Horsepower, torque and how two engines are better than one

Every vehicle for sale in America comes with a set of statistics, and among the most closely watched are engine horsepower and torque. Yet many people probably couldn’t correctly spell out the difference between the two.

Put simply: Torque is a measure of the force that turns your wheels, and horsepower is the rate at which an engine can produce that force. You feel torque when you accelerate from a stop; you feel horsepower when you’re building speed on a highway. And to illustrate the relationship between the two, consider the two engines available in the 2021 Volkswagen Atlas and 2020 Atlas Cross Sport.

Each of Volkswagen’s midsize SUVs come with a choice of two engines—a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder or the 3.6-liter VR6. New for the Atlas this year, the four-cylinder engine can be added to any trim level.

The EA888 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder.

Both engines feature modern, efficient gasoline combustion technology—a double-overhead camshaft connected to four valves per cylinder, with variable valve timing and fuel directly injected into the combustion chambers. Each is relatively compact and lightweight; the cast-iron block of the four-cylinder weighs just 72 lbs. And both feature stop/start technology to help with fuel efficiency, with available optional remote start.12

The results: The four-cylinder turbo makes 235 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque (achieved with premium fuel).3 The 3.6-liter VR6 makes 276 horsepower and 266 lb.-ft. of torque. Each pair with an eight-speed automatic transmission and available 4Motion all-wheel-drive system with Active Control.

In a bigger-is-better world, the 2.0-liter four-cylinder might seem small for a seven-seat SUV like the 2021 Atlas. Over the past several years, turbocharged four-cylinder engines have been showing up in pickups and larger vehicles for better fuel economy compared to larger engines—along with some complaints about turbo lag and engine strain at higher loads. The EA888, a version of the engine in the Volkswagen Golf GTI and Golf R, neatly avoids those issues with a quick-spooling turbocharger.

The 3.2-liter VR6

But it’s the difference in how each engine delivers its torque that plays an essential role in the character of the SUV it’s in—and what its owners really need it for. Thanks to its design, the 2.0-liter hits its maximum 258 lb.-ft. of torque at 1,600 rpm and holds it steady through 4,500 rpm. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “flat torque curve,” that’s the definition of one.

In action, it means that the 2.0-liter can deliver a steady flow of energy in a wide band of driving needs—from pulling away at a stop sign to merging on a highway. For many buyers, the drivability and lower fuel consumption of the 2-liter turbo engine makes it the right choice.

Why then offer the VR6? Some buyers will still want that extra dose of power, and the VR6 makes for a more capable towing package. Whether you need to tow a trailer or just haul your family, the Atlas family has the right engine for that.