Currently reading: Matt Prior's tester's notes - defining a supercar
What does it take to be a modern supercar? Is it all to do with power and torque figures? Or could it be something else...

What, exactly, is a supercar? It used to be obvious. It was a car whose engine was in its middle and whose cylinders numbered at least eight, but ideally 12. It had just two seats, a power output starting no lower than a four and a top speed of at least 180mph.

It was wide, it was low, it was impractical, you couldn’t see out of it properly and you had a poster of it on your wall.

It was also expensive and exclusive, so it was probably red. Certainly, Audi didn’t make one.

Today, though, Audi does. Even the least powerful R8 of all, the original V8, met the performance criteria – only you could see out of it and it was no harder to drive than a TT. The supercar, of late, has been democratised.

Which is fine, unless you want to precisely define what one is, and I do. At this mag, we keep a series of ‘Top Fives’ updated –
 our favourite cars in each market segment. Knowing what qualifies, then, is handy.

A dictionary is no help. The Oxford dictionary thinks it’s “a high-performance sports car”, which would mean an Ariel Atom is a supercar, which clearly it isn’t (even in V8 form).

The Collins dictionary thinks a supercar is “a very expensive fast or powerful car with a centrally located engine”, a tighter definition but no more helpful. A ‘centrally located engine’ would rule out any Aston Martin, which is clearly nonsense if you’ve driven a Aston Martin V12 Vantage S, and any Porsche 911.

Although here, actually, 
I’m half with Collins. I know most 911s are supercar fast 
and handle rather better than most of them, too, but I wouldn’t define a GT3 RS as a supercar. 
A 911 Turbo? Perhaps, but 
only on a technicality on 
account of its sheer speed; the 911 is the greatest sports car of all time, not the greatest supercar of all time.

Collins’ definition would also rule out the Mercedes SLS AMG, which is obviously a supercar. Is, though, the new Mercedes-AMG GT? Like a 911, it might be a sports car, in the way that an Aston Martin DB9, despite having the speed, price and power of a supercar, is a grand tourer. A Nissan GT-R is… well, I don’t even know where to start with the GT-R.

In the end, defining whether a car is a supercar comes down, as it always did, to blind prejudice. A supercar isn’t about stats; it’s about a mindset. Does it make you go a bit tingly? Yes? It’s probably a supercar.

Today’s archetypal supercar, then, looks not that dissimilar to what it always did.

Which means it’s a Lamborghini Aventador SV, although that’s so powerful and fast that it’s almost a hypercar, whatever one of those is. Thankfully, Collins and Oxford have not yet attempted that one.

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Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

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TBC 30 August 2015


A 'Supercar' is a road car that a manufacturer makes to maximize performance over all other considerations (performance to include top speed, acceleration, handing and braking). The car should be a stand-alone model, and not a performance orientated version of a lesser model. The car should be the manufacturers premium model and should offer a level of performance akin to other manufacturer's supercar products. Although normally the car would seat two persons, the seating capacity should not be a limiting factor. The location of the power-plant should not be a limiting factor. The body style, coupe, targa or convertible should not be a limiting factor. The engine configuration, internal combustion (number of cylinders, capacity, normally aspirated or forced induction), hybrid or pure electric should not be a limiting factor.

The term 'Hypercar' should be reserved for the apex models that fit the above description.

Christian Galea 29 August 2015

A car you want but don't need

In my mind, a supercar is one that takes your breath away when you look at it, is fast, expensive and exclusive, impractical and uncomfortable - like for example a Lamborghini if I had to define the term supercar, I'd say it's a car that makes absolutely no sense to the head but is very appealing to the heart - and that's why you should get one if ever you had the opportunity to do so.
bowsersheepdog 29 August 2015

The traditionalist view

In my mind a supercar should come in left-hand drive only and is mostly red, with a yellow grille and grey on the front and rear wings. It should have a cramped, four-seat cabin with a glass canopy allowing all-round visibility. It has to have fins on the rear quarters, with extending wings below, and four exhausts. The smooth underside should be emblazoned with its name. The side-pods should not be for the intake of air, but rather contain machine guns. Equally at home on land, under the sea or in the air, it comes with a doddery old professor to service it in one's own workshop, and a chauffeur named Mike.