What's The Difference Between A Sports Car, a Supercar, and a Hypercar?
It's one of the great question of the automotive world, so I thought I'd have a go at answering it.
In the automotive world, performance cars are segregated into 3 main categories: sports cars, supercars, and hypercars. As petrolheads, we are naturally programmed to look at a car, and know immediately which frequently used phrase is most befitting to that particular car. It's a judgment that's done on autopilot without the need to think - like a bodily function - and as a result, it can make the job of defining the differences between the various categories a bit of a brain-ache. Which is precisely why I've been wondering: what is the difference between a sports car, a supercar, and a hypercar?
I appreciate the fact that there's a certain amount of subjectiveness to this question. After all, trying to comprehensively distinguish the minutiae of what defines a car as one thing and not something else would make for one hell of a PistonHeads debate. But I'm a sucker for trying to find harmony in the subjective. So, without further ado, let's get cracking...
Amongst all the different measures that you can use to define a performance car, there is of course one thing that stands above everything else that serves to categorise that car: how fast it is. The thing that separates sports cars, supercars, and hypercars to varying points in the motoring hierarchy is the speed they are capable of. Sports cars sit at the bottom of this hierarchy, with supercars occupying the middle ground, and hypercars being the kings of the castle. But contrary to popular belief, outright speed doesn't serve as an indisputable border between categories. There is another factor that arguably is the most definitive element that accurately classifies a car, and it's the feel and sensation you get from behind the wheel.
By saying that outright performance defines where a car is situated in the three categories, you imply that a sports car cannot be faster than anything you'd class as a supercar – but depending on how you're defining "faster", that is not the case. A sports car can be faster than a supercar around a circuit, and a supercar can be faster than a hypercar around a circuit; however, while lap times can't segregate sports cars from supercars and the like, top speed and acceleration statistics do usually improve in cars higher up the automotive hierarchy. But again, this is not set in stone. This is where the feel of the car comes in, and the type of experience the car relays to you as the driver.
Differentiating the type of experiences sports cars, supercars, and hypercars offer is completely subjective. For me, sports cars are delicate driving machines, capable of providing great, approachable fun in entry level offerings, with more expensive cars being set up for optimum handling balance; supercars are usually more powerful, and therefore can be more keen to drift in professional hands; while hypercars push the boundaries of what's possible, and therefore can be rather intimidating, requiring the taming input of an expert.
As well as speed, power, and feel, price also comes into it, as does the position of the engine, the technology used, the aesthetics, the target clientele, the drivetrain, and the production volume - but once again, absolutely nothing is concrete. You will always find exceptions – like Aston Martin's Vantage GT8 sports car that was priced like a supercar, and had the extremely low production volume you'd normally associate with a hypercar. While we can only create loose stereotypes for sports cars, supercars, and hypercars, with all this information in mind, we can start to paint a clearer picture of what differentiates these 3 dominant automotive genres.
Sitting at the bottom of the ladder may make sports cars out to sound rather unappealing. After all, nobody wants to drive around in something that's only sitting on their driveway because they couldn't afford what they really wanted. But to see sports cars through such blunt eyes, and twist what their position in the automotive world says about their genre is to do them a disservice.
A sports car can be quite a graceful instrument. There's a poise and tactility there that can be diluted as you continue to add horsepower. They make wonderful driver's cars, and they give you performance that you can actually exploit on a great road, rather than dabble into wishing you could explore further.
The sports car spectrum is arguably the broadest of all performance car categories. It starts at the entry level Mazda MX-5, and stretches right the way up to the supercar-slaying 500 horsepower masterpiece that is Porsche's 991.2 GT3. A sports car can use rear, four, or even front wheel drive in rare applications on entry level cars; it can have its engine in either the front, middle, or rear. But above all the tangible elements, a sports car must be fun and gratifying.
Here are 5 examples of a sports car:
Afla Romeo 4C
Mitsubishi FTO GPX
porsche 911 Carrera
A supercar presents a level of performance that is enough to scare the bajesus out of the majority of people. Such elements as drama and prestige reach beyond the bounds of sports cars, as does the technology and the price. Supercars are generally a little bit harder to handle than sports cars, and usually have over 500 horsepower.
