Will the electric revolution kill the supercar?

·7 min read
supercar
supercar

Car companies are feeling the pressure of the impending ban on sales of new combustion-engine models, and none more so than supercar makers.

While mainstream manufacturers such as Ford, Vauxhall and Volkswagen are moving increasingly to zero-emissions electric vehicles (EVs), more storied names such as Ferrari, Aston Martin and Lamborghini are still using petrol-gulping V12-cylinder engines in their sleek designs. But with Britain set to ban sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2035, and the EU following suit by 2040, for how much longer can the traditional supercar survive?

To a car-lover – and to spend at least a quarter of a million pounds on a new supercar, you must love it – the engine is the heart and soul. Car designer Gordon Murray, whose Gordon Murray Automotive T.33 and T.50 models use British-designed and built V12 engines, says: “I think the V12 will go down in history as the ultimate combustion engine.

“The power delivery, the performance and responsiveness are perfect. You don’t get any better sound than a V12, and the noise it makes is a huge part of the supercar experience.” He adds that many customers of his new cars say they had posters of the McLaren F1 – designed by him, and considered by many the ultimate V12 supercar – on their bedroom wall.

These engines have been the key differentiators over the years for niche manufacturers such as Ferrari and Lamborghini. The V12 is a sweet-sounding representation of the extreme engineering efforts the companies have made to create the ultimate performance car.

And supercars are vital to the Italian car industry, where things aren’t going particularly well. Fiat’s market share in the UK so far this year is a measly 1.4 per cent, while across Europe it isn’t much better, at only 4 per cent. Ferrari and Lamborghini, however, are playing a different ball-game. Ferrari is now a publicly-owned company worth £32 billion, Lamborghini is worth a mere £10 billion, and both are immensely profitable, with buyers willing to shell out hundreds of thousands and, in some cases, millions to own their products.

Go to the Ferrari website and it doesn’t take long to realise how important an engine’s soundtrack is to the Italian manufacturer. It claims: “By tradition, every single Ferrari has its own soundtrack that makes it unique.” There’s even a button you can press online to hear “the sound of freedom”: unsurprisingly, it’s a V12 engine roaring past at high revs. On another page, Ferrari claims that “even at low revs, inside the cabin, the soundtrack features the pure V12 orders of harmonics” – and they’re talking about the 296 model, a six-cylinder turbo plug-in hybrid. “It just shows [that] buyers of these cars really do buy into how an engine sounds,” Murray says.

Ferrari 812 (petrol): from £434,000
Ferrari 812 (petrol): from £434,000

So how do EVs compare? An electric motor delivers its peak torque – the force that drives a car forwards – as soon as you press the accelerator petrol, whereas a petrol engine needs time to wind up to its peak. Neither do EVs have gears, which helps if you’re going for ultimate acceleration speed. The result is embodied by the range-topping Tesla Model S Plaid, which has three motors delivering 1,020hp. That’s 220hp more than the (V12) Ferrari 812. The Tesla – a four-door saloon, remember – will do 0-60mph in 1.99 seconds; Ferrari quotes over 0.8 seconds slower for its 812.

But buyers don’t spend a vast amount of money on a car just so they can say it does 0-60mph quicker than it takes to say it. “We aren’t just selling people top speed,” Murray said. “A huge part of what people are looking for in a car is how it delivers its power and torque. And that’s the engine. I drove a Model S recently, and when I put my foot down, I thought: ‘Wow.’ But after half an hour, it’s really boring. Electric supercars just don’t work.”

Lotus Evija (electric): from £2 million
Lotus Evija (electric): from £2 million

Is Murray right? The number of EV supercars around suggests the contrary: that switching to electric propulsion is relatively straightforward for car makers. Lotus claims its Evija will have 2,000hp when it’s launched later this year. The Croatian Rimac Automobili Nevera, the Italian-made Pininfarina Battista, and the Chinese-inspired and British-designed NIO EP9 are all low-volume supercars.

Yet according to industry sources, all are nonetheless struggling to generate interest from buyers. Porsche’s all-electric Taycan model outsold the iconic 911 last year, but that’s a high-performance saloon, and while Ferrari last month promised their first all-electric vehicle by 2035, the company hasn’t laid out a plan to go fully electric. Meanwhile, there are rumours in the car industry that both Ferrari and Lamborghini are lobbying the European Union, via the Italian government, to get special dispensation for low-volume manufacturers to continue producing combustion engines for supercars after the forthcoming ban.

Murray, however, thinks they’re unlikely to succeed. If they don’t, the former Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti thinks the Gordon Murray Automotive T.50 is a decent send-off. “If that’s the full stop to the internal combustion engine supercar, it’s a pretty good full stop,” he claimed last year. All the major components used in Gordon Murray Automotive cars are 100 per cent British, and although the company plans to build hybrid and electric cars going forwards, its founder doesn’t believe that switching to battery power will be advantageous to low-volume niche manufacturers such as his. “With our current cars, we couldn’t have gone anywhere else for the technology. But an electric supercar is relatively easy to build anywhere in the world.”

Porsche Taycan GTS Sports Turismo electric car
Porsche Taycan GTS Sports Turismo electric car

Missing the stomach-wrenching scream of a multi-cylinder engine on full song might be a problem for some owners. But there’s a new generation of car buyers just around the corner that are less analogue and more digital in their outlook. An EV supercar could be well suited to them. Electric cars can have motors mounted on the axle for each wheel, for instance, and these could be programmed to adapt to different driving conditions.

Lamborghini CEO Stephan Winkelmann believes that electric supercars will still appeal to his customers because of their immense torque and acceleration. “It can also fill the gaps [you have] now when you shift gears,” he adds, “helping you to have constant acceleration, which is, in my opinion, the thing they will appreciate the most.” There are rumours that Lamborghini is looking to equip its cars with artificial intelligence, which would learn a driver’s preferences and driving style and adjust the car’s handling and performance to match.

Tesla Model S (electric): from £118,980 - Nick Dimbleby
Tesla Model S (electric): from £118,980 - Nick Dimbleby

On the other hand, the problem with any electric car is the weight of the batteries. The greater a car’s performance, the bigger the battery it needs, and therefore the heavier it is. Murray is blunt: “Everything about making an electric supercar is a negative. Vehicle dynamics are a huge part of building a supercar. That’s directly proportional to weight, and you can’t have a light EV. So you have to start adding all sorts of things like controlled damping to disguise the weight, and that destroys the purity of the driving dynamics.”

For now, as well as their traditional V12 petrol models, manufacturers such as Ferrari will continue to make hybrids with both electric motors and an internal combustion engine. But whether these, or whatever follows them, will be supercars as we know them – remains in doubt.

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