The Differences Between Horsepower and Torque

By Dale Wickell

Red pickup truck hauling a trailer with palm trees in the background
RonaldPlett / Pixabay / CC0 Creative Commons

Nearly every truck and car review you read will 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 to most people. This basic explanation of horsepower and torque is written in everyday English, no tech experience required.

Horsepower and torque are two separate measurements that help reveal the capabilities of a truck or car’s engine. Don’t worry too much about how they are measured or exactly what the abbreviations mean. 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. This gives vehicles 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 also provides power when you’re hauling items or towing something behind the vehicle.

Published Horsepower and Torque Specs

  • Automakers state peak horsepower and peak torque at specific revolutions per minute, or rpm, the numbers you see on a tachometer.
  • Horsepower 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 quick accelerating — 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. Put some thought into how you will use the truck before you decide to spend the extra money, and end up buying a truck with more power than you need (and pay more for gas later, too).