What's the fastest car in the world?

Some people call them supercars. They're the fastest production cars on the planet, engineered as much for speed as they are for comfort or sporty appearance. Sure, you can buy these cars, but only if you have the bankability of a Bill Gates and the need for speed of a fighter jet pilot. They tend to be manufactured in small numbers -- a dozen here, a couple hundred there -- and you won't necessarily find them in an auto showroom near you either.

In an elite circle are the fastest of the fast, the cars that move down the straightaway as rapidly as an airplane soars through the sky. These cars are rarely pushed to their top speeds, which tend to be in the neighborhood of 250 miles per hour (402 kilometers per hour), because in most places it wouldn't be legal, or especially safe, to do so. You may see one zip past you on Germany's Autobahn, which has an "advisory speed limit" of 80 miles per hour (129 kilometers per hour) but no strict upper limit on how hard you can press the accelerator. Mostly, if you want to see these cars perform the way they were meant to perform, you'll have to catch them on a closed track, away from radar guns and speed traps.

But among these upper echelon cars, which is the absolute fastest? That title, which can usually be found in the Guinness Book of World Records, tends to change every few years (or every few months). In this article we'll talk about the car that currently holds the title, as well as a few cars that have held it in the recent past. Remember, these cars aren't typically from American and Japanese companies like Chevrolet or Toyota, but from exotic luxury car manufacturers like Ferrari, Lamborghini and Bugatti.

So what car currently holds the fastest in the world title?

The Ultimate Aero TT from Shelby SuperCars is currently the fastest car in the world.

Courtesy of Shelby SuperCars

The SSC UItimate Aero TT

The current record for fastest car in the world is held by the Ultimate Aero TT from Shelby SuperCars. The record was set on Oct. 9, 2007, not on a testing track, which is where most high-speed records are established, but on a closed-off section of Highway 221 in Washington state. The speed was monitored using the DEWE-VGPS-200C speed sensor from Dewetron, a company that specializes in, among other things, data acquisition systems for spacecraft, which should give you an idea of how fast the Ultimate Aero TT was traveling.

So, how fast is it? In accordance with Guinness rules for automotive speed records, the Ultimate Aero TT was driven down the track twice -- in opposite directions -- with the top speed on each run being averaged to produce the record speed. (This helps minimize the effect of fluke road and weather conditions.) On the first pass it was clocked at 257.44 miles per hour (414.3 kilometers per hour), on the second at 254.91 miles per hour (410.2 kilometers per hour), for an average speed of 256.18 miles per hour (412.3 kilometers per hour). This beat the previous record of 250.7 miles per hour (403.5 kilometers per hour), set in February 2005 by the Koenigsegg CCR, as well as the unofficial record of 253.81 miles per hour (408.5 kilometers per hour), set in April 2005 by the Bugatti Veyron.

This is the first time since the Ford GT40 set the record in 1967 that the title of fastest car in the world has been held by an American-made car. And it wasn't set on the perfect road surface of a testing track the way that most European speed records have been set. Jerod Shelby, the owner of Shelby SuperCars, believes that the Ultimate Aero TT can beat its own record when and if it gets tested on a closed European track. NASA wind tunnel tests have shown that the Ultimate Aero can remain aerodynamically stable up to 273 miles per hour (439.4 kilometers per hour), though its redline speed -- the velocity at which the engine starts to self destruct -- is around 260 miles per hour (418.4 kilometers per hour). So clearly there's room for this vehicle to improve on its own record.

Now you know. The SSC Ultimate Aero TT is the fastest car in the world. Or is it? Some people believe that this record is a bit of a cheat. We'll see what they have to say on the next page.

The top speed record of 256.18 mph was set on Oct. 9, 2007, on a closed-off section of Highway 221 in Washington state.

Courtesy of Shelby SuperCars

Other Fast Cars

The record held by the Ultimate Aero TT is for fastest production car in the world. That means that this is a car you can buy and keep in your own garage -- assuming, of course, you can cough up the more-than-$600,000 base price. Some people argue, however, that the Ultimate Aero TT isn't truly a production car at all, but rather constructed for the sole purpose of setting records and drawing attention to SSC's other vehicles. Jerod Shelby openly admits that the Ultimate Aero was designed for the purpose of putting Shelby SuperCars on the high-end automobile buyer's radar, but also says that he fully intends to sell the 50 Ultimate Aero TTs that his company plans to produce. The car has also been certified as street legal by the United States Department of Transportation.

But what if the Ultimate Aero TT wasn't the fastest car in the world? What car would reign supreme? The previous official world record was held by the Koenigsegg CCR, which set the record on Feb. 28, 2005, on the Nardo Prototipo track in Italy. (Before that, the record had been held for 12 years by the McLaren F1.) Oddly, the Nardo track is circular, a configuration that usually isn't conducive to setting speed records since the physics of automobile motion requires acceleration just so that the car can take the curves.

The Koenigsegg CCR's record was actually broken less than two months later, on April 19, 2005, by the Bugatti Veyron 16.4. However, the Veyron's top speed wasn't verified by the Guinness Book of World Records and is therefore considered unofficial, which left the CCR in top place until the Ultimate Aero TT clocked its even faster record speed in 2007.

But all of these record-setting cars are sluggards compared to the Thrust SSC jet-propelled car. SSC stands for "supersonic car" and, yes, it can go faster than the speed of sound. It set a record for land vehicles when it was timed at 763 miles per hour (1,228 kilometers per hour) across Nevada's Black Rock Desert in 1997. The Thrust SSC isn't a production car and it's hard to imagine why anyone would want to own one unless they do a lot of travel across flat, open spaces. But it does demonstrate that production cars have a long way to go before they achieve the maximum speed that it's possible for a vehicle to go on land.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks ArticlesMore Great LinksSources
  • Dewetron. "SSC Sets World Speed Record with Dewetron!" (Feb. 4, 2010) http://www.dewamerica.com/contact/events/SSC/
  • Roadsters.com. "Breaking the sound barrier on land." Jan. 1, 2010. (Feb. 4, 2010) http://www.roadsters.com/750/
  • Shelby SuperCars. "It's Official: SSC's Ultimate Aero Speed Record is validated by Guinness World Records." Oct. 9, 2007. (Feb. 4, 2010) http://www.shelbysupercars.com/news-100907.php
  • Shelby SuperCars. "Ultimate Aero Specifications." (Feb. 4, 2010) http://www.shelbysupercars.com/car-specs.php
  • Siddarth, Raja. "SSC Ultimate Aero TT breaks top speed world record." Motor Authority. Sept. 13, 2007. (Feb. 4, 2010) http://www.motorauthority.com/blog/1026407_ssc-ultimate-aero-tt-breaks-top-speed-world-record
  • Supercars.org. "Fastest Cars in the World: Top 10 List 2009-2010." (Feb. 4, 2010) http://www.thesupercars.org/fastest-cars/fastest-cars-in-the-world-top-10-list/
  • Worldcarfans.com. "SSC Ultimate Aero 'World's Fastest Production Car.'" Sept. 17, 2007. (Feb. 4, 2010) http://www.worldcarfans.com/10709173586/ssc-ultimate-aero-worlds-fastest-production-car