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The Supercar/Hypercar Wars Continue, But The Roadster Still Has An Ace Up Its Sleeve

When the Tesla Roadster was revealed, it was quite a surprise. People thought the Tesla Semi reveal was over and that everyone was going to head home soon. Suddenly, the lights changed and the prototype came out of the back of a Semi like the DeLorean in Back To The Future came out of Doc Brown’s van.

It turned out that Tesla had not only the showmanship for the reveal down, but a vehicle built to back it. The fastest acceleration times, great top speeds, and over 600 miles of range (obviously not at top speed, of course) made for a big change in the supercar world. The companies making cars that sell for millions found much of their performance looking weak next to a car that would sell for far, far less. It indeed could give a “hardcore smackdown” to gas-powered cars.

Gasoline Strikes Back

If we compare the Roadster reveal to the destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars Episode IV, what we’re seeing now is Act II of the play, where the baddies strike back (like, you know, The Empire Strikes Back). That’s the part of the play where the heroes often end up in a bind again. Obviously, ICE cars don’t have The Force (in the auto world, we call this “massive low-end torque”) that Tesla does in terms of raw acceleration, which puts them at a big disadvantage, but they still have some tricks up their sleeve.

Lamborghini says they aren’t even going to focus on getting the best 0-60 times, and will instead get a competitive advantage through better handling. As I pointed out in this article, this is a real threat to any dominance Tesla may gain with the 2G Roadster. Sure, the Roadster will beat almost anything the supercar makers can throw at the drag strip, but on other types of tracks, handling will matter a lot more.

While we don’t yet know the curb weight, it seems very unlikely that it will weigh less than 3000 pounds. The battery alone will be around 2000, and with everything else the vehicle needs, 3500–4500 pounds is a reasonable range.

Contrast this with cars like the Gordon Murray T50. Not only will the car weigh around half what the 2G Roadster will, but it will also have an active fan system that suctions the vehicle down to the road like the legendary Chaparral 2J. With this weight advantage, plus technology that was banned from most forms of racing because the vehicle was too good, the advantages of more modern engine technology is going to give that car a shocking handling advantage over the 2G roadster.

This really shows us where the supercar industry is going. Everyone is making their vehicles lighter, with better handling, and more top-end power than ever before.

In other words, they can’t beat the Roadster on acceleration, so they’re stepping up their game in places where the Roadster is currently the weakest. But will that last?

Mercedes Is Making A Street-Legal Version of an F1 Car

In response to all these recent supercar developments, Mercedes-Benz’s performance division, AMG, is going to do something truly wild. They’re basically taking a Formula 1 racer, Making the minimum changes it takes to make it road legal, changing it a bit more to make it street drivable, and selling it. They’re calling this beast the Mercedes-AMG ONE.

Image by Mercedes-Benz AMG.

The plug-in hybrid car has a modified F1 engine, plus 4 electric motors. Three of the car’s motors drive the wheels directly, with two in the front (one for each wheel), and one in the rear tied to the gas engine to drive the rear wheels. The fourth electric motor is part of a turbocharger system, and can either use electricity to push more air into the engine or generate electricity from exhaust gases. While these motors would serve in a support role during racing, the vehicle can drive for 16 miles on electric only.

The gas engine itself is about as wild as they come. Its displacement is only 1.6 liters, spread out over six cylinders. It won’t rev up to 11,000 RPM like a Formula 1 car, because they couldn’t sell a vehicle with an engine that only lasts a couple thousand miles, but it will still have impressive abilities for the track.

Final figures aren’t out yet, but expect superior handling and loads of top-end power for the straight sections of the track.

What Would A Race With These Look Like?

At this point, the reasonable readers are wondering who would win, while the Stans are 100% sure the Roadster would still beat it. As it turns out, you’re both right.

At a drag strip? Tesla all the way. The F1 engine and limited electric power won’t propel the AMG ONE from 0–60 mph or through a straight-line quarter mile the way Tesla’s monster EV system will. For racing without sharp turns, the Tesla will be hard to beat with anything but other upcoming electric supercars (and those are coming, too).

On a track with lots of curves, though, the ONE will either run very competitively or be the one doing the smackdowns. It’s all going to come down to the layout of the track.

