Why 0 to 60 times don’t mean as much as you might think

2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat
2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat
Whether you read the review of the latest sports car or an argument in a car forum, you are likely to find 0 to 60 times prominently discussed. That’s because, along with horsepower, 0 to 60 has become the gold standard of car performance; it’s a convenient measure of acceleration and a seemingly good way to judge and compare cars from afar.

Unfortunately, 0 to 60 is about as relevant to the actual experience of driving performance cars as fuel economy. That’s because, not only is 0 to 60 a misleading measurement of performance, it does very little to describe the subjective experience of driving. And just because a car is quick to 60 doesn’t mean it’s a good car to drive.

The problem

How often does the average driver go from 0 to 60? I would wager almost never — and for good reason. In regular road driving, the only occasion where it is both legal and — more importantly – safe (and maybe not even then) to do this kind of hard acceleration is merging onto a freeway from a metered onramp.

If acceleration from a full stop is not relevant on the road, surprisingly, it is even less relevant to track driving.

If acceleration from a full stop is not relevant on the road, surprisingly, it is even less relevant to track driving. Instead — both on-road and on-track, acceleration from moderate speeds is far more significant. This is the type of acceleration used when passing another car on the highway or exiting a corner on the track. In actual driving, it’s one of the very few times that most drivers will actually use 100 percent of the throttle. On the track, specifically, this is where power really matters.

Importantly, this kind of acceleration requires very different qualities than acceleration from a dead stop. Take for example the Dodge Challenger Hellcat. This monster boasts a relatively slow 3.9 second 0 to 60 time in its manual form, in no small part because it is a heavy vehicle that struggles to put down all 707 horsepower through the rear wheels. Once at speed, weight and traction matter less than power and gearing, and there the Hellcat accelerates like few other cars can. In practice, this also feels much, much more fun, as we can explain by looking at a little parable.

The sensation

The Nissan GT-R and the Aston Martin V8 Vantage GT, both cars claim to be entry-level supercars, and both cost around $100,000. So it seems like we should be able to compare them on numbers.

2015 Nissan GT-R
2015 Nissan GT-R
2015 Nissan GT-R

On paper, there would seem to be no competition: the Nissan lists among its impressive fleet of performance specs a 0-to-60 time of just 3.0 seconds. That is frankly insane time, likely accomplished by rubbing the transmission down with cheetah blood. The GT-R’s time looks even more impressive compared to the Aston’s relatively anemic 4.6-second slog. I mean why even get out of bed for that?

If 0 to 60 times are ever helpful, they should be here. The difference between these cars isn’t a few fleeting tenths of a second. In fact, the gap between these two to 60 is so large that you don’t even have to be Commander Data to feel the difference. Here is the thing, though; when it comes to driving the two, the Aston feels faster.

It feels this way because the Vantage has been engineered as much for fun as outright speed. The engine noise, the vibration, and even the feel of the steering make the Aston’s acceleration more exciting. This is because, in the Aston, the driver is involved in the process.

2015 Aston Martin V8 Vantage GT
2015 Aston Martin V8 Vantage GT
2015 Aston Martin V8 Vantage GT

As impressive as the GT-R is, and it is a tremendous technical achievement, driving it is antiseptic. The car’s onboard systems do so much that all the driver has to do is point it and hit the gas pedal. Driving it in real life is not that different from driving the digital version in Gran Turismo.

That doesn’t mean what you think it means

All of this aside, there is still the question of — shall we say — manhood measuring. Part of the appeal of 0 to 60 times is that they seem fixed and objective, perfect for shooting someone down in a car argument. After all, we can look at the times and say that a Corvette Z06 is faster than a Porsche 911, and is therefore better. It seems so clear cut.

Here is the problem, though; not only are the 0-to-60 measurements not regulated in any way, a single car might post very different times under different conditions.

First, the question of regulation. Most critical car statistics are the product of a single set of regulations. For example, fuel economy is measured by a set of rules laid down by a governing body, like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or European Union. In theory, this means consumers get objective, and equivalent measurements from all automakers. However, as Ford has shown with its fuel economy controversy, even regulations are no guarantee equality.

When it comes to manufacturer-tested 0 to 60 times, there are even more issues. It’s not that they lie, but only that each company’s test is likely to be a bit different. For starters, there are the procedures themselves. Decisions on how many runs to perform, whether or not to runs in multiple directions, and who’s in the driver’s seat can all have a big impact on final times … even before other factors are considered.

2015 Porsche 911 Carrera GTS
2015 Porsche 911 Carrera GTS
2015 Porsche 911 Carrera GTS

Environmental conditions like traction of test tracks, air pressure, and air temperature can have large effects on performance. For example, engineers who worked on the last-generation Cadillac CTS-V told me that on a chilly 45-degree day, the engine would be putting out about 30 more horsepower than it was officially rated. The result of all of these factors could be major distortions in listed 0 to 60 times.

Those distortions don’t even take into account real-world conditions. Take that Corvette Z06, a fantastic car, but a challenging one to launch off the line thanks to its rear-wheel drive powertrain. Average drivers will struggle to approach its listed 0 to 60 time of 3.1 seconds, even under perfect conditions with fresh tires. Those same drivers might be able to actually go faster in supposedly slower all-wheel drive cars like the Audi R8.

Adding it all up

So just what does all of this mean, are 0 to 60 times useless? Well, not quite. They remain and industry standard. And, while they can be misleading, they say a little bit about important factors like power-to-weight ratio. Moreover, they are far more accessible than more significant measurements like 40 to 70 mph acceleration figures. In that regard, we are probably stuck with them. However, the numbers shouldn’t be substitutes for the more nuanced evaluation of the car’s complete driving experience.

The aforementioned Aston Martin V8 Vantage GT is the perfect example of this point. By supercar standards it’s slow. Heck, it is only two tenths of a second faster to 60 than a $36,000 Subaru WRX STI. But we think it is one of the best driver’s cars on the market. The Aston’s greatness can be explained in part in numbers, but, mostly, the devil is in the details.

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