Have we reached peak supercar?

Have we reached peak supercar?

Supermodels in car world

Modern supercars, and their higher-end cousins, hypercars — both relative terms defined largely by whom you ask — are latecomers to the thread of automotive history. First, there were the rockets of their time, such as the Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows of the 1930s and 300SL Gullwings of the 1950s. In the 1960s, the Ferrari 250 GTOs dominated countless races and reached automotive immortality as the ultimate auction house blue-chip buys. But the supercar as we know it really came into its own in the late 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, when hedonism reigned supreme. Such early examples as the Lamborghini Countach and Ferrari F40 set major precedents for design and performance. They were like space ships, compared the mundane and affordable metal boxes of the day. Everyone has a favorite; just ask the guys down at the weekend coffee klatch about the Vector, the Ferrari Enzo, or the Porsche Carrera GT. You’ll get a reaction.

They were duly expensive. A Countach sold for $72,000 at the time, or the equivalent of $375,000 today; the F40 cost $400,000, or the equivalent of $884,000 today.

Supercars tend to age well if you have the patience, luck, and financing to get your hands on one: On Aug. 16 in Monterey, Calif., a 1994 McLaren F1 sold for $19.8 million, obliterating the previous high-price paid for a McLaren: $13.75 million in 2015. (Its original MSRP was  around $1 million.) You won’t be surprised to learn that the man who designed that car, Gordon Murray, is now designing a round of 100 new supercars tentatively called the T50 and priced near $3 million.

The role of the supercar used to be to act as the halo for the brand, to attract media attention and consumer hype to a marque. Even if only a few people could afford to actually buy the exciting, sexy car, they’d know about the brand because of it and then buy something more affordable. Automakers figured that if you loved, or at least knew about, the Acura NSX that Formula 1 champion Aryton Senna helped develop, you’d be more likely to buy an Accord. It seems a stretch — but the basic awareness of a brand is half the battle, marketers say. And an NSX is a lot more likely to grab headlines than an Accord is.

Supercars also carried the advanced driving technologies consumers could expect to see seep into the rest of the product lineup in succeeding years. The SF90 Stradale that Ferrari debuted in May is the first plug-in hybrid in Ferrari’s history, while its 679-horsepower twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 is also the first time a V8 has ever been under a Ferrari hood. Its gasoline engine and trio of electric motors combined make it the most powerful Ferrari ever, totaling 968 horsepower.

In fact, the SF90 is the latest in an onslaught of supercars that has taken a slightly different tone.

Supercars are increasingly electric, rather than powered by the galloping V12 and W16 engines of old. The Aston Martin Valkyrie, Koenigsegg Jesko, Lotus Evija, Mercedes-Benz Project One, and Pininfarina Battista, among others, all use electric motors to help boost them to ever-higher (at least in theory) feats of speed and strength. They all have yet to hit the market in production form.

They’re coming from all sides of the market, too: such big, old heritage brands as Lamborghini and Ferrari, of course, but also from namesake novelty brands such as Gordon Murray Automotive and just-minted startups dotting the U.S., Europe, the Middle East, Korea, Japan and China. These boutiques tend to have obscure names and opaque origins, blending the lines among automotive companies, tech companies, and software startups. Witness the British Dendrobium D1 and Ariel P40, the Chinese XING Mobility Miss E, the Croatian Rimac Concept_One, and the Japanese Aspark Owl. They come and go in the automotive consciousness, many making a splash at a car show with a foam mold or rendering, trotting that same car around for a year or two, then quietly merging with a larger auto or tech company, or shutting down altogether.

Rather than loss-leaders for the brand, they’re now a big part of the business model — or the business model.

“Basically, [the deposits to the supercar startups are] seed money to get operations up and running — applied to the cost of the car,” says Kevin Tynan, senior automotive analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “Think of it as venture capital, with the return being a supercar instead of a percentage.”

In November, Lamborghini announced the one-off Lamborghini SC18 Alston, created for a single customer at a multimillion-dollar cost.

It was a strategy that took cues from the Lamborghini Reventon: When it debuted, its almost immediate sell-out success of all 20 models to Middle Eastern sheiks and Russian billionaires proved to Lamborghini brass that the market could handle the extravagant price and exclusivity of vehicles heretofore considered too wild for it to bear. This paved the way for the $4.5 million Veneno and the…

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