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posted on November 1st, 2016

Until fairly recently, “supercar” was the term we used to define the upper echelon of the automotive industry — the fastest, most powerful, expensive, and exclusive vehicles offered by the most elite auto manufacturers. Think Ferrari F40 or F50, Lamborghini Miura/Countach/Diablo, Porsche 959, etc.

In the past few years we’ve seen a democratization of that level of performance. In 2008 Nissan R35 GTR took the performance car world by storm by offering buyers a top speed near-as-makes-no-difference-to 200 mph in a car with a sub-$70k MSRP. In 2016 buyers are practically spoiled for choice with a wide selection of sub-$100k cars with enough power on tap to push start a freight train.

Enter the hypercar. Consider them a new class that slots above supercars to reclaim the esoteric performance and exclusivity of the supercar golden age. Ferrari, Koenigsegg, McLaren, Porsche, and Pagani have spent the last couple years in a free-for-all battle to be crowned king of the hypercars with the LaFerrari, One:1, P1, 918, and Huayra respectively. “Apex: The Story of the Hypercar”, a new documentary from Netflix, delves into this battle of engineering wit. In addition to documenting the creation of these cars, the documentary wrestles with the challenge of finding a cultural purpose for these machines. Are they merely the playthings of the ultra-wealthy, simply designed to attract the biggest egos with the deepest pockets, or do they serve a greater function?

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I think the space race is the best analogy. Initially it wasn’t readily apparent how beating the Russians to space could benefit the average American in a tangible way, but it resulted in a considerable amount of innovation that became available to the layperson; smoke detectors, satellite TV and navigation, memory foam, pens that can write upside down, etc.

The hypercar battle, and the supercar skirmish that came before it, push the skills of automotive engineers and the materials they use to the absolute limits. The relentless passion to find “something better,” be it more power, less weight, stronger materials, more efficient packaging, or more precise suspension. The manufacturers want to build better cars than their competition, and customers in this market want to own the most powerful and exclusive cars in the world. It creates an environment of constant innovation, with benefits that ripple across the entire automotive industry.

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In 1987 the Ferrari F40, briefly the fastest and most expensive vehicle in the world, was released with body panels made from carbon fiber. In 1993 McLaren built the entire chassis of the F1 out of the stuff. Now buyers can walk into a BMW dealership and buy an i3 with a carbon fiber monocoque for $45k. This is the true benefit of the hypercar race — while only a select few may ever experience the esoteric performance of these machines, every driver benefits from the innovation required to create them. To see how it’s done, check out “Apex: The Story of the Hypercar” on Netflix.

Joey is a freelance writer who loves everything about interesting cars and the people who drive them. He can most often be found lying under an old car or playing with his golden retriever, Molly.