by Jason Cammisa | Road & Track
Back when I was just a wee enginerd, a car’s 0-to-60 time was the first number I looked for. The immutable net of all factors—horsepower, torque, weight, gearing, drive wheels—it was a single point of information that allowed me to accurately bench-race cars.
As a slightly less-young enginerd with a driving license, I often tried to replicate magazine test numbers. With my trusty G-Tech Pro Performance Meter (an early Nineties accelerometer) suction-cupped to the windshield, I’d find a flat stretch of road and commit everything from aggravated driveline assault to attempted powertrain murder. But no matter how aggressive the clutch side-step, or how brutal the no-lift slam-shift, I never matched the magazines. Now that I’m a pro, I know three things I didn’t back then. First, those magazines almost exclusively tested manufacturer-provided cars. They also returned those cars post-testing, so they didn’t have to deal with the broken engine mounts, sheared CV joints, and bent shift forks that inevitably resulted from their abuse.
Second, the magazines corrected for standard atmospheric conditions at sea level.
Finally—and most important—they allowed one foot of forward motion, a.k.a. “rollout,” before starting the timer.
Eliminating rollout is a vestige of the timing system used in drag racing, where a car can move about a foot off the line before tripping the timing light. Decades ago, car magazines decided to ignore rollout in order to more closely replicate what a car’s owner might see at the local dragstrip. In hindsight, this was probably a mistake—a quarter-second rollout is now an uncomfortably large proportion of the industry’s ever-falling 0-to-60 times—but to keep test results comparable over the years, we’ve all stuck with it.
For the sake of accuracy, R&T includes the one-foot rollout number in our published test results. For a real-world 0-to-60 figure, you simply add that figure to the published 0-to-60. Had I known this 20 years ago, I could have spared several driveshafts from an untimely death. Today, thanks to computer-controlled automatic transmissions and launch-control software, you need neither talent nor practice to bang out a 3-second run to 60.
Don’t believe me? When was the last time you actually used launch control? More often than not, real drag races happen with little notice at a traffic light. Leave your car in Drive and floor it, and the result can look very different from what 0-to-60 times suggest. Thanks to turbo lag, slow-to-respond powertrain computers, overly aggressive traction-control systems, and transmissions programmed for shift comfort even at wide-open throttle, the car you expect to win might lose—and it might do so dramatically.
Imagine, for example, that you’re driving a new BMW X2 M35i. With 302 turbocharged horsepower, all-wheel drive, and a blazing 4.6-second 0-to-60, the BMW should have no problem keeping up with a 5.0-liter Mustang Bullitt (0–60 in 4.4) sitting one lane over. When the light turns green, you and the Mustang driver each floor it, but the Ford leaves the Bimmer for dead. Adding insult to injury, there’s a good chance you could look into the next lane and see a Honda minivan nearly keeping up.
The X2 isn’t broken—although your ego might be—but the BMW does have an infuriating delay built into its accelerator pedal. Worse, once the German car’s computer finally decides to heed your power request, there’s a metric ton of turbo lag.
The thing is, you could have known all this in advance, if you looked up the X2’s 5-to-60-mph time.
In 2013, this magazine began performing the ingenious rolling 5-to-60 test invented by our sister magazine, Car and Driver. Originally called “Street Start,” the test not only eliminates rollout and the abusive launch, it incorporates powertrain response times and low-end torque.
Instead of starting the timer when the car begins to move or a foot later, the 5-to-60 test uses a pressure switch under the accelerator. The timer starts when the driver mats the pedal. This practice more accurately represents what you’d see at a stoplight, and starting from a slow roll levels the playing field between the industry’s various types of transmissions.
The difference is telling. The X2’s brake-torqued, 4.6-second 0-to-60 is a staggering 1.8 seconds quicker than its real-world, mat-the-pedal 5-to-60. At 6.4 seconds, the BMW’s 5–60 sprint is far behind the Bullitt’s (5.0 seconds) and barely quicker than that of a Honda Odyssey minivan (6.6 seconds in both acceleration tests).
Don’t be surprised if that Honda van dusts a Subaru WRX STI at the next traffic light, either. The Subie’s published 0-to-60 is 5.3 seconds, but getting there requires a redline clutch-dump so abusive to the driveline, it should constitute a war crime. Had you looked at the laggy Subaru’s 7.0-second 5-to-60 number, you’d have known the boxy kid-hauler is way more likely to show its taillights to the rally champ.
These days, I’m a middle-age enginerd, and I win more stoplight grands prix than ever—even if I’m more likely to be the one in the minivan. My superpower isn’t age or experience. It’s that 5-to-60—the first number you should look at, and when the light turns green, the only one that matters.
Jason Cammisa is an R&T contributing editor and the magazine’s resident skeptic, writing a monthly column called “Enginerdy.” You can find more of his nerdism at @jasoncammisa on Instagram.