The mystery of selling supercars

Every year at least one startup wants to enter the supercar business. The margins seem appealing, the market is booming even though the rest of the automotive market is rather volatile. Still nearly none of them makes it. In this article you will find some reasons why.

The new guys are not hyper enough: since Koenigsegg and Pagani created the hypercar segment, super just does not suffice anymore. Since a mainstream manufacturer in the form of Bugatti came along in this segment and dominated it from a technological and commercial perspective, it had become the new benchmark for the ultimate sportscar. Supercars just were not enough anymore.

With common sportscars (such as the C6 Corvette Z06), as well as fast saloons (such as the Mercedes E63 AMG) offering more than 500hp and acceleration figures from 0-100km/h of less than 5 seconds and all of them offering at least 250km/h (frequently limited) top speeds, it is nearly impossible to compete on these performance characteristics.

Buyers of the vehicles in this segment want Top Gear's Clarkson to be able to say that it is or has the most of something 'in the world'. It needs to be the fastest, like a Koenigsegg. It needs to be the most extravagant or artisan, like a Pagani. It needs to be the most expensive, like a Bugatti. Anything which gives the owner bragging rights and the rest of the world compensation joke thoughts.

Strangely enough it does not have to be the most exclusive. Whenever Ferrari wants to sell a limited edition vehicle, it tends to sell all of them before production even started. One example is the recent LaFerrari, of which all 499 items were pre-sold. Given the brand's total annual sales of 7000 vehicles or the production numbers of the established competitors Lamborghini and McLaren, this does not seem that exclusive at all. The same goes for the 375 items for the McLaren P1. Porsche did not manage to pre-sell all its 918 Spyders, but with 918 planned items and the $845k price tag, that is not too surprising. That they already managed to sell about two-thirds of them, is nothing less than impressive.

So why have the other accepted hypercar manufacturers such a hard time selling only a limited amount of vehicles? Bugatti is struggling to sell the last vehicles of its planned 300 items production run for the Veyron, Koenigsegg never goes over 20 vehicles annually and Pagani manages to keep its production numbers below the radar.

There are a few factors which help selling these million dollar hypercars.

Newness is a major sales element and one often misunderstood by the newcomers. Most of these startups show their products to the market in the early prototype stage. If they manage to reach production, the vehicles have taken several years to reach maturity. When the final items are presented to the market, everyone thinks it is an old design because they were allowed to become familiar with it for several years. Just ask Spyker how deadly it is to show a new prototype every year on the Geneva motorshow, while never managing to get it into production before the next showcar is presented. All pre-ordered vehicles will be cancelled by this point, since nobody wants to pay the premium price for last year's model. This usually happens anyway if this spoiled customer group has to wait for more than a year on something they crave instantly. Be like Gordon Murray and only present when you are ready to sell.

What worked for a while for the hypercar niche manufacturers, was to offer limited editions of their vehicles. Bugatti had a few World Record specification vehicles, Koenigsegg had their Edition, the Trevitas and now the One:1, while Pagani had their Cinques and Tricolores.
This strategy seemed to work better than the one-offs. Bugatti has been using this exclusively since a few years and Pagani used it as well for about a dozen of Zondas after the production of this model officially ended. This strategy seems exhausted by now as well, since every vehicle was specified uniquely anyway.

Having the latest and greatest technology seems to be another obvious sales argument. Strangely enough it is more the perception of technology than the actual state-of-art or advanced level of the vehicle construction. No educated person would want two powertrains in one vehicle, due to complexity, mass and costs. But still that is what the world just witnessed. It happened because of the public opinion regarding how ecological hybrids are supposed to be, as well as this being the only way to fool the regulations regarding consumption and emissions if you want to achieve certain performance figures.

So what makes it possible to sell cars in this segment after all? It seems to be a combination of heritage and credibility.

Heritage can only be achieved over time and time is the scarcest resource for a startup. Buying a brand with all its fame and glory like Spyker or many others did, might be a worthwhile investment. Having racing successes helps, though only old race successes are considered to be worthy of extra appreciation. Vroeger was alles beter.

Credibility can be achieved in several ways. Being consistent with performance is a major contributor. Being able to confirm competitive claims helps as well. But also for credibility it is true that time is the most important factor to achieve it. Since time is money and startups tend to have neither, it is not very likely that they will succeed.

Unfortunately the old saying 'The fastest way to become a millionaire in the sportcar business is by starting as a billionaire' still holds true. It will be interesting to see if new players will be able to make it. As Koenigsegg and Pagani have proven, it is not impossible. They had to create a new market segment to achieve this. Is this necessary again? Time will tell. To those who want to try: godspeed and please read the above... ¤

This article first appeared on my now defunct website www.autoweekly.info on 2014-07-17

Focus on Torque Fill

The FOCUS of this article is on TORQUE FILL systems. It explains the need for these systems, what they do and how the various solutions achieve the desired result.

