Something like this hadn't been seen in quite a while. Last time I recall was ten years ago, and we didn't call them "hyper", but "super". Hybrid powerplants for this type of vehicle was something unthinkable of (I can recall that only two hybrids were on sale in the entire world by then), as would be the ability to exceed 60 mph in less than 3 seconds. But they reached 200-plus-mph, and they still costed close to a million dollars. My question here is: how is this wave of hypercars different from the previous one?
The Outside Trigger
Anyone with a keen eye and a good capacity to establish lines between events knows that this wasn't entirely unpredictable, the same having happened back in 2003. The Pagani Zonda was back then approaching its fourth year in production, and the Bugatti Veyron was expected to enter production by the end of 2003. (Ironically, the car that was supposed to end the '03 supercar wave ended up by setting standards for the '13 one).
Parallely to these 500-plus-horsepower vehicles, the Lotus Exige deserves a honourable mention for showing what a car can do if the emphasis of its design is drawn towards acceleration and handling, although it was not the first with such a purpose.
In the last time this happened, Ferrari was a few months late and announced the Enzo in the 2002 Paris Motor Show. The Enzo, designed by Ken Okuyama, was not a beauty in the aesthetics department, its Eastern-esque lines being strongly criticized by gearheads who often consider it to be the beginning of Pininfarina's fall. Nonetheless, it was more than what it looked like. Its 6.0-litre V12 engine produced 660 HP, and connected to the 6-speed sequential gearbox it was good enough for 3.4 seconds to 60 and a top speed of 218 mph, partially thanks to a lithe figure of 1.22 tonnes. Ten years later, the Formula One-like simplicity of the Enzo was replaced by a more over-the-top, good-at-everything hypercar. The trimmed leather interior invites the driver to handle Ferrari's first-ever hybrid powerplant, a 6.3-litre V12 (789 HP) connected with a KERS unit known as HY-KERS by the brand. The complete result is 950 HP, more than even the FXX Evoluzione. Ferrari claims that the impact of the KERS on the power delivery is the same as a turbocharger's, somewhat harking back to the days of the 288 GTO and the F40. The KERS does not interfere with the layout, remaining rear-wheel-drive. It will reach "over 220 mph" and reach 60 in "less than 3 seconds", says Ferrari. The zero-to-completely combusted time is not mentioned. Weight remains in the 1.25 tonnes scale, although it was initially meant to be under one tonne (nothing new for Ferrari...*cough*F50*cough*).
DC's Deductions: This is very unlike the Enzo, which was a very focused Formula One-like car. Making a formal analysis without road test data is stupid, but it doesn't take a genius to understand that this is a less hardcore car, probably being more of a spiritual successor for the Testarossa (in the sense it has eccentric looks on a relatively user-friendly package).
Ten years ago, Porsche's supercar redefined the meaning of the expression "race car for the road". Ferrari might have tried to compress Formula One experience into a road car package (as they tended to do), but it was Porsche who really transformed a stillborn race car into a hardcore road supercar. The Carrera GT was probably my favourite of the previous wave of supercars - despite being slightly heavier and less powerful than the Enzo, the 6-speed manual gearbox and removable targa top, combined with its credentials, made it even more extreme. But Porsche isn't going that way anymore for the 918. Under the (in my opinion) most attractive design of this wave lies a four-wheel-drive plug-in hybrid powerplant (significatively more complex than Ferrari's or McLaren's idea) consisting of a 4.6-litre V8 engine (580 HP) from the RS Spyder LMP coupled to a pair of electric engines (243 HP total). Its predicted performance is clearly huge: 2.8 seconds to 60 (compared to 3.9 for the Carrera GT) and a predicted Nürbürgring time of 7:14. The top speed, however, falls a bit short of its predecessor (202 against 205 mph) and the weight is quite high for a car of this kind (1.7 tonnes), reflecting the car's complexity.
DC's Deductions: She's gorgeous but she could use losing weight. Despite the fact that the electric engines provide immediate power and torque, whose effect is only incremented by the traction guaranteed by the four wheel drive system, I wonder to which extent it could be faster by using a less complex drivetrain. Pretty much the opposite of the good old Carrera GT.
