Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren
Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren. Click image to enlarge

Article and photos by Laurance Yap

Photo Gallery: Whither the supercar

Toronto, Ontario – The market for cars playing in the rarefied air of a half-million dollars plus is, as you may expect, pretty small. But in the last few years, it seems to have been as crowded a space as the minivan or family car market, with players from established makes lining up alongside newcomers like Pagani, Ascari, Venturi, Bugatti and others. New companies sprung out of the ground seemingly almost every month, showing off yet another hyper-powered car to grab rich jet-setters’ attention; just as often, we read about many of those same companies failing without ever having produced a single production model.

It turns out that even buyers of cars this expensive – and there are a few of them – do still think of practical considerations like reliability, resale value, service issues and practicality when indulging their automotive fantasies. Perhaps even more than us more pedestrian car buyers, a brand’s heritage and reputation mean a lot: no matter how supposedly fast, powerful, or great-handling many of the new breed of supercars were, their lack of establishment credentials hurt them.

Porsche Carrera GT
Porsche Carrera GT. Click image to enlarge

And so it was that the two biggest names in the sports-car business, Ferrari and Porsche, also managed to produce the most successful modern supercars. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most successful was built in small numbers. Ferrari sold all 399 of the Enzos it built – “Always make one fewer car than there’s demand for” has been their philosophy – for about a million bucks a pop. What’s more, all those Enzos were sold to loyal Ferrari customers that had been “invited” to purchase the car. In 2006, Porsche wrapped up production of its handmade Carrera GT after having filled just over 1,300 orders – a little short of the 1,500 the company expected to build but enough, the company claims, to have paid for the entire program and to have generated a profit as well.

At the track
At the track. Click image to enlarge

What was it, beyond the strength of these cars’ brand image that accounted for their success? Primarily, especially in relation to their competition at the time, it’s the fact that they were real cars – not sketches or clay models shown at auto shows with lots of promises and even more hype. They were also real cars in the sense that – despite carbon-fibre structures, load-bearing engines and huge power outputs – they were robust enough to drive hard enough to explore their enormous performance potential. The Carrera GT was subject to the same cold-weather and hot-weather testing that a Boxster had to go through, so that (aside from its touchy clutch) it could be driven with the same ease as any other Porsche. The Ferrari (aside from the huge cost of maintenance) was beautifully-made and remarkably easy to get in and out of.

The 1.2-million Euro Bugatti Veyron, which is still in production now, is an interesting example of the difficulty of building a car able to live up to its hype. At its first showing, the company (owned by the Volkswagen group) made grandiose claims of a 250-mph top speed and an output of 1,000 horsepower from its quad-turbocharged W16 engine. While the combined might of several hundred engineers and designers was finally able to meet these ambitious targets – the Veyron is on record as the fastest production car ever – it only managed to do so after several years of costly and embarrassing delays. The whole car, first shown as a concept, had to be re-engineered, with extra ducting cut into its two-tone body, a new suspension and (not least) Michelin PAX tires engineered to handle the huge speeds.

At the track
Can you spot the dollar signs?
At the track (top), and can you spot the dollar signs in the bottom photo?. Click image to enlarge

With the car finally being delivered to customers right now, Bugatti has committed to building “up to 300” Veyrons – it will only build as many cars as ordered, making its huge list price actually a bit of a bargain. If you were to divide up the cost of its development, plus the cost of the new factory in Molsheim, France, between 300 cars (or, more likely, even less), you’d find that Bugatti is likely losing wheelbarrows full of cash on every one. The company hopes to use the Veyron’s drivetrain in future models of course, but as of now, there are no details on any forthcoming Bugattis.

One major problem with the supercars of the early part of the century was that they were simply too expensive. While pitched at a market for whom cost was arguably not an object, the reality is that the rich people buying these cars only have the time to enjoy them a few days a year – they’re too busy making money. So while the cost of a $250,000 Bentley or Ferrari may have been somehow tolerable, a car that cost a half-million dollars or more, driven less than, say, 10,000 km a year, works out to an astronomical sum on a dollar-per-mile basis. And that’s before the cost of insurance, maintenance and speeding tickets.

In the time since the Veyron was first shown and when deliveries began, most other supercar makers have disappeared. Only a few remain and they build cars in tiny, tiny numbers. Spyker has concentrated on high-end coachbuilt cars and Pagani continues to trickle out a handful of Mercedes-powered Zondas every year for fanatics of its combination of high tech and old-world craftsmanship.

At the track
At the track. Click image to enlarge

The other thing is that more “normal” high-end sports cars are quickly approaching the performance levels that were once the realm of much more exclusive machines. Nowadays, a $93,000 Corvette Z06 can post acceleration numbers that equal a $400,000 Lamborghini Murcielago – and can probably do so more reliably. The most recent iteration of the Porsche Turbo can keep up with the Carrera GT – and is actually even faster when fitted with the automatic transmission, while costing about a third of the money. Audi’s R8 is actually based on a lot of the same engineering as the Lamborghini Gallardo while being cheaper and equally entertaining on the aural front. All of these cars are friendlier, easier, safer cars to drive than their more extreme counterparts, too – meaning they can be used and enjoyed more often.

Driving one also doesn’t come with the social stigma of driving something so obviously loud, extravagant and expensive. In these environmentally-conscious times (when Lexus’ performance models are hybrid cars and where even advertisements for Corvettes list its highway fuel consumption ratings), being able to keep a relatively low profile counts for a lot – even if you’re driving really fast when nobody’s looking.

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