In general, supercars aren't quite as usable as sports cars, and that's because they are more focused on performance, and therefore have the usability side of their personality jeopardised slightly. Supercars nowadays however are more usable than they've ever been, with cars like McLaren's 720S being something you could potentially use as a daily driver. There is also of course the Porsche 911 Turbo, which having evolved from a sports car, is as usable as any 911.
991.2 911 Turbo S
The majority of supercars are mid-engined; although cars like the Dodge Viper and Corvette ZO6 show that supercars can also be front engined. The Corvette and Viper are also 2 of the only supercars to use a manual transmission; pretty much every other nowadays utilises a DSG or paddle shift. Supercars can be rear or four wheel drive, but certainly not front wheel drive.
McLaren pitches their 540C and 570S as sports cars, but personally, I disagree with them. When comparing them to their main supercar, the 720S, they do appear to be occupying a level below; however, the 540C and 570S I see as entry level supercars. In terms of performance, they would simply demolish even the very fastest sports cars in a straight line. Not to mention that the way they feel also strays into supercar territory.
The aforementioned McLaren 720S however blurs the lines between supercars and hypercars. If anything, it presents hypercar performance in supercar clothes. Once again, this is a time where the feel of the car defines it as what it is rather than the raw speed.
Here are 5 examples of supercars:
Aston Martin Vantage GT12
Lamborghini Huracan LP610-4
Ferrari 488 GTB
Pagani Huayra BC
Absolutely everything about a hypercar is next level. They bring with them a level of performance that requires a professional to process and manage, an approach to achieving their speed that is potentially cutting edge technologically, and a certain amount of madness on the outside that's enough to steal the breath of everyone who looks at them in pure awe.
Hypercars are capable of such alarming speeds, their performance is no longer approachable. You can only ever entertain the slimmest fraction of a hypercar's potential on the public roads – and even then, you're pushing it. They require an incredibly delicate touch: someone who knows exactly how to manage their capabilities and translate it into tangible performance.
Hypercars feel frantic, like they can barely contain their own potential. Driving one fast makes you feel like an alligator's dentist; once you're finished, you're just glad you managed to get out with all your limbs intact. They are dedicated speed monsters, and as a result, aren't really the sort of things you'd want to use for your daily commute. You could, if you wanted to – in the same way you could wear a tuxedo to go paintballing; it just wouldn't seem right.
Once upon a time, you'd find your hypercar equipped with a manual gearbox – but nowadays, there isn't a single established hypercar with anything other than paddles. Also, pretty much all hypercars today have their engine situated in the middle. In my view, there has only ever been one front engined hypercar, and that's the Aston Martin One-77. While it may not be as fast as today's Ferrari 812 – which is technically a Grand Tourer – the Aston has a hardcore, unhinged feel to it. And it's this that defines it as a hypercar.
Aston Martin One-77
That and the price. Hypercar's are usually priced at over £500,000, with the majority occupying the market at well over a million. They are in an exclusive club, not just because of what they can do, but also because of how deep a person has to dig in order to purchase one.
The very latest and revolutionary performance enhancing technology usually debuts in an extreme form on a hypercar. From there, it will dribble down through supercars, and eventually onto sports cars.
Here are 5 examples of hypercars:
Pagani Huayra BC
Porsche 918 Spyder
Aston Martin Valkyrie
Koenigsegg Agera R
What about the Bugatti Veyron?
Some see Bugatti as the inventors of the hypercar with the Veyron. I however couldn't agree with this viewpoint less. The hypercar can trace its roots back quite a long way before the Veyron – not that the Veyron was ever really a hypercar.
While it may have been capable of speed beyond the reaches of anything in its time, that speed was delivered in an incredibly friendly, and usable package. That was part of the Veyron's genius: a thousand horsepower car that is as docile and un-intimidating as a Golf.
Not only that, but the Veyron was a luxury item – and luxury is not something you'll ever find in a hypercar. In fact, the Veyron collaborated such a dizzyingly broad spectrum of abilities, it was just too damn complete for any pre-determined genre. It crafted its own special league: a league of such unmatchable perfection, it has only ever been occupied by it, and now the Chiron.
As you can see then, the world of performance cars is as diverse as modern society. While there will always be exceptions to the basic principles you've seen here, it does at least form a rough guide that can help define sports cars, supercars, and hypercars.
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Written by: Angelo Uccello
Tribe: Speed Machines
Facebook: Speed Machines - DriveTribe