The age of the supercar with either just a natural or blown aspiration engine is coming to an end very shortly. All the major manufacturers are indicating that the next generation of models will be hybrids with Ferrari first out of the gate with the SF90 Stradale. McLaren is slated to follow up early next year with a twin turbo V6 powering the next generation Sports Series cars. Rumors have it that Porsche will be introducing a 911 hybrid in 2022 and I’m sure Lamborghini and Aston Martin will not be that far behind. I’m not excited about this evolution at all and I tend to be an early adopter of new technology. Maybe I’m getting old and crotchety but nothing I’ve read or seen in any of the reviews and reports indicates that hybridization will improve the driving experience.
The current rush to hybridization is being driven by tightening emission controls, not because it’s an avenue to make a superior, more engaging driver’s supercar. The solution seems to be small engines with fewer cylinders combined with a couple of electric motors. This is what worries me. While the technology may be able to deliver improved performance numbers vs. the last generation of supercars, it’s not what I am personally looking for. The vast majority of my driving is on public roads, and whether it’s a 3.0 sec 0-60 time or a 2.8 sec doesn’t make much of a difference to me. What I’m looking for is a car that comes alive at speeds that aren’t going too land you in jail. A big part of that coming alive comes from how the car accelerates, the steering feel, how it turns in, the engine noise, and the overall handling. In fact, it’s some of what are now considered flaws that provide some of the most memorable and enjoyable driving sensations. An F40 would not be an F40 without the turbo lag and when those turbos spool up you certainly know your alive. A hybrid supercar carrying a few hundred extra lbs of batteries just isn’t going to turn in or handle as nicely as another which weight significantly less. The noise a V6 makes is never going to be on par with a V8 or V12. Line up a Ferrari F40, a F50, and a Jaguar XJ220. Two sound terrific and one sounds like a bag of rusty old tools.
While there have been huge technology driven improvements in braking and stability controls over the last decades, I’m not at all a fan of the move to the “by wire” systems used for steering, braking, or accelerating. Even the best of them, lack the same feeling as the hydraulic or mechanical systems. I want to feel like I am driving the car, not give inputs to a computer which will then decide what to do with them. The controls need to feel like they are directly connected to the part of the car you are giving the instruction to. Every time I have driven a car with a “drive by wire” steering system, I’ve walked away feeling the entire experience was very remote. In fact, probably the least exciting car I have ever driven was a Tesla. After 5 minutes I had no interest in driving it any further and if it had autopilot (that was safe and worked), I would have been happy to turn it on and go check emails. I found it that uninvolving.
I have driven a few hybrids over the years including a McLaren P1, the LaFerrari, and a BMW i8. The first two are not really relevant to this discussion as the electric motors are purely for extra performance and in the case of the P1, designed to fill in the turbo lag gaps in the acceleration curve so it feels like the car is normally aspirated. It did that brilliantly and to this day, the P1 has the most memorable mind-altering brutal acceleration of any car I have driven. The BMW i8 on the other hand was designed with emissions in mind and it left me completely flat (BMW i8 report). The 3-cylinder engine sounded anemic, acceleration was just average, the car was overweight, and it showed in the handling. To make matter worse, it was a car I actually wanted to like as I thought it was the best design I had seen from BMW this century. If you could option the i8 with the V10 from the E60 M5, larger front wheels, and bigger brakes then you might have had a great car. Smaller engines, more weight, and a narrow front track is never going to be the formula for improving the herd.
The experience with the i8 has stuck with me and so when Ferrari first launched the SF90, as soon as I found out it was a hybrid, I did even bother to read any of the press reports. This is the first time since the launch of the F355 over 25 years ago that I haven’t been at least interested to see what the new new thing was all about. When I did finally get around to reading the reviews of the SF90 (mainly as research for this article), none of my concerns were alleviated. The SF90 comes with both electric power steering and brake by wire on which there were several comments indicating it is a system you need to get used to. The other comment that stuck out was the braking wasn’t as good as in prior Ferraris due to the added weight. While the SF90 does at least come with a twin turbo V8, it carries an extra 400 lbs. for the hybrid system. My aparthy is not just limited to Ferrari thought, I haven’t been following the developments on McLaren’s new super series either as it being both a V6 and hybrid have me much more concerned than excited. What I am excited about is the our incoming SCG 004S (The SCG 004S). I find it hard not to be excited about a car with a large V8 dropped into a carbon fiber tub with a 6-speed manual gear box and a central driving position.
All this having been said, I don’t have a philosophical objection to hybrids any more than I do to turbo vs. normally aspirated engines. What doesn’t appeal at all about the hybrids is the added weight and increased digitalization. The further you’re removing the driver from a direct connection to the engine, brakes, and wheels the less of an engaging, involving, experience it is going to be to hustle that car down an empty country road on a sunny weekend afternoon. It will be interesting to see if any of the major supercar manufacturers can make the transition to hybrids while preserving those critical elements that make these cars great to drive.
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