On the far left of the instrument binnacle, the Veyron has a round dial with some unusual calibration. The needle begins at zero and swings around to 1001. That's 1001 as in PS, German for horsepower. (Converted to American units applicable here, the Veyron produces a mere 987 hp.) Like the power reserve display in the Rolls-Royce Phantom, this gauge shows the immense energy produced by the awesome 8.0-liter, sixteen-cylinder, quad-turbo engine. To reach 155 mph, where lesser sports cars throw in the towel, only 266 hp is required. When you summon the remaining 721 hp, all hell breaks loose. The only other street car that can compare is the McLaren F1, and the Bugatti is even more impressive when you start approaching the scary but scintillating 200-mph-plus speed range.
"The Veyron is a truly groundbreaking vehicle," says Wolfgang Schreiber, technical director of Bugatti Engineering, one of only three people who regularly push the EB 16.4 to the limit. Before the Veyron, he specialized in lightweight materials and recently guided development of Volkswagen's twin-clutch DSG transmission. "The maximum combustion energy adds up to 3000 PS: 1000 is swallowed by the cooling system, 1000 goes through the exhaust, and 1000 is relayed to the four driven wheels;?1000 PS is a whole new dimension.
"The same applies to the maximum torque of 922 lb-ft at 2000 rpm. However, while other transmissions would go bust facing a four-figure challenge, ours can take up to 1107 lb-ft. With the ESP stability system switched off, you can even provoke third-gear wheel spin on slippery surfaces. That's why it takes time to familiarize yourself with this machine. The Veyron is benign and relatively easy to drive by supercar standards, but it requires respect." The writer nods in agreement. I have just whistled down a local autobahn at speeds of up to 212 mph, hardly breaking a sweat, but the 100-mph-plus speed differential completely freaked out other drivers. Not many people check their mirrors often enough to spot the Bugatti zooming up at warp speed, despite its four glaring xenon headlights and its menacing silhouette.
Like Oscar Wilde, Ferdinand Pich always craved the best. At Porsche, he demolished his rivals with the legendary 917. At Audi, he came up with the Quattro. At VW, he paid peanuts for the Bugatti name before spending big money on the development of the Veyron. Its mission was to end the eternal citius, altius, fortius debate forever by establishing a performance standard that no other marque could match.
Although Pich initially had proposed an even more extreme eighteen-cylinder engine, he eventually settled for the W-16, which is composed of two 4.0-liter W-8 units. But the monosyllabic Austrian would not compromise on the performance targets. Maximum power had to nudge the 1000-hp threshold, and maximum speed had to be in excess of 400 kph (249 mph). The asking price was set at 1 million euros--approximately $1.23 million--plus taxes. While Pich loved the car, the engineers hated it, citing insurmountable cooling and aerodynamic problems. But the chairman did not budge: no styling changes, no performance compromises, no excuses.
The Anglo-Franco-German connection
The new home of Bugatti is in Molsheim, France, only a stone's throw away from the original premises. A neatly renovated castle serves as luxurious residence for managing director Thomas Bscher. The professional banker and extremely competent racing driver is the senior ambassador for the horseshoe brand. Final assembly of the Veyron also takes place in Molsheim. Clinically clean, the minimalist marble monument eclipses even the Volkswagen Group's showcase facility in Dresden. "Capacity is not an issue," says Bscher. "There is enough readily available land to assemble 1000 or even 2000 vehicles a year. In ten years' time, when legislation should be less stringent for small-volume makers, Molsheim may concentrate on bespoke coachbuilt automobiles for affluent customers."
For the time being, however, the new Bugatti car company is still in its infancy. So far, no more than twenty-three Veyrons have been completed. Of that batch, only the last two vehicles are final-spec, preproduction examples. The first car will be shipped to an American customer. Chassis number seven will be delivered to a certain Ursula Pich.
"A perfect balance between drag coefficient and downforce is essential at very high speed," says Schreiber. "Before you can attempt to reach the 254-mph top speed, the car's aerodynamic profile needs to be adjusted." To do so, you turn the "speed key" located between seat and sill. In top-speed mode, the rear wing and the tail spoiler above it retract almost fully, the front diffuser panels close, the ride height drops to 2.6 inches at the front and 2.8 inches at the back, and the drag coefficient decreases from 0.37 to 0.36. In this setup, drag is at a minimum--but so is downforce. At the front, there is zero lift, and at the rear, there is a mere 88 pounds of downforce.
