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.
After the motorway turnoff toward Pescara, the landscape opens up. Time to hit the Sport button, which triggers the kind of acceleration only F1 drivers are familiar with. With the throttle floored, 0 to 124 mph is a 7.3-second affair. A mere fourteen seconds later, the car can break through the 200-mph barrier. At 137 mph, handling mode engages, which means a lower ride height, open front diffuser flaps, and a fully raised rear wing. We now carry 772 pounds of downforce, which gradually decreases to 88 pounds at top speed. The flap angle varies between 2 degrees at 253 mph and 55 degrees in the air-brake position. When the aero deceleration aid stands tall, the drag coefficient almost doubles, from 0.39 to 0.68. Do you ever need it? You bet you do. The mighty tail wing will not only dispose of surplus energy with aplomb, it also enhances high-speed directional stability.
Just before we reach the coast, it starts raining. At first, it’s only a drizzle, but then thunder and lightning announce a proper downpour. Since the chase car is miles behind, we seek shelter at a service station. Officially, the part-time umbrella roof will go flying at 100 mph, but according to Raphanel, the canvas cap is actually safe up to 155 mph, when a speed limiter prevents the device from deploying as a parachute. By the time we manage to push the parasol’s six stubborn spider legs into place, the sun is shining again.
Although the other car’s crew didn’t get soaked, there was occasionally enough standing water on the road to turn their Veyron into a Jet Ski. In these conditions, the 265-section-width front tires hydroplaned at only 70 mph, and the 365-section rear tires also experienced grip and traction problems. Why? Bugatti has opted for extreme tire sizes, and it chose PAX run-flat Michelin Pilot Sport rubber with semislick treads. The tailor-made tires – which cost about $25,000 per set of four, including the requisite PAX-specific new wheels – have a mere 5/32-inch of tread depth to minimize flexing at high velocities. To ensure that the Veyron’s heavy tail remains securely in line, the Grand Sport exhibits slow turn-in response and early understeer.
At lunchtime, our Bugatti convoy reaches Pescara. On the narrow roads high above the city, the Veyron feels like a shark in a goldfish bowl – overpowered, too wide, not sufficiently maneuverable. Despite four-wheel drive, it isn’t easy to lay down 922 lb-ft of torque when the glassy tarmac is coated with a treacherous mix of rubber, sand, and diesel residue. In this terrain, the two differentials struggle to sort the handling balance, cope with the massive first- and second-gear thrust, and reduce wind-up and shock. The complex suspension geometry and the tight wheelhouse packaging fight each other for space, which is why the turning circle is more than forty feet.
On the way back to Rome, we would do better justice to the car’s character by sticking to main highways and the autostrada, even though it’s radar-infested in places where enforcement methods measure your average speed over a stretch of thirty or forty miles. There is only one way to beat this system: go flat out most of the way, then stop for espresso. Which is exactly what we did.
The westbound Bugatti road show started at the Pescara sud tollbooth with a stab at the launch control button. Moments later, the Grand Sport took off like Goofy in a cartoon movie, except there was zero wheel spin, no tire smoke, and no fishtailing. But it was wise to leave the shifter in D, because the right index finger would have struggled to summon second gear in time, and before one could say “wow!” there was third to deal with, and then fourth. In the coupe, 150 mph is no big deal, but in the Grand Sport, high speed is a live massage that kneads your cheeks and widens your increasingly incredulous eyes. When the pace between Chieti and Avezzano approached nine-tenths on my personal bravery scale, Raphanel suddenly started taking pictures of me from different angles, mumbling comments in muted French.
Traffic was light and the skies had cleared, but when tackled at Veyron velocity, the A25 is a real challenge for body and mind. This motorway packs an entertaining mix of tunnels and viaducts, climbs and descents, corners of varying radii – and thousands of unsettling transverse expansion joints. Up to 150 mph, the Bugatti tries to soak them up – and fails. Above 150 mph, it attempts to clear them and fails again. The Grand Sport, like the coupe, struggles with certain vertical frequencies and amplitudes that affect its balance and poise – but only at very high speeds and rarely so badly that you hit the brakes just to push the lofty front end back down to the tarmac again. As soon as the road surface quality improves, the Bugatti is instantly at ease, displaying that rare and familiar mix of agility, sure-footedness, and control. Hissing a barely noticeable sigh of relief, Raphanel stashes the little camera back into his shirt. The photo trick – which he later tells me reliably slows down prospective customers during their first test drive – did not work today.
