Space & Innovation

Your Car Is Slower Than A Sports Car: How Come?

In 1886, the fastest car went 10 mph - today, our fastest car can reach 261 mph. What are the key components in creating a fast car?

At this year's Geneva Auto Show, French automaker Bugatti unveiled what it's calling the world's fastest, most powerful and most expensive car -- the Bugatti Chiron. Top speed: 261 mph. Price tag: $2.6 million.

The Chiron isn't a race car. It's a street-legal consumer vehicle, although the $2.6 million price tag presumably limits the range of interested consumers. The Chiron raises a couple of questions: How do designers actually build a monster like the Chiron? And why can't my car go that fast?

In this edition of DNews, Trace Dominguez puts the pedal to the metal (and the thing to the floor) to determine how, exactly, we build fast cars.

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First, the fast and simple answer: Cars have gotten a lot faster in the last 130 years primarily because engines are more powerful. The 1908 Ford Model T had 22 horsepower and a top speed of 45 mph. Today's standard Honda Accord has 200 horsepower and can clear 100 mph, if need be. That Bugatti Chiron, meanwhile, has 1,500 horsepower (!) powered by two V8 engines.

Those V8 engines are heavy, though, and really fast cars need to be as light as possible. That's where power-to-weight ratio comes in. The Chiron is not only ridiculously powerful, it's built with ultra-lightweight materials like titanium and carbon fiber.

Determining power-to-weight ratio is refreshingly straightforward: You just divide power by weight.

Plenty of other factors come into play when designing fast cars -- fuel, tires, aerodynamics -- but that power-to-weight ratio is where the rubber meets the road.

-- Glenn McDonald


EDN Network: Karl Benz Drives the First Automobile, July 3, 1886

Turner University: How To Compare Weight Savings To Horsepower Gains

Extreme Tech: Bugatti Chiron Numbers Generator: 1,500 (hp), 261 (top speed), 2.6 million (dollars)