Now that Porsche is a majority shareholder in Volkswagen, the weather in Wolfsburg has become colder and stormier--particularly for Bugatti. In a recent corporate board meeting, there was a heated debate over the future of the marque. One participant claims that, while speaking about the VW Group's supercar, the Bugatti Veyron, Porsche chairman Wendelin Wiedeking said it was time for "these costly sandbox exercises to end"--allegedly in the presence of Ferdinand Pich. Pich, of course, is the one who bought Bugatti and embarked on the Veyron project, which may never recover its costs--said to be some $384 million for research and development alone.
The danger for Bugatti isn't immediate. It will soon build a Veyron spider, complete with a lift-off top. (Unfortunately, the decreased structural rigidity means that top speed must be limited to 217 mph, compared with the hardtop's 252 mph, a move that could affect its appeal.) But the spider at least buys some time, and the additional body style also camouflages the fact that the fixed-roof car probably won't achieve its 300-unit sales target, which now seems optimistic.
The real question for Bugatti, however, is, "What's next?"
It's not going to be the $60,000 four-cylinder, mid-engine roadster [Ignition, August 2006]. That idea has been shelved--partly because VW dropped out as the high-volume partner and partly because neither the brand nor the dealer network is ready for a car in that price class. And it won't be the rumored front-engine Royale ultrasedan. Volkswagen is not eager to repeat the Veyron experience with a four-door model.
That leaves only two real options. The first is a new front-engine car priced at about $150,000. It would appear first as a two-plus-two coupe and then as a convertible. Bugatti could add a stretched, four-door sedan version later. Engineers have focused on using Audi's 4.2-liter FSI V-8--which delivers about 550 hp in twin-turbo guise--as the powerplant; it would be paired with a rear transaxle. Suggested volume for the car is about 5000 units per year. But this plan is garnering a lot of internal opposition from Porsche, Bentley, Lamborghini, and Audi, who think that a $150,000 Bugatti would be too close to the upcoming Porsche Panamera, the Bentley Continental family, the Audi R8, and the Lamborghini Gallardo.
If the funding tap gets turned off, Bugatti's only remaining option may be coachbuilt one-offs. Possible projects currently under discussion include the aforementioned Royale, a different two-plus-two coupe, and a front-engine roadster. This scenario would take place under major financial constraints, so the Veyron's W-16 engine and seven-speed DSG transmission would have to be carried over. That drivetrain doesn't lend itself to a front-mounted installation, however, so engineers are evaluating a mid-mounted powertrain layout that would provide more dimensional and structural flexibility. The four-wheel-drive hardware and the suspension would be pulled from the corporate parts bin, and the body and the interior would be built to customer specifications.
"The coachbuilder approach is true to the Bugatti heritage," says a senior VW manager. "It's a low-investment strategy that could be quickly and easily realized. Unfortunately, these bespoke cars would put the brand even farther out in terms of price, beyond the reach of even the very rich. We couldn't do more than twenty or thirty per year, with prices starting at about $5 million. But the biggest problem is product liability. These days, one-offs require individual approval, which is almost impossible in key markets such as North America. Frankly, I'm not sure if coachbuilt Bugattis will ever fly.
"We're approaching crunch time. Is there life after the Veyron? Unless Bugatti comes up with a convincing concept, the answer may be no."