Porsche hots up supercar battle

JASON H HARPER
Last updated 08:10 31/01/2013
Acura NSX (top left), McLaren P1 (top right) and the Porsche 918 Spyder.

SUPERCAR CHALLENGERS: Acura NSX (top left), McLaren P1 (top right) and the Porsche 918 Spyder.

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A McLaren supercar likely to cost some NZ$1.5 million. A $1 million Porsche. And a really nifty Acura.

High-concept, "halo" cars are by nature rare and unusual. The reflected glow of their specialness can raise the profile of an entire brand.

Yet 2013 is looking like the beginning of a banner period for supercars. The bang starts with production of the Porsche 918 Spyder, the first new supercar from the manufacturer in nearly a decade.

Then we'll see the McLaren P1 coupe, the successor to a legendary highway scorcher built in the 1990s.

Lastly, Acura, Honda's upscale sister brand, is finally resurrecting its NSX, a supercar for the everyman.

While all three are spiritual successors of cars we've seen before, both the Porsche and Acura will employ New-Age hybrid powertrains that use both gasoline and electric motors.

I count myself among the excited, as the original Acura NSX and the Porsche 918's predecessor, the Carrera GT, are two personal favourites. I'd dearly like the chance to drive them both again.

Carmakers play their cards especially close when it comes to these exclusive models. Information about engines, top speeds and release dates are carefully doled out over time, both to maintain consumer interest and to foil competitors.

The Porsche 918 Spyder is slated to begin production this September, with that announced price of NZ$1m. It will be a hybrid with a mid-mounted V-8 and two electric motors that should churn out a combined output of nearly 800 horsepower.

Porsche says the car will be capable of 320 kilometres, reaching 100 kmh in around three seconds. Yet it can also drive short distances on battery power alone, and the company promises excellent gas mileage.

I wonder how it will stack up to the Carrera GT, which was released in 2004. A two-seater powered by a mid-engine V-10, it made more than 600 horsepower. Priced at some NZ$537,000, fewer than 1500 were produced.

While it used innovative technologies like a carbon-fibre shell, the Carrera GT lacked many safety-minded driving aids found on sports cars today. It was twitchy and hard to drive, especially on the edge.

I tested it at Mosport International Roadway in Ontario, Canada. As a green racetrack driver at the time, its fury outmatched my skill. I happily traded the steering wheel to a pro, who showed me what the mid-engine screamer was truly capable of.

McLaren's P1, meanwhile, is the successor of the supercar that I'd most like to drive if I had the chance, the infamous F1.

About as exotic as autos get, it broke records as the world's fastest production car, surging past 386 kmh. Only 107 were ever produced. No wonder I've never driven one. (Though I have had fast turns in the McLaren currently on the market, the delightful MP4-12C.)

While the company hasn't released an official production schedule for its new, top-of-the-line P1, the coupe will likely go on sale at the end of the year.

I recently saw a P1 in the flesh at a presentation in New York, and the design is devastatingly cool, a complex weave of exposed carbon-fibre, low-lipped air splitters and aerodynamic ducts. It looks like half a fighter jet, half an alien spacecraft. I've already commenced a lobbying campaign for a test drive.

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Further out is a car much less rare and expensive, but equally important to the brand: the Acura NSX.

The original NSX was produced from the early 1990s to 2005, with a high-revving V6 placed in the centre of the car for ideal balance. The design was sleek if not outlandish, and the handling was astonishing. It was also relatively inexpensive, starting at around US$60,000.

The first time I saw one was on a spinning dais at a Las Vegas casino, the grand prize on a bank of slot machines. I was in college and dreamed about racing it across the desert after a lucky pull. Didn't happen.

Flash forward to the late 1990s, when I tested one for a magazine. I spirited it around a circular off-ramp again and again, the centrifugal force caused lights to dance in my eyes.

With less than 300 horsepower, it wasn't nearly as powerful as modern sports cars. But the accuracy of the steering and its ability to dart into turns opened my eyes to the attainable perfection of a lightweight car with a superior suspension.

The new design doesn't specifically mimic the lines of the original, but it is a mid-engine sports car fashioned into a sexy, modern wedge.

It will have a direct-injected V-6 that powers the rear wheels, and two electric motors for the front wheels. The result should be added power and traction while lending efficiency.

Though we know it will be built in Ohio, Acura is coy as to release dates. It might come out as a 2016 model year.

Either way, I'm hoping for an early drive just to see how it compares with my happy memories of the original.

-Washington Post

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