Cars, like people, come in all shapes and sizes. We find ourselves describing them in terms ordinarily reserved for humans: muscular, sophisticated, dependable, smart. Often personified by their own unique quirks and charms, metaphorically, at least, cars are a lot like those who drive them.
So what, then, is a supercar? Consider this analogy: there is man, and then there is Superman.
The man from Krypton is stronger, faster, smarter, and better-looking than his earthling cousins. He defies physics. He pushes the envelope in the realm of the possible. Even when he’s battling the forces of evil, his hair remains impeccably styled.
Compare an ordinary car to a supercar, and you see a similar contrast, with one additional feature: where Superman can fly with eagles, the soaring prices of supercars reach stratospheres all of their own.
The supercar market has traditionally been an exclusive niche, dominated by marques such as McLaren, Ferrari, Bentley and Bugatti. The supercar model cannot simply be viewed as a high-end product: in many cases, even the cars’ stratospheric price tags do not match the even higher costs of their design and manufacture. Companies never invest without expecting return. So what’s the selling power in an uneconomical but dead sexy set of wheels?
The simplest, most comprehensive answer is that supercars promote their brand. The supercar is all about image: it’s flashy, fast and hogs the public spotlight each time it breaks a new record for speed or handling. Manufacturers are even selective about who they sell to, since anyone driving a supercar will automatically lend their own star-power, if they have any, to the car’s image.
It might seem like a global economic crisis would be a good moment for the struggling auto industry to tone down its image, trade glitz and glamor for conservative spending, and shore itself up against the biggest shock to its system since the Great Depression.
If super wasn’t enough
Logic would suggest that as citizens are forced to tighten their budgets, they’d be looking for reliable cars at low costs, not a $1.5 million dreamboat.
In fact, the opposite has occurred. While the automotive industry tanks and big dealerships unload their wares on the public at dramatically lowered costs, the supercar industry is expanding. Not in terms of volume by brand, but in a widening of the niche itself. Dealers such as Nissan and Hyundai, who originally built their reputations on dependability and low cost, are now launching their own supercar prototypes, the Nissan GTR and the Hyundai Genesis Coupe, both priced in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Established supercar makers are finding their own ways to step up quality, coming out with models that take “super” to the next level: the Ferrari 430, for instance, already a supercar, was recently upgraded with the release of the 430 Scuderia, faster and more powerful than its progenitor. The Lamborghini LB 640 tells the same story.
We can speculate at length on why this may be. Perhaps the industry is fighting to retain consumer confidence, and see massive spending on unsellable products as a way to show that it has plenty of profits to throw around. Perhaps the world’s wealthiest, those who might actually be able to shell out for a Bentley, weren’t hit hard by the crisis, or aren’t willing to show it.
It is interesting to consider where the supercar market might go from here. A possibility is that the supercars of today, launched as prototypes to catch the media spotlight, will hit the roads as an affordable vehicle tomorrow. This was the case with the Chevy Cameo, initially launched as a custom model, but later mass produced for a larger market.
What can be certain is that, with new competition in the niche, we’re bound to see interesting developments in the future. If every major carmaker jumps on the supercar bandwagon, companies such as Bugatti and Ferrari will have no choice but to supersede their past achievements and take their products to a new level if they are to maintain their image as forerunners in automotive technology.
NADIM MEHANNA is an automotive engineer and has been a pioneer of motoring on Middle Eastern television since 1992