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German Supercars; The Future or a Bore?

JUST HOW “SUPER” ARE BIG-BRAND GERMAN SUPERCARS?

Updated September 28, 2018

Mainstream German automakers BMW, Audi and Porsche all make stunning supercars that ably check all of the “super” boxes: breathtaking performance and design; state-of-the-art technical innovation; masterpiece build quality; opulent bespoke options; and giddying price tags. Yet while auto experts and actual supercar buyers commonly rank the likes of the Merc-AMG GT S, -Beemer i8, Audi R8 and Porsche 918 alongside any “exotics” from more exclusive brands, in the broader public perception these German flagships are oft regarded as lacking the panache, mystique and raw sex appeal of their Italian and British rivals.

“The problem is public perception, not technical innovation, capability, or race victories — as the Germans currently have the Italians and British beat in those categories,” said Michael Harley, Chief Analyst at AutoWeb. “Enthusiasts and experts objectively rank supercars based on those traits, but the public doesn’t … The German supercars are spectacular, but they don’t evoke the same passion as their Italian, or British, counterparts.”

The big German brands face something of a catch-22 with their supercars, which are “halo” products intended to boost sales of their mainstream, mass-produced models rather than to sell in quantity (or even to be profitable) in themselves. But this very association with everyday rides can also dull the image of these performance flagships.

However incredible a Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Black Series Coupe might be, it still shares a badge with your teenage neighbor’s plastic-y 1987 190E. And as wildly-styled and technically staggering as the BMW i8 is, it’s nonetheless related to that primered ’91 3-Series on Craigslist. The Audi R8 likewise loses some luster through (albeit distant) family ties to the entry-level A3 compact.

 

“These used to be brands that only affluent buyers could afford – not anymore,” said Harley. “Note that Porsche isn’t playing this game, as it very wisely held its cost-of-entry high.”

But even the $929k Porsche 918 with Weissach Package has not-so-super kin, such as the 1976-’88 (and originally designed for Volkswagen) 924, to live down and – like Audi, Beemer and MBZ – also builds four-door sedans and SUVs, neither of which sit well with performance car purists.

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“Without a doubt that is part of it,” said Pete Freeland, an actor and TV host who has owned and restored numerous limited-production cars. “There are [also] some very impressive and expensive Nissan and Toyota sports cars, but because of this very reason they will never get priority at the valet parking in a 5-star restaurant [like] a Lamborghini or Ferrari.”

The likes of Ferrari, Lamborghini and Aston Martin – which have never produced entry-level, four-door or sport utility models – don’t have such problematic associations with their exclusive, exotic creations.

However, Maserati’s four-door Quattroporte cars, which have been produced since the 1960s, and (relatively) affordable 1980s Biturbo and mutant ‘90s “Chrysler TC by Maserati” misadventures don’t seem to have dented the Italian marque’s current supercar status (and it’ll be rolling the brand-image dice again with its Levante SUV next year).

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But beyond just brand associations, big-name German supercars tend to physically resemble, externally at least, their much more affordable stablemates – and with good reason.

“Although the idea of a radically designed German supercar is interesting, and could work in a small number of cases, I think this would be the wrong way to go,” said Andy Goodwin, Managing Editor of Car Keys. “It also wouldn’t be a good move for the brand bosses, who sign the cheques for supercars based on them being ‘halo’ products … They’d lost this marketing benefit if its supercars were unrecognisable.”

Only BMW has truly broken the Germanic mold in this regard, first with its gorgeous late-‘70s M1 production racing car (which was initially intended as a partnership with Lamborghini and designed by Italian legend Giorgetto Giugiaro) and more recently with the Tron-esque i8 plug-in hybrid, introduced in 2014, and even more outlandish i9, due next year.

“I had the choice of nearly any supercar in the world and I bought the new BMW i8,” said professional adventure athlete Patrick Sweeney. “I have gotten more comments, stares, [and] photos taken than any other car I’ve owned – and I’ve owned a lot. Not only is fast and a hybrid, but it has sex written all over it.”

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Meanwhile, storied British automaker Jaguar seems to have insulated the A-list aura of its supercars from the brand’s long history of stately sedans and recent “gateway” models such as the new XE (and even wagons) through radically different styling for the likes of its early ‘90s XJ220 and currently-shelved C-X75 poster cars.

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“Design is just one aspect of the [supercar] measurement, but it is likely the most important from a consumer perspective,” mulled Harley. “More radical designs may raise the visibility, but it’s not the way Germans prefer to design sports cars. As a practice, Germans maintain that form follows function, sculpting sometimes awkwardly over their engineering work (the Porsche Panamera is great example of this).

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“The Italians and British seem to sculpt beautiful designs first, and then design the engineering to fit beneath the sleek bodywork (as with the Aston Martin Rapide).”

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In conclusion, the major German automakers are making supercars every bit as super as anything coming out of Italy, England or anywhere less. Theirs is a distinct, rather than diluted, approach to crafting ultra-exclusive automobiles.

“True petrolheads … get just as excited (possibly even more so) by some of the German exotics,” said Goodwin. “Many even prefer their more subtle approach to the art of going fast and see Ferraris and Lamborghinis as soon-to-be-extinct relics from a recent oil-rich past.

“German supercars offer a different take on supercar ownership from the Italian’s and British, so chasing them would probably backfire and alienate their target audience.”

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Chris Riley
About Chris Riley

I have been wrecking cars for as long as I've been driving them but I keep coming back for more. Two wheels or four, I'm all in. GearHeads.org gives me a chance to give something back to the automobile community.

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