First Drive: 2018 Bugatti Chiron
Touching 234 mph in the ultimate 16-cylinder salute to the Golden Age of gasoline-powered excess
Its edges are elegantly chamfered and its form pleasantly rounded, but the slender slice of aluminum in the right-side footwell of the 2018 Bugatti Chiron is more battle axe than scalpel. Squeezing the floor-mounted accelerator summons 16 cylinders, 4 turbochargers, and 1,479 horsepower — enough raw, road-groping momentum to outpace an LMP1 car at the home of Le Mans, the famed Circuit de la Sarthe. But unlike those carbon-clad prototype racers, the Chiron has a sound system that can articulate a lubdubbing bassline at 18 hertz sugared with delicate top notes thanks to its diamond-coated tweeters. Is this the future of speed, both lethal and luxuriant all at once?
Wretched Excess, the Sequel
To skeptics (and we know you're out there), the $2,998,000 Chiron is just a pricier and more powerful redux of the Bugatti Veyron, the car only a couple of hundred people in the world could afford, anyway. But virtually nothing has been overlooked with this reimagined and reworked follow-up to the superlative-slapped two-seater. "Our only target this time," says Bugatti boss Wolfgang Dürheimer, "was to surpass the Veyron in every respect."
For starters, the 8.0-liter W-12 claims 95 percent new parts, many of which are now titanium and carbon fiber for weight savings. Its four turbochargers are 68 percent larger and engage in two stages to deliver a startlingly flat torque peak of 1,180 lb-ft between 2,000 and 6,000 rpm. Though the new car is 1.6 inch wider, incremental weight savings throughout netted an essentially unchanged curb weight (Bugatti pegs the Chiron's "DIN empty weight" at 4,398 pounds) compared to the Veyron. Designer Etienne Salomé says the only item exempt from trimming down was the so-called Bugatti macaron, the nose-mounted badge. Finished in baked enamel, the piece weighs 155 grams, 140 of which are composed of 970-grade silver.
A new adaptive suspension system uses electronically valved Sachs dampers to adjust stiffness and ride height, while hydraulic flaps actively divert air across the flat underbody to aid with brake cooling and downforce. Sourced from Dallara, its carbon-fiber chassis takes a staggering 1,500 hours to build and is now so rigid it bends only one degree under 50,000 newton-meters of load, a stiffness only matched by those aforementioned LMP1 cars.
At rest, the Chiron is undeniably sleeker than the predominantly ovoid Veyron, offering complex curves and a subtle muscularity that contrasts its flatter, flusher predecessor. Swing the door open and slide inside the C-shaped portal, and the cockpit presents itself as a more minimalist, modern space. The center console has slimmed, abandoning its subtle hat tip to Bugatti's signature horseshoe shape. The form picks up on the steering wheel, behind which sit small aluminum paddle shifters framing a massive analog, 300 mph speedometer flanked by TFT screens. Word has it the gauge was employed to create a sense of wonder so a kid at Pebble Beach 20 years from now could peer through the window and marvel at the top speed. The C theme continues with a light bar — the longest photon conductor in the business — that arcs over the cabin, spanning from the leading edge of the headliner to the center console. Though the detailing is sparse — making its four centrally positioned knurled aluminum dials stand out — the sense of occasion is strong.
"If the Veyron was beauty and the beast," Dürheimer says on the night before my drive, "the Chiron is more beast." That's an awfully promising and daunting idea to cloud your nocturnal thoughts. Thanks, Mr. D.
The 16-Cylinder Sun Also Rises
Who needs coffee when you're strapped into a three-million dollar land missile with a driver's seat view of that supernumerary gauge? Even better, the kilometer-measuring European-spec dial on my tester goes to 500. Nice.
Press and hold the blue "Engine" button on the wheel and the W-16 comes to life with a hushed whir just before settling into a 650 rpm idle, 200 spins slower than before. Sound levels are dramatically louder outside of the leather and carbon-lined cabin, more akin to a scream than a whisper. Hold the brake pedal, click the shifter into D, and touch the accelerator, and there's a startling surge forward, especially if it's been a minute since you've driven a car with four-figure horsepower.