In handling mode, which is good for up to 233 mph, the corresponding figures are 331 pounds on the front axle and 441 pounds on the rear end. Like the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, the Veyron is equipped with an air brake. In the Bugatti, however, rear visibility remains intact even when the flap is up. "When you hit the pedal hard at 126 mph plus, the air brake gives 0.6 g of additional deceleration. At the same time, the downforce increases by up to 662 pounds. As a result, the rear wheels can brake harder without approaching lockup," says the chief engineer.
Team Bugatti spent many days in the wind tunnel to fine-tune the Veyron for the best blend of speed, thermodynamics, and stability. Although the quoted power output is 987 hp, all the engines built so far have made 1035 hp.
Cooling a cannonball
"It's impossible to completely cool down this amount of energy," says Schreiber. "But you can implement stringent airflow management to increase the amount of air to the engine." The Veyron has four heat exchangers: two big ones in the nose of the car, for the engine and for the intake air, as well as two mid-size. Two more air-conditioning condensers are positioned in the wheelhouses. When needed, up to four fans expel excessive heat.
"It is extremely difficult to find a common denominator for the cooling and aero requirements," acknowledges Schreiber. "With every extra cubic inch of air that flows through the car, the coefficient of drag suffers, and you lose a little speed. That's why several of the vents you saw on the show car had to disappear." To stop the front brakes from frying the pads under pressure, the steering knuckles feature integrated snail-shaped ducts that lead cool air to the discs.
In stop-and-go traffic, all air deflectors automatically go into maximum cool-down mode. At this juncture, the complex steel and aluminum architecture sizzles and crackles like a swarm of locusts, and the car is engulfed by the scent of hot engine oil, burnt fuel, brake-pad dust, and Michelin rubber.
The ultimate suspension compromise
According to Schreiber, "The Veyron covers a wider speed spectrum than any other sports car. It must ride reasonably well at 25 mph, and at the same time, it must be perfectly stable and confidence-inspiring at 250 mph. To meet these conflicting requirements, there are three different suspension settings: standard, handling, and top speed. Instead of installing adjustable springs, dampers, and antiroll bars, we opted for a quick-acting central hydraulic system that permits, among other things, instantaneous ride-height adjustments."
In standard mode, the ground clearance is 4.9 inches all around--enough to climb curbs and straddle traffic-calming speed bumps. The Bugatti runs on OZ wheels shod with run-flat PAX tires supplied by Michelin. The sizes read like credit card numbers: 265-680/R-500A up front, 365-710/R-540A out back. The chassis incorporates an ambitious mix of high-tech elements (see Techtonics sidebar).
The Bugatti boys certainly got their calculations right. Even at very high speeds, the roadholding is simply phenomenal, and the car is incredibly stable. It tracks with precision through fast or slow corners, and things like traction or lift-off oversteer are never an issue. Bugatti fitted four-wheel drive to ensure optimum stability in all conditions, with a dynamic torque split that typically sends 70 or 80 percent of the torque to the rear wheels, which are governed by an electronic diff lock. The steering is quite direct at two turns from lock to lock, but at the same time, it feels totally relaxed. As you might expect, in a car designed to run at 250 mph, the brakes are phenomenal--as we prove several times when slow-moving traffic fails to spot us.
The world's most expensive PlayStation
The Veyron is everything the graphic designers from the Sony studios have ever dreamed of and more. This car moves on a different level and at different speeds, an alien object that works in its own parallel universe. The Bugatti cannot (yet) beam away the vehicle in front of it, neutralize red traffic lights, or take off and bypass congestion in midair, but the EB 16.4 does accelerate like a time capsule on its way into orbit. Forward thrust is still strong at 200 mph and beyond, and the Veyron conquers physics in a manner that was previously the domain of your favorite video game.
Predictably, the performance figures that are claimed for this 4300-pound two-seater are simply out of this world: 0 to 62 mph in 2.5 seconds, 0 to 125 mph in 7.3 seconds, and 0 to 188 mph in 16.7 seconds.
The transmission is a mighty seven-speed DSG manu-matic supplied by Ricardo. You can change gears with your thumbs or via the joystick in the center console, which also selects the drive mode of choice. Automatic is fine wherever speed limits beckon, but the most fun is the sport program, which revs every gear to its redline, shifts down really early, musters a telepathic throttle response, and segments the B-roads around Wolfsburg into special stages for a very special car. "The fuel consumption can only be described as acceptable," states Schreiber without batting an eyelash. "In normal use, the Bugatti typically betters 12 mpg. At full throttle in top gear, however, you are looking more at something like 4 mpg." One assumes the owners can afford it.
