By Design: Bugatti Chiron
Only incidentally an automobile
The Bugatti Chiron is not a car; instead, it's a nearly useless dazzling object—the rolling equivalent of the bejeweled Easter eggs made for two czars of Russia by Peter Carl Fabergé. The Chiron exists only because a megalomaniacal modern czar issued an imperious edict that it should exist, cost no object. The Chiron, itself a Volkswagen Group product, is about far as you can get from a purely functional, utilitarian automobile like the KdF Volkswagen or a Ford Model T.
Its construction quality is surpassingly fine, and it is enormously impressive in that the bulky mechanical mass within its shell produces 1,500 horsepower (with more to come, they say) and can do so for about 8 minutes before it has consumed all the fuel the car can carry. But there's no way around the fact that an egregiously overpowered 16-cylinder, 2-metric-ton, 250-plus-mph two-seater is an absolutely absurd device.
Romano Artioli's revival Bugattis from Campogalliano were fairly close in concept to Ettore Bugatti's cars, with a 3.5-liter engine giving performance superior to much bigger ones. But Artioli did not have the means of a czar, so his operation went the way of Ettore Bugatti's original firm. Enter, a few years later, the reign of Czar Ferdinand Piëch, himself a brilliant engineer but alas one entranced by mechanical complexity. Had his 12-cylinder 917s not overwhelmed (and sadly put an end to) Can-Am racing, he planned to add cylinders, perhaps just for the fun of having all those moving parts. And massive power, of course.
Yes, Ettore Bugatti himself built 16-cylinder engines, and made the biggest engine ever offered in a passenger car, the 12.7-liter Royale straight-eight. But even then it was mechanically simple, and we remember him for grace and lightness, not the hulking heaviness of the VW Bugattis. Real Bugattis—that is, the cars built more than 75 years ago by the Bugatti family—are delicate in appearance and intuitively engineered down to minimum dimensions and mass wherever possible. True, their four-spoke steering wheels might not pass current crash tests, but they were perfect for their function and are still just fine after nine decades of service.
That will never be true for these end-of-an-era Chirons. And while Czar Ferdinand has since been deposed, the design team behind his grand project has soldiered on, and it deserves some credit. The Chiron is at least better looking than its Veyron predecessor, even if both are excessively Teutonic. Real Bugatti cars were Italian in concept because Ettore was an Italian artist. He made light and beautiful chassis, many fitted with beautiful bodies, but most of them—distressingly—were very badly clothed. At least today's Bugattis have that in common with the brilliant originals.
1. The huge holes in the front end are necessary to cool the mechanical mass behind the cockpit. Slim blades breaking each side into two parts are elegantly handled.
2. This evocation of the hand crank boss in the base of 1920s Bugatti radiators has no place in the modern world. It's beyond silly with the engine behind the cockpit.
3. Apart from the bump on the bottom, the grille shape is handled sensitively and with a convincing perimeter. The badge seems slightly out of place and too big for tradition.
4. The little centerline wind split on the short hood is less convincing than those atop the front fenders.
5. Six lamps worked pretty well visually on some Alfa Romeos, but the eight glowing here seem a bit much. At least their placement is in a clear, simple slot for more cooling.
6. This chrome loop is claimed to recall some ancient Bugatti recapitulations of horse-drawn coachwork. It defines a huge, drag-producing air scoop on the entire rear quarter.
7. This clean strut spanning the distance between the cabin volume and scoop presumably restrains the outer body surface to keep it from peeling away at high speed.
8. The fender haunches that swell outward are attractive but end in a large open gap on the back of the car to evacuate heat.
9. This trim piece outlines what may very well be the biggest air intakes ever developed for a production automobile. The body turns sharply inward; the rear fender bulges outward behind it.
10. Fairly subtle detail on a form notable for garishness, this outlet ducts hot air from the front below the trim, keeping it from being ingested above.
11. The chrome trim ends behind the wheelhouse, but its width carries through to the rear edge of the front quarter openings, a well-done detail.
12. Presumably the idea is that you'll be going so fast that no one can catch you, so it doesn't matter that you can't see much behind you.
13. Sorry, central backlight pillars do not make a car a Bugatti, as Giugiaro showed earlier. Cool styling maybe, recalling the Type 57 Atlantic, but bad design, obstructing vision.
14. The wiggly wing rises out of the back at programmed speeds, graceless but probably necessary.
15. The full-width light bar is simple enough, with large taillights appended to its ends, but it tends to recall American sedans of decades long past.
16. A handsome piece, the exhaust outlet casting is huge, as is necessary to evacuate the hot gases of an engine this big. But there's nothing particularly distinctive about it.
17. We have to take the underbody diffuser seriously because, without it, there would be too much tendency for the rear wheels to come off the ground at ultra-high speeds.
18. This looks like a black hole, and indeed it is. The whole rear face is essentially an outlet for enormous heat.
19. The Chiron's wheels are basically SEMA-aftermarket in design concept, although they are doubtless engineered to the nth degree, and they do have a continuous bright rim.
20. An anomalous detail: The front wheel openings have a flat vertical band around them, the rears a curved, protruding 3-D band. A curious dichotomy.
21. The instrument panel vents are simple and unobtrusive but give no sense of jewelry. They could be from a Japanese near-luxury model. Fabergé's touch is much needed here.
22. This vulgar concoction of brightwork and buttons is as far away from Ettore Bugatti's cockpit aesthetic as it's possible to go. It's really unpleasant.
23. Too bad this little strut has to be so well placed to partially block the side mirror.
24. This almost-too-simple seat nicely recalls the simplicity of real Bugattis. Good.