Musings on the Motoring World

The car that taught the world not to be afraid of the future

With the 2010s drawing to a close, it would be very remiss of this site not to join the year-end tradition of dedicating a commemorative epilogue to be tossed into the trough of the internet.

But where does one begin? Even in the context of the automotive industry, the 2010s reads like a Greek epic full of triumphs born from tragedies, heroes turned to sinners, and unexpected changes brought about from the chaos of the Great Financial Crisis. 

Photo by Aditya Vyas

As a whole, the automotive world made impressive strides in the 2010s, and if that serves as any precedence, stepping into the 2020s would be like entering the promised future of hope and optimism – that is until the 2020 US Presidential race kicks into high gear. In that context, no piece would be complete without a mention to Elon Musk and his company of eclectic electric eccentricity.

Musk, who is more concerned about stirring up social media for the sake of funding rather than fixing panel gaps, have brought the future kicking and screaming into the present like no other, for better and for worse. 

Despite elevating electric cars from being the mere curiosity of early adopters to conquering the drag strip and captivating the world with its incredible self-driving capabilities, Musk’s headstrong approach has proven to be a double-edged sword. A spate of high-profile fatalities involving self-driving cars with “work in progress” technology not only ignited debate of the technology’s future but galvanised his critics. 

Nevertheless, for single-handedly bringing the future to the masses, no one else comes close to what Musk has accomplished so far, though one would suspect that his story is one that will continue into the 2020s and beyond. As such to frame the achievements of a man of the future in the 2010s would be criminally stifling. 

Instead, the progress of the 2010s should rightly be commemorated by a product of the 2010s, and no automotive gamechanger symbolises this change better than the Porsche 918 Spyder. 

Born from a top-secret project at the outset of the decade, the 918 Spyder Concept immediately stunned the world and divided the fanbase from the moment it took the stand at the 2010 Geneva Motor Show. Nobody saw the 918 Spyder concept coming, not even top-level executives within the company itself apart from a handful of insiders. 

Regardless, if the concept was to stir the public, Porsche delivered a category five hurricane into the discourse. Casual observers were in awe at Porsche’s bold claims of a 320km/h supercar that could achieve 3L/100km, while traditionalists were whipped into a frenzy at the thought that the successor to the seminal Carrera GT would be glorified Prius in a 911 frock.

The idea of a hybrid supercar isn’t all that new in 2010, but to many pundits, a feasible production version was thought to be many decades away considering that the piously-slow Prius and the upcoming Chevrolet Volt were the only points of reference at that time. 

Ardent Porsche fans were even more aghast as the 918’s development went on. It was going to be all-wheel-drive with electric motors providing the thrust to both front and rear axles, the fan-favourite manual gearbox would be sidelined for a heavy and complex dual-clutch automatic, and its massive battery pack and accompanying electric drivetrain would add a portly 314kg to its total weight. Fans were concerned that the 918 Spyder would fall further from the beloved back-to-basics Carrera GT. 

As Porsche pushed on with a massive, and then-unseen level of openness in the development of its prototypes, its engineers were always on the defensive, adamant that the 918 would be faster around a track with its hybrid system than without.

While critics were hard to convince, Porsche’s rivals weren’t. It wasn’t long till McLaren and Ferrari announced that they would be coming to the party with their own interpretation of the hybrid supercar, except that it would be lighter, more powerful, and deploy its power exclusively to the rear wheels. In light of this, many wondered if the 918 was the Kool-Aid and destined to suffer the same fate as the unfortunate 959 – an overcomplicated technological wonder that won few accolades and hearts. 

When the day of reckoning came for all three cars in its production guise to meet in the metal, the 918 not only came away as a worthy peer to the P1 and LaFerrari, in some cases, it bested the lot. Porsche then went one further and laid claim to the ultimate bragging right in September 2013 with a “Weissach Package” equipped 918 becoming the first series production car to smash the seven-minute barrier at the Norschilfe.

McLaren said that they too managed a sub-seven-minute lap time with the P1 as well, but for some reason, was famously coy on the specifics. Ferrari on the other hand, being descendants of the Romans, still thinks that there is nothing of worth north of the Danube, presumably. Of the three, the 918 is still the only with its name stamped on the Nürburgring lapboard and will likely remain there. 

So, why should an exclusive, stratospherically priced hybrid supercar even be noteworthy of the passing decade, one might ask. It is no understatement that the 2010s were a tumultuous and transitionary time for the automotive industry.

The commodity boom that caused many to doubt the feasibility of our oil-powered society deflated unexpectedly, Volkswagen went from a stunning exemplar of Germany’s industrial dominance to a moral pariah and single-handedly destroyed the future credibility of diesel fuel, traditional mid-sized sedan stalwarts spiraled into a decline as it seceded its share to smaller SUVs as the upper-end of the market speared further upwards into increasing levels of opulence, and the 918 Spyder did the impossible by normalising hybrid powertrains.

Sure, the Toyota Prius was and will always be the defacto hybrid icon, but even with the star power of Leonardo DiCaprio, it was never going to be normalised when its sole purpose was to “save the planet”, evade the nefarious carbon tax man, and little else.

Before the 918 came about, the thought that hybrid systems could be used to augment performance and improve the desirable traits of its host car was simply absurd. People would sooner believe that you could power a car with their own farts than admit that there was anything exciting to be had from the powertrain of a Prius.

In our post-918 days, pundits are awash with excitement and wonder when a carmaker so much as suggest that its next project will involve a hybrid drivetrain. Incredible.

Like Elon Musk and his Model S, many were initially sceptical about the sanity of Porsche and the viability of the 918 Spyder’s powertrain. But Porsche did see the future where few did, that hybrid-electric drivetrains, could be used to excite and inspire when freed from its practical and subordinate role, much like how early pioneers of the automobile would often take their creations for a spot of motor racing before figuring out inane nonsense like reliability and use. 

While Musk and the Model S will continue to write its story well into the 2020s, the story of a Porsche hybrid supercar of 2010 changing the world’s mindset and bringing it into the 2020s will serve as a fitting epilogue in the remarkable story that is the 2010s and a bridge to the future. 

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