Jan. 20 (Bloomberg) -- One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Miss -- boom! Congratulations, you’ve just hit 60 miles an hour. Or would have if you were piloting a Bugatti Veyron.
Instead you’re behind the wheel of a Chevy Aveo, giving you time to recite the name of the state 10 times before reaching that speed, with lingering pauses to take in the scenery.
Few car statistics are as time-honored -- or hoary -- as the 0 to 60 miles-per-hour test. Car lovers are obsessed by it. It’s a verdict that can end (or begin) an argument.
Like all of my auto-writing brethren, I dutifully recount the 0-60 times for every vehicle I drive. With no racetrack or high-tech equipment at my disposal, I most often rely on the honesty of the carmaker’s data. (Companies never fib, right?)
One of the fastest last year was the Ferrari Italia at a nausea-inducing 3.2 seconds; slowest was the languorous Nissan Cube at about 10.
I absolutely adore speed and agree that we need a yardstick. But I’m not sure the tenths of a second are as important as we pretend they are.
The matrix seems a bit random, somehow. The speed limit, after all, is often 35, 55 or 65. And while I suspect 60 was outrageous in 1921, any econobox can scamper down the freeway at 85 today.
“Frankly I don’t know where the hell it started,” says Csaba Csere, a former editor-in-chief of Car and Driver for 15 years and the kind of guy most likely to know. “I started at the magazine in 1980 and it was certainly well-established by then.”
“It’s older than the hills,” agrees David Caldwell, Chevrolet communications manager for two fast cars, the Corvette and Camaro. “It’s like baseball’s batting average. It might not be the single best measurement, but it is the first thing you see on the back of a baseball card.”
After years of testing cars, I have a pretty good “butt meter,” giving an idea how quick a car is off the line. But even those who test performance data for a living admit they can’t tell the difference between tenths of a second.
It sells cars, though. A Mississippi-slaughtering Lambo Superleggera is several tenths faster than the base Gallardo model. It’s also some $35,000 extra.
Autos that do well have plenty of torque, a good power-to-weight ratio and the ability to gain traction right away.
Yet speed isn’t just about straight-line performance. The real world has curves and corners. A 1,000-hp drag racer has a heck of a forward thrust, but best of luck getting it to turn.
Publications like Car and Driver go through considerable trouble testing 0-60 times. “It’s still a pretty good measure of a car’s everyday performance,” Csere says. “After all, we all accelerate onto freeway ramps. Sixty straddles the national speed limit, so it is genuinely useful.”
Still, your base 911 might not get anywhere near Porsche’s posted time (4.7). Variance includes type of tires and tire pressure, exterior temperature and, of course, driver ability.
Caldwell says that Chevy analyzes its cars in a way that is realistic and repeatable. But testing methods can be contentious. “Put a bunch of car geeks in a room to discuss methodology and it can come to blows,” he says.
A major case in point: The one-foot rollout. Many car companies and publications replicate the process of racing on a drag strip, where cars have about a foot to begin rolling forward from a stand-still before the clock actually starts.
“With a rollout, in truth, you get maybe a 3 to 60 time,” Csere says. Some consider it the industry’s dirty little secret, but it is a long-standing legacy.
Edmunds Inside Line, a car site, chooses to start its test from a dead stop. Times are often three-tenths slower.
If you are wondering why 0-60 caught on, you can of course blame the media.
The first journalist who is widely credited for doing his own performance testing was Tom McCahill, a writer for Mechanix Illustrated magazine.
In an article looking back on his career, McCahill said that carmakers rarely lent out cars to evaluate, so in 1946, he wrote, “I donned my Liar’s Club suit” and pretended to be a photographer. Whisking the cars away to be shot, he tested them instead. (One was returned with a blown engine, another with a crushed-in roof.)
Each McCahill review had a 0-60 time, from a 1950 Studebaker Champion sedan (17.6 seconds) to a Volkswagen Beetle (“Top speed is 66. Zero to 60 takes a long 42.1”). His still-hilarious reviews can be found at http://blog.modernmechanix.com/tag/mccahill/.
McCahill died in 1975 and probably deserves the final word. Judging from a review of a 1950s Austin-Healey, it seems that while 0-60 times have dropped, many other things remain the same.
“Zero to 60 averaged 12.3 seconds,” he wrote. “I didn’t get a top speed run because of traffic conditions and over-interest in my work by the law after my acceleration trials.”
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com or follow on Twitter @JasonHarperSpin.
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