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2004 New Car Specifications Explained

What They Mean, and What They Mean To You


2004 Fiat Panda

2004 Fiat Panda

© Fiat
"Whoa! Wait a minute! What do all those numbers mean to me, the car buyer?" If you've ever asked that question you're not alone. Most people, aside from enthusiasts, have difficulty with automobile specifications, particularly in understanding how they apply to their personal needs. The following will guide you through the most important vehicle specifications.

If you require a complete list of vehicle specs, the best place to get them is the manufacturer's own site. You'll find links to such sites in our Subjects list under "Manufacturers."

Body Styles:

All have advantages and disadvantages, so which compromise you prefer is a matter of taste and needs. Sedans make practical family vehicles. Coupes look sporty, but have less room and are difficult for back seat passengers to access. Hatchbacks, which combine sedan roominess with superior cargo capacity, are arguably the most intelligent vehicles ever created. Station wagons resemble large hatchbacks.

Drive Wheels:

Front-wheel-drive cars (fwd) have more traction than rear-wheel-drive cars and are well-suited to winter weather conditions. Rear-wheel-drive cars (rwd) can be more fun, but only if you're sufficiently skilled to know the difference. All-wheel-drive cars (awd) send the power to both front and rear, providing better traction in rain, snow, sand.


The number of seats shows how many adults can be accommodated, but not necessarily for lengthy periods. That's why we refer to some 5-seaters, for example, as "comfortable for short journeys."

Trunk Space:

To make best use of trunk space numbers, you need to use them as a comparison between competing vehicles. Unless, of course, you can visualize what cubic feet actually look like.


A car's weight is important when assessing performance and/or fuel economy. Lighter cars generally save on fuel. Performance is best judged by "power-to-weight ratio," a simple formula that rates horsepower with vehicle weight: more power, less weight, equals improved performance.


This is the distance between the center of the front wheels and the center of the rear wheels, when viewed from the side. Suspension sophistication notwithstanding, the longer the wheelbase, the better the ride.

Engine Size:

Wondering what engine size (usually stated in liters) means? Think of an engine cylinder as a drinking glass. The amount of liquid it would hold represents that cylinder's "capacity." If, for example, each cylinder in a 4-cylinder engine has a capacity of one liter, the engine's capacity will be 4.0 liters. Size usually translates to power.


Many cars are available with a choice of 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic. Some sporty models now offer 6-speed manuals, while 5-speed and even 6-speed automatics are beginning to appear in upmarket vehicles. More gears mean greater efficiency, but watch for vehicles with CVT (continuously-variable-transmission), a new and simpler system with no gears at all. CVT utilizes a belt-drive that provides the best performance/economy at all speeds.


All cars have disk brakes on the front wheels because, with the transfer of weight from rear to front under braking, front brakes get the most punishment. Performance and luxury cars add disks to the rear wheels, but at the lower end of the price scale drum brakes may suffice. Disk brakes run cooler, provide more surface for the brake pads to grip. Drum brakes are cheaper to manufacture. ABS means "anti-lock braking," a system that prevents brakes from "locking up" on slippery surfaces. The best reason for having ABS is that the car can still be steered in emergency braking under adverse conditions.


Repeat after me: Airbags are only useful when wearing seatbelts! Without seatbelts you'll get a punch in the face before slamming into the windshield. Airbags may save you from grievous injury but better to buckle up first. Side airbags may save your head from potentially dangerous impacts when T-boned by another car, also in rollovers. Yes, airbags are a wonderful safety additive... if you do your part.

Fuel Economy:

The figures shown are for government (EPA) estimates in perfect conditions. The real world may be very different. Canadian buyers should be aware that these numbers represent the American gallon, not the larger Imperial gallon.


Total car warranty is just what it says, but be aware that nothing is free. You'll still be charged for checkups at specified mileages. Why? Because the warranty protects you from manufacturing defects while preventative maintenance remains your responsibility. Powertrain warranty covers the engine, transmission, and all engine-to-drive-wheels components.

Starting Price:

This is the lowest available price and if you can do without the frills, you need pay no more. Add packages and options, and the final bill can be as much as 60% greater.

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