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The Ultimate Guide to Understanding Car Specs: Cargo Volume, Headspace, and More

BY: Keith Benline
Young man storing a bag in his car's trunk

When purchasing a new vehicle, there are a lot of different factors to consider. Finding a car that is right for you will depend on things like what kind of power you are looking for, how many passengers you will have to carry, and your expectations regarding safety.

While these are all important considerations, it can be difficult to sort through all the specs of a vehicle without knowing what they mean. Unless you understand what car specs represent, you may have difficulty picking the right car for you and your family.

When you look at a vehicle listing or sales literature, you will most likely see a lot of numbers and letters that might not necessarily mean anything to you. These specs represent different aspects of the vehicle’s size, legroom, performance, safety, and fuel efficiency. If you are going to make the best decision for your new vehicle, it is important to know how to interpret these specs and sort through them at a glance.

With a good base knowledge of what car specs represent and how they are measured, you can find the vehicle that fits your particular driving needs.

Decoding Cargo Volume: What It Means for You

If you regularly take road trips or vacations, cargo space will be an important spec to look for in a new vehicle. This measures how many cubic feet the vehicle has for carrying things, excluding passengers and including any trunk space.

For a three-row SUV, this will include the space behind the second row with the third row folded down. For a two-row SUV, it will be the space behind the second row (rear seats) in front of the back gate. For a sedan or coupe, it will only include the trunk space. If you are looking for the most possible cargo space, a full-size SUV like the Chevy Suburban or Cadillac Escalade has more than enough room for almost any cargo.

One important thing to keep in mind is that every manufacturer will estimate their vehicles’ cargo space slightly differently, and some may even exaggerate it. Generally, the vehicles will be measured from the top of the seat to the back of the gate for an SUV. The cargo space will not include any space above the top of the seat since having items there will limit visibility. Some publications will measure cargo space by the number of suitcases that can fit in the cargo area, which can be a practical way to know what you can expect.

In some cases, a vehicle will have an adjustable cargo floor behind the last row in an SUV or the trunk when it is a sedan or other traditional car. For vehicles with this, the cargo space will be measured with that adjustable floor in the lowest position.

This ensures you get a measurement that is the maximum possible space for the vehicle. Understanding that the manufacturer can sometimes maximize or exaggerate these specs will help you be realistic about how much space a vehicle has.

Understanding Headspace: Comfort and Convenience

Aside from passenger and cargo capacity, headroom is one of the most essential measurement specs to look for in a new car. Headroom generally dictates how comfortable the seating is in the vehicle and how much space you have to move around.

Cars with more headroom tend to feel more spacious, comfortable, and ergonomic. This is incredibly important if you commute daily or regularly take long trips where you are sitting in the vehicle for extended periods. Vehicles like the Hyundai Sonata and the Volvo XC90 have the most headroom in their classes and will offer some excellent comfort on the road.

Headroom is measured from the bottom of the vehicle’s ceiling to the top of the seat. Because of this, it would be more accurate to call it “torso room” since it measures space for the entire upper half of your body. When looking at the headroom specs for a car, you may see a minimum and a maximum measurement listed. This will usually be the case if the seats are adjustable in vertical dimensions. Remember this when test-driving a vehicle and deciding if there is enough headroom for you in the driver’s seat.

Analyzing Engine Specs: Power and Performance

A vehicle’s engine is its most important component, and you should understand its specs before you decide that a car is right for you. There are all kinds of specs involved in measuring an engine’s performance, but two of them have the most value to you when it comes to knowing how a vehicle will perform: horsepower and torque.

In the simplest terms, horsepower is the measurement of the amount of power an engine will put out. Specifically, one horsepower measures a horse pulling a 550-pound weight off the ground by a foot in one second. This may be an antiquated way of measuring things, but it has been the standard since it was coined by the inventor James Watt in 1776. When applied to a vehicle, it is one of the specs that determines the top speed of the vehicle once it has reached its peak RPM.

Torque also measures the power of the engine but in a different way. Torque is the rotational force the engine creates, responsible for turning the wheels. Torque is measured in pound-feet and will determine how quickly the vehicle can get up to speed from a standstill.

This means a vehicle with high horsepower but low torque will have a high top speed but very little acceleration when starting from a complete stop. It also means that vehicles with a higher torque rating will have a higher towing capacity since more force will be applied to the wheels. Depending on which aspect of engine power is most important, you should look for a vehicle with the best corresponding specs.

Navigating Fuel Economy Figures

Close up of a hand holding a green gasoline fuel nozzleNow more than ever, knowing what kind of fuel economy a vehicle gets will be a major decision-making factor. With gas prices always in flux and so many options for fuel-efficient vehicles, navigating the fuel economy specs of a vehicle is crucial. It is important to understand the difference between fuel efficiency and fuel economy.

