Supercars are built to represent the pinnacle of automotive technology. Brutally fast and impossibly expensive, they are objects of desire and the stuff dreams are made of. But there’s more to a supercar than just speed and good looks. There’s a certain hierarchy in the supercar world — a select group of car builders that seem to control the collective memory when it comes to performance. Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and McLarens build supercars, unquestionably. Acura, Aston Martin, and Jaguar? Maybe not. Despite looks, speed, and handling to compete with the best, some plenty capable dream machines just get left behind.
And that’s a real shame. For every legendary Porsche 959 or Bugatti Veyron there are several woefully underrated cars that deserve to be part of the “best ever” conversation. Automotive history is littered with cars that reached the pinnacle of performance for a moment, only to quickly fall into obscurity. Whether victims of poor-timing, a lack of funds, or lack of proper supercar credentials, these cars just haven’t entered the creative consciousness in a way the legends have. Here are 10 criminally underrated supercars that deserve to be part of the conversation.
1. 2009-2012 Aston Martin One-77
Aston Martin has earned its reputation building some of the worlds greatest grand tourers, but it had never attempted to compete in the supercar market — that is until the One-77 came along. A thoroughly modern exotic with a carbon fiber and aluminum construction, the One-77 was powered by a 7.3-liter V12 engine rated at 750 horsepower that could rocket the car from zero to 60 in under 3.7 seconds. Production was limited to 77 cars (hence the name), and it cost $1.4 million.
2. Noble M600
As technology evolves, so to do people’s expectations of what a supercar is. But to a (very) small group, too much technology can be a bad thing. The Noble M600 appeals to this kind of person. Lacking all but the legally-mandated safety and technological requirements, the Noble sacrifices modern safety nets like anti-lock brakes and traction control in the name of speed. With a V8 than began life in a sedate Volvo S80, Noble added two turbos and tuned the engine to 650 horsepower, which takes the car from zero to 60 in three seconds on the way to a top speed of 225 miles per hour. Noble may be an obscure brand, but the M600 is a serious supercar contender.
3. 1999 Mercedes-Benz SL 73 AMG
The SL 73 AMG may look like an average 1989-2001 SL-Class cruiser, but the similarities end there. Mercedes added a 6.0-liter V12 to the SL in 1993 to create the S600, a powerful grand tourer that could go from zero to 60 in 5.9 seconds. In 1999, Mercedes’s tuning arm AMG took the 2-ton S600, added an even larger 7.3-liter V12 capable of 525 horsepower, and created the SL 73. It wasn’t outrageous looking like a Lamborghini Diablo, but the SL 73 could do zero to 60 in 4.8 seconds and had a factory-limited top speed of 155 miles per hour. Though the SL 73 was short lived, its 7.3-liter powerplant went on to find a new life in the Pagani Zonda.
4. 1992-94 Jaguar XJ220
The Jaguar XJ220 has long had a terrible reputation — but that isn’t necessarily the car’s fault. At the 1988 British Motor Show, Jaguar unveiled a gorgeous prototype that was to be a technologically advanced all-wheel drive 6.2-liter V12 mid-engined supercar with a projected top speed of 220 miles per hour. Setbacks delayed the car for years, Jaguar faced lawsuits from customers who made down payments on a car that didn’t exist, and by the time it went into production in 1992, the rear-wheel drive twin-turbo V6 car was seen as a very public disaster for the company. Too bad, though, as the production XJ 220 was a thoroughly modern supercar that could do zero to 60 in under 3.5 seconds and had a top speed of 213 miles per hour. But the car’s reputation was irreparable, and cars languished on dealer lots for years — one even sat abandoned in the desert. History has been kind to the Jag, and it’s finally starting to get its due. The Sultan of Brunei’s car sold in November 2014 for 247,500 euros, the equivalent of $372,933.
5. BMW 850CSi
BMW’s 8-Series of 1989-1999 were some of the most technologically advanced cars of their day, but are generally remembered as capable grand tourers. The top-of-the line 850 CSi was more of a gentleman’s supercar that happened to seat four than a grand tourer. Powered by a highly-tuned 5.6-liter V12 good for 376 horsepower, the CSi also sported a revised suspension and aero kit that was good for a zero to 60 time in under six seconds. BMW V12s of the 1990s are considered to be some of the best engines ever built — the legendary McLaren F1 was also powered by one as testament.
