To the consumer, supercars represent the ultimate dream machines. Fast, sexy, and stratospherically priced, they are the cars we’d buy if we won the lottery. To automakers, they are showcases for the very best engineering a company can achieve and the newest technology it has mastered.
The latest technology adopted by the supercar world is electrification. Starting this year and moving into next, five new supercars will debut that make use of some form of electrification. They are the Acura NSX, BMW i8, Ferrari LaFerrari, McLaren P1, and Porsche 918 Spyder.
Ridiculous power and better handling
The electric motors in all five of these cars boost power, but the Ferrari, McLaren, and Porsche use electricity to produce unholy gobs of thrust. The horsepower figures for these three cars are 950-hp, 903-hp, and 887-hp, respectively.
“In order to get the level of powertrain performance to achieve our targets, one of the ways to go was to go with a hybrid powertrain,” said Chris Goodwin, McLaren Automotive’s chief test driver. The electric motor in the new $1.1 million P1 enabled McLaren to boost an engine that makes 641-horsepower in the McLaren 650S by 262-horsepower for use in the P1 hyper-exotic.
In the BMW i8, the electric motor works with a small three-cylinder engine to create a car that can launch from 0 to 60 mph in a scant 4.2 seconds. That’s impressive, but get ready to hold on tight. The similarly stunning Porsche 918 is even faster!
“Designing the 918 Spyder to utilize not only a powerful V-8 engine but also an E-Hybrid system allowed us to achieve outstanding performance,” said Trent Warnke, Porsche’s e-mobility project manager. “Where else can you get 0-60 mph in 2.5 seconds, top track speed of 214 mph, and 67 MPGe?”
In all five of these cars, the electric motor does more than just add horsepower. It also helps fills in the holes in the gasoline engine’s power delivery. The McLaren P1’s 3.8-liter V-8, for example, uses two large turbochargers – a performance addition that tends to cause a lag in power delivery off the line.
According to Goodwin, the electric motor compliments the combustion engine: “We call it torque fill because it’s allowed us to create whatever torque curve we want. That torque fill has given us instantaneous throttle response.”
Electric motors can also aid handling. That’s the case with the Acura NSX, BMW i8, and Porsche 918. All of these cars use electric motors on the front axle, and the torque supplied by those motors can be applied positively or negatively to help the car rotate through a turn.
“When you have the ability to control the torque to the front axle, either dragging the inside wheel, overdriving the outside wheel, doing both at the same time, you can do things dynamically others aren’t doing. You can create a unique cornering experience,” said Sage Marie, Acura’s senior manager of public relations.
Sustainability and efficiency
Among the automakers electrifying their supercars, BMW is the one most concerned with a sustainable future. The curvaceous i8 sports car is part of the new i sub-brand, which is BMW’s effort to build efficient cars from recyclable materials, and to promote energy sustainability.
“What does the sports car of the future look like when your natural resources are not as abundant,” asks BMW i product manager Jose Guerrero. The answer is the i8, a car that delivers 362-horsepower and fuel economy that could be in the 70 to 90 MPG range (EPA fuel economy figures aren’t yet available).
Despite the BMW i brand’s focus on sustainability, the i8 won’t make a significant contribution to BMW’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) numbers, which have to reach 54.5 MPG by 2025. That’s because sales totals for the i8 will be too small to help the company’s overall average. Same goes for the upcoming Acura NSX.
However, BMW is also introducing the i3 electric car, and the company is making plans to use the lightweight components from these cars in other models throughout the lineup. It’s a long-term strategy that should improve fuel mileage dramatically, across the brand’s entire range.
The CAFE mileage numbers for Ferrari and McLaren, and to a lesser extent Porsche, could see a more immediate improvement. That’s because these automakers sell a very limited number of vehicles, most of which are very hard on gas. Even small gains from electrification will improve the CAFE numbers for these automakers.
“We recognize that the world is changing and as Porsche, we will lead with high performance yet environmentally responsible vehicles,” said Porsche’s Warnke.
A final factor to consider is the Zero Emissions Zone. In an effort to improve air quality, Low Emissions Zones that restrict access to vehicles with internal combustion engines are beginning to pop up in European cities. City centers such as Berlin and London may eventually designate Zero Emissions Zones that will ban all cars with internal combustion engines. Offering electric modes in supercars is one way to insure that high-end buyers won’t be inconvenienced by these areas.
Smarter sports cars
As detailed above, the motivation to add electric propulsion to the most advanced supercars varies from brand to brand. Yet, in every instance, electricity improves both power and fuel economy.
“You can have your cake and eat it, too,” said BMW’s Guerrero. “That’s what electrification allows us to do. You can have maximum efficiency and a proper sports car in one package.”
Perhaps McLaren’s Goodwin put it best: “What’s the point of having electric-only driving on a 217-mph supercar? Because it’s really good fun.”