Ten years ago McLaren worked on a project for Mercedes-Benz, the SLR. Despite its outstanding visual beauty, the SLR wasn't quite as hard as the others, being halfway between a grand tourer à la CL65/SL65 and a proper supercar. It was certainly capable of impressive performance (3.8 seconds to 60, 209 mph) thanks to its aerodynamics and AMG's supercharged 5.4-litre V8, but it wasn't in the same level as the others, as proved by the fact it's possible to buy a used one for less than a third of what it costed ten years ago. That, together with the fact that a certain Detroit carmaker already produces a conceptually similar if far less refined vehicle, powered by a supercharged 5.8-litre V8, led McLaren to take an approach somewhat similar to Ferrari's. Power comes from the same 3.8-litre V8 as seen in the MP4-12C (727 HP here), with the assist of KERS (176 HP). Those 903 total HP, together with a 7-speed sequential gearbox (a characteristic also seen in the LaFerrari and the 918) result in a top speed limited to 217 mph (which surprisingly is the highest value of its field) and "less than 3 seconds" to 60. If it wasn't restricted it'd hit 239 mph. Conceptually, the P1 stays away from the plush interior of the LaFerrari and presents a simple carbon cabin with touchscreens, not too different from the MP4-12C. Its exterior design has been extensively modified for aerodynamics and downforce; the bodywork generates over half a tonne of inverted lift at 161 mph. The brakes, too, are capable of 2Gs of deceleration.
DC's Deductions: this is not exactly what the F1 was, but it's kinda close. But am I the only one wondering if this isn't a hardcore version of the MP4-12C?
Besides Ferrari, Porsche and McLaren, there are other hypercars out there, mainly from VAG. The Lamborghini Veneno is one of them, drawing mostly from the Aventador, but with a 740 hp version of their 6.5-litre V12. Weight has been also reduced to 1.45 tonnes but the most remarkable feature is the extremely aggressive (way too aggressive in my opinion) aerodynamics package. VAG also has the upcoming Bugatti Royale under development, which is expected to carry on the Veyron's W16 engine.
There can also be drawn a parallel to the previous wave of ten years ago. At the time, Bugatti had the Veyron under development, although it would take three more years for it to become real. Ford also released the legendary GT in the summer of 2003.
Ten years ago, it seemed that race car experience was the main source of the hypercar experience. The Enzo and the SLR went as far as incorporating Formula One elements in their design, leading to backlash. Nowadays, it seems that functional performance (more than accelerating like a race car, also cornering like one, all while being usable - the P1 is an exception) is the emphasis of the hypercar experience. Why? I'm afraid the main reason for that to happen is that the hypercar is becoming obsolete. You've heard it well, I have just said that the hypercar is becoming obsolete. To gauge that carefully, just take a look at the Hennessey Venom. Or even better, at the Internet's reactions to it. Ten or even twenty years ago (remember the XJ220, F1 and EB110?) supercars developed with maximum performance in mind were the best thing people could want. The Bugatti Veyron ended that. It passed 250 mph, it needed 2.5 seconds to 60. How fast does the new Supercharged Electric Shopping Cart R-Spec goes? Nobody cares, it's so damn fast it generates boredom over its performance. Cars like the Nissan GT-R and Porsche's GTx series have taken over. Handling cars, rather than performance cars. And apart from Porsche's RS models, they're pretty much usable, something which we couldn't ever expect from the comet-fast supercars of the 80s, 90s and 00s. Just look carefully at how much the P1 draws from the 12C, or at the LaFerrari's plush interior (remember the 288 GTO? F40? F50? Enzo?). Further proof of that is that all of these cars (except the P1) are slower in top speed than their 10-year-old predecessors.
The most important message conveyed by the 2013 hypercar wave is that the days of the insane, neck-breaking supercar are gone, making the Hennessey Venom the end of an era. Do people still care about the world's fastest car? Yes, to some extent. But even Koenigsegg, whose Agera R is theoretically capable of over 270 mph, doesn't advertise their supercars based on their crushing performance. SSC claims that the upcoming Tuatara is being developed with handling in mind as well. A new era has finally crystalized, let's just hope that it leads to more decades of automotive triumphs.