Right off the bat, the Chiron transmits more immediacy than the Veyron, feeling noticeably sharper and more responsive thanks to its improved suspension geometry and quicker steering. The disarming sensation of thrust, even when barely touching the throttle, taunts, tempts, and is all but irresistible — especially because it's accompanied by the subtle whir and wheeze of turbochargers and wastegates. Unlike its perennially taut predecessor, the Chiron's adaptive suspension handles rough surfaces like cobblestones remarkably well. The knurled dial on the steering wheel selects Lift (which raises the car for curbs), EB (an adaptive mode), Autobahn (for higher speeds), or Handling (track-focused) modes, which affect damping, ride height, steering, and power distribution. The differences are noticeable at all speeds, but particularly pronounced at triple digits. At higher velocities, the effect of the active flaps, rear spoiler, and lowered ride height not only increases negative wheel camber, it creates a palpable feeling the car is being sucked closer to earth. I'm told the Chiron is "easy to drift" in Handling mode. I promise not to try.
Illicit speeds are reached breathtakingly quickly. Tip-in triggers an escalating torque effect as the first two turbochargers spool. Hold the throttle and the g-forces snowball; in moments, the Chiron is hustling at 100 mph. Coasting along at that speed in seventh gear — a startlingly easy achievement thanks to the quiet cabin, glassy ride, and effortless grunt — drops the engine below 2,000 rpm. It's a mind-numbingly simple state, gliding past slower, cellphone wielding traffic intent on immortalizing the inconspicuous seven-figure blur. Drop a gear or two and dip into the throttle, and the surge is downright addictive, a relentless pin- to-your-seat aircraft carrier launch of acceleration that simply doesn't quit. Not that it matters (especially at these speeds), but the horizontal spoiler and the vertical ridge create crosshairs in the rearview that all but obscure the view from behind. It is unknown whether police lights would be visible through those carbon fiber obfuscations.
Despite my greatest efforts, the game never gets old: Gun it, giggle like a schoolboy as I charge ahead at warp speed, then hit the brakes, which fills the rearview with the spoiler-cum-airbrake as the carbon stoppers clamp down and scrub away velocity. The effect is almost too good in both directions; acceleration is so quick, time seems to warp, and braking is so effective it can pull up to negative 2 gs, enough to make the guiltiest conscience feel that all sins have been absolved. And then it happens: an epically spacious downhill stretch reveals itself, and I keep the throttle pinned. The engine charges ahead as I quickly bang through the gears and the Chiron punches through air with that seemingly unending sense of urgency, remaining planted as the sound volume in the cabin escalates only incrementally. I suppress the urge to glance down at the speedometer, and only after I've slammed on the brakes again and returned to earthbound speeds does it occur to me that peak data can be recalled on the tiny screens within the dash-mounted buttons. The telemetry is haunting: at 6,691 rpm, the engine was producing 1,487 horsepower (and, incidentally, circulating 15,000 gallons of air through its cylinders per minute). Indicated speed? 377 kph, or 234 mph. Gulp.
Down to Earth
The Chiron returns to its tractable, effortless self once back at terrestrial velocities. Returning to reality enables me to reflect on my few qualms, among them some slightly jerky low-speed shifts, which I'm told are due to my car's pre-production state. Also pesky are the shallow clicks of the small paddle shifters, which don't engage as satisfyingly as you might hope for in a car such as this. Apart from the quibbles, the Chiron's astounding, county-leaping acceleration, neck-snapping stopping power and controlled handling make it feel vastly improved over its antecedent.
Considering half its run of 500 cars was claimed before the first customer took delivery, it may be that demand was piqued by its more intriguing styling, and perhaps Bugatti's pre-emptive PR tactics. Based on the Chiron's more satisfying driving dynamics, I suspect orders will keep pouring in for the remaining allotment, which currently puts buyers on a 4-year waiting period.
But the more crucial question for dyed-in-the-wool gearheads is whether the Chiron is alluring enough to win over the skeptics and convert the non-believers. If we can all agree that the Golden Age of the internal combustion engine is indeed upon us, the Bugatti Chiron savors one last romp before hybrids and electrics take over. This sixteen-cylinder song may well be the apotheosis of that ephemeral link to the mechanical, a final pop of bubbly to nail the coffin on gas-powered excess.
2018 Bugatti Chiron Specifications
|ENGINE||8.0L quad-turbo DOHC 64-valve W-16/1,479 hp @ 6,700 rpm, 1,180 lb-ft @ 2,000-6,000 rpm|
|TRANSMISSION||7-speed dual-clutch automatic|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 2-passenger, mid-engine, AWD coupe|
|L x W x H||178.9 x 80.2 x 47.7 in|
|0-60 MPH||2.5 sec|
|TOP SPEED||261 mph|