measurement. It's the distance from the car's bottom point to its very tallest point. Knowing a car's height can be helpful if you have a tight garage or commonly park in a place with low ceilings.

Hip Room

Hip room defines the width of a car's front seats or, in back, the width of a seat cushion. It can indicate how much room you'll have on either side of your waist once you sit down.

Legroom

While it might seem like an easy one, legroom is actually one of the most complicated automotive measurements. The reason is it can be controversial: Should you measure it with the front seats all the way forward or all the way back? The Society of Automotive Engineers -- the organization responsible for horsepower ratings -- uses one consistent measuring system. But it doesn't give much insight into exactly how much room a driver or passenger has. As a result, we suggest sitting in a car if legroom is a major concern.

Length

This is probably the easiest of all the car specs. As its name implies, it's just the distance of the car from its front tip to the farthest point in back.

Shoulder Room

Although shoulder room is rarely measured, it can be important for shoppers who often carry passengers in the car. Basically, it's the measurement from one door panel to another. That's different from hip room, which measures a single seat. And it's different from width, since shoulder room measures the car's interior, which is usually much narrower.

Turning Circle

This is defined as the diameter of the smallest u-turn a car can make. For example, if a car's turning circle is 37 feet, that means it takes a full 37 feet to make a complete u-turn. This can be important to drivers who live in narrow urban areas where tight turns are the norm.

Wheelbase

The wheelbase is the distance between the center of the front and rear wheels. While the wheelbase won't tell you how long a car is, it roughly measures the size of the passenger compartment and may give you an idea of how big the interior is.

Width

This can be tricky for drivers with a narrow garage. A car's width is defined as its widest point without its mirrors. That means a car only a few inches narrower than your garage will give you tighter squeeze than you realize. After all, even if you fold in the mirrors, you'll still have a few extra inches on each side.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
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