A growing pressure to think electric is reaping fast fruit in the modern supercar arena.
“It is,” says Andy Palmer, “the best car I’ve ever worked on in my 30-plus years in the auto industry. Ferrari, Porsche — watch out. Because Aston Martin is back.” Those at the unveiling of the British carmaker’s latest offering, the Vantage, may well have wondered if it ever went away. Under Palmer, its CEO, the company has gone into overdrive, the Vantage, after the DB11, being the second of a planned series of seven new cars, one launched each year. And it’s a beast: the new Vantage, with a 503hp twin-turbocharged V8 and eight-speed automatic transmission, is the company’s first Vantage since 2005, that model having proven to be Aston Martin’s all-time best-seller; with low nose and spoiler, it looks as though it came straight from the track.
But for all that Palmer may be throwing down his driving gauntlet, the Vantage is not without stiff competition. Indeed, those who say the supercar is dead, given environmental pressures, may give pause to consider recent stand-out launches: the Lamborghini Huracán, Porsche 911 GT3, Bentley EXP 12 Speed 6e Concept or the Mercedes-AMG GT R. Then there are those that are hotly anticipated: Ferrari’s 488 GTB, with an aggressive new look for the company and, it’s said, a new sound too; or Lamborghini’s Aventador Roadster, which looks to be one of the more sophisticated toned-down supercars from the Italian maker in years and, with an expected 6.5-litre V12, one of the loudest.
For those who want to go to town, there’s Bugatti’s new version of the Chiron, with, at around US$2.6 million, not just the world’s biggest price tag for a car, but a 1,500hp V16 engine making it one of the fastest too. It’s this kind of engine, offering a top speed of 288mph, that has small boys and grown men weeping.
Might, however, they have cause to weep tears of sadness rather than joy by the end of the decade? After all, the dynamic of the supercar industry is facing revolutionary change. Marek Reichman, Aston Martin’s chief creative officer, argues that there will always be a place for these most exquisitely housed versions of the internal combustion engine. “In part, that’s because the analogue experience still matters. We will always appreciate things of craft. It’s why we still buy mechanical watches, even if they are more expensive and less reliable than quartz,” he says. “But I like the comparison with horses. Once we had a horse for transport. It was essential. Now we have one for leisure: for jumping, racing or just riding for pleasure. And the sports car can still offer the same kind of pleasure.”
But, he concedes, there is growing pressure to think electric and to accept that the multi-sensory appeal of conventionally engined cars at this level — the smell, sound and vibration of their engines — may soon be an experience of yesteryear. Certainly, many of the most exciting new supercars are from niche makers with a view to beating the established brands by being first to market with an eco-alternative: Acura, Dendrobium, NIO and Elextra being names to watch. Most exciting of the cars recently announced as being close to production might include the Tomahawk, slated to launch late next year, from electric supercar developer Dubuc. This has hints of American muscle-car styling, with scissor doors and an impressive 370-mile range.
In part, this new wave of more environmentally friendly supercars follows the over-arching pattern for much technological development: the lack of both a price limitation and pressure to sell at high numbers leaves these innovators (in what is, after all, one of the most capital intensive of industries) freer to push the boundaries. They have as much akin to tech start-ups as car companies. It also, of course, speaks to a shift in demographics.
“Yes, the technology that makes electric supercars feasible is now evolving at an unprecedented rate,” says Dubuc’s founder Mike Kakogiannakis. “Yet supercars generally are also selling to a younger customer now and it’s that customer that’s more attuned than older generations to the idea of environmentally friendly engines.” Perhaps this is why the aforementioned Mercedes has a hybrid petrol-electric motor and the Bentley is all-out batteries.
But this wave is, less expectedly, also a result of demand for ever-more-impressive performance. As widely misunderstood as supercar electric engines are, many are surprised by their speed. Arguably this summer the electric supercar really arrived when NIO’s EP9 shaved 2.1 seconds off the all-time lap record at the legendary Nürburgring circuit. And, for flat-out acceleration, they typically leave combustion engines standing: Elextra’s supercar, due to come onto the market in two years, promises to do 0–60mph in 2.3 seconds, the Tomahawk in two seconds. Even Bollinger’s B1, the first all-electric sports utility truck, launched this summer, does it in 4.5 seconds.
“The fact is that you can’t, for instance, just keep putting more and more turbos on a conventional engine to improve its performance,” explains Donna Falconer, senior manager of global product strategy for McLaren, which aims to have half of its production models with electric engines within the next five years and launches its 700hp P14 and its Super Series 688HS next year. “There are limits to the old technology. You have to look to the new to deliver performance.”
Combining electric engines with other new technologies, which, for example, allow a car to be much lighter, and so require less power for like-for-like performance, will allow this new breed of supercar to offer what Falconer calls “all sorts of new driving experiences”. And all in absolute silence. Quite how that idea is embraced by those entranced by the distinctive signature roars of so many supercars is yet to be seen.
This article originally appeared in Billionaire's Ideas Issue, March 2017. To subscribe contact