The Ariel Atom is to blame. For years we ran a competition called 0-100-0, an acceleration and braking test for cars that was, as the name suggested, a sprint from rest to 100mph and back to rest again.
In the earlier years, there was an unpredictability to the results. Lightweights and supercars vied for supremacy, while race and rally cars set non-production records.
And then came the Ariel Atom with a supercharger strapped to its engine, and with it the unpredictability ended. What’ll be quickest? It’ll be the Atom 300. Again. So we canned it.
But, as you may have heard, Autocar turned 120 years old this month, which gave us an idea: reprise 0-100-0 but, to even things up, increase the target speed to a poignant 120mph, thus giving significance to the anniversary and allowing a broader range of cars – those weighing more than half a tonne – a greater chance of competing.
Step forward, then, the running order. Ariel’s Atom 3.5R is here, of course, but it’s joined in the lightweight corner by the Caterham Seven 620R and a sort of lightweight, the Radical RXC500. To line up against those, we have what could well be the fastest current supercar, because it has 641bhp and a set of astonishing stoppers, in the shape of McLaren’s 650S. Porsche’s 911 Turbo is probably the only thing that’d run it close, so that’s here, too, as is Nissan’s GT-R and the nowfour-wheel-drive Jaguar F-Type R.
Then there are a couple of wildcards. Ford’s Mustang GT is here because it’s interesting to see what a big coupé can do, and Mercedes’ facelifted A45 AMG represents the apogee of the current hot hatchback.
Nine contenders, then, and Blyton Park Driving Centre is our host.
Meeting the contenders
As you might expect from Lincolnshire in early November, Blyton Park is cold when we arrive. But the track is dry and the surface much better than some of the airfields we often use for features. Conditions are good enough, in other words, but will play a little into the hands of things with better traction. Shall we crack on in ascending order? Let’s.
First, (or rather last in this company) then, is Ford’s Mustang. This is not a complete surprise, especially given that traction is at a slight premium, but it’s a newsworthy car and I’m interested to see how it goes. It’s also highly unusual in this company in that it comes with a normal H-pattern gearstick and three pedals. Old school. Tellingly, nothing else here does.
It’s not the easiest thing, in other words, to get off the line, but once you get the rears hooked up after a gentle getaway, the 5.0-litre Mustang takes full throttle in first gear, although its 0-30mph time, the slowest of the day at 2.35sec, sets a theme to come. It is the slowest through 60mph and 100mph and to 120mph – especially because it needs an upshift to fifth gear at 118mph – and, by a whisker, is the slowest to stop from 120mph.
We’re using Blyton’s back straight for this, straight-lining a chicane (obvs) that’s usually in place halfway along. It’s plenty wide enough forone car at a time, as flat as anywhere else we’ve used for 0-100-0 and smooth in the braking zone. But is it long enough?
In the Mustang, not quite. The run time you see is a patch of two runs – one from rest to 100mph, the other 100-120-0 after a rolling start onto the back straight. Its 21.66sec run would be flattering in much company, but not this.
Next comes the A45 AMG, which again I aim at the horizon from the earliest straight start point I can line up on, and engage its launch control.
In the Mercedes, there’s a tiny amount of slip as power is diverted to the rear, but the A45 is only seven-hundredths of a second off the fastest time to 30mph that we record all day. Pulling 60mph in 4.13sec is also very respectable – although it’s a number that would have needed to start with a three to be at the sharper end of things here.
Aerodynamics overwhelm the A45’s modest power output above 100mph and it wants the second longest time to reach 120mph, by which time quite a lot of the straight has passed and the end is looming rather quickly.
Our VBox GPS data logging gear shows the car’s current speed extremely accurately with barely a delay – much more quickly than our equipment used to – but still, as 120mph approaches, you have to anticipate the arrival of your terminal velocity and decide to start braking before 120mph registers on the monitor (which, in this case, is my phone suckered to the windscreen).
There’s always a ‘reaction time’, then, and you’ll do well if you keep the speedo below 121mph. (In no case does the time affect the final results, but we’ve left them in.)
The A45 AMG stops with about 30 metres of the straight to spare, thus avoiding the nearby field and giving an overall time of 20.5sec for the 0-120-0 run. I know it won’t trouble the top order. But few other hatchbacks would get close to it.
Jaguar’s F-Type R AWD is next. The F-Type has plenty of traction but no launch control. However, if you wind a little tension into the drivetrain, it gets away very well – covering 0-30mph in 1.62sec, just two-hundredths of a second slower than the fastest car of the day. It’s under braking that the Jaguar loses out. Its nose pitches forward, and although it’d never trouble you on the road or a track day, it has a few tugs at the wheel as it pulls to a halt in 5.22sec. That’s still good and takes it almost three seconds clear of the A45 AMG overall, but next up the road is more than a second quicker than it.
That turns out to be the GT-R in Track Package specification, which brings tyres that appreciate being warmed through and some Nismo aerodynamics but no increase in the standard 542bhp. So although it has launch control, the Nissan is no faster than the Jaguar from standstill, and there’s a shimmy from the rears, as they struggle to hook up after launch engages power, which isn’t evident in the Jaguar.