Generally, fuel efficiency is a more general term that describes how efficiently a vehicle will burn fuel. A numeric value is not usually assigned to this rating, so it will not be something that you have to compare with different cars. Economy cars like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla are known for having top-tier fuel economy, but if you want the very best you can get, a hybrid like the Toyota Prius or Hyundai Elantra will top the list.

Fuel economy, on the other hand, is a measurable numeric value that automakers use to describe the efficiency of their vehicles. This spec is measured in miles per gallon and describes the number of miles a vehicle can get out of one gallon of fuel.

To get this, automakers test their vehicles and submit the figures to the EPA. The EPA then reviews these numbers and re-tests the car at the National Vehicles and Fuel Emissions Laboratory. Using these test results, a final EPA-estimated figure is published.

A vehicle’s fuel economy is expressed in MPG city and MPG highway. This is because cars will usually burn more fuel in the city due to all the required stops, starts, and varying speeds. On the highway, fuel economy will usually be slightly better due to the consistent speed and lack of energy consumed in acceleration. These two figures will sometimes be averaged out to get a combined fuel efficiency spec, which is useful if you regularly do both highway and city driving.

Interpreting Safety Ratings and Features

Safety is a consideration that every potential vehicle owner should be thinking about at the dealership. As new vehicle models come out, they get tested for safety and receive a rating that can tell you how safe that car will be in an accident.

These tests are conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and they consist of rollover, frontal, and side collisions. The NHTSA studies how the vehicles react to different collisions and gives them a one- to five-star rating based on their conclusions. Looking for vehicles with the highest safety ratings is recommended if you want to be sure that you and your family will be safe in that car.

If you are concerned about safety, you should also look for vehicles with a wide range of equipment designed to prevent and control accidents on the road. Things like airbags, blind-spot monitoring, forward-collision warnings, and lane-keeping assist can all go a long way when it comes to protecting yourself when you are in your car. The more safety equipment a vehicle has, the safer it will be in all driving situations. Some vehicle manufacturers, such as Lexus, are known for including large suites of standard safety features with all their vehicles, which makes them a great option for safety-minded drivers.

Considering Tech and Infotainment Options

In modern vehicles, the cabin has many options for tech and infotainment features. Specifically, connectivity options can be a major convenience in the car, and you should look for vehicles that can connect to all kinds of different systems. Most new vehicles come with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity that will sync your smartphone with the infotainment and audio system for things like music and navigation. Some newer vehicles also come with Amazon Alexa capabilities, which can be helpful for things like voice commands and hands-free operation when driving.

The touchscreen size makes a big difference when looking at the infotainment options for a new vehicle. In recent years, the smallest touchscreens have usually been five inches, and they can be difficult to read and navigate, especially on the road. Look for bigger screens at least seven inches if you want to easily switch through different menus and options.

You should also look for systems that have some kind of analog rotary knob so you can control the infotainment system without having to take your eyes off the road. These knobs make it much easier to navigate the infotainment software, which is always going to be a safer situation.

The Role of Specs in Car Buying and Coverage Decisions: How Endurance Can Help

No matter what kind of car you purchase, you should be sure that it is always protected. An extended warranty, more accurately called a vehicle service contract (VSC), can help you pay for repairs when they come up and keep your car on the road for a lot longer. Depending on the specs you decide on for your vehicle, you may want to have a plan that will cover certain components. A vehicle with a turbocharger and a lot of horsepower, for example, should be protected with a plan that is comprehensive enough to keep those high-performance components in good shape.

Endurance offers a wide variety of customized plans for used cars with all kinds of specs and equipment, starting at just $99 per month. With everything from basic powertrain coverage to bumper-to-bumper exclusionary protection, there is an auto protection plan for nearly everyone. On top of that, Endurance has customized plans for vehicles that other VSC providers won’t cover, such as Canadian Gray Market vehicles, cars with a rebuilt or salvage title, or vehicles used for commercial purposes like rideshare or delivery.

Every Endurance plan comes with standard benefits like 24/7 roadside assistance, towing, rental car coverage, and trip interruption protection. Plus, for a small activation fee, Endurance customers also get access to Elite Benefits, which include extra perks like tire repairs and replacement, key fob replacement, and up to $1,000 in total loss coverage.

Take advantage of our plans and experience our award-winning customer service for yourself. Contact our team at (800) 253-8203 to request a FREE quote. You can also shop our online store for an instant price preview.

You can also find more auto-expert resources on the Endurance blog. Explore automotive FAQs, extended car warranty provider comparisons, DIY maintenance tips and tricks, and more.

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