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New breed is born

Wednesday 21 November 2012 10:00

What happens if you cross the swagger of a super-car with the practicality of an SUV, asks Josh Sims.

When Eterniti launched in the UK in November, its debut car design not only turned heads but raised eyebrows. At £210,000 and, should the buyer want it, almost entirely bespoke-built, here was another super-car. But this one, the Artemis, was different. Neither a dust-gathering track car nor a lumbering limo, here was the first of a new breed: The super SUV.

“It’s certainly a quirky idea,” says brand director Mark Carbery. “You could call it schizophrenic, or all things to all men. But the reality is that most super cars are no use in the city, and road quality is often not good enough anyway, while a limo-type car, such as a bentley, is well-appointed but lacks the thrills. The super sUV is practical, luxurious, but also very high performance. it will do a lot of what both super car and limo can do but in a car you can actually drive.”

Bentley, by the way, will launch its own super sUV in 2013, with Maserati having one on the cards for next year. All follow in the huge success of the more mass-market Porsche Cayenne, which, after initial scepticism, proved the market was there: indeed, it now accounts for some 50% of Porsche volumes worldwide.

The eterniti Artemis certainly has the right credentials, not least being engineered by Alastair Macqueen, who has three wins at Le Mans and the building of the JCb land speed record car under his belt. it has a 4.8 litre, twin-turbo V8 giving 600 bph and a top speed of 180 mph, 0 to 62mph in 4.5 seconds, with a ride that doesn’t rattle your organs about in your rib cage and a cabin interior that is more stately home - or at least a stately home owned by a rock star.

It is a very modern luxury vehicle - and, what is more, from a british company, “for a customer who appreciates the british track record of being very good at cars with small volume production, or who just want to deal with a company in London rather than Stuttgart,” says Carbury.

And nor is it alone. With the big guns of the super car world - the likes of Ferrari and Lamborghini - so entwined in their prestigious histories they rarely produce cars that feel like a genuine break with the past (which is a boon or a hindrance, depending on your view), the benefit of being a young company is that you can, as it were, think out of the gearbox.

“We have the space to do something interesting,” as Carbury has it. Noble Cars, also British, also run by men with a racing background - Peter Boutwood, its managing director, is a one-time Formula 3 driver and worked in Formula 1 with Damon Hill - has gone down a similarly left-field road.

While Eterniti has got a head start in a new category by piling on the rather pleasant surroundings and the common sense, Noble has, in a way, gone back to race car roots, stripping its M600 back to make a car that demands to be driven, rather than to do all the driving for you.

Indeed, capable of 0 to 60mph in just three seconds and with a top speed of 225mph, the M600 might be so much more the typical very powerful car were it not for the fact that it has a six-speed manual gearstick and no ABS braking. The dashboard gives the minimal information because, really, this is a car in which the eyes really, really need to be on the road.

With Noble a small company, based near Leicester, it too takes the full bespoke option to the limits, with the design team ready to work up a new interior design in order to fit in your music system of choice, if that is what you want.

That also explains why only around 12 cars are built a year, with each taking three months to complete. Bravely for times in which cars seems as much about posing as getting anywhere, Boutwood says that, for all of the smooth lines of the M600’s carbon fibre shell, this is a car that is not about good looks.

Rather, it is about the drive. And that’s drive, not dive. If being less wellknown rather than a household name, if a certain oddness or particularity and is the unexpected are all assets increasingly sought by the car fanatic - “the few with the money and passion for cars ready to go off piste and buy a more interesting car,” says Carbury - then perhaps the concept cars from Swiss company Rinspeed are to their taste too; and not least the sQuba, a car that really can go underwater. Road car turns submersible.

Among founder Frank Rinderknecht other visionary vehicles - and these are actually designed, built and tested, existing on the road not just on paper - are the Presto and the iChange, both extendable cars; the Bedouin - convertible to a pick-up, not to mention being the world’s fastest natural gas-powered car; the Senso - with a bio-metric interior that detects and responds to driver mood detection; the eXasis - its floor and body made from a transparent, high-tech plastic; and, for speed freaks, the Advantige Rone - the first supercar to be powered by a biofuel made from kitchen waste.

Along the way Rinderknecht has devised windscreens with scratch-proof coatings, rust-proof plastic composite bodies, as well as inventing the steering wheel mounted controls now common to many cars. Like Eterniti and Noble, the similarly small and independent Rinspeed kicks against the predictable, in Rinspeed’s case in aiming to predict where car design may go next.

“Most of the ideas we have come from the gut and a lot of them polarise opinion - but that’s ok, we’re more agent provocateurs, out to provoke new ways of thinking,” says Rinderknecht, with a sentiment no doubt shared by the bosses of the other brands too. “But big car companies are not structured to allow emotions to lead,” he adds.

“That corporate structure isn’t flexible enough. The industry is hampered by its size, and the brands by their need to maintain an image. “Of course, you have to be realistic about what has commercial potential and what doesn’t - even if it’s important for touching hearts, for being a provocative idea, about making it possible even if nobody really needs it. After all, it’s easy to do a nice little sportscar, no. 742. But, you know, so what?”