Picture this: A professional driver climbs into a brawny $182,000, 560-horsepower, all-wheel-drive Porsche 911 Turbo S, the company’s long-standing technological showpiece. He rips away from the pits and hurtles onto the racetrack. As the speedometer sweeps into the triple figures, another car appears in his mirrors: the new Porsche 918 Spyder, an 887-hp supercar. The 918 instantly gains on the pro, forcing him to drive the 911’s wheels off to avoid getting run over. The bad news: The hybrid’s being driven by an amateur with little driver training. “I was recently at [Mazda] Raceway Laguna Seca driving my butt off in a Turbo, and these midlevel journalists were right on my bumper,” grouses Hurley Haywood, a legendary racer who’s won Le Mans three times. “It’s phenomenal how fast you can drive the 918 with no problem at all.”
How can the 918 suddenly make Porsche’s former top dog seem weak and outdated, a quaint creature from another era? Start with the fact that it’s a plug-in hybrid powered by a high-revving V-8 mounted behind the cockpit and two electric motors. Armed with a 6.8 kilowatt-hour, liquid-cooled, lithium-ion battery pack, this futuristic arachnid can not only outrun the mighty Turbo, it can also slide around town silently without a single chug of petrol. Think of it as the Toyota Prius of the Bizarro World.
Over the past year Porsche, based in Stuttgart, Germany, has offered racetrack test drives of the 918 to prospective buyers, dealers, and journalists, and it always goes the same. I’ve chased after one of those Turbos in the 918, gliding the supercar through twisting turns effortlessly, hands light on the wheel as the V-8 crackled behind me. I was cursing at the hapless pro in front, urging him to get a move on. With the gas engine alone making 608 hp, it was already a gun-vs.-knife fight. But then I pressed the red race button on the steering wheel, and the experience warped into something unique.
Trigger this “ludicrous speed” mode and the 918 engages the electric motors, using all of the remaining juice in the battery packs to do one thing: make the car go even faster. With 940 pound-feet of torque motivating the Spyder through corners, it’s a feeling unlike any I’ve ever experienced in a fast car, akin to swimming in the ocean and catching a big rolling breaker back toward shore. Your body is caught in an inexorable surge, sweeping you away with an almost preternatural force. It’s like mainlining adrenaline.
It’s a finite force, however. The maximum power is timed to expend itself after an average lap of a racetrack, and then the batteries are sapped. But one lap, I learned, is enough. Your senses just can’t keep up.
Porsche is hardly alone in the race to use hybrid technology to make its cars flat-out faster. Ferrari has the $1.4 million LaFerrari, and McLaren the $1.15 million P1. Both hybrids were sold out almost as soon as they were announced. Not to be left out, Lamborghini introduced a plug-in hybrid concept car at this year’s Paris Motor Show. Dinosaur fuel, meet the Digital Age. The future will be electrified.
It is hard to overstate the significance of this change. The formula for making a superfast sports car has pretty much stayed the same for more than a century. Call it the Carroll Shelby maxim: Take a big, potent engine and stuff it into a lightweight sports-car frame. A sense of balance helped but wasn’t essential.
Sir Ron Dennis’s brainiac engineers masterminded this Formula 1–inspired take on a 3.8-liter twin-turbo V-8 sports car. Its 727-hp gas engine gets a boost from an electric motor that sits inside the engine-block casing to power a flywheel.
Electric motors have a natural performance advantage. While a traditional gasoline engine needs to build up revolutions per minute to create torque, an electric motor lends 100% torque on demand. The full power is available the moment you drop your right foot onto the accelerator. (Torque is the amount of “grunt” a car has, best felt when hitting full throttle off the line at a green light.) The first time I drove the all-electric Nissan Leaf, I was astounded by its speed off the line (if by nothing else).
So sports-car makers are taking advantage and combining an internal-combustion engine with one or more electric motors. An electric motor might power a specific axle or even a single wheel, maximizing that initial burst of speed, but also abetting overall horsepower.
There’s no clear consensus on the best approach. The LaFerrari’s internals are utterly different than those used by the McLaren P1 (see “Supercar Tech 2.0” below). A manufacturer might choose to allow the car to run in all-electric mode on demand, like the McLaren P1, or never, like the LaFerrari. The battery pack might be recharged by plugging it in or harvesting extra power from the gas engine (Ferrari), or both (P1).
In the case of Porsche, the 918 can both be plugged in and recharged via the gas engine. And since one of the E-motors powers the front wheels, it becomes an all-wheel drive, allowing for quick acceleration and the ability to pull the vehicle through tight corners, but without giving up the sporting characteristics of a rear-wheel drive. That’s a big advantage. And it’ll take you some 12 miles under all-electric power.