6. Acura NSX
The Acura NSX looks like a supercar, performs like a supercar, and can do anything an Italian supercar can — except it’ll never leave you stranded. The NSX shocked the automotive world when it was unveiled at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show. With its jaw-dropping good looks, mid-engined 270-horsepower V6, and suspension perfected by Formula 1 legend Ayrton Senna, the NSX was a serious supercar contender. It was so modern and powerful for its time that it ran with Ferrari and Lamborghini’s best for 15 years largely unchanged. Still, the Honda-built NSX lacked the prestige of the Italian companies, and never quite earned the respect it deserved from the supercar set. Today, the NSX is a legend in its own right, and the next-generation NSX looks to pick up right where the original left off.
7. Cizeta V16T
Cizeta has the distinction of being the only supercar company originally backed by a Disco legend. The Cizeta V16T began life as the Cizeta-Moroder, as the company originally received financial backing from music producer Giorgio Moroder. The V16T was based on a rejected Marcello Gandini design for the Lamborghini Diablo, and used a complex 540-horsepower V16 engine designed and built by Cizeta. By the time the supercar reached production, it couldn’t pass U.S. safety and emissions standards, and was barred from sale in the U.S. The loss of the lucrative American market and the car’s $500,000 price tag put a tremendous strain on the company, and it folded after producing only 20 cars. Still, the Cizeta has remained a desirable car — in 2009, U.S. Customs impounded an illegal V16T that was smuggled into the U.S. through Puerto Rico.
8. 1989-1992 Vector W8
The W8 began life in the 1970s when a businessman named Gerald Wiegert sought to combine American horsepower with the latest aerospace technology to create an advanced supercar to render the European competition obsolete. After a decade of raising funds and showing off his impossibly futuristic design, Wiegert’s car had evolved into the W8. The mid-engined car was powered by a twin-turbocharged Chevrolet V8, and featured a carbon fiber and kevlar body over an aluminum frame. It also had the interior of a fighter jet, with banks of buttons and switches and a cathode-tube instrument panel giving real-time readouts on everything from top speed to fuel pressure. Complicated and expensive, the W8 was doomed from the start, with investors accusing Wiegert of misappropriating funds, and production ground to a halt after 22 cars had been built. Still, the Vector’s reputation as a 1980s bedroom poster staple has given the car cult status — a 1992 example was sold by RM Auctions in 2014 for $275,000.
9. 1971-1992 DeTomaso Pantera
Designed by an American and built in Italy around Ford’s 351 Cleveland V8, the DeTomaso Pantera was one of the first mid-engined supercars. While the stock Pantera’s engine put out 310 horsepower, the ubiquity of Ford performance parts meant owners could easily modify their V8s for far more. Ford discontinued the 351 and stopped importing Panteras to the U.S. in 1974, nearly killing the small Italian company. Not to be deterred, DeTomaso began buying 351s built by Ford of Australia and kept selling the Pantera in Europe. It returned to the U.S. in the early 1980s through grey-market importers fitted with a bulbous body kit and positioned as a Lamborghini Countach fighter. Long considered to be an exotic also ran, Panteras are finally starting to get their due. Their value has doubled in the past 15 years, but they’re still an unbelievable supercar bargain. This Pantera was sold by Mecum Auctions last year for a little over $40,000.
10. 1946-1952 Cisitalia 202 GT
Automotive history is littered with dozens of “what if” stories, but none may be more tantalizing than Cisitalia’s. The company was founded after World War II by Italian industrialist and avid racer Piero Dusio, who wanted to take his racing expertise and form his own company. In nearby Modena, a man named Enzo Ferrari had the same idea and happened to be forming a similar company of his own.
But unlike Ferrari, Cisitalia’s first road cars were international sensations. The 1946 202 GT was a revolutionary grand tourer that applied Cisitalia’s racing know-how to an impossibly gorgeous and well-mannered road car. The 202 GT was considered such a triumph of design that the Museum of Modern Art bought one just to display. Unfortunately, the company was constantly burdened by money woes, and folded in the early 1950s after only 170 202 GTs were produced. By then, Ferrari’s business had taken off, and it’s steadily grown to the performance car juggernaut it is today. Despite its obscure status, the Cisitalia may be the first Italian supercar. Who knows how history would have changed if the brand continued to grow.
From massive automakers to small cottage companies, many have tried to break through the established supercar hierarchy and capture the public imagination. For some reason, none of these cars ever quite made the grade. But they provide an interesting counterpoint to the legends. The Cisitalia can be discussed along the early road-going Ferraris. The Jaguar XJ 220 is a serious competitor to the McLaren F1, the car that unseated it as the world’s fastest production car. These supercars may not be household names, but they’re some of the most impressive cars ever built.