Saturday, 19 February 2011

Was Jeremy Clarkson Right About Supercars?

I was watching Dave the other day and saw the final episode to Series 13 of TopGear (not one of their best series, to be honest), in which The Tall One drives the Aston Martin V12 Vantage - essentially the AMV8 with a DBS engine shoehorned in, uprated brakes/suspension and sticky tyres - and declares that "What I'm driving here... is an ending". But is it, though? Really?

Well, let's take a look. His full point was that "Thanks to all kinds of things - the economy, the environment, problems in the Middle East, the relentless war on speed - car like this will soon be consigned to the history books". I think first we should establish what he means by "cars like this".

Aston Martin V12 Vantage (Pre-production)
The AMV12, as it shall henceforth be nicknamed, is unlike most special editions. Usually they would add shiny trim pieces or a few pre-ticked options boxes and some special paint, at most there would be a big trackday-friendly power-hike-and-diet-plan or a Roadster version. This, however is Aston Martin's smallest car fitted with their biggest engine and given an all-round tuning job to keep the resulting beast at least somewhat drivable. That's like Porsche putting a 911 GT2 RS's 620bhp engine into a Boxster and beefing everything else up to cope, or Ford putting a Mondeo V6 into a Fiesta. The result is a fire-breathing brute that serves no real purpose other than being awesome in every way. It also costs £130,000 and that's £40,000 more than the usual 4.7-litre Vantage V8, so you'd have to either really want one, or be so rich that money is just a number you have to write down on a cheque before getting the thing you so dearly covet this week.

So is he talking about a hugely expensive indulgence, a glorious and insane version of an already fast and expensive car that exists just for the hell of it? One might think so, and that would be understandable as car companies increasingly make efforts to save precious money and keep their average CO2 emissions down (AM themselves have been forced to launch the borderline-offensive Cygnet, literally just a Toyota iQ in £20,000 drag). But then it becomes clear that the spectrum of cars he's talking about is broader than that when photographs of old racers and supercars appear in the grass...

These aren't bonkers versions of supercars, although some of them - the Ford GT40s, the three Bugatti Veyrons from a TG photoshoot - are serious speed freaks, but it's the junior Lamborghini and the Aston DB5 that made me realise he meant all supercars. And to the notion that the supercar as a breed will soon die, I say nay. Nay nay nay, all damn day.

First off, we are getting the first splashes of a whole new wave of supercars. There's the recently-announced Pagani Huayra which you can find described in great detail further down. The replacement for the Lamborghini Murcielago will be unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in early March, and alongside it will possibly be the production version of the Porsche 918 hybrid hypercar that promises 718bhp and up to 90 miles per gallon thanks to amazing new advanced hybrid technology (talk about having your cake and eating it!). Last year saw the new V8 Ferrari 458 Italia as well as a 670 horsepower V12 F599 GTO, a new Mercedes-Benz SLS designed and built purely by their sports car division AMG, and now we get a rival to these cars from McLaren, the snappy-named 'MP4-12C' with the lowest CO2-per-horsepower of any car in the world, making the 600hp twin-turbo V8 more efficient for its size than the motor in a Prius, Smart car, VW Polo Bluemtion, Lexus Hybrid Bicycle, anything.

Most tellingly, though, Aston Martin (again) are pleasing enthusiasts saddened by the horrendous Cygnet with the £1.2 million ONE-77 limited-production supercar, arguably the first true supercar they've ever made. It's worth £1,200,000 for two very good reasons: 1) The engineering and technology involved are quite extreme, and the materials used were used irrespective of cost, such as the real gold leaf that lines the engine bay (gold being the best material at deflecting heat), and 2) Because Aston Martin can sell 77 cars at that price. Partly because it's a very special and exclusive car, but mostly because despite announcing it in 2007 at more or less the exact time the "Credit Crunch" hit, there are more rich people now than ever before, thanks to Dot Com Millionaires, oil sheiks and Alan Sugars roaming the richer parts of London with more dough than they arguably deserve. These people will always want something special (read: shiny) yet comfortable to drive around as a status symbol (not the attitude I would ever take to owning a nice car, but then I'm not the one with money, nor are most genuine car lovers, unfortunately). There are also some lucky car enthusiasts who do have money and want to spend the weekend driving something that doesn't merely look special, but feels special in their hands and under their feet, a car that provides an adrenaline rush, that puts a smile on their face. While even the humble Mazda MX-5 or a hot hatch can take care of the latter part, these people as well as the aforementioned silver spoon eaters will always demand a supercar or a sporty GT, and companies like Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini etc. will always happily oblige. It's pretty much why Lotus are bending over backwards to pander to these people by throwing their entire history down the swanny and just making something fancy and powerful instead.

I don't worry about the "New Lotus Position" ruining the upcoming fatties' handling ability though, because as the gazillionaires are indeed balanced out the Jay Kays, Jay Lenos, Jay Somethingelses and Rowan Atkinsons of the world, these companies are locked in an arms race to provide the best mix of showoffability and driving thrill, which, if anything, is turning out better supercars than ever before, in order to appeal to both crowds at once. Consequently, this new wave of supercars provide a great mix of on-road drivability and world-beating performance. Those that want something purer can go to people like Koenigsegg, Caterham or Ariel, or even have a Porsche 911 GT3 if they don't have a taste for all this focus on technology and driver aids, particularly if they crave that most endangered and beloved species of gearbox: the Manual transmission, considered too slow or old-fashioned for most high-end car makers and champagne-swilling poseurs these days. Unfortunately......

Ferrari 599XX, mixing road and racing for research
into new and improving technology
Lastly, let us not forget where supercars originally came from: Brooklands. Silverstone. Le Mans. The Nurburgring. Suzuka. Laguna Seca. Monza. Ferrari started making road cars in order to fund their racing efforts, and these days most established prestige car makers have a history in motorsport. And as motorsport will be with us for a very long time to come (it's the biggest industry in the UK, for a start, and Formula 1, Moto GP and the World Rally Championship aren't going anywhere yet), the advances found in racing will always filter down to road cars - at least to reassure people it's still "relevant" - and the halfway step between racing cars and commuter boxes are sports cars and supercars (if it's too extreme even for them, the company usually releases a Concept car and says that the tech will reach a production car soon), developing things like carbon fibre construction, dual-clutch transmissions and better knowledge of aerodynamics to name a few things, until they're cheap enough to affect your car. Yes, your replacement for that tired old Ford Escort/ Rover 400/ Benz Patent Motor Wagen sitting forlornly on your driveway. Carbon fibre, previously the reserve of McLaren F1s and Ferrari Enzos, is now used in the Citroen DS3 R, and more extensively in a rumoured upcoming BMW city car. Volkswagen's DSG twin-clutch 'box is now found in the VW Polo, but can trace its routes back to '80s Porsche Le Mans prototypes and the fearsome Audi S1 Quattro Group B rally car. Most modern cars use aerodynamics in their body design to have a low drag coefficient in order to improve fuel economy and/or top speed. The Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) is soon to be found in Lotii and Ferraris, as well as that Porsche 918 Super-Hybrid I mentioned earlier.

Basically, the world needs supercars. It may not seem like it to environmentalists, but they make ordinary cars better, they make rich people's lives better (as well as those of motoring journalists), and they make bedroom walls better. So, Mr. Clarkson, that makes you wrong, I'm afraid. Supercars will never go away. They will merely change with the times.

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