How Fast Is “Fast?”

Porsche 918 Spyder Performance Specs
One of the fastest accelerating production cars on Earth.

I remember seeing an episode of Doctor Phil (don’t ask why) where he was scolding a kid for street racing. I remember the distinct moment where, in an excessively appalled tone, he said, “You went 100mph?!!!!” And my immediate reaction was that if I had a nickel for every time I’d done over 100mph, I’d be well on my way to saving up for a Ferrari.

The truth is that 100mph just isn’t all that fast, especially these days when every new car on sale can do it. Hell, even V6 Camrys and Accords are now pushing on the 300hp mark, and could surely top 140mph with any limiters removed. Those are just normal everyday cars, though, in a supercar, like a Lamborghini, 100mph comes in 2nd gear.

This begs the question of what “fast” really is. The answer will be entirely subjective, but let’s see if we can find some reasonable middle ground to define it.

1996 Oldsmobile Aurora

I remember, back at my first job, one of the ladies got a late-model Oldsmobile Aurora. When I asked her how it was, she took another puff of her cigarette and said in a plume of smoke, “It’s fast!” Her tone sounded like she was talking about a Pontiac GTO Judge, rather than a sad relic of 90’s GM mediocrity. I nodded my head while thinking, “No it’s not.” However, perception of speed is totally relative to what you, personally, have experienced. That Aurora may very well have been the fastest car she had ever owned or driven, so to her it was fast.

One of my favorite automotive fallacies is when people say their generic economy sedan “drives like a sports car.” In fact, anyone who would say this has probably never driven an actual sports car to even know what they’re comparing it to. People only know what they know, and with cars, like many specific interests, most common consumers know next to nothing.

This also goes for people who are interested in cars, but have very little hands on experience. Go find a video of a 700rwhp Supra on YouTube, and I promise you there will be loads of comments calling it “slow” because it doesn’t have over 1000rwhp. Many people are ignorant, and seem to enjoy living in a world where one fast car exists, and everything else is slow. Welcome to the interwebz!

Having said all that, here’s what a 1000rwhp Supra does to a Lamborghini:

The definition of “fast” should really be the sum of the abilities of the car and the driver in a given situation. It all depends on what you use the car for and how good you are at driving it.

The first step to being “fast” is to invest in your own skills as a driver. You can start by getting lessons at autocross or track events, and really listening to what your instructor tells you. Everyone, including me, thinks they are a good driver, but few actually are, especially before they have some sort of hands on driving instruction.

I remember my own breakthrough point during my first track experience. When I began, I was entering the corner at the end of the main straight at about 60mph, by the end of the day I was entering it at 90mph. I had thought I was a fast driver before, but I realized how little I had actually known about sensing what a car is capable of doing. Since then I’ve built further on my skills, learning something new as often as I can. Even so, as far as I’ve come, I’d still only rate myself as a B-grade driver on the total population scale, knowing what I know now.

A good driver is someone who can get the most out of any car, or vehicle, that they drive. Any novice can drive a powerful car fast in a straight line on the freeway, but it takes a lot of skill to be able to pass Ferraris in a Miata during a track day. You don’t need a fast car to become a great driver. In fact, it’s usually better to learn driving techniques on a slow car because there is a lot more room for error.

Prius Autocross

In terms of what makes a car “fast” there are really two things, handling, and power-to-weight ratio, with braking being a large subset of handling.

Any car that can handle well can be driven quite quickly by a good driver. The idea is that you don’t need to slow down as much for corners, which increases your overall pace. Good brakes allow you to begin slowing down later, giving you the ability to pass other cars during corner entry (hopefully on a closed track). On the street, having a car with good handling usually means that you can safely hold a highway pace on twisting back roads when there’s no other traffic (just try not to pass a policeman while doing so because he won’t think it is safe).

I remember this one time, while out in my old Miata, I came across a guy driving his Porsche 911. Our speeds picked up, and he was clearly trying to leave me in his dust. He pulled away on the straights, but by the exit of each corner I was right on his bumper again – he was never able to lose me. There’s a big difference between knowing how to drive and just having a fast car, and it’s a lot of fun seeing the looks of disbelief.

In terms of straight line acceleration, “fast” is entirely relative to your surroundings. Generally, on the street, anything that will do 0-60 in under 7 seconds and the 1/4 mile in under 15 seconds is quicker than 90% of the other vehicles on the road, so that is my loose definition of what is “fast” for a street car. Many of you reading this may have much higher standards, but overall, I feel my definition is realistic on the total scale of the real world.

Top-end speed is another story. As is said earlier, every new car on sale today can reach 100mph, but if you get rid of the most frugal econo-boxes, it’s safe to say that most cars will do 120mph. Going 120mph on public roads is pretty thrilling in any type of car, but it will also get you arrested in most places. Contextually, 120mph is quite fast when the highest posted speed limit in the USA is 85mph. But that is only just scratching the surface for many cars these days. More and more cars seem to be crossing the 300hp mark, and most of them can top 140mph flat-out.

This bone-stock Infiniti G37 (330hp) for instance:

Keep in mind that less than 20 years ago a Porsche 911, with its slippery aerodynamics, could reach nearly 180mph with 300hp. You don’t need a ton of horsepower to go quite fast, so realize just how insane these modern supercars with 600, 700, or even 1000hp+ have gotten. The laws of physics haven’t changed, and the fact that more, and more cars are topping the 300hp mark these days does not make it any less potent than it was in the past.

So “fast” is really relative to your own experience and ability for driving in a given situation. This is why different types of racing have regulations on the cars to keep things competitive for the drivers. However, most people live in the real world and only drive on public roads. An individual’s ability as a driver is the number one factor in how “fast” they are at getting from point A to point B, regardless of what car they drive. That said, it is a lot easier to be faster when you have a car with higher performance abilities. Things have gone a bit crazy in the last decade or so, and there are more “fast” cars on the roads now than ever before, most of which are not even sports cars. Driving “fast” on the road is a lot of fun, but please, my beloved readers, be smart out there, and don’t take idiotic risks.

-Article by Nick Walker

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3 thoughts on “How Fast Is “Fast?””

  1. By my definitions,

    ‘Speed’ is just an absolute measure, i.e 40mph

    ‘Fast’ is a relative measure, i.e. 40mph is fast if you are in a 30mph speed limit or on a narrow country lane where you could legally do 60mph if you were stupid enough to do so, but 40mph isn’t fast on a Motorway where the limit is 70mph.

    ‘Quick’ is probably the term that excites us most, i.e. how quickly can a car get from 0-100mph.

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  2. Like the old saying, “It’s not how fast you drive, it’s how you drive fast.” I haven’t taken my 1991 MR2 to the track, but I enjoy not having to slow down much for corners and thereby leaving other cars behind.

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  3. Enjoyed the article! You’re right, its a combination of smart and able driving and the capability of the car. Not to mention driver perceptions!

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