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0-60 mph in how many seconds? 3.2 to 42.1

| Saturday, Jan. 22, 2011

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 — and look at the scenery — before reaching that speed.

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.

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 $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.

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."

David Caldwell, Chevrolet communications manager for the Corvette and Camaro, 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.

Some consider it the industry's dirty little secret, but it is a long-standing legacy.

The first journalist who is widely credited for doing his own performance testing was Tom McCahill, a writer for Mechanix Illustrated magazine. In the old days, carmakers rarely lent out cars to evaluate, so in 1946, he 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 blog.modernmechanix.com/tag/mccahill/ .

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