“I’m a huge fan of hybrid technology when it doesn’t affect performance,” says Haywood. “The 918 has tons of torque and actually makes passengers lightheaded. They’re not used to that in a street car—it’s intoxicating.”
The European auto shows are an ideal place to introduce wow-worthy concept cars, and Lamborghini chose the Paris venue to show off its Asterion LPI 910-4 hybrid, a coupe with throwback 1970s rear haunches and a sexy silhouette. The proposed powertrain is anything but disco era, however. It’s a naturally aspirated V-10 coupled to three electric motors, two of which are mounted on the front axle. In all-electric mode the Asterion is a front-wheel drive (another Lambo first) with a range of 30-plus miles. Under full attack, it produces 897 hp in all-wheel drive and beams to 60 mph in three seconds.
“It’s a car with two souls,” says Stephan Winkelmann, president and CEO of Lamborghini. “On one hand we have to have a super sports car that maintains the DNA of Lamborghini. On the other hand we want a real hybrid car that has an electric range of more than 30 miles.”
Powered by a naturally aspirated V-10 and three electric motors, two of which are mounted to the front axle, it can function as a front-wheel- or all-wheel-drive ride.
But unlike the LaFerrari, the Asterion’s rubber may never kiss the highway. Winkelmann insists that the concept car is only a test to see “how the public and press react to a different Lamborghini drivetrain. Legislators are asking us to reduce emissions, and we need to show the public what a possible Lamborghini solution could be.”
The added weight would compromise the handling, he says, making the Asterion more of a grand touring car than a supercar. “Do we choose to add the batteries, which aid in acceleration, or take them out and allow better handling on the racetrack?” he asks. By way of segue, he turns to the company’s upcoming sport-utility vehicle, the Urus. “In terms of overall weight, a plug-in hybrid approach would have less impact on the Urus.” So Lambo fans, hold off on those Asterion down payments—and look for a possible plug-in hybrid Urus in the not-so-distant future.
Weight is the enemy of speed, so any added mass is a major issue. Batteries are getting lighter, but not quickly enough for some. “At this moment, hybrid technology is not ready for sports cars,” says Horacio Pagani, flatly. “Batteries are just too heavy.” Pagani is a former chief engineer at Lamborghini who went on to create his own supercar company, Pagani Automobili, in a small town in the Italian province of Modena, near Ferrari’s headquarters in Maranello. The company’s latest vehicle, the Huayra, looks like a futuristic starship and starts at a price of more than $1.5 million.
The coupe was recently homologated for the U.S., and I attended an event in New York where top-tier American car collectors literally lined up for a chance to drive it—and write checks. The Huayra is stuffed with technology, but it’s powered by a single twin-turbo V-12 sourced from Mercedes-AMG.
Pagani is not enamored with hybrids. “It would be easy to add the technology to our cars, but we don’t think it is a solution. A supercar is all about the connection between you and the car, with perfect balance and lightness. To add many more kilos to the car would ruin the experience.” He makes a face.
Pagani, an Argentinean who is generally considered an automotive visionary, has instead focused on super-lightweight construction and the use of active aerodynamics. The Huayra’s body is made out of a proprietary mixture of carbon fiber and titanium that is light and extremely strong. But even more revolutionary may be the suite of active aerodynamics found on the car.
The Huayra has numerous flaps that rise and lower like the ailerons on an airplane. They are reacting to speed, braking, and yaw on the car, and help to create downforce at great speeds and keep the car stable while cornering. And because they literally change the shape of the car, they allow the car to be more “slippery” when it needs to be, slicing through the air at highway speeds, and therefore more efficient.
A hefty V-12, built by Mercedes-AMG, cranks out 738 pound-feet of torque and a zero-to-60 time of 3.1 seconds. Active aerodynamics add ultimate slipperiness through the air at speeds up to 230 mph.
The Huayra’s competitors, including the LaFerrari and McLaren, also rely heavily on active aero. Ferrari channels wind through the body of its car rather than around it, and McLaren uses the rear wing as an air brake.
But those aero elements are not as theatrical as those on the Huayra, where the flaps on the hood rise and fall in your sightline, as if you’re piloting a jet. The name itself stands for a South American god of wind. “Everyone is trying to implement active aero,” says Pagani. “We have done it effectively for some time, and they are following our lead.” For one of the first times that day, he smiles.
There have even been rumors recently that Bugatti is considering alternative powertrains for its next-generation Veyron, forsaking the setup of massive 16-cylinder engines with four turbochargers. At the highest levels, nothing is sacred.
