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From 0 to 60 in 9 minutes

9 min reading time
You’ll be an expert in the field of automobile acceleration once you’ve read this article. You’ll know its history and its limits, how it works, how to accelerate properly – and why electric cars can go one better.

7 March 2019

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Playing Cards Acceleration 0-60Playing Cards Acceleration 0-60

Performance in horsepower, maximum rpm, top speed... But what key automotive metric is missing from this list? You’ve got it: acceleration, or the “0-60” rating. It’s a metric that car aficionados could chat about for hours. And a stat that even children learn by playing Top Trump Cars (a card game popular with kids throughout Europe). From 0 to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds? Trick!

A short history of acceleration

A speed world record-breaker: “La Jamais Contente”A speed world record-breaker: “La Jamais Contente”
The world’s first vehicle to reach a speed of 100 km/h: “La Jamais Contente”.

In the history of automotive acceleration, it took a long time to even get to the starting line. Why? Well, mainly because many cars were simply not powerful enough to even reach the speed of 100 km/h (the Continental equivalent of 60 mph). The very first vehicle to break through this barrier was a French car – named “La Jamais Contente” (“The Never Satisfied”) – in 1899. This car, which looked like a “rocket” on four wheels, was powered by two electric motors with an output of 34 hp. Sadly, the exact time it took for the vehicle to go from 0-100 km/h wasn’t recorded. What’s certain, though, is that before its driver Camille Jenatzy reached the target speed, the car had been on the test track for a good kilometer or more. Interestingly, electric motors were still at the same level as combustion technology at the time. It wasn’t until the electric starter was invented and gas station infrastructure began to spread that the electric motor fell behind.


From 0 to 60: a gentle start, then full throttle

Half a century later, acceleration ratings for cars were already significantly better. Even so, we can hardly describe the speeds they reached as fast. Back in the 1950s, a small car took over 30 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph – or from 0-100 km/h (0 to 62.1 mph), the standard performance measure in most of Europe. And even sports cars had to fight to get below the ten-second mark. Then things started moving faster in car acceleration. When BMW launched their first BMW M3 sports car with its 200 hp engine some 30 years ago, it could go from 0-60 mph in a respectable 6.7 seconds. The 431 hp BMW M4 Coupé model released in 2014 easily beat this time by well over two seconds.

CO2 emissions 227–225 (213–211) g/km (combined)
Fuel consumption 10.0–9.9 (9.3) l/100 km (combined)
Power consumption 0 kWh/100 km (combined)

Nowadays, a lack of engine power can hardly be used as an excuse for poor acceleration. So what else does a car need to crack the 0-60 record? This video gives you the answer.

Accelerating optimally with the help of high tech

Both theory and practice are important when calculating acceleration. And especially in cars with manual transmission, the driver’s skill will continue to play a major role. Ultimately, when starting up, he or she will need to have perfect knowledge of the optimum rpm for engaging the clutch as well as the switchover points between gears to increase speed as rapidly as possible. In cars with automatic or dual-clutch transmission, high-tech software is used to assist the driver. If there is a launch control function, it will perform most of the work. It controls the technical components in such a way that, when the gas pedal is pressed down, the optimum rpm is achieved and the tires grip the asphalt with full traction. In other words, the computer calculates the right conditions for the initial surge so that the car accelerates with just the right mix of grip and tire slippage.

As technology has advanced, automatic controls have overtaken manual transmission. While drivers of stick-shift models used to be able to accelerate from 0 to 60 much faster than those driving automatics, they’ve fallen behind in the race since launch control was introduced. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not way more fun to shift gears yourself.

What are the limits of acceleration?

Acceleration times
Acceleration times for 0-60 are dropping fast.

Electric motors get up to speed

As with all world records, it’s interesting to ask what limits might apply when measuring acceleration. Supercars licensed for use on public roads can currently dash from to 60 mph in less than three seconds. And rallycross cars, which benefit from almost limitless traction, can even beat the two-second mark with their extremely short-ratio transmissions. What’s more, the ongoing electrification trend in the automotive market means we can look forward to new records being broken.

This is because, in electric cars, maximum torque can be applied by stepping on the gas pedal with no delay in engine availability. This makes it different to a combustion engine, where a certain number of “revs” are needed to build up speed. In addition, electric vehicles generally don’t have a transmission, rendering it unnecessary to shift gears manually. This makes it possible to coax out that little extra bit of performance. And if we include other parameters, such as power, grip, and so on; then it won’t be long before super-powered electric sports cars are breaking the two-second barrier.


The rules for records

Of course, potential world records have to be properly documented. Because of that, the automotive media tend to use calibrated and GPS-controlled devices when measuring acceleration. Ideally, measurements are repeated multiple times on a flat and straight road surface – and in both directions to minimize the effect of external factors such as wind. While it’s common to talk about the 0-60 mph performance measure in the US and the UK, 0-100 km/h (0 to 62.1 mph) is the standard metric in most other countries. One thing’s for sure, though: Whether it’s 0 to 60 or 0 to 100, with a time of three seconds, you’re on the right track – for now, at least.

Upshifting for the fastest 0-60 time

How to achieve the fastest acceleration in a manual transmission BMW M4 Coupé (2014)
Illustration acceleration DSCIllustration acceleration DSC

Before starting the engine, you should deactivate the BMW’s Dynamic Stability Control (“DSC off”). Otherwise, the computer will reduce the engine power if the wheels slip even slightly – and you’ll be slower off the mark.

Illustration acceleration rev counterIllustration acceleration rev counter

Rev up the engine while the BMW M4 Coupé is stationary. In other words, get the motor to its optimum starting rpm with the clutch down. This will be dependent on the level of traction between the tires and the tarmac. The higher the friction, the higher the starting rpm that can be chosen. In a manual-transmission BMW M4 Coupé, this will be somewhere between 3,200 and 4,000 rpm.

Illustration acceleration wheelsIllustration acceleration wheels

In the next step, you should identify the point of maximum traction. A slippage of between 5% and 30% is ideal. If there’s too much slippage, you’ll notice it right away because the wheels will spin. But if there’s too little, then your BMW M4 Coupé will be slower getting off the starting line. And remember, as the driver you are taking manual charge of the tasks that launch control would otherwise manage on your behalf.

Illustration gears accelerationIllustration gears acceleration

The final point involves shifting gears. Shift up fluently and – most importantly – at the right time. When accelerating at full throttle, your shifting needs to be perfectly timed. This is usually the case at around 7,100 rpm. If you shift up too early, the nominal rpm will fall and you’ll lose time as the engine output is too low. And if you shift too late and let the rpm go too high, you could easily go past the point of maximum power output.

Practicing the run to 60 mph

Even if you’re a pro, you won’t achieve optimum acceleration in just one or two attempts. You’ll need quite a few goes before you find the right combination of starting rpm, slippage, and shift points to achieve the optimum degree of traction. Only then will you be truly quick off the mark. For the very best possible 0-60 ratings, you should also warm up the car’s engine and switch off any ancillary components such as climate control and other systems that use power. The times you achieve will be heavily affected by external conditions, such as the ambient air, the ground-level temperature and the grip of the road surface as well as  whether it’s wet or dry.

Remember that you’ll pay for extreme attempts at acceleration in the resulting wear on your tires and the strain placed on your car’s mechanical systems.

Most importantly, you should never practice on normal roads. Instead, you should hone your skills in a restricted and suitable area, like a race track.


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