A lot of big, convoluted, and confusing lingo gets thrown around in the car world today. Things like limited-slip differential, 4WD vs. AWD, and even torque or brake horsepower can seem like nonsensical words and phrases to anyone unfamiliar with them. And while you could ask your gearhead friends, watch a few seasons of Top Gear, or do some cursory internet research to clear them up, there are a few terms that are a bit more elusive and/or hard to pin down.
Probably the most infamous conundrum – even amongst car experts – is what, exactly, the difference is between a hypercar and a supercar. Sure, they’re both examples of extreme automotive achievement, but where does one draw the line between something that qualifies as “super” versus something that can be considered “hyper?” In the interest of clearing things up for any and all interested parties, we’ve put together the following explanation.
HISTORY OF THE SUPERCAR
It’s hard to say exactly when supercars were born. And that’s because vehicles have been progressing performance-wise on a fairly steady upward curve. Sure, there are spikes here and there where an exceptional car outshines its competition – like, say, the Mercedes 300SL Gullwing in 1954 – but the whole car world, for the most part, moves upward together.
Interestingly enough, the first usage of the term “supercar” occurred far longer ago than you might think. Its first recorded appearance dates back to the 1920s – when a pair of newspaper advertisements popped up for vehicles that were being heralded as the pinnacle of automotive engineering. It wasn’t, however, until the second half of the 20th century that true candidates for supercars made their debuts – and those cars are still amongst the greatest of all time.
What many experts and aficionados consider the first road-going supercar is the Ford GT40. Released originally in 1965 to outdo Ferrari on the racetrack (after the prancing pony brand refused to sell to Ford), the road-legal production version of this vehicle boasted an unheard of (at the time) combination of over 335 horsepower, a 0-60 time of just 5.1 seconds, 336 lb-ft of torque, and a top speed of 172 mph. That release sparked a domino-like effect in the car world over the following years, leading to the release of a number of other automotive marvels – such as the Shelby AC Cobra 427 and the Lamborghini Miura. And so it was in the late 1960s that the supercar was truly born.
WHAT MAKES A CAR SUPER?
There are a few defining metrics that elevate a car to this elite level. While a vehicle doesn’t necessarily have to meet all of them in order to qualify, the cars that do – like the Ferrari 488 GTB pictured above – undeniably fall under the supercar umbrella. And those that don’t will likely always be argued about by car enthusiasts the world-round. Those metrics are as follows:
Availability: As you can probably already gather, a supercar isn’t something you can get just by heading on down to your local dealership and looking around. And while they aren’t necessarily limited to just a handful of vehicles, they’re definitely not mass produced in the same manner as your average sedan. A part of this is just necessity – it costs a lot to build a supercar and, therefore, fewer are ever made. But it also ups the appeal – because they wouldn’t be that great if everyone could have one. So, a big part of what makes them what they are is their exclusivity.
Luxury: Sure, you could drive off the lot in an incredibly quick and shockingly inexpensive sports car with absurd performance metrics – but that car is still likely going to have some shoddy or sub-par parts somewhere on it or in it. At the very least, the quality control is going to be marginal. Supercars, by contrast, have their every detail pored over from the minute they are incepted until they finally roll off the lot. They aren’t mass manufactured by machines; they’re intricately constructed by the hands of master craftsmen. As a result, they have price points to match. While you might argue that there are some supercars you can get for under $100k, most of them are going to cost you well over that off the lot.
Performance: Definitely the most important of the three, this metric is an absolute must-have in order for a car to be considered “super.” These vehicles must occupy the comparative highest tier of vehicle performance. Generally, that means top-level numbers on horsepower, torque, 0-60 speed, and overall top speed. Luckily, most of those numbers go hand-in-hand. So, if a car has one of them, it likely has them all. Or at least enough to rank under the “super” moniker.
BIRTH OF THE HYPERCAR
You can think of the difference between hypercars and supercars kind of like the relationship between squares and rectangles. That is to say that all hypercars are supercars but not all supercars are necessarily hypercars. And what’s even more
confusing is that the relationship between the two is actually relative – meaning that there isn’t a clear line drawn between one and the other. That also means a car that fit into the category of hypercar one year might drop to being a supercar in just a few years following.
So what exactly is a hypercar? What we can tell you is this: the first irrefutable hypercar was the 2011 Bugatti Veyron. Sure, you could make some fairly sound arguments for cars that came before it – the Ferrari F40 is a popular choice – but none of them quite stack up against the Veyron. And that’s because this car embodied everything insane about supercars, but it did it to the nth degree. It had a 16 cylinder engine, 1,200 horsepower, a top speed of 253 miles per hour, and produced 1,106 foot-pounds of torque. It also had a fully featured interior, a surround-sound speaker system, and air conditioning – all things unheard of in cars with similar performance specs. Did we mention the price tag? The Bugatti Veyron sold for over $1 million – which was a bargain considering that it cost nearly 5 times that to build.
And that’s what marks the real difference between a supercar and a hypercar: outrageousness. With supercars already occupying the highest tier of automotive excellence, it takes quite a bit to reach the pinnacle above it. And while a supercar doesn’t necessarily need to meet all the requirements to be super, a hypercar must be mind-boggling in performance, luxury, price, and exclusivity in order to rank as such. We’re talking million dollar price tags, luxurious hand-crafted interiors, horsepower and torque that push the limits of what the human body can handle… you get the point.
While we wouldn’t call hypercars commonplace, their ranks have certainly grown over the last few years. Brands like McLaren, Koenigsegg, Lamborghini, Pagani, etc. all have at least one in their catalogs. And more are popping up from other brands and small manufacturers every day. So what comes next? Well, a new wave of technology has begun to show its face amongst the world of high-end automotive performance: electric vehicles.
“New” is, of course, a relative term in this case, since the idea of electric cars has been around for decades. The truth is, car manufacturers have come to an impasse in regards to engineering. Fossil fuels can only push a car’s performance so far without beginning to sacrifice on style and substance. And we appear to be quickly approaching those limits. To cope with that, more and more designers have begun to incorporate electric power into their builds. In fact, some fully electric hypercars already exist – like the Rimac Concept One pictured above (which offers 1,224 horsepower, a 0-62 time of 2.4 seconds, and a top speed of over 220 mph). And so, a technology scoffed at in the automotive world 15 years ago has become the wave of the future. We can hardly wait to see what comes next.