The rare-air realm of hybrid supercars is thin indeed, and you’d be forgiven for wondering if anyone is exploiting the massive white space between a Prius and a LaFerrari. The answer is yes: BMW. The company has a sub-brand called “i” with a goal of sustainable mobility. The first two products are the i3, an all-electric runabout, and the radical i8 plug-in, a supercar that costs only $135,700.
Of all the cars I’ve driven over the past year, the i8 is easily the most interesting and the most fun. It looks outrageous, with a swoopy, futuristic carbon-fiber body, just like the LaFerrari, and doors that scissor up and outward like a Lamborghini’s. Motor around a city center and crowds gather. But instead of a big gas engine, the i8 has a modest turbocharged three-cylinder, plus two electric motors and two transmissions. As such, it can run on all-electric power as a front-wheel drive, all gas as a rear-wheel, or a combination of engines as an all-wheel drive.
It sounds complicated, but the i8 shifts between power sources flawlessly, and the total 357 hp is well matched to legal roads. It zips around without tearing your head off, and I giggled every time I opened the dramatic doors. If this is the semi-affordable future, I want in.
“We wondered, What would the sports car of the future look like? Then we went out to create it today,” says Jose Guerrero, the product manager of the i brand for BMW North America. “The i8 is a technological halo car, but it’s also a vehicle which people can actually attain, closer to a Porsche 911 than a Porsche 918. We wanted to prove our core confidence on a product that is actually attainable. There’s no other car that looks like it on the street.”
A diminutive 1.5-liter gas engine, two electric motors, and two transmissions allow it to run on electric power as a front-wheel drive, on gas as a rear-wheel drive, or in hybrid mode as an all-wheel drive.
Guerrero promises that the tech will filter down. Carbon fiber is a tough, lightweight material ideal for sports cars, and since BMW is making its own rather than outsourcing, prices are falling dramatically. We’ll see it on ever-less-expensive BMWs. “The very near future is going to be very exciting,” he promises.
It’s a point well taken. Technology is making its way to regular consumers at astounding rates. Safety systems once found on only the most expensive Mercedes-Benz models are now found on cars from Hyundai. The next wave of sports cars will cater not only to those who love speed but also to those who want better efficiency and to feel less guilt—and more power.
Hurley Haywood, the Porsche driving champ, says, “People ask why Porsche spent so much to develop this expensive technology on the 918. Yes, it’s expensive, but that technology will be amortized over a long period. I’m sure it will find its way into almost every car that Porsche builds in the future.”
SUPERCAR TECH 2.0
A motorhead primer.
Maranello’s fastest—and arguably most stunning—supercar to date uses a 6.3-liter V-12 and two electric motors for short bursts of hyperspeed. Regenerative braking keeps the batteries topped off.
The latest supercars rely on combinations of new and alternative systems to be slightly more efficient and a heck of a lot faster. Here’s what you need to know.
Cars that use more than one form of energy. Hybrid-electrics are the most common and use an internal-combustion engine and one or more electric motors. Sports-car makers are now using dual powertrains for increased performance.
E-motors can directly power the wheels as well as auxiliary systems such as air conditioning. Most often they are powered by a battery pack, which stores energy derived from regenerative braking, plugging in, or harvesting energy from the gas engine. E-motors produce 100% torque on demand, so they improve acceleration from a dead stop and can usually power the vehicle independently. In the context of supercars, think of them as a Red Bull pounded by an athlete before an event.
The most intelligent hybrids capture and recycle energy that would otherwise be wasted. Regenerative systems capture the kinetic energy from braking and convert it to electricity—the E-motor acts as a generator—to help recharge the battery.
It stands for “kinetic energy recovery system,” a technology used mostly in racing. Hard braking powers a flywheel or a super-capacitor, which, upon demand, then releases its power to an electric motor, adding a short shot of extra boost.
This tech uses wings, flaps, and changeable underbody panels that deploy or retract depending on the driving situation, changing the flow of air on, under, around, and sometimes through the car’s body. Can help the car brake or keep it planted at high speeds.
How it all works:
Each of the supercar manufacturers has taken a different approach. The LaFerrari cannot be plugged in, nor can it run on electric power alone. Its E-motor simply lends extra power, making it a “mild” hybrid. Both the McLaren and Porsche can run silently, in full-electric mode. The Porsche uses one of its two electric motors to power the front wheels, transforming it into an all-wheel drive. Both cars have a steering-wheel button that allows them to go the full bonkers for a few, precious minutes.
The downside? Once the charge is depleted, these supercars are slowed down by heavy battery packs.
This story is from the December 1, 2014 issue of Fortune.