what makes a supercar super?
andy enright attempts to pin down the elusive qualities that define a supercar.
When I was a kid, two posters were ever-presents on my bedroom wall. The first was a poster of a Debbie Harry in a slightly risque outfit. The second was a black Lamborghini Countach. It was an LP400S, with the big wing on the back and it was disappearing down an arrow-straight desert road into the setting sun. Nothing could say supercar more eloquently than a Countach. Not only was it eye-wateringly expensive and searingly quick, it was also ludicrously impractical and, from an eight year old's perspective, impossibly cool.
But what defines a supercar? That's a question that has never really been clearly defined. The job was a lot easier before 1992. Until that year the established supercar set included the likes of the Lamborghini Diablo, the Ferrari F40 and the Porsche 959 and the rules were straightforward. If it was low, sleek and nudged 200mph, it was a supercar. Then, all in the same year, the Bugatti EB110SS, the Jaguar XJ220 and the real game changer, the McLaren F1 arrived. The term 'hypercar' was coined to cover these next level vehicles and the waters got muddied. They've stayed muddy ever since.
Today's hypercars would certainly include the Bugatti Veyron. Probably the Koenigsegg CCX-R and the Pagani Huayra. Beyond that we're into the realms of argument. Perhaps it's easier to whittle down the list by defining what's not a supercar. A BMW M5 might top 200mph with its speed restrictor removed, but it's a saloon car and that excludes it. A Caterham R500 would set a pace around a track that a Countach could never hope to approach but it's just too cheap and nerdy to be a supercar. Honda NSX? Despite the Ayrton Senna associations, an NSX is too sensible. You can see out of it, service it alongside your Accord and your granny could drive it. Not a supercar, then.
Perhaps supercars are defined as much as anything by their foibles, that they have been designed to look fantastic and therefore come with all manner of practical compromises? It's a tempting avenue to pursue but one that doesn't apply to ruthlessly developed hypercars like the McLaren F1 and the Bugatti Veyron so shouldn't apply to the supercar set. As much as anything, a supercar is defined by its sense of occasion. A Porsche 911 Turbo has the performance and provenance necessary to join the club but its ubiquity counts against it. It no longer feels so special to be counted amongst the elite.
Another point to consider is that in the Seventies, when the term supercar really entered the common vernacular, mid-engined cars like the Countach and the Ferrari BB represented the flagship of their respective ranges. Now the sportiest Ferraris, from 360 through 430 to 458 are the entry-level cars. Does this make the 458 Italia a supercar whereas its direct rival from Lamborghini, the Gallardo, doesn't make the cut? It could be argued there's only room for one supercar at Sant'Agata and that one follows the bloodline from the Countach through Diablo, Murcielago and now Aventador.
Given that qualification for the supercar club relies very little on dynamic talent, it should come as no surprise that badge equity and history count for a good deal. History sees Ford's GT make the grade whereas a lack of it and a proletarian badge means Audi's R8 and Nissan's GTR don't. Sorry guys. I'm a massive fan of both of these cars but they're too clinical to make the team sheet. Audi isn't the first German manufacturer to jump into bed with Lamborghini and come up with a mid-engined gem. BMW did exactly this in the 70s and the result was the M1. Despite packing a 'mere' 277bhp, the M1's rarity and ultra-glamorous ProCar racing heritage certainly punt it into the supercar ranks.
Single-mindedness and sheer eccentricity can often punt an outsider straight into the supercar ranks. Few would argue that the extravagantly ungainly Gumpert Apollo is anything other than a bona fide supercar, while the fabulously wacky Spyker Aileron also qualifies, both cars force of personality and creator's vision building their respective myths, despite their relatively prosaic Audi-sourced powerplants.
Supercars demand one thing in abundance and that's attention. In order to turn heads, the car in question must be rare, extreme in its styling and low-slung. It also needs to be built with passion. That's not shorthand for Italian, although that rarely hurts. The stunning attention to detail that has been poured into the development of McLaren's MP4-12C displays an almost psychotic passion for excellence that marks this car as a supercar whereas the McLaren-Mercedes SLR gets in on the strength of its bombast more than anything else. It also disproves the assertion that a supercar needs its engine behind the driver's head.
We can narrow down what represents a supercar using a few non-scientific criteria but it's hard to put a value on a car's sense of occasion and this is a wholly subjective issue. To some, a Lexus LFA raises the hairs on their necks, representing an impossibly exotic demonstration of the state of the supercar art. To others it's a clinical marketing exercise and their idea of a supercar is embodied by Porsche's 911 GT2 RS, a car that has built its own legend on the hallowed tarmac of the Nurburgring. The fact that forty years after the term was introduced, defining it still generates a healthy discussion leads me to believe that there is no satisfactory definition. You've listened to my faintly arbitrary rulings, now go make your own. If it turns your head, makes you catch your breath with desire and can paint a smile across your face, it's a supercar.