Two driving modes occur during normal driving: acceleration and constant speed. The amount of power (and thus torque) needed for acceleration is considerably larger than for driving at a constant speed.

Internal combustion engines (ICEs) are almost without exception optimised for minimal fuel consumption during prescribed driving cycles such as the NEDC, which feature mostly moderate acceleration and constant speeds. ICEs, especially the spark ignited (SI) ones, are tuned for high specific outputs to minimise pump losses. The useful range of engine speeds is limited, meaning that the engines are not very flexible (= useful torque spread). More torque is usually needed in real life than available, resulting in using higher engine speeds to achieve the desired acceleration. This is also the main reason why so many vehicles can not meet their fuel consumption figures.

There are various strategies to complement the ICE torque, which is often called Torque fill.

Many current SI ICEs are not naturally aspirated, have forced induction. The boost pressure of these systems is related to the torque output. To achieve high boost pressures on turbocharged engines at low engine speeds, many strategies have been tried.

Some companies (e.g. SAAB) made the turbocharger always generate too much boost and used a waste-gate valve to control the amount of boost. Water injection was used in F1 racing to increase the mass flow to the turbocharger turbines, resulting in higher boost pressures. The higher boost pressure was usually still achieved mostly at higher engine speeds and the slow throttle response (turbolag thanks to the thermal rather than mechanical connection) made it hard to use. An additional high pressure storage tank powered by an ICE has even been invented, but not yet implemented.

To make turbochargers respond quicker and to work at lower exhaust gas flows, strategies as variable exhaust gas flow manipulation via variable vane position or twin-scroll housings are used. More often a compound system of multiple turbochargers is used, in which the turbochargers can be configured parallel, in series or a combination. Some brands have already used three turbochargers on one ICE, such as BMW on its N57S I6 diesel.

A combination of a mechanically driven supercharger and turbocharger, such as the VW TwinCharger system or the high performance Zenvo ST, seems to offer the best of both worlds. Better still though would be a compressor which would be driven independent from the ICE. The Ricardo HyBoost system uses an electrically driven compressor powered via supercapacitors, which could combine well with the Mazda i-ELOOP system. Audi plans to use a 48V battery for this purpose.

On naturally aspirated (NA) engines the common methods for increasing torque is to use variable valve lift and timing, as well as variable inlet and exhaust system pressure manipulation. The only other option which is used to complement a NA engine is to combine it with an electric motor into a parallel or series hybrid powertrain.

The torque fill is what make the new generation of hypercars hyper (responsive). In the Porsche 918 Spyder e-motors are used to power both the front and rear axle, of which the one on the rear axle also functions as the main generator. In the McLaren P1 only the rear axle is driven by a TC ICE with the e-motor/generator integrated in the ICE. In the LaFerrari the HY-KERS system uses an e-motor connected to the gearbox rather than integrate in the ICE.

As can be seen in the new generation of hypercars, increased torque can be realised without harming the throttle response. With the rise of Plug-in Hybrid EVs featuring the required hardware for torque fill and the simplicity of the HyBoost system, it seems clear that torque fill will become standard and extend the life of the ICE a little more. ¤

This article first appeared on my now defunct website www.autoweekly.info on 2014-07-15.

The evolution of performance

Many performance benchmarks are used for comparing the performance of cars in order to decide who is best (at something at least). Top speed and acceleration numbers (longitudinal and lateral), top speed are the most used ones. While these numbers are useful for comparing contemporary competitors, this time they will be used for comparing the evolution of record car performance.

The number with the largest halo-effect is still the top-speed. By using the fastest production cars as the selection criterion for this showing the evolution, the progress made can become clear. Turns out top speed itself has increased almost
linearly
over time, from 201km/h in 1949 (Jaguar XK120) to 435km/h in 2014 (Hennessey Venom GT). Since the power required to overcome the aerodynamic drag has a cubic relation (3) to the velocity, the increase in propulsion power required to achieve this would have to increase by a factor of 10,3. The maximum propulsion power increased from 162PS to 1244PS, which is a factor of only 7,7. Considering that new vehicles have higher output powertrains with absolutely (though most likely not relatively) bigger losses and also have downforce rather than lift, the aerodynamic drag coefficient must have gone down by at least 25% to make that possible.

Another standard figure used to compare the performance of cars is the 0-100km/h acceleration. Since power is the product of force and speed and force is the product of mass and acceleration, the power required for acceleration of a car is proportional to the mass, but inversely proportional to the acceleration time (assuming constant acceleration during this acceleration time). The power-to-mass ratio (which everyone somehow keeps calling power-to-weight) should therefore have a proportional relation to the acceleration time (if all other parameters remain constant).

The acceleration time has dropped from 9,8s (Jaguar XK120) to 2,8s (Hennessey Venom GT) for the same selection of vehicles as before. The power-to-mass ratio has increased to 818% between these vehicles (XK120 = 100%), while the acceleration time difference would suggest only 329% would be necessary. Somehow it seems that increasing the power-to-mass ratio does not help improving acceleration beyond a certain point. Drag racers will obviously disagree, but they tend to change the circumstances as well as the vehicle.

