For as long as there have been automobiles, there has been intense competition among carmakers to build the fastest car on the street. It is all well and good to hold records at Bonneville or on a racetrack, but street cars are the models most recognized—and likely purchased—by people in the market for a sports car. That recognition cannot only help sell a certain model, it can spice up interest in an automaker's entire product lineup.
Some folks buy supercars as showpieces or for their cachet as status symbols. Others truly enjoy driving them. Periods of supercar building wax and wane, but over the past few years, the horsepower wars have grown more intense, with manufacturers offering street cars faster than many race cars of recent memory. High-tech body materials like carbon fiber have increased strength while reducing weight, and computerized engine controls—combined with systems like electronic stability control, traction control, and antilock brakes—have made it possible to deliver tremendous performance with little fuss. Engines with 500 horsepower are not uncommon among today's supercars, and both styling and engineering have become incredibly refined.
Here is a look at some of the fastest supercars available today.
The designers of the McLaren F1 had a simple, but ambitious goal in 1993: to create the finest high-performance road car ever built, or likely ever to be built. Drawing on McLaren Automotive's decades of Formula One, IndyCar, and Can-Am race car building ex-perience, the F1 was the first production car to use an all-carbon composite monocoque, a fused body and chassis that is lightweight and incredibly strong.
To ensure both outstanding performance and daily drivability, McLaren turned to BMW, who designed and built the S70/2 engine specifically for the F1. The 6.1-liter, quad-cam, 48-valve V12 produced 627 horsepower and was matched with a six-speed transaxle gearbox. The result was a 2,513-pound land-rocket capable of zero to 60 miles (0-‑97 km) per hour in 3.2 seconds, and a quarter-mile (0.4 km) time of 11.1 seconds. The price? A nice, round, one million dollars.
The F1 driver sits in the center of the cockpit, flanked by two passenger seats offset slightly to the rear. Each car was tailor made for its owner, and McLaren planted each driver's seat in the best position for him or her to reach the controls. In addition to creature comforts like a CD stereo and air-conditioning, every F1 came with a set of custom handmade leather luggage, made to fit in the car's luggage compartments. Keeping true to its race car heritage, the stereo was a special lightweight unit, and the complimentary tool kit was made of lightweight titanium.
The F1 really is a race car let loose on the street. Only 100 were built during a production run that began in 1993 and ended in 1998. Only 64 of those were strictly road cars. Of the other 36, most were built for customers competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans or F1 GTR races. In March 1998, an F1 earned the title of fastest production car in the world, reaching 240 miles (398 km) per hour. The F1 held this record until 2005—an especially impressive run given the dramatic recent increases in automakers' performance wars.
The fact that no more than 64 of these road cars will ever exist makes them especially collectible and nearly impossible to find. However, the factory will be happy to let any interested parties know if an F1 becomes available, and will remount the seat, repaint the car, and even reoption or rebuild it as well as deliver a new set of luggage. McLaren's customer care does not end there, though. If your F1 is experiencing problems that your local Authorized Service Center cannot remedy, each F1 has been equipped with a modem to enable McLaren technicians to diagnose problem cars found nearly anywhere around the world. If issues still arise, the company will fly out a technician. No worries once you put your name on that waiting list. Just keep the checkbook handy.
Lamborghini Murciélago LP640
With a top speed of more than 211 miles per hour and capable of a zero to 60 miles (097 km) per hour sprint in less than three and a half seconds, the Lamborghini Murciélago is no slouch. And at about $320,000, it does not come cheap, although its price tag actually makes it something of a mid-priced supercar.
In exchange for its ostentatious performance, the Murciélago returns 11 miles per gallon (4.67 km/l) in combined highway and city driving according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Owners limited to a city-only motoring experience can expect about nine miles per gallon. Either way, expect to be buying premium gasoline. Anybody who can pony up the sticker price probably does not care, but the Murciélago is not designed to run on regular.
Named for a legendary Spanish fighting bull, the Murciélago's power comes from a 6.5-liter, V12 engine producing 633 horsepower and driving all four wheels. The engine is mounted lengthwise just behind the two seats, which explains the LP in its name: longitudinale posteriori. For buyers concerned that the extroverted styling the LP640 wears in stock trim will not draw quite enough attention, an optional transparent engine cover should seal the deal.
The transmission is a six-speed manual; an electronically shifted automatic e-gear gearbox, with steering wheel mounted paddle shifters, is optional.
Between Lamborghini's trademark scissors doors lies a luxurious interior, with leather upholstery, a DVD player, and MP3 capability. If the standard interior is not up to snuff, buyers can opt for a personalized look from the factory with Lamborghini's Privilegio customization program.
An aluminum space frame and combination steel and carbon-fiber bodywork help keep the Murciélago's weight down to a still not-insubstantial 3,671 pounds (1,665 kg). Not that the Lambo's weight does much to slow its blistering performance—just ask any automotive journalist who has survived a test drive. Not generally known for their driving skills, car writers have reportedly been responsible for totaling at least two LP640s, which only went on sale in spring 2006. Considering that the original Murciélago, with a meager 500 horsepower, went on sale in 2001 and that around 2,000 total have been sold in its five years of existence, the journalists have quite literally made a dent in the new LP640's production.