Call it a metaphor for a prosperous, risk-embracing age or just call it bad driving.
Automakers are turning out a new breed of supremely fast sports cars that sell for upward of $250,000 and share many characteristics of purebred race cars. But as more of them hit the road, often in the hands of inexperienced drivers, a growing number are ending up wrapped around trees, smashed into guardrails or otherwise totaled in accidents.
In the past 18 months, drivers across the world have cracked up at least six $1 million Enzo Ferraris -- only 400 of which were built. In March, a California man rammed his $300,000 Lamborghini Murcielago into five parked cars. While in England, a 39-year-old driver caused an international stir among car enthusiasts by crashing a Bugatti Veyron 16.4, an extremely rare $1.5 million turbocharged missile with a top speed of 253 mph.
It's not just drunken celebrities doing the damage. On the way to an MBA class near San Diego one recent morning, Nasar Aboubakare, a 40-year-old private equity firm president, lost control of his new 550-horsepower Ford GT and wrenched it over a lane divider. "The car is like a wild animal," he says.
To compound matters, it's tough to be inconspicuous when you damage a $150,000 automobile. After Aboubakare's accident, several passing motorists snapped pictures while one leaned out the window of his pickup and shouted: "What an idiot!"
Police in wealthy enclaves across the country say these accidents are not unusual. A spokesman for the Beverly Hills Police Department says his officers "regularly" handle accidents involving exotic vehicles, while Sgt. Jeffrey Kelly of Boca Raton, Fla., says his department has logged two Ferrari crashes in the past two years. "We've had our fair share," he says.
According to the California Highway Patrol, the total number of accidents involving Aston Martins, Bentleys, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Lotuses and Maseratis rose to 141 last year, an 81% increase from 2002, while overall crashes declined statewide during that period. Porsche, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, which sell a wider range of models, saw a 22% increase during that time frame.
- MSN Autos: The 500-Horsepower Club
These accidents are happening so regularly that a Web site called WreckedExotics.com -- which contains photos of dream cars reduced to smoking heaps -- added as many as 700 new examples to its gallery last year and says it attracts about 650,000 visitors a month. Founder Gregg Fidan explains the attraction this way: "It's like seeing a supermodel fall off the runway."
More cars, more crashesOne reason for the increase is that there are simply more of these so-called supercars on the road. CNW Marketing Research, a firm that analyzes the auto market, says Americans bought about 8,400 "ultraluxury" sports cars last year -- more than three times the number from 2003.
While the number of supercars registered in California is up sharply, the rate at which they are getting into accidents is still small -- just over 1% -- and hasn't changed appreciably since the state began breaking data down by make in 2002. The statewide accident rate for all vehicles in 2006 was 3%.
Stefan Winkelmann, the president and chief executive officer of Lamborghini, a unit of Volkswagen's Audi Group, says he's aware of "four or five" incidents involving one of the company's new 640-horsepower Murcielagos -- a small fraction of the nearly 500 models the company sold last year. Toscan Bennett, a spokesman for Ferrari, a unit of Fiat Group, says the company does not track the number of accidents involving its cars but adds that several high-profile incidents may have contributed to a false impression that these crashes are common.
Automakers say the rising horsepower is being offset by safety advancements ranging from all-wheel drive to ceramic brakes, rearview cameras, extra airbags and monocoque safety cages, which are built with a "skin" that directs impact forces away from passengers. "The cars give themselves up for the safety of the driver," says Porsche spokesman Tony Fouladpour. Many supercars come with traction and stability control systems that automatically vary the power delivered to the wheels to help prevent drivers from sliding and skidding.
Insurance companies say that while the majority of supercar accidents do not result in serious injuries, there has been an uptick in collision claims on these cars. In some cases, insurance rates are rising. Based on the rising cost of claims, State Farm says the same driver would have paid 9% more last year to buy physical damage insurance for a new Lamborghini Murcielago than in 2003.
Expensive sports cars have always been intimidatingly fast, but experts say the latest models are not just more powerful, they're also lighter: Ferrari's new 599 GTB Fiorano produces about 0.164 horsepower per pound, a 21% improvement over the model it replaced. The trouble begins when overconfident drivers start trying to push the cars to speeds that even experienced drivers may not be capable of handling. "Generally speaking, the cars are well over the heads of the drivers," says Glenn Roberts, the owner of an auto-body shop in Fountain Hills, Ariz., that repairs damaged exotic cars.