I didn't even touch the speed key, which unlocks the Bugatti Veyron's full top-speed potential. For our entire journey, it remained in the pocket of PHR, short for Pierre-Henri Raphanel, Bugatti's official test driver, minder, and former F1 racer. There was certainly no point in going faster than 233 mph, the Veyron's maximum speed without the key, nor would there be any opportunity on public roads. We were piloting one of two Bugatti Veyron Grand Sports, and the main objective of our drive was to go as quickly as possible from Ladispoli, which is northwest of Rome on the Mediterranean, to the Adriatic city of Pescara, thereby cutting across the lower leg of Italy.
According to the Michelin trip planner, the shortest route was 166 miles, and the calculated travel time was two and a half hours. With stops for photography, the eastbound journey actually took about twice as long. But on the way back, our nutria brown Veyron atomized the statistics in a way only a sports car powered by a 1001-hp engine can.
Limited to 150 examples, the new $2 million Grand Sport commands a stiff, 200,000 (about $280,000) premium over the coupe, which is not exactly a bargain at 1.2 million (approximately $1.7 million). In exchange, you get an extensively reinforced body with even more carbon-fiber panels, beefed-up composite doors, taller rollover-protection loops, stronger B-pillars, and a reengineered center tunnel. You also get two roofs: a provisional one that looks and functions like an umbrella, and a solid, single-piece, body-color cover with tinted polycarbonate that is easy to mount but impossible to stow. To accommodate the removable lid, Bugatti designed a slightly taller windshield and a mildly modified rear bulkhead. The Grand Sport also gets more aggressive daytime running lights, a rearview camera, an upgraded Burmester sound system, and special horseshoe-pattern wheels.
The ring road around Rome is a war zone. A car as shiny and vulnerable as the Veyron is constantly under attack from swarms of scooters, flocks of microcars on steroids, and shoals of taxis, delivery vans, and trucks. It took us more than an hour to escape from this noisy, smelly, metal maze. With the city of the seven hills receding in the mirror, we headed inland toward L'Aquila on a two-lane highway that dates from the 1950s. Unlike the Veyron coupe, which provides an eerie and outlandish virtual-reality experience when pushed beyond 200 mph, the Grand Sport raises hackles at a mere 100 mph. Since the driver is breathing the same air as the engine mounted a foot behind, speed is suddenly a highly physical and emphatically acoustic sensation. After all, the two large oval air intakes open with such a hungry, man-eating roar that you almost expect to be sucked in, shredded, and spat out again. Revving the W-16 engine hard feels like sitting in front of a jet engine at takeoff. In addition to the high-pitched, turbinelike intake swirl and the intermittent wastegate whistle during upshifts, the four turbochargers and the large mid-mounted exhaust make this engine's sound track unmistakable: yauuoow-vrooam, ba-tsching-ing; yauuoow-vrooam, ba-tsching-ing. Redlined at an unremarkable 6200 rpm, the 64-valve, 8.0-liter engine will accelerate the 4339-pound Grand Sport from 0 to 62 mph in 2.7 seconds, according to Bugatti. The coupe is some 175 pounds lighter and 0.2 second quicker off the mark, but it feels much more relaxed and laid back than the incredibly intense roadster.