"I don't get it," somebody said to me after I climbed out of the Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport and stood on the sidewalk in front of the new Waldorf Astoria hotel in Orlando. "Don't get what?" I asked. "This car. Two million bucks. I don't get it." It's a common refrain — I don't get it — but really, let's understand something: There is no getting or not getting the Veyron, any more than there is getting or not getting those $20 million trips to the International Space Station with a bunch of Russian cosmonauts. The experience is wholly singular and therefore not bound by the laws of reason or common sense. Period.
Trust me when I say this: Nobody who can afford such a car is highlighting the madness of its $2.3-million sticker price by shopping it against, say, a $354,000 Lamborghini Murciélago. There is no comparing specs or warranties or Consumer Reports reliability ratings at this level. There just isn't. In the automotive world, there is the Veyron, and there is everything else. That's not an endorsement; it's a simple fact.
A fellow automotive writer, reviewing the car recently for another pubication, decided after his hour with the Grand Sport that "the Bugatti isn’t the future of the fast car; it’s the past writ in extra-large type." I beg to differ. This car is the culmination of everything the Volkswagen Group knows about building cars, and probably a few things it didn't know it knew. The Veyron is an unwaveringly forward-thinking piece of machinery, one that — as the Space Shuttle has informed general aviation — will inform more accessible cars for years to come.
My Veyron's chaperon, racer Butch Leitzinger (who drove for Cadillac and Bentley at Le Mans and now races for Dyson in the American Le Mans Series), summed up the rationale quite nicely. Volkswagen, he noted, might have spent all that money on a Formula 1 team and seen only a small return on their investment in terms of usable, production-car technology. Instead, Bugatti engineers developed a from-scratch supercar that achieves Formula 1 levels of performance but does so within the parameters of a road car. It's safe, it's comfortable, it's reliable, it's street-legal, and, like every other model in the Volkswagen Group portfolio, from the Volkswagen Fox to the Bentley Mulsanne, it's easy to use. No, the car of the future may not have 16 cylinders and 1,001 horsepower and carry a seven-figure price tag, but that's not the point. VW has doubtless gathered reams of data on engine technology and aerodynamics and safety and the use of advanced materials in developing and building and servicing the Veyron. You may never own a Bugatti, but you'll doubtless own parts of it in a future car.
I'd be lying— and you would be too — to say I wasn't at least a little skittish about driving a Veyron. I've stood before fast cars before that gave me the jitters, and I've stood before expensive cars before that gave me a different sort of jitters. But the Veyron is both — the fastest and the most expensive car on the planet — and it inspires in the would-be driver a unique and heady blend of emotion: one part fear of death by 1,001 horsepower, one part fear of showing up on every car blog on the planet as the Moron Who Wrecked the Grand Sport. (And judging by the incessant recent coverage of the poor schlub who drove his Veyron into a lake, I knew damned well that if I so much as curbed the wheel of this Grand Sport, somebody's iPhone would capture it and relay it to the blogosphere with breathtaking haste).
The car, however, quickly relieved me of my fear — at least my acute equinophobia. It's just so damned benign, as content wafting along at 35 mph as it is exploring the depths of triple-digit territory. Seriously. The dual-clutch gearbox in Drive is as slick and seamless as the DSG transmission in a VW GTI; in paddle-operated manual mode, the only clue that you've changed gears is the snappy readjustment of the tachometer needle and the altered timbre of the engine. To bastardize a This is Spinal Tap line, the Veyron seems at times like an Audi R8 turned up to 11.
I'd always imagined that the Veyron would be an all-around handful to drive — tough to see out of, tough to maneuver, tough to get rolling from a stoplight. It showed itself to be none of those things. The driver's greatest challenge is chatting with his passenger over the roar and whoosh of 16 cylinders and four turbochargers. Ease onto the throttle to pass on the highway and the quartet spools up with a startling howl. "It's like we're riding the tornado from The Wizard of Oz," I said.
Speaking of the open-top experience, let me add a few words on the subject of the Grand Sport's oft-maligned soft top (which, for the uninformed, lives in a bag under the front lid when not in use). Yes, it's true enough that the canvas top (I've included a pictured) is recommended for speeds only as high as 100 mph, but that's merely for the sake of rain-worthiness, not — as the aforementioned reviewer noted — because it's in any danger of popping off like a bad toupée. It may look like an umbrella, and open up like one, but this thing doesn't have a Totes label on it. Bugatti has tested the soft top to 200 mph — it's engineered just like the car it attaches to: thick rods of carbon-fiber composite connected by knuckles of billet aluminum. "Flimsy" it isn't.
Of course, the removable hard top (which, too large to be carried aboard when not in use, comes with a garage stand) is the more elegant solution. It weighs 36 pounds and most of it is clear polycarbonate. When the top is latched in place (affixing it takes two people), it'll take a keen eye to differentiate the Grand Sport from the Veyron 16.4 coupe.
Leitzinger and I found a lonely stretch of smooth asphalt for the gotta-try-it launch from a full stop, and it turned out to be everything I'd imagined, and a good deal more. I knew in advance that 60 mph shows up in 2.5 seconds. In reality, though, that factoid seemed less than relevant. The needle blew past 60 so fast I never even noticed it. Before I'd spewed forth my favorite expletive phrase, the digital speedo flashed 130. As I had launched, Leitzinger gave me a word of advice: "Don't let it coast; as soon as you think of it, you're going to want to use the brake pedal. You'll be going much, much faster than you expected." He was so right.
Unless you've piloted a top-fuel dragster down a quarter-mile track or an F-18 Hornet off the deck of an aircraft carrier, there's really nothing quite like full-throttling a Bugatti Veyron on an open stretch of road. Your internal organs slop back against your spine and your eyeballs feel like they're deforming under the g-load. The Veyron has a little horsepower gauge, showing engine output at any given moment, from zero to 1,001. At at steady 75 mph, the needle sits at 50 — a measly 50 hp to maintain Interstate speed! Under maximum throttle, however, that same needle swings all the way around to the magic number: 1,001. It's absolutely astonishing.
I'm pleased to note that I survived my two-hour tour and returned the Grand Sport sans damage, sparing myself a fiery demise or a Jalopnik-style crucifixion. My internal organs redistributed themselves and my eyeballs returned to their original shape. This week, I'm driving the new Kia Forte, which, for those who make such calculations, is roughly equivalent to 1/168th of a Veyron Grand Sport. Seems fair to me.