It would seem that with Rear-Wheel-Drive only the maximum achievable acceleration is 1,01g (and 0-100km/h in 2,8s), no matter how high the power-to-mass ratio is (0,85PS/kg is the estimated sweet spot). With All-Wheel-Drive 1,13g the limit seems (0-100km/h in 2,5s), since there is no real difference between the 1001PS (0,53PS/kg) and 1200PS versions. Time will no doubt proof these numbers wrong.

When comparing the power-to-mass of these record cars to their acceleration, it also becomes clear that the AWD cars achieve the same acceleration figures with up to 50% lower power-to-mass ratios as their contemporary RWD rivals. Traction therefore makes a bigger difference than power-to-mass. Drag racers would agree this time.

Traction has been improved by better tires and suspension systems, as well as optimised torque delivery via advanced transmissions and traction control systems for both RWD and AWD. The real improvement though is in the fact that mere mortals can achieve the record numbers and not just driving gods (or other people who consider themselves immortal).

The dry vehicle mass of the RWD record cars fluctuates between 1093kg and 1330kg. The AWDs remain between 1450kg and 1915kg. Progress can not be found in the mass of the vehicles, but in the power-to-mass which rises exponentially for every new record vehicle. Unless a revolution happens in the field of traction, not much progress should be expected in acceleration figures. Top speed figures on the other hand are still open. The sky is the limit. Especially if you mess up your aerodynamics. ¤

This article first appeared on my now defunct website www.autoweekly.info on 2014-05-09.

Definition of fast cars?

Sportscars, supercars, hypercars, megacars... Currently there are some debates going on about the moniker to use for fast cars. The designation only has relevance for pub- or street-credibility, but nonetheless the discussions can become as volatile as YouTube comment threads.

Since cars have been around, there was a race for the same credibility going on between manufacturers and the argument was simple: top speed = testicle dimensions (male only market back then). A completely irrelevant figure for the actual performance, but this was the one that really separated the expensive cars from mainstream products and was therefore used to justify it.

300km/h and soon after that 200mph were the numbers which teased the imagination. As soon as one brand achieved one, the others had to beat it, if only by one or two km/h. The fact that these claimed numbers were usually recorded at completely incomparible circumstances and without neutral verification did not seem to matter. It is still interesting to see the graph of this progress.

This friendly fight continued until the McLaren F1 came along. This car was developed for maximum performance and a side effect of low drag, high power in a lightweight and extremely stiff chassis was a top speed so high that the status quo simply stated that top speed actually was irrelevant.

All of a sudden it was more important to have 'a race car for the road', a racing heritage or other non-road car infuences like aerospace technology. Having at least a V10, carbon tub and six speed gearbox driving large wheels with extremely low profile tires only good for drag strips or smooth race tracks was what mattered.

Untill the Koenigsegg CCR came along. The race for top speed and engine power output was back. Bugatti countered well and all of a sudden 1000hp was no longer an imaginative figure, but the actual denominator. Being the only manufacturer having access to tires rated for over 400km/h, they had this number bagged as well.

When Michelin released their high performance tires, Koenigsegg and others such as SSC and Hennessey took their chance and beat all the performance figures which regarding acceleration, braking and top speed. Bugatti came back with the Veyron SuperSport and set the new benchmarks at 1200hp and 417km/h.

Currently the Koenigsegg One:1 is considered to be the ruler, though this is not a road legal car. The Hennessey is, but they did not manage to get the official Guiness record due to not being able to do the record run in both directions.

Does it matter at all who is the fastest or has the most power? If you are an adolescent or someone else who believes that identifying or being identified with something like this does bring a better life, then for sure. To those who appreciate progress in technology a bit. To the rest of the world not the slightest bit. To new small manufacturers who want to give their products a fighting chance, it does a lot.

What is actually remarkable about all this, are not the silly numbers, but that the vehicles are actually still drivable. That is where the real progress has been made.

Now there seems to be a new trend for hybridisation and even electrification. These products match or exceed the benchmark performance figures, but provide a completely different driving and user experience.

Are they better? They bring something new and that seems to be enough to justify them as being better. They seem to be the future that everyone seems to want. Hardly anyone is happy about it though, like with the V6 turbos in F1. Regulations and brainwashing about what should be done seems to have blurred our needs and desires.

It seems that we do need some new definitions to define exiting cars after all. It is just not the one everyone is talking about. By the time everyone will be, we know that we have reached the next phase in performance cars. Can't wait. ¤

This post first appeared on my now defunct www.autoweekly.info website on 2014-05-02.

Finding your optimal WiFi settings

Finding the optimal WiFi channel is very easy with the Utilities within the Wireless Diagnostics tool in OS X Mavericks: http://osxdaily.com/2013/12/11/find-best-wi-fi-channel-wireless-tool-mac/

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