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Lavish amenities and high-end appointments are no longer the privilege of luxury cars. These days, even basic Toyotas and low-end Hondas can be equipped with wood trim, heated seats, and multi-speaker sound systems at modest consequence to the final tally. And Korean manufacturers, in particular, are advancing cabin quality in their bargain-basement offerings rapidly enough to startle even the most entrenched auto snob.
But the big European auto makers aren't worried. As the mainstream has moved downmarket over the past decade, the biggest (and some of the smallest) in European autos have been working on supercars so powerful, fast, and beautiful they zoom past and completely redefine the top end.
The criteria for supercar status is debatable. Indeed, prices range from a mere $250,000 to well over $1 million. Top speeds hover around 200 miles per hour, with a few notable models pushing far past that. Rarity is another important mark of distinction. Many manufacturers produce worldwide runs that number in the mere hundreds.
RISING STARS. If the definition is flexible, it's because there have never been so many supercars to choose from. Nearly every major global brand, from Ford (F) to Ferrari, features at least one high-performance offering. Big European brands have enthusiastically hopped on the speed bandwagon, both for profit and PR.
Newer stars of the superfast firmament include the Porsche Carrera GT and the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, both of which cost more than $500,000. The three-year old Carrera's 600-plus horses propel it to over 200 miles per hour, and from 0 to 60 in 3.8 seconds. Mercedes' offering, meanwhile, harkens back to an esteemed racing pedigree, bearing the names of not one but two racing legends -- "SLR" for the famed 1950s model series and "McLaren" for the Formula 1 giant with which it partners.
But the Germans are treading on hallowed ground. Companies such as Ferrari and Lamborghini have been at the supercar game for decades. Ferrari, in particular, is regarded as the long-haul champ in the arena, having produced classics like the F40, F50, and the current 660 horsepower, V12 Ferrari Enzo.
What's more, the 2006 model year marks what may very well be an apex in supercar history. That's because the long-awaited and much-vaunted Bugatti Veyron will finally be rolling off the assembly line to a lucky few. Its 1,001 horses take it to 60 in 2.5 seconds and make it, most likely, the fastest car in the world -- capable of besting 250 miles per hour.
BULLY FOR BILLIONAIRES. But why so many new models? For one thing, the supercar market is increasingly lucrative and growing rapidly. Not only do analysts expect annual worldwide sales to increase to $6 billion by the end of the decade but the number of eligible buyers is expanding as well. Cap Gemini reported that last year the number of high-net-worth individuals -- i.e. millionaires and billionaires -- grew at a record-setting pace of nearly 10%, to 8.3 million people.
Christoph Grenier, head of sales at Ferrari France, welcomes the growing number of potential supercar customers. "More and more people have more and more money, which helps us," he says. "It's true we have many more competitors than before, but to some extent they're all emulating us." He adds: "We're a monopoly no more."
That's partly because the economics of small-run, high-cost vehicles has never been more generous. Phillipp Rosengarten of Global Insight in Frankfurt, Germany, notes: "The high-quality parts market has never been better or more plentiful. It has become possible for smart manufacturers to return healthy profits from even very small, limited-production runs."
PLETHORA OF PARTS. The availability of performance parts has also led to the rise of small, independent shops -- often in unexpected places -- that produce vehicles capable of competing with the oldest and most recognized manufacturers. Sweden's Koenigsegg CCR model hails from the snowy land of Volvos and yet holds the Guinness World Record for speed in a production vehicle (see BW Online, 03/24/2006, "A Revolution in Swede Speed"). And Holland's Spyker is on an astonishingly rapid path to profit, announcing last month that it was doubling production and had increased profits last year by 62%.
Christian von Koenigsegg, the CEO of the company that bears his name and the man behind the marvel of the world's fastest vehicle emanating from Sweden, not Italy, attributes a great deal of his company's success to the availability of high-performance parts. He says, "They definitely allow us to achieve a performance envelope, from raw horsepower to electronic stabilization controls, that wasn't possible previously."
Manufacturers large and small also benefit from significant technological advancements. The use of carbon fiber -- which, on average, reduces weight by 60% and reduces fuel consumption by 10% to 30% -- is ubiquitous. And it's not uncommon to find production materials from jet fighters and the space shuttle being used as well.
CALIFORNIA'S CUTTING EDGE. But perhaps the biggest recent change has been the steadily increasing requirements that manufacturers must meet to sell roadworthy cars. Emissions and crash-safety standards -- the most restrictive of which happen to emanate from the biggest market in the world, California -- force designers to add performance-reducing weight to today's models. Indeed, some contend that the golden age of supercars was 15 years ago, with milestone models like the Jaguar XJ220 and the original McLaren F1 of the early 1990s. Nevertheless, in terms of sheer range and power, today's car cognoscenti have never had so many a la mode options.
Ferrari's Grenier sums it up: "People are following the vogue. And the vogue is towards very fast and very expensive."