On something like the Nordschleife, expect the Tesla to initially pull ahead because of its superior low-end acceleration. Once they get to the turns, though, the Roadster will lose ground and start to fall behind. A vehicle that’s 1,000 to 1,500 pounds lighter and still has the benefits of electric torque vectoring just won’t be beat by a heavy EV here unless they completely botch the suspension design. Given that it’s a modified F1 car, expect this to not be the case, and expect it to romp all over in the curvy sections.

What happens in the longer straightaways is still an open question that will decide the race first. Tesla says the Roadster’s top speed is “over 250 mph,” and AMG says its car will go more than 217 mph. Those are both open-ended figures, and not actual top-speed figures, so it’s possible that either car will have a greater top speed. Either way, we’d see the Tesla take back ground in the straights initially, at least until the F1 engine can get to screaming and possibly give the AMG the advantage.

The Tesla will have to start braking before the other supercars, though, when the straightaway ends. That’s going to take away part of the gains it made (if any) in the straight sections.

The above comparison also leaves out any potential magic from SpaceX thrusters.

Bottom line here: we don’t know who will win here.

Supercar Prices Still Suck

For the Mercedes-AMG ONE, there are still going to be some major downsides, though.

The biggest one is the price, which will approach $3 million. That’s 10–15× the price of the Roadster, so that extra little edge that could beat the Roadster on some tracks comes at quite a price. On top of that, the engine will only be designed to run for 30,000 miles. This is impressive, because the real F1 race engines only last 2,000 miles at most, but that’s going to add to the expense of owning one.

Expect some owners to try to do a lot of casual driving on electric so they don’t wear out the racing engine.

Expect Prices To Fall, Though

The price advantage probably won’t hold in the long run, though. The Gordon Murray T50 will be almost a million bucks cheaper than the Mercedes-AMG ONE, and we can expect supercar technology to slowly trickle down to the cheaper sports cars.

One likely contender that could give the Roadster a challenge for a similar price is the upcoming Corvette E-Ray. Specs are all rumor at this point, but some expect to see a hot turbocharged version of the car’s mid-mounted V8 gas engine that produces 900 horsepower alone. Add two front electric motors, and you’d have a machine that will make buyers think about their options.

Another indicator that hybrid supercars will continue to compete comes from Honda. The NSX has been out a few years, and many people were initially disappointed with its performance. When people started giving them upgrades and tunes, though, the NSX’s got to the point where they weren’t far behind a Raven Tesla on the drag strip. We can expect to see more affordable sporty hybrids come out in the same price range as the Roadster with even better performance.

Nissan is also stepping up its attack — specifically the GTR N Attack package. The price of the GTR plus all of the N Attack upgrades would give you a vehicle that’s capable of approaching 7 minutes at the ‘ring for a price that’s close to that of the Roadster. That’s a little faster than the modified Plaid Model S Tesla ran on the same track.

The Return Of The Roadster

If the emerging competition is like The Empire Strikes Back, the second act where the heroes are in peril, then something else we recently learned is going to be the equivalent of The Return of the Jedi. It turns out that a trick Elon Musk had up his sleeve wasn’t just a good card, but all four aces.

As my colleague Johnna pointed out, we recently got more information about the upcoming Roadster SpaceX package. We already knew that they intended to offer one with cold gas thrusters that shoot compressed air to push the car, but what we didn’t know was that it could achieve 0-60 mph in just over 1 second with that option. That’s an insane amount of acceleration, and can happen independently of speed because the thrusters are not coupled to the drivetrain.

Sure, 0–60 mph times aren’t a help against the competition, which is now focusing on the Roadster’s weak spot, but it seems likely that there will be more thrusters that allow for lateral force that could cancel out inertia in corners (even if the occupants would feel queasy afterward). Plus, getting a quick burst of power when exiting turns, or a quick burst of acceleration to execute a pass, will likely more than level the playing field.

Add the possibility of using the thrusters for downforce and/or “short hops,” and you take the 2D racetrack and play 3D chess. Will tracks/events allow you to literally leapfrog the competition? Even if they don’t, it’s still really intimidating to know that the vehicle could do that and that it’s only the rules that’s saving you from utter defeat.

I’m not sure what the competition could pull out to fight that, but I doubt they’ll just call it quits. It’s great that Tesla is still doing things to push the industry forward into new territory and keep competition strong well into the future.

Featured image by Tesla.

 
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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to explore the Southwest US with her partner, kids, and animals. Follow her on Twitter for her latest articles and other random things: https://twitter.com/JenniferSensiba

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