Comfort and speed
Unlike the Ferrari Enzo, the Veyron is not a racing car in disguise. Instead, the Bugatti is intended to be the grandest grand tourer. The unexpectedly roomy cockpit is trimmed with the finest materials: soft leather, even softer suede, high-quality carpets, and plenty of carefully machined, beautifully detailed aluminum that reprises the instrument panels of classic Bugattis. Incorporated in the center stack are the HVAC controls, the single-disc CD player, and the keyboard for the ear-opening Burmester stereo. An incoming-call button in the headliner suggests there is a phone hidden somewhere in this high-end landscape, and we even note a basic guidance-by-arrow navigation system in the right-hand corner of the rearview mirror, which must be programmed via an external PDA.
Grouped around the shift lever are three buttons: launch control, start engine, and handling setup. "The Veyron is a pure-blooded driving machine, not a showcase for electronic gadgets," says our companion. "That's why we left out everything that could distract the driver, like a complicated navigation system or a complex onboard computer.
"You have to remember that the Veyron extends the speed envelope by 50 or so mph. Even at 200 mph, the forward urge is still enormous. At about 240 mph, the drag and rolling resistance are beginning to take their toll. But patience is really only required for the final 16 mph. The total acceleration time from a standstill to top speed is 55 seconds.
"What's it like to drive at 250 mph?
It's kind of a surreal experience, an excursion into a different world, a big shot of adrenaline--but without sticky palms and wide eyes, even though you are covering 367 feet per second at 250 mph." Schreiber says that it would take an extra 7 hp to improve the top speed by only 0.6 mph at these rarefied speeds.
A nightmare solved
"In the beginning, it was pure chaos," says Bscher. "We counted more than 600 problems with the basic packaging requirements, the whole cooling issue was unresolved, and the promised power output existed only on paper."
Schreiber agrees that not everything went according to plan: "When I joined Bugatti two years ago, the car's fuel pumps delivered barely enough gasoline for 650 hp. Since the engine was running lean, full-throttle test runs were always a big risk. So we had to start from scratch, developing a sophisticated ionic knock-control system as well as more powerful fuel pumps. The vehicle had to go back to the wind tunnel, because it built up so much drag that the car would not even reach its target speed. As a result, changes were made to the underbody, the rear diffuser, the wheelhouses, and the nasal air intakes.
"Even the driveshafts kept running dry, because the rubber bellows that housed the grease were so distorted by the centrifugal force that they touched nearby deflector panels and cut them open. The solenoids and the actuators of the hydraulic system did not work properly. And the original Brembo brakes left something to be desired, too. That's why we ended up fitting 15.7-inch-diameter front and 15.0-inch rear ceramic rotors supplied by SGL and massive eight-piston front and six-piston rear AP Racing calipers."
The future of Bugatti
Even optimists would struggle to call the Veyron a commercial success. After all, no more than thirty to forty cars have been sold so far, depending on whom you ask. According to the Molsheim grapevine, there are still at least ten free slots in the 2006 production plan. Not surprisingly, production now will last for eight years instead of six.
The car is being sold by twenty dealers worldwide. Wherever it makes sense, Bugatti intends to tap the Bentley network. The required down payment is more than $370,000 plus tax, and the warranty is limited to two years and 31,000 miles.
In case of a breakdown, customers can expect a twenty-four-hour flying doctor's service. If, however, structural repair work is required or the engine needs attention, the car must be sent back to its birthplace. The client can specify the paint scheme, the type and size of the seats, and the color--but not the quality--of the leather. That's it.
What's next from Bugatti? First of all, we are likely to see two additional Veyron derivatives: a lighter SuperSport and a version with a folding or removable top. Since the sixteen-cylinder powerplant and the seven-speed DSG are big-investment items, this drivetrain may be used again for the Veyron replacement, which is expected to be a front-engined coupe or sedan. Long-term, Bugatti would love to do a lightweight car that has more in common with classic Molsheim products such as the Type 55 roadster.
"I can promise you right now," says Bscher, "that we are going to make money on the very first car that rolls off the line." Incredulous silence. "Yes, Molsheim is profitable." A pause. "But the investment in Bugatti has long been written off by our parent company."