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The greatest supercars

The modern supercar is as much a product of the surge in the number of millionaires and billionaires around the globe as it is the result of a natural drive to shatter records and defy physical limits.
Just released to the U.S., the Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano is the company's most powerful V-12 production car ever.
Just released to the U.S., the Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano is the company's most powerful V-12 production car ever.Ferrari
/ Source: Business Week

Blame Newton for the supercar. Though published long before the modern car existed, supercharged or otherwise, the three laws of motion tucked inside his Principia Mathematica in 1687 laid out a detailed blueprint for today's auto innovation. Since the 1930s, with every new supercar, manufacturers, engineers, designers, and enthusiasts have been taunting and testing each of Newton's tenets:

  • An object will stay at rest or move at a constant velocity (constant speed in a straight line) unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.
  • The rate of change of the momentum of a body is directly proportional to the net force acting on it, and the direction of the change in momentum takes place in the direction of the net force.
  • To every action (force applied) there is an equal but opposite reaction (equal force applied in the opposite direction).

But, the modern supercar is as much a product of the surge in the number of millionaires and billionaires around the globe as it is the result of a natural drive to shatter records and defy physical limits. Indeed, analysts expect worldwide sales of such ultra-luxury vehicles to increase to $6 billion by the end of the decade.

That expansion will be bolstered, no doubt, by record-setting growth in the number of high-net-worth individuals capable of spending hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars on a car. In 2005, global consulting group Capgemini reported that the number of potential customers, people with millions and billions in the bank, is growing by 10% to about 8.3 million.

Warp speed
And if they happen to get their kicks from driving very expensive cars very fast, those well-heeled individuals have plenty of models to choose from. That's because there's never been such a proliferation of speed phenoms to whet super-wealthy appetites for racetrack speed and high-life luxury.

The current pinup for both exclusive wealth and astounding machine endurance is Bugatti's Veyron. This car has nabbed headlines for its superlative price and performance. For a price between $1 million and $1.4 million—depending on options"the Veyron's 1,001-horsepower engine can launch it from 0 to 62 mph in 2.5 seconds and to 188 mph in a heart-pounding 17 seconds.

At somewhat slower speeds and considerably lower prices, there is a class of exclusive manufacturers that has built its reputation on raucous, rowdy supercars. Two names come to mind: Lamborghini and Ferrari, though these Italian companies have often taken different roads to fame.

Old-fashioned curves
Ferrari, today owned by Fiat, has tied its reputation and brand identity to racing. The company's founder, Enzo Ferrari, staked out the strategy during its infancy. His emphasis on the sport resulted in a long string of victories, including 14 F1 Drivers' World titles, nine Le Mans wins, and a whopping 183 F1 Grand Prix victories.

This year, the company introduced the 599 GTB Fiorano, a successor to the 575M Maranello, swathed in curves reminiscent of those first race-wining models. Starting at $255,000, the Fiorano's 620-horsepower V-12 engine — derived, no less, from the highly regarded Ferrari Enzo model — is capable of getting from 0 to 62 mph in 3.7 seconds.

Lamborghini, meanwhile, has not focused so much on winning races and meditating on past glories. Instead, its vehicles have adorned themselves in futuristic lines, looking less like classics and more like spaceships. The new $319,000 Murciélago LP640 features a 6.5-liter V-12 engine. It can go from 0 to 62 mph in 3.4 seconds.

California dreamin'
Not all supercars are Italian, of course. Supercars come from Germany, France, Britain, Sweden, Holland, and even the U.S.

Crafted in the heart of the supercar market, the Irvine, Calif.-built Saleen S7 is indeed all-American. And though it has yet to race Bugatti's monster Veyron, speed fans and supercar aficionados are already placing bets that if anything can make the French-made Veyron look like a Parisian poodle on the raceway, it's a car built by Saleen.

Unlike some models, Veyron included, that attempt to provide a rounded experience by merging speed with comfort, the S7 forgoes weight-adding extras such as mufflers, airbags, all-wheel drive, antilock brakes, or even seat adjusters. It sticks to the essence of its purpose: pure speed. The result is a blow-dart light vehicle that shoots to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds.

Some supercars have cropped up in other unlikely regions, too. No one, for instance expected a record-breaking supercar to hail from icy Sweden, but the Koenigsegg CCX proves it's possible. The product of one man's childhood fantasy, the CCX is the U.S. street-legal version of the Koenigsegg CCR. That supercar currently holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest speed in a production vehicle.

Likewise, the Dutch nameplate Spyker was revived in 1999 to capitalize on the growing class of wealthy car enthusiasts. The company is all-new but acquired the storied brand name and pitches its vehicles not as the fastest or most expensive but as having a bona fide royal lineage.

There is, of course, a fan base entirely devoted to the classics. These fans find more interest in cars such as the classic Jaguar E-type, which redefined the meaning of sport curves in 1961, and the AC Cobra, which proved Americans could, too, be the fastest in the world. The value of these cars at auction has risen dramatically.

Best of everything
Others prefer the most exotic fare from much smaller, less publicized brands. Nameplates like Mosler, Ascari, and Zonda may not ring a bell with car consumers at large, but for a devoted few they mean a lot. These cars are often a composite of parts and technologies brought together by enthusiasts, for enthusiasts.

Indeed, vehicles from those manufacturers are endowed with considerable capabilities. The Mosler MT900S, for instance, has a Corvette Z06-source engine and can go from zero to 60 in a blistering 3.5 seconds. The Ascari KZ1, with its BMW M5-based engine, gets there in 3.7 seconds.

What exactly makes a supercar super will likely continue to be a subject of debate. And whether, in essence, their proliferation represents a gladiatorial contest against nature or simply a manifestation of vast wealth is unlikely to become entirely clear anytime soon. In the meantime, enjoy the resulting automotive theater.