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What Does That Mean? A Simple Glossary of Modern Car Terminology

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author photo by Autotrader February 2011

Are you curious about electric cars, but wonder what a kilowatt is? Does hypermiling sound more like something out of Star Trek than a way to save gas? Does your gas cap say “No E20-E85,” but you have no idea what that means? Don’t worry is here to help. We’ve compiled a list of the most commonly used green vehicle terms and given them easy definitions to help you wade through the brave new world of next generation cars.


No, hypermiling isn’t something you do when trying to escape bad guys in your spaceship. It’s a term coined in 2004 by fuel efficiency guru, Wayne Gerdes, to describe a series of methods anybody can use to dramatically improve the fuel efficiency of any existing vehicle without any modifications to the vehicle itself.

Chief among these fuel saving methods are keeping tires inflated properly, driving slower, avoiding aggressive driving, coasting whenever possible, anticipating traffic conditions to not use brakes as much, and getting rid of that extra cargo in the car to make it lighter. The most successful hypermilers can improve fuel efficiency by more than double over EPA estimates.

Clean Diesel

Today’s diesel cars aren’t like the ones of old. With the new crop of “clean diesel” vehicles, gone are the stinky, loud and unreliable diesels that drove many Americans away in the first place. In their place are much quieter cars that use a slew of advanced emissions technology to make them cleaner than even some of the most fuel-efficient gas-powered cars. When combined with the fact that all diesel fuel now sold in the U.S. is the ultra-low sulfur kind, diesel vehicles have a lower impact on the environment than they ever have before.

Diesel engines benefit from being built with more robust components than their gas cousins, therefore they are known to last longer. All clean diesel cars use Turbocharging to make an already efficient and powerful car into a rocket with boatloads of torque to make them growl at the low end. In the case of clean diesels, performance and fuel economy go hand-in-hand.


A biofuel is a fuel made from things like corn, soybeans, canola, grass, woodchips and even trash–essentially anything organic can be made into a biofuel with the right methods. Most biofuel in the US is currently made from either corn or soybeans. They are different from regular fuels in that they have a different chemical makeup. As a result they can sometimes have adverse effects on cars that aren’t designed to handle them.


Ethanol is the most common type of biofuel that replaces gasoline. Most Americans already use ethanol in their cars without even knowing it, because ethanol is blended with gasoline before sale, and all cars are approved by manufacturers and the US Environmental Protection Agency to use a blend of up to 10% ethanol, called E10.

There is currently a big debate between manufacturers, ethanol groups and the federal government about whether or not to start selling E15 (you guessed it, 15% ethanol) for use by most cars as well. Some say it will cause undue damage to a vehicle not prepared for it and some say it will have little effect. The question of damage comes up because ethanol is actually quite a bit more corrosive than regular gasoline and can break down the plastic tubes and gaskets of a car unless they are a special type of plastic. Many vehicles currently sold are built so that they can use blends of ethanol up to 85% (E85), however E85 is not sold at many locations yet.


As the name implies, biodiesel can replace diesel as a fuel. Just as with ethanol, biodiesel is typically sold blended with regular diesel–B5 is a 5% blend, B10 is a 10% blend and so on. Also similar to Ethanol, higher blends of biodiesel can cause damage to the sophisticated emissions equipment on modern clean diesel vehicles. As a result, most manufacturers of clean diesels only allow the use of up to B5.

Many states already mandate that all diesel sold is B5, so some Americans may be using biodiesel and not realize it. Check the labels on the pump to be sure. Some manufacturers allow the use of higher blends of biodiesel and some older diesel vehicles can use it without problems because they lack the modern emissions equipment.

Electric Vehicle

This may seem like a simple definition, but the world of electric vehicles actually contains several different types:

1) All-electric vehicles–also known as battery electric vehicles (BEV)–use only electricity stored in batteries that are charged from the energy grid to move a car around.

2) Plug-in hybrids–also known as extended range electric vehicles–have both a fuel-powered combustion engine on-board and a battery driven electric motor and can use both of them to make the car move around.

3) Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) use hydrogen to create electricity through some fancy chemistry and use that electricity to power an electric motor to move the vehicle around.

All of the different types of electric vehicles have benefits and drawbacks and you’ll need to know the requirements of your lifestyle before choosing any particular one.

In the world of electrified cars, kilowatts rule the roost. A kilowatt (kW) is an expression of power, just like the familiar horsepower (HP)–in fact 1 kilowatt equals about 1.34 horsepower. Everything from the power of the electric motor, to the speed at which you can charge a plug-in car is determined by kilowatts.

If you pay attention to your monthly electric bill you’ll notice that you are charged for your use of kilowatt-hours (kWh). A kilowatt-hour is a measurement of the amount of kilowatts you use in a given hour–for example using 1 kWh means you draw 1 kW for an hour.

So, if your electric car has a 90 kW motor – that means it has about 121 HP. And if your electric car has a 3.3 kW charger on board, that means if you charge it for an hour you’ll have used 3.3 kWh. Most electric cars can travel about 3-5 miles on 1 kWh–depending on driving style.

In the U.S. there are essentially three levels of charging available to vehicles that can plug-in to the energy grid.

The lowest speed of these–known as Level 1–uses your standard three-prong household outlet to charge. Level 1 charging adds about 5 miles of driving range per hour of charging, and all plug-in cars come with a cable that allows for it.

Level 2 charging, the next step up, uses the same type of power provided through a standard electric dryer outlet to add about 15-30 miles of range per hour of charging, depending on the car. Although it uses the same power as a dryer outlet, Level 2 charging requires special equipment and cables that pull up to 240 volts. If you buy an electric car, the manufacturer will require that you install this type of unit at your home location. All modern electric cars will support this type of charging and most public charging will be Level 2.

The highest level of charging currently available for electric cars is called DC fast charging. It can add about 80 miles of driving range in a half hour of charging. Only some electric cars support this type of charging and it costs extra to add as an option. DC fast charging uses special gas-pump sized stations with industrially-rated energy supplies. As a result you’ll only find them in commercial locations. By the end of 2011, almost 400 will be installed in the early deployment regions of California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Tennessee and Texas.

So, next time you find yourself baffled by the rapid amount of change the automotive industry is going through, just come back to this list for a bit of clarity.

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.
What Does That Mean? A Simple Glossary of Modern Car Terminology - Autotrader