But by 60mph it has redressed the balance and overcome the Jaguar – 3.46sec is quick in any company, except among this lot – as would be 0-120mph in 10.94sec. The GT-R takes some slowing, mind, because it weighs 1740kg, and asks five seconds precisely to come to a halt.
Then comes the first of what we think of as the lightweights – although the 1120kg Radical RXC500 isn’t strictly a lightweight like the Caterham or Ariel, but you take the point.
What it shares with those is a transmission that features three pedals and whose clutch can be forgotten about as soon as you’re rolling. The RXC feels like a genuine racing car from the moment you slip inside it, and beavering around to warm the rear tyres is one of the most evocative moments of the day.
There’s no launch control per se, but if you flatten the throttle, the turbocharged V6 will hold a few thousand revs, which are unleashed as soon as you drop the clutch. It’s relatively easy to hook it up, then, but it pays to short-shift to second as the turbocharged power overwhelms the rears in first gear. This shuffling means the leggy Radical is the second slowest to 30mph, a situation it has improved considerably by the time it reaches 120mph, to which it is fifth quickest. This is the lowest-placed car without ABS, but pedal feel is excellent and retardation strong.
Launching a Porsche 911 Turbo S, meanwhile, could scarcely be simpler. You stand on the brake pedal and then rapidly apply some throttle. The clutch of the PDK ’box stays disengaged and the revs will sit at 4000rpm. Release the brake and it fairly lets go. Because it’s cold, there’s a touch of slip, but with a 3.8-litre engine sitting over the back wheels, traction is the least of its issues. A 1.41sec 0-30mph time is faster than anything else by two-tenths.
Left in drive, it’ll upshift itself rapidly, past 60mph in 3.01sec, the fastest of the day, although that’s not an advantage it retains by the time it passes 100mph, at 6.67sec.
But it’s under braking where the Porsche loses out. Not that it’s a big criticism; only three cars here wanted less than five seconds to stop from 120mph and the 911 modestly asked for 5.08sec. It’s good enough to put the Porsche fourth.
Those sub-5.0sec-stopping cars were all in the top three, and two of them weighed precious little. Third overall, then, is Caterham’s 620R, fitted with a sequential gearbox that, like the Radical, needs clutch off the line but not afterwards.
The trouble with a 310bhp Caterham, though, is that, even after a couple of tyre-warming laps, traction is not a strong point. You ask for a few thousand revs, slip the clutch slightly to get away and there are two main probabilities: the rears light up, or the engine bogs down.
In between those two, you can get it about right, though, and the Seven will reach 30mph in a respectable 1.74sec and 60mph in an impressive (given the conditions) 3.5sec. The manual sequential gearbox’s lever – there are no paddles – wants a firm pull to engage the next gear, but the shifts are extremely fast if they’re shoved through firmly.
Better, though, is the way it stops. Brake pedal feel is exceptional and all four wheels approach a locking point at the same time – so at 4.72sec, it’s the second-fastest stopper here, a hundredth quicker than the Ariel.
The Atom, though, holds the advantage – and second place overall – because of the way it gets off the line. Thus is the way with Ariels.
There’s no launch control on the supercharged Atom 3.5R, but it doesn’t need it, such is the traction. On manual supercharged Atoms, the fastest way is a full-bore start in second gear, but such is the quickness of the gearshifts on the sequential manual ’box, with a pneumatic actuator for the diddy paddles,that it’s no longer necessary. Only the 911 Turbo S (1.41sec) gets to 30mph quicker than the Atom (1.6sec), and by 60mph the Ariel has clawed back all but two-hundredths of that time, at 3.03sec.
Once, lightweight cars with small-capacity engines and poor aerodynamics would have run out of puff by 120mph, but the Ariel does it in 9.2sec, still three-tenths quicker than the 911. The brake bias needs winding a long way forward to prevent the rear wheels from locking up, but once done, it stops well and the Ariel’s overall time of 13.93sec is a full half a second quicker than the Seven 620R.
Even so, it’s more than a second behind the quickest car here. Perhaps 0-100-0 would have been fairer on the Ariel after all, because it just can’t live with McLaren’s 650S.
That the McLaren is only rear-wheel drive means its launch control is fighting a battle from the off, but once it has passed 60mph in 3.26sec, it is uncatchable; 100mph goes in 6.19sec – equal first with the Atom – and 120mph in 8.34sec, far quicker than anything.
But it’s the way the McLaren stops that marks it out as exceptional. Hit the left pedal and the air brake pops up, the 650S dives and thuds echo through its carbonfibre chassis as the brakes sweep off speed at an incredible rate. Just 4.39sec after applying the pedal, you have stopped from 120mph – a decelerative phenomenon that has to be felt to be believed. And one that contributes to the 650S’s inaugural 0-120-0 title-winning time of 12.73sec.
Maybe 0-121-0 next year, then? Sure, why not? Only – I confess – I got to about 122.5mph in the McLaren before it started slowing down. So it has a bit to spare.
The ranking - see more of our contenders in action
1 - McLaren 650S Spider
2 - Ariel Atom 3.5R
3 - Caterham Seven 620R
4 - Porsche 911 Turbo S
5 - Radical RXC500
6 - Nissan GT-R Track Attack
7 - Jaguar F-Type R AWD
8 - Mercedes-AMG A45
9 - Ford Mustang V8 GT