Many years ago after I received my driver’s license and collected my motorcycle endorsement, I was presented with a critical decision: Motorcycle or Car. Many factors contributed to this decision, but speed presented itself as a critical motivator. I then proceeded down the path of determining which mode of transportation would be faster in general.
On average, cars are faster than motorcycles when considering top speed, but motorcycles have faster acceleration due to the higher power-to-weight ratio. There are many reasons for this conclusion which include but are not limited to technology and aerodynamics.
Here is a clear chart using two varieties of motorcycles and cars on the extreme ranges to compare and contrast multiple metrics used to determine speed. I have chosen a beginner and advanced model of motorcycle and car to compare.
|2021 Honda Civic||2021 Koenigsegg Agera RS||2021 Honda CBR500R||2021 Kawasaki Ninja H2R|
|Top Speed||137 MPH||278 MPH||112 MPH||249 MPH|
|0-60 Acceleration||8.2 Seconds||2.6 Seconds||4.7 Seconds||2.9 Seconds|
|Horsepower||158 HP||1,160 HP||49.6 HP||310 HP|
|Weight||2,771 LBS||2,877 LBS||423.3 LBS||476.3 LBS|
|Power to Weight Ratio||.06 HP/LBS||.40 HP/LBS||.18 HP/LBS||.65 HP/LBS|
|Price||$21,250 USD||$4,100,000 USD||$7,000 USD||$55,000 USD|
What Does It Mean For A Vehicle To Be “Fast”
Many variables determine the meaning of the word “fast”. A couple of common terms that might come to mind are velocity and acceleration. Velocity is described as an object’s speed in a given direction. Acceleration is the rate of change of velocity over a given time.
Consider driving down the freeway at a constant 65 miles per hour. Your instant velocity at that given moment in time is 65 MPH. If you then accelerate from 65 miles per hour (29.06 meters per second) to 75 miles per hour (33.53 meters per second) in 3 seconds, your acceleration can be quantified as 1.49 meters per second squared.
We can use these two terms to help make a comprehensive determination of whether a motorcycle or car is “faster”.
What Factors Determine Vehicle Top Speed
Any object in motion must obey the laws of physics when traveling through space. The same applies to cars and motorcycles. When considering which vehicle can achieve a higher top speed, we must look at power and aerodynamics.
The horsepower and torque produced by an engine play a large part in the maximum speed the vehicle can achieve. As can be seen in the comparison chart, horsepower is the driving factor in achieving maximum top speed. The heaviest vehicle happens to have the highest top speed.
Aerodynamics plays a large role in this conclusion as well. A car has more surfaces to potentially attach body-mounted components to create more downforce. Additional downforce allows for stability at high speeds.
Parts like a wing mounted to the rear of the car, a diffuser mounted to the front bumper, diffusers mounted to the bottom of the rear bumper, and aftermarket body kits create additional downforce using the principles of fluid dynamics to have air flow around the vehicle in a certain manner.
Many of these components can be integrated into the vehicle using technology to change the behavior of each part while driving. For instance, some vehicles have a rear wing that moves to create more downforce as the vehicle speed increases.
The reasons listed above give a car the advantage over motorcycles in the velocity category.
What Factors Determine Vehicle Acceleration
Contrary to velocity, acceleration depends more on the mass of the object in question. Reference the data chart to see how the motorcycles can achieve more competitive acceleration metrics on average than the same class of car.
The main contributor resulting in this conclusion is the power-to-weight ratio. As easy as it is to assume more power means more overall speed, if a small vehicle can produce large power, then it will travel a longer distance in a shorter time.
Back in high school physics class you likely learned about Newton’s Second Law of Motion. The law states that acceleration is dependent on the net force acting upon the object and the mass of the object. This explains why the vehicles with better acceleration don’t have the highest horsepower.
Technology also plays a role in this calculation. With the invention of launch control for cars and wheelie control for motorcycles, 0-60 MPH has dropped significantly. Modern vehicles equipped with this technology allow the driver to hold full throttle from a standstill and accelerate at the highest physical capacity using sensors to avoid crashing.
As a result, motorcycles will typically be able to accelerate faster than cars.
Are Motorcycles Faster Than Cars On A Race Track
Speed can best be assessed in an isolated setting like a race track. Rarely does one see both a bike and car on a track at the same time, however, we can get good data by putting a proficient rider and driver on the same course to produce an average lap time.
As a whole, cars are faster than motorcycles on a race track. Cars can take turns faster and push to further limits without crashing.
The Nurburgring Grand Prix Circuit in Germany is often considered the standard for vehicle track performance. Manufacturers often send their most impressive machines to this track to see how they match up against competitors.
A single full lap is 12.94 miles long which contains a wide variety of high and low-speed corners, elevation changes, and long straightaways. It is arguably the single best test of the potential speed of a vehicle.
|Production Car||Porsche 911 GT2 RS||6:38:84|
|Non-Road-Legal Car||Porsche 919 Hybrid Evo||5:19:55|
|Motorcycle||Suzuki GSX-R 1000RR||7:46:70|
In this example, a production car is defined as a mass-production vehicle offered by a manufacturer for sale to the public. The vehicle must use original-equipment tires and performance parts. The non-legal cars lift these restrictions and are able to set considerably more competitive times.
The best motorcycle time, however, is roughly a full minute slower. Motorcycles are not able to carry as much speed through corners and are more unstable.
When accelerating through a corner, a motorcycle has a much smaller margin of error and can lose traction more easily. This can happen either through a low-side crash where the front tire loses traction mid-corner and the bike slides out or through a high-side crash where the rear tire loses traction and suddenly spins much faster, then regains traction a hurls the rider off the bike.
A car can take a corner very aggressively and correct oversteer or understeer more comfortably with less risk. There is also less risk when crashing a car as opposed to a motorcycle, so drivers can be more aggressive and confident with their maneuvers.
Where Is It Appropriate To Go Fast In A Vehicle
Whether you are operating a motorcycle or car, there are a limited number of places to legally access the full capabilities of your vehicle.
As a general rule, the most practical option would be to sign up for a track day. This is where like-minded riders or drivers can gather to go as fast as possible around a closed course.
Engaging in a track day session is a very simple process and by far the safest way to access the full potential of the top speed and acceleration of your vehicle. In a track day setting, there are no other drivers, road hazards, or police to worry about as you access the maximum speed of your vehicle.
Which Type Of Vehicle Speed Is Better
When considering velocity versus acceleration, it is important to consider which type of “fast” will be most suitable for your everyday transportation needs.
For safety sake, I would argue that being able to accelerate would serve a greater purpose than being able to achieve a high top speed. In the instance where a rider needs to quickly evade a potential collision, a motorcycle allows for greater maneuverability due to the high power-to-weight ratio.
For public roads and highways, both cars and motorcycles can comfortably achieve and maintain the listed speed limit with ease. Exceeding the posted limit serves little purpose and typically only results in a citation or accident.
I ultimately chose to ride a motorcycle as my first vehicle and enjoyed it thoroughly. However, after years of riding, I found out there are many other factors like weather and the incompetent drivers on the road around me that make a car a better overall choice for daily use. I still find great joy in riding motorcycles at high speed on a closed course.