The Veyron is too big and heavy to win an autocross, but its performance on the open road is so mind-boggling that you’ll never be able to erase any hands-on encounter from your mind. Lasting impressions include the overwhelming kick from the avalanche of torque, which spreads evenly from 2200 to 5500 rpm; the punch from the mighty W-16 engine, which is mated to a highly competent seven-speed dual-clutch transmission; and the trick, on-demand four-wheel-drive system.
Other dynamic assets are well-balanced 45/55 percent weight distribution; a supple ride; total chassis control provided by the height-adjustable, variable-rate, control-arm suspension; precise and quick rack-and-pinion steering; and carbon-ceramic brakes that can, with the auxiliary air brake, decelerate the Grand Sport from 62 mph to a full stop in only 103 feet, says Bugatti. The main downsides are that there’s nowhere to put oddments (let alone a small travel bag) and an average fuel consumption of less than 10 mpg.
For the second time in eight hours, Rome embraced and devoured us, its traffic stop-and-go and bumper-to-bumper, but soon the glorious Via Aurelia beckoned, and from the cabin we could smell the sea long before it filled the windshield. In the coupe, failing to hit 200-plus mph at least once would have meant mission unaccomplished. But in the Grand Sport, speed isn’t everything. The roofless Veyron favors other parameters, like the sun and the wind, unfiltered scents and noises, the dry coolness of long tunnels, and the moist heat of lush plains. In terms of hp and mph, the first metamorphosis of the Veyron has no serious enemies.
It isn’t totally without competition, but the attractively styled and beautifully made open-air Veyron will outaccelerate and outbrake its rivals with disarming ease. After all, this is the most complete sports car ever – at least until someone counters its overkill approach with a lighter, eco-friendlier formula.
Although Raphanel never flashed the speed key, we did beat the train, the plane, and every Ferrari and Lamborghini in sight on the way back from Pescara to Rome. The total driving time was admittedly somewhat compromised by common sense, but three or four of the very special stages we drove may still qualify for our personal record book.
Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Grand Sport
Base price: $2,000,000 (est.)
Engine: Quad-turbo 64-valve DOHC W-16
Displacement: 8.0 liters
Horsepower: 1001 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 922 lb-ft @ 2200 rpm
Transmission Type: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Steering: Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
Suspension Front and rear: Control arms, coil springs
Brakes: Vented carbon-ceramic discs, ABS
tires: Michelin Pilot Sport PAX
tire size f, r: 265-680/YR-500, 365-710/YR-540
L x W x H: 175.7 x 78.7 x 47.4 in
Wheelbase: 106.7 in
Weight: 4339 lb
EPA mileage: 7/14 mpg (est.)
The magical factory tour
Bugatti’s tiny, ultramodern, clinically clean assembly plant in Molsheim, France, is the only car factory that makes you want to wipe your feet on the way in. In fact, Bugatti would rather you didn’t refer to it as a factory at all; it’s an atelier, or workshop, if you please. Ettore Bugatti established his car firm here 100 years ago, when the town was part of Germany. The original factory is on the other side of town; the new atelier is on the grounds of Château Saint Jean, which Ettore used as a guest house for his clients and which Volkswagen bought soon after acquiring the rights to Bugatti in 1998.
Working five to a car, twenty-five bilingual technicians take 400 hours to bolt each Veyron together from parts that arrive from around the world – the carbon chassis from Italy, the engine from Germany, the wheels from Italy or Germany, the gearbox from the U.K. It could be done anywhere, but the billionaire owners who arrive by helicopter or private jet to see their cars being built are doubtless wooed a little by the association with the marque’s storied history. And Ettore couldn’t have guessed how handy his chosen location would turn out to be for the 253-mph hypercar that would bear his name 100 years later; there are rumors of an “accommodation” with the local police, but the unrestricted German autobahns just on the other side of the border are one of the few places on earth where prospective customers might legally experience what a Veyron is capable of.