The strangeness of the world we live in is proved by the need, when describing a drive in an all-new Hispano Suiza, to be more specific about which one. There are two companies planning to build models carrying the name of the famous pre-war Spanish maker, which made its last car in 1946. The one in Austria is working on what it calls the Maguari HS1 ETC, which it says will use a turbo- and supercharged version of the Audi R8's V10. And the one in Spain is making a high-end EV. I can pretty much hear the groans as I tell you I drove the electric one.
Yet it's impossible to argue with the credentials of the Barcelona-based outfit behind it. President Miguel Suqué Mateu is the great-grandson of original Hispano-Suiza co-founder Damián Mateu (the hyphen got lost some time in the last 70 years). And while (Spanish) Hispano Suiza CEO, Sergio Martinez Campos, admits there is legal wrangling over rights to sell in different countries, he is hugely happy that his company won the race to bring its new model out first. "We are the real company," he says, "and this is the real car."
On that, he's definitely right. Many limited-run supercars are debuted by undriveable styling models, or prototypes held together with little more than tape and optimism. But the car I got to drive around the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya felt obviously well engineered, and impressively close to being finished - even boasting bespoke graphics for its digital display screens and working climate control. The Carmen has been built by Barcelona-based QEV technologies alongside various motorsport projects, but there is no big manufacturer or high level technical alliance behind it. That's a serious achievement.
Hispano Suiza plans to make 19 of the regular Carmen, which will cost €1.5m before taxes and have 1005hp, plus five of the harder-cored Carman Boulogne which has a slight power bump to 1099hp as well as firmer settings and a €1.65m pre-tax asking. Don't snigger too long at those prices: by segment standards it's a bargain, undercutting the Lotus Evija, Rimac Nevera and Pininfarina Battista by sizable margins.
The Carmen's structure is pretty much all carbon. The central monocoque, bodywork and both front and rear subframes are all made from it, with suspension being aluminium double wishbones at each corner. Packaging the huge T-shaped 80kWh battery pack has been the biggest challenge, most of this sits behind the passenger compartment, but there are also cells within a central tunnel between the seats. This runs at a potent 700 Volts and has been designed to support the huge flow rates necessary for the headline peak outputs, being cooled by a sizable radiator behind the front grille. The fact the battery alone weighs 800kg makes the Carmen's 1,690kg kerbweight seem pretty svelte by segment standards.
One surprise is that the Carmen is rear-driven; high-output EVs normally increase traction by sending their urge to every wheel. Instead the car is powered by four lightweight permanent magnet synchronous AC motors, with a pair turning each rear wheel through a single-speed reduction gearbox. There is no physical connection across the back axle, but Hispano Suiza has developed what it calls a virtual differential, essentially a programme smart and fast-acting enough to allow torque vectoring.
Design is definitely going to split opinions. Having spent a day with it, I can report that the Carmen Boulogne looks very different in real life than it does in pictures, much more muscular in three dimensions than it is in two. Design was reportedly inspired by that of the 1938 H6C Dubonnet Xenia, and is meant to make you think of classic luxury, with the regular Carmen even getting the option of the original car's drag-reducing rear wheel covers. But it isn't excessively retro and I found that the more time I spent looking at the rear three-quarters view over the heavily fared tail, the more I liked it. I was less keen on the bronze detailing, especially in the cabin. But if I was an actual billionaire buyer I'd be able to specify pretty much anything else instead.
Getting in means negotiating power operated butterfly doors which don't open especially wide. But once inside it felt reasonably spacious for two, and the standard of trim and finish was also impressively high. The crisply rendered digital instruments featured a 300km/h speedometer on one side - pretty much exactly corresponding to the Boulogne's limiter - and a power flow meter on the other. The transmission pushbutton selector is a bit stranger, the large central Park button flanked by drive, reverse and neutral at 120-degree angles.
The circuit at Barcelona has been hosting a motorcycle track days immediately before my time on track, one that seems to have had few noise restrictions. As the last of the bikes bimbles loudly into the pits the contrast with the almost silent Hispano Suiza whispering its way onto the track is predictably substantial. Not that the track venue makes this a no-holds barred dynamic spanking. I'm sent out behind a Tesla Model 3 being driven by Luis Pérez-Sala, who drove two seasons for Minardi in F1 in the late 'eighties but has clear instructions to set a more cautious pace today. Officially this is to ensure the Carmen's battery keeps sufficient charge for a group of journalists to experience it, but my experience with punchier EVs on track makes me fairly confident that cell and motor temperatures are also being carefully managed.
No matter. Starting out in the power-sapping Eco mode might mean the Boulogne can't do much more than match the Tesla's pace, but it also gives a chance to assess the other qualities rarely considered on a race track. The prototype's door mirror is flapping about slightly, but the cabin is quiet and feels impressively well insulated; exploratory runs over some of the Circuit's kerbs demonstrating obviously pliant suspension settings. Turning the dynamic mode up to Normal and then Sport brings more power, although I was only allowed to experience the unrestricted peak acceleration for the length of one straight. There was certainly plenty of it, but as I found in the prototype Lotus Evija there is a strange sensory disconnection when experiencing big G-forces without any kind of combustion soundtrack.
According to the engineering team, 60 per cent of the Carmen's static weight sits over its back wheels, and the rearward bias was obvious on the circuit's tighter corners. The Boulogne didn't feel like a natural apex predator, the front end taking more turning than the supercar norm and early accelerator application resulting in the unmistakeable sensation of understeer. But this could be neutralized easily, the chassis responsive enough to allow the Carmen's line to be trimmed and tightened cleanly through weight transfer. Nor did rear-wheel drive ever feel like a limitation, with the invisible intervention of traction management and the torque vectoring helping to get the power down without drama. Pérez-Sala later confirmed the stability control can be turned down enough to allow oversteer.
Some stuff was missing. The finished car will have regenerative braking with varying levels selected by steering wheel paddles; the prototype lacked both of these functions, although the carbon-ceramic brakes did a good job of dealing with the relatively modest loadings I was allowed to generate. Another small surprise was the presence of a collision warning system, one that - in addition to sounding an alarm if the speed differential over the car in front gets too big - also gave a visual read-out of the gap in seconds.
There were two big takeaways from my time on track at Barcelona. The first is that the Carmen is very much a proper car; it feels much more production ready than many late prototypes that big manufacturers have put me into. The second was that, although it will tolerate life on a circuit, it clearly isn't what the car is really designed for. I reckon that real roads will suit it far better.
Will it succeed? Hispano Suiza says it has several orders, with the first production car set to be delivered to a buyer in the US by the end of the year. Whether the company will manage to sell out its proposed run is another question - it's fair to say that the reported experience of those makers earlier into this segment is that there are still far fewer buyers looking for EV supercars than combustion ones.
Yet for anyone with sufficient budget and enough enthusiasm, it might well be possible to back both horses on that one. If the rival V10-powered Hispano Suiza does make production there will be two radically different answers to the same question. Now that would be a grudge match twin test...
SPECIFICATION | HISPANO SUIZA CARMEN BOULOGNE
Engine: 700V Lithium-ion battery, 80kWh capacity, quad AC synchronous electric motors
Transmission: Twin single-speed, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 1099
Torque (lb ft): 848
0-62mph: 2.6 secs
Top speed: 180mph (limited)
Range: 250 miles (WLTP, targeted)
Price: €1,650,000 ex-works (without tax)
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