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One of the evergreen questions we get from readers and viewers concerns our testing regimen. “How do you get that 0–60 time?” “Do you use a dragstrip?” “Who drives?” “What equipment do you use?” “Do you ‘correct’ for weather?” Beyond these basics, many ask why numbers so often vary from one vehicle-testing outfit to another. Below, we answer all of these questions and probably even answer some you didn’t know you had.
When: Only after each vehicle is “checked in” does a wheel turn in the name of testing. First, we top off the fuel with the manufacturer-recommended grade of gasoline. This is typically the same one the EPA has used and published for their fuel-economy estimates. This is also the grade of gasoline shown in our charts on the Recommended Fuel line. However, in Southern California, “Premium” grade means 91 octane is the best we can get from commercial pumps, not 93. This sometimes means not meeting manufacturer-supplied acceleration estimates, but not often. Occasionally, when a vehicle like a Nissan GT-R or McLaren 720S hasn’t been engineered to run optimally on 91, we’ll allow a can of octane boost to be added, or if a racetrack dispenses higher-octane gasoline, we’ll use that for lapping. For electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), we also top off the battery packs with an electrical source a couple hundred yards from the test surface. For hybrids, we attempt to charge the batteries as best we can by driving a few miles in charge-optimized or charge-retaining mode, if available.
Next, we ensure the tires are inflated to the manufacturer-recommended pressure, often stipulated on the doorjamb or under the fuel door. Occasionally these displayed values are for the maximum number passengers and max cargo load (not what we’re looking for), so we often dive into the owner’s manual to locate “normal” cold-inflation pressures. Because hot-lapping a race track is a “special circumstance” with different safety concerns and goals compared to our routine testing, we use the manufacturer-recommended hot-tire inflation guidelines. This way we can check the pressures during the event to ensure we’re getting the most from the car. As a safety precaution, we ensure all the lug nuts are at their manufacturer-recommended tightness with a professional torque wrench. Underhood, we check oil and coolant levels and for obvious signs of “that ain’t right.” Finally, we jot down the vehicle’s VIN, odometer reading, tire specifications, and other various attributes/available settings for posterity. Finally, we put each vehicle on a set of calibrated Rebco racing scales and record corner weights, their sum, and the percentage front/rear distribution. This is what is quoted in our articles and shown on our specifications panels as Curb Weight.
Who: Instrumented testing is different from road testing. It requires years of track experience, specialized skills, and instinctive muscle memory to extract the best performances from all the different types of vehicles we test: compact cars/hatches, sedans, wagons, crossovers, sport utilities, pickup trucks, and yes, sports cars, supercars, and an occasional hypercar. There are currently three staffers (each with more than 20 years of testing experience) who are qualified to perform Motor Trend’s instrumented testing: technical director Frank Markus in Detroit (weather permitting), testing director Kim Reynolds, and road test editor Chris Walton, the latter two both in Southern California. Associate road test editor Erick Ayapana is in the process of training up (and is showing great “feel” and talent) to fill in should any of our regular test drivers be unavailable. For consistency of results when getting lap times at race tracks, we employ champion race driver Randy Pobst.
Where: We test in dry, temperate, still weather for the most part. Our Southern California home usually cooperates on the first two fronts, and when winds kick up, running in two directions and averaging the acceleration results mostly cancels the wind effect. Some testing takes place in extremely cold, hot, or humid weather, and the effects of these parameters are compensated for with our weather-correction protocol (more about which follows). Next, we use a flat, level surface with consistent pavement. For straight-line testing, this means at least a half mile for ample shut down and braking. For handling tests, the ideal minimum “black lake” size is 300 by 800 feet. We try to use the same venue whenever possible for ultimate repeatability. Today, Auto Club Speedway/Dragway in Fontana, California, is used for the vast majority of our 250-plus annual tests, and Mojave Desert–adjacent Hyundai-Kia California Proving Ground and Honda Proving Center, plus FCA Arizona Proving Ground are used for our Of The Year programs. In the Detroit area, we use Milan Dragway and occasionally General Motors’ Milford Proving Ground. In a pinch, we’ll use local dragstrips, and we make it a rule to always run in the direction that is opposite to the race direction. Why? Because dragstrips aren’t the real world. The launch area is often “rubbered in,” and as with much of the race surface, it’s also coated with a non-representative traction aid. And believe it or not, street tires actually do not hook up well on the race-prepped surface and lose traction more easily than on plain old pavement.Acceleration Testing
How: We typically switch off traction-control systems and experiment with launch-control systems when so equipped. We do not pull fuses to deactivate any such systems if there is no standard way to do so. We run from zero to the maximum practical speed increment above the quarter mile. As does the NHRA, we subtract a “1-foot” (about 11.5 inches in reality) rollout from the launch to replicate dragstrip time measurement equipment. Dragstrips from coast to coast and the NHRA started the whole quarter-mile acceleration craze, and these remain the best practical and legal way for most owners to test their own cars. We want our numbers to match those acquired in this way. We experiment with launch techniques (brake torquing automatics to fully energize the torque converter, varying the launch rpm and amounts of wheelspin on manuals, etc.), then shift as quickly as possible while depressing the clutch and lifting off the throttle in three-pedal manuals. If there’s a sport/sport plus mode, drag race mode, sport drive, or any other performance-enhancing setting, we’ll start with those and work backward to see if it indeed helped. They often do not. We don’t “speed shift” manual transmissions. To date, only two manufacturers (select Chevrolet and Porsche vehicles) have engineered a “no-lift-shift” protocol that allows the driver to keep the throttle fully depressed while momentarily pressing the clutch and shifting to the next gear at or near the tachometer’s redline. We do use these manufacturers’ standard performance-enhancing feature.
We record data to an SD card with Racelogic’s Vbox satellite data-acquisition system, sampling at either at 20Hz or 100Hz (meaning 20 or 100 data points per second). Because the test driver can view/review each quarter-mile pass and iterate techniques to arrive at the best result, the number of runs varies. In the end, we typically select a vehicle’s single “best” acceleration performance (or best pair of passes on a windy day), but sometimes that’s a judgment call. Why? One pass might have the quickest 0–60 time and another might have the fastest quarter-mile time or speed. They’re usually the same run. However, there are times when we need to pick one over the other, and we never blend two different runs.Weather Correction
Why: In an attempt to ensure fair comparisons between cars with internal combustion engines tested in the high-desert heat of summer and the dense cold of a Michigan winter, we record ambient weather conditions using a Computech RaceAir system. With that data tied to each vehicle, we then use the Society of Automotive Engineers’ SAE J1349 procedure as a guide to correct all acceleration results to standard operating conditions: 77 degrees F (25 C), 29.2348 inches mercury (Hg) barometric pressure (99 kPa), and zero percent relative humidity. This procedure also levels the field for multiple cars tested on a given day that might start out cool and humid but become blazing hot and dry for the 10th car tested. Some of our competitors use this same correction method, some do not, and many others do not use a weather correction at all. Other than car-to-car variations, this is the main reason published test numbers often vary for a given model of vehicle. It’s worth noting that the correction factor is reduced for turbocharged engines, for hybrids, and turbocharged hybrids because electric motors and turbochargers are not affected much by swings in barometric pressure (turbos reach a preset boost pressure regardless of intake air pressure). Because supercharged engines tend to add a fixed level of boost, they get the full J1349 correction. So far, pure battery electric or hydrogen fuel cell cars have no correction applied to them; although we know that they’re affected by hot ambient temperatures, we don’t yet know (nor does anybody else) how to reliably correct for it.