Car manufacturers don't make it easy for car buyers when it comes to explaining the mysteries under a car's skin such as engine types, safety features or electronic driver aids – so here is a quick guide to what some of the jargon and acronyms mean.
ABS – Also known as anti-lock brakes. ABS is fitted to all modern cars as standard. Basically, with ABS when you press the brake pedal really hard the car's tyres will not lock up and skid. This allows you to steer, as the tyres are still able to get some grip from the road surface. In a skid the car will want to continue going in the direction of travel but with ABS you can still steer and possibly avoid a collision. It's a sad fact that most people fail to press the brake pedal hard enough in an emergency. When ABS is activated you will feel a slight but rapid beating through the pedal on the sole of your foot – this is normal.
ESP – Also known as DSC, ASC and VSC, depending on carmaker. There can be subtle differences in how this works from car to car but essentially it helps you turn when the tyres are losing grip. If you were going too fast around a roundabout on a wet day, for example, the car would naturally run wider than the direction you would want it to go. ESP uses clever maths in the car's electronic brain to understand where you are trying to go (via your steering input and the road wheel's revolutions) and applies the brakes or reduces power to the inner wheels to help the car turn in the direction you intended. ESP does a great job when it kicks in but it has to be said it can never be treated as a replacement for driver awareness or as a performance aid. It can be a lifesaver, though, and will be standard on all new cars courtesy of the lawmakers in Europe.
Hybrid - This means the car is powered by a mix of conventional engine (fuelled by petrol or diesel) and an electric motor (much like a milk float of old or a golf buggy). Toyota leads the way in this technology with French giant PSA (Peugeot & Citroen) leading in the diesel hybrid area. Toyota's luxury brand Lexus has made some very powerful-yet-green hybrids of late. Electricity gives instant power whereas a petrol engine needs a bit of right foot encouragement to deliver its power, so in theory Hybrid is a match made in heaven. In reality a modern diesel will often be as or more economical and sometimes as green as a hybrid. The ability of a hybrid to run using just electricity gives it the green high ground, especially in congested cities.
EV – Electric Vehicle. Quite an old idea but now a practical choice for low mileage motorists. The Nissan Leaf was the first truly practical EV on Irish roads and it is joined by a group of cars from Renault like the Fluence ZE (zero emissions). Under the bonnet there isn't an oily, smelly engine to be found but instead a relatively simple electric motor. Electric motors only have a few moving parts and this makes an EV very quiet and, in theory, virtually maintenance-free. Battery technology is the only thing holding back EVs. Much like mobile phones or laptops, the batteries will only last so long and for many motoring journalists the 'so long' is not long enough. Opel, with its Ampera, has a solution that is clever: the car is powered by electricity but in addition to it has a small petrol engine that is only used to charge up the batteries when they run low. Ampera is what's known as an extended range EV because it can run for about the same distance as a conventional car before needing refuelling. The downside is that new technology is never cheap and for now EVs are toys for 'early adopters'.
Regenerative Braking – When you lift off the accelerator or apply the brakes the car recovers energy from this action to recharge its batteries (much like a dynamo on a bicycle).
Auto Stop/Start – This is a fuel-saving feature that city and town dwellers should embrace. There is a lot of money wasted when a car is running when stationary at lights or in a traffic jam. Auto Stop/Start switches off the engine (or power) and automatically restarts the engine when you go to move off. This system has helped many a manufacturer reduce their vehicles CO2 levels and improve their vehicles' fuel consumption figures.