It’s Time to Talk About 0-60 Times

For decades, car companies have advertised 0-60 times, as if it is some kind of meaningful metric that matters to ordinary drivers. They matter, but not to the people inside cars.
Tesla Model S
Credit: Tesla
Screen Shot 2021-02-24 at 3
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In 1964, Ford debuted the Mustang, the first affordable sports car. It was an attractive machine that sold well, not the least because it was fast. The production version of the debut model accelerated from 0 to 60 mph in 11.4 seconds, a decent clip at the time. The performance test track version with all the bells and whistles did it in 7.5 seconds, according to Motortrend. This was a fast car.

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0-60 times are a common metric with which auto manufacturers advertise their new cars, an easy statistic for the average consumer to understand and impress their neighbors with. It has been for decades, because Americans, generally speaking, have long prized fast, powerful cars. 

And for most of U.S. auto history, this was a mostly harmless endeavor. Wasteful and extravagant, sure. Prizing power over efficiency, yes. But the half-seconds and decimal point differences allowed car companies to promote their vehicles as better than others even as there ceased to be any meaningful difference between the cars being sold, while achieving speeds that, while fast, were not so fast that an ordinary person couldn’t handle.

But things are getting out of hand. Over the decades, cars have gotten bigger, taller, heavier, and quicker, a feat of impressive engineering that has also made them more dangerous, both for people inside and outside the vehicle. This race to faster 0-60 times, combined with automakers pushing heavier and more expensive SUVs, has resulted in a bizarre landscape where luxury car companies like Mercedes and BMW are marketing SUVs that cost more than $75,000 in part because they can accelerate from 0-60 in 5.3 and 4.5 seconds, respectively, benchmarks that only a few decades ago were hit only by extravagant supercars

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And electric cars, with their instant torque from battery-powered motors, enable even faster acceleration, pushing the boundary yet further. Tesla’s Plaid performance models have famously broken the 3-second 0-60 barrier. Even the new electric Hummer, a 9,000 pound behemoth whose battery weighs more than many sedans, has a terrifying 3 second 0-60 time. 

These are all impressive feats of engineering, worthy of lots of high-fiving on test tracks and production centers. But it’s also completely ridiculous to make cars sold to ordinary people capable of these speeds. In three seconds, a pedestrian would not have time to react or get out of the way of a car going from a standstill to striking them at 60 mph. Much like advertising a car’s top speed which is not legal to drive anywhere on U.S. roads, the 0-60 times advertised by most car companies these days are, by definition, unsafe driving that puts others in danger.

I have brought this up with car enthusiasts before, and the most typical response I get is that sometimes cars genuinely need good 0-60 times to merge onto highways. But every single production car sold in the U.S. today has plenty of pickup to safely merge onto virtually any highway. If you feel like you need a car that can go from 0-60 in 5 seconds or less to merge onto a highway, then it is probably the case that you do not have enough room to merge, and the car you’re merging in front of has to hit the brakes and thinks you’re a huge jerk.

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I speak from experience, growing up in Connecticut where the Merritt Parkway often requires cars to merge onto highway-speed traffic from a dead stop. In college, I worked for a rental car agency branch just off the Merritt. I’ve done the 0-60 merge in big cars and small cars, slow cars and fast cars. It was the exact scenario people describe when they say they need a fast, powerful car with quick 0-60s to get onto highways. And there is no practical difference between merging in a 5-second 0-60 car with a 10 second one. And 0-60 in 10 seconds is plenty. 

This may be hard to believe, because car companies have advertised 0-60 times for so many years. All the commercials with cars accelerating quickly, actors looking thrilled by the performance of their superior machine, and the numbers flashing across the screen. But it’s, quite honestly, stupid. Nobody needs that power. I know this because nobody used to have it, and people still managed to merge onto highways just fine. 

There was once a time where some cars were indeed genuinely slow. In the 1960s, then-fledgling Subaru sold the Subaru 360, which weighed less than 1,000 pounds, got a reported 60 mpg and had a 0-60 time of approximately 35 seconds. Now that is slow. In his classic book, The Reckoning, on how the Japanese auto industry caught up with Detroit, David Halberstam documented how around the same time, Nissan’s U.S. arm begged its superiors to modify its Datsun line to have slightly more powerful engines so the cars could merge onto U.S. highways. At the time, Japanese manufacturers didn’t understand why cars needed so much power because roads there were poor. Durability was more important than power. But for American customers, acceleration and 0-60 times, at least as a general concept of “can I merge onto a highway in less than a minute”, was a real consideration that mattered.

But that was a long time ago. It has been decades since anyone dared to sell such a car in the U.S. Even the slowest car today is still plenty fast. The Mitsubishi Mirage, with a 78 horsepower engine often maligned as horrendously underpowered by car enthusiasts, has a 0-60 time of about 12 seconds. It would barely, just barely, lose in a sprint to a 1964 Mustang. All of the slowest cars Motortrend tested last year are faster than the cars that used to be considered fast. 

Of course, this is the product of 60 years of engineering development. But it begs the question of why the cars have to be faster. If a 1964 Mustang could merge onto a 65 mph highway with speed and style, why can’t a 2022 Mitsubishi Mirage (well, minus the style, perhaps)?

The obvious rejoinder to all of this is, like so many features of American cars, nobody needs it, but they do want it. People want to put the pedal to the metal every once in a while to feel alive. And some climate activists argue really fast acceleration in EVs is a good way to win over gearheads. Just look at how excited this Australian coal miner is by a Tesla! It’s fun to be in a car that goes fast, and life is about more than getting from A to B. But as the nation reckons with an epidemic of rising vehicle fatalities, one that is unique to this country relative to its peers, it’s worth asking if there is a time and place for that fun. Because, increasingly, that fun is coming at the expense of the lives of people trying to cross the street.