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What words can be used to describe the sound a driving car makes? I'm specifically looking for words that could apply to a standard 2000 Honda Civic, or comparable vehicle.

"Roar" sounds too powerful.

"Whir" sounds like a word you'd use to describe an electric fan.

It'd also be absolutely amazing if the word could be used in place of "roar" in the phrase "the car roared to life."

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Modern cars aren't supposed to make much noise at all. There's the comfort of travellers and the general public near the highway to consider, not to mention the fact that fuel economy implies aerodynamic body shape. At most, what we're looking for is something like "muted hum". –  FumbleFingers Mar 27 '12 at 19:52
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Well, depending on whether the owner is a teenage boy or a sensible businessman, the phrase could either be "the car purred to life", "the car buzzed to life like a swarm of angry hornets", or "the car trumpeted to life like a room of flatulent Deaf". –  Justin ᚅᚔᚈᚄᚒᚔ Mar 27 '12 at 22:53

5 Answers 5

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Vroom is really the specific onomatopoetic word for the sound of a car starting up. According to some sources it is cross-linguistic.

There are many options, though. Depending on connotations desired, in rough mild-to-wild order, "The car [ blank ] to life":

  • Came
  • Spun (up)
  • Cranked
  • Whispered
  • Purred
  • Whirred
  • Hummed
  • Chortled
  • Stuttered
  • Sputtered
  • Whined
  • Coughed
  • Rumbled
  • Grumbled
  • Growled
  • Snarled
  • Revved
  • Zoomed
  • Vroomed
  • Screamed
  • Roared
  • Blasted
  • Thundered
  • Exploded

My favorite is: The car grumbled to life.

Some of these feel a little awkward, but can be improved by rephrasing, such as "the car came to life with a quiet whine." Or perhaps "When he turned the key, the car briefly chortled, then began to purr."

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I absolutely love this list! Amazing! +1 and accepted. –  Nathan Arthur Mar 27 '12 at 18:36
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Or, if electric: The Prius whispered to life. ;) –  Mark Beadles Mar 27 '12 at 22:43
    
@NathanArthur thank you! May I ask which one you plan to use? –  ErikE Mar 27 '12 at 22:53
    
@Mark Whispered is in the list. –  ErikE Mar 27 '12 at 22:53
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Missed it. It must have been too quiet. –  Mark Beadles Mar 28 '12 at 2:09

You may say

The car vroomed to life.

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A driving car makes a different sound than a car that is starting up. A driving car might purr if it's a good car, or hum or drone.

If it's starting up, as you seem to indicate by your example sentence, rev or roar fits, though naturally roar would only work for some cars.

The onomatopoeic vroom is usually used of a driving car, though as Will Hunting indicates, it's vague enough to be used in describing the car starting.

You're right in that whir doesn't fit (or at least is not used to describe) a car's noise. It may be used to describe its motion, e.g. the car whirred past and sped down the road.

For your example sentence, I would say:

The car's engine revved to life.

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I have heard people say their Prius whirs. :) –  JLG Mar 27 '12 at 17:58
    
Thank you for the thoughtful explanation! +1 –  Nathan Arthur Mar 27 '12 at 18:39

Expensive luxury (rather than sports) cars are often described as "purring", although I'm not sure that would quite apply to a Honda Civic :)

Rather than "roaring" to life, a car could perhaps be described as "revving", although it wouldn't normally do that once it was up and running normally.

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The question was "...what types of sounds..." not "...what sounds..."

Therefore, I submit that there are two types of sounds: (1) normal, and (2) expensive. Note that Type 1 sounds are completely subsumed within Type 2 sounds if the provenance of the vehicle is Italian.

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Good catch! Perhaps another category could be "Abnormal?" (Backfiring, car without a muffler, the squeal of a belt slipping, etc) –  Nathan Arthur Apr 23 '13 at 16:57

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