The Bugatti Veyron
Well actually, Bugatti think it's worth a bit more as it will now cost you €1.1 million ($1.5m) plus taxes to order a new Veyron from the factory. So I went there to find out.
Since buying the Bugatti name some eight years ago, parent company Volkswagen has also acquired Ettore's chateau next to what were originally the factory buildings in Molsheim, near Strasbourg in the Alsace region of France. Arriving on the outskirts of Molsheim after a 380km drive in warm sunshine from Geneva, the new Bugatti factory is immediately visible, a modern, dark grey building standing out in the flat rural landscape. Here the various components which arrive from around the world are assembled, whilst behind the factory, hidden by trees, lies the chateau surrounded by immaculately manicured grounds. At first impression it seems there are more gardeners than engineers, and the smell of freshly cut grass and the 18th century outbuildings are reassuringly old fashioned. One could almost imagine Ettore himself striding down the chateau steps and offering a test drive in a new Royale...
Left: Bugatti Veyron- we get the keys for a day...
Right: Blofeld's- sorry, Bugatti's- lair outside Molsheim.
There's nothing quaint about the inside of the chateau, however, which has been gutted and converted into an ultra modern, open plan space for exhibitions and the handful of Bugatti marketing staff who work there. Likewise, the 300 year old outbuildings were carefully laser scanned by a German firm and then demolished before being rebuilt as original, brick by brick. Now they are used to entertain the press and potential Veyron buyers, and that is to where I was directed after handing over my passport to a sentry at the main Works gate.
Left: Trying to look like a serious potential buyer.
Right: Bugatti PR supremo Julius Kruta instructs my driver ominously: "Make sure he's impressed..."
The first Veyron most clients will see is the black and silver example which takes pride of place behind the building's large glass doors. Further inside sits a diminutive Type 35A as if to remind you why they're building these cars here and not in Wolfsburg. There is a peaceful atmosphere and refreshments are laid on for guests to enjoy whilst they familiarize themselves with the Veyron. It's more upmarket spa than high pressure car showroom. Bugatti's friendly test driver Pierre-Henri Raphanel soon arrives in a black and blue Veyron, quietly rumbling up outside. I remember him racing a 250GTO in historic events a few years ago, but his CV includes 14 starts at Le Mans (including victory in the GT class) and even a brief stint in F.1 in the late 1980s. Now he's an ambassador for Bugatti and seems to enjoy every moment of his job, talking with passion and detailed knowledge about every aspect of the Veyron.
Left: Best job in the world? Bugatti test driver Pierre-Henri Raphanel.
Right: Oops...giant visitor pulls off Veyron wheel in reception.
We soon get into the car and after signing an intimidating looking liability waiver, I'm off with Pierre-Henri at the wheel. Despite overhearing Bugatti PR man Julius Kruta whisper "Make sure he's impressed" to him before leaving, Pierre-Henri drives as if chauffeuring the President to the Elysée, smoothly and without any hint of drama or the latent power which presumably I'm here to experience. Soon we've been passed by most of the locals in their beaten up utilitaires, including the ubiquitous white builders van with the passenger mouthing a French expletive out the window accompanied by a grin and a vigorous thumbs up.
Until now I've been impressed by the ease of access, comfortable seats and beautiful finish. There's no chance of mistaking this for an escapee from the race track: no carbon fibre weave or rough edges, no rough ride or relentless engine soundtrack. Inside it's a mix of alcantara, leather and engine turned aluminium for the dashboard centre: more Phantom than F40. The headlining is a good two inches away despite my 6'3" frame, and there's plenty of room sideways even though 'our' car has the sport seats option (as supplied by Sparco to Ferrari for the Enzo as well). The quad-turbo W16 hums away busily behind the occupants heads, the upshifts almost imperceptible thanks to the DSG automatic 'box in standard 'Drive' mode. After 20 minutes ambling around the local roads with Pierre-Henri chatting away behind the wheel, I've almost forgotten that this is the world's fastest car except that even here, on its home turf, few bystanders or other road users remain indifferent to its passage.
Left: Cabin made to measure for oligarchs, footballers and hedge fund managers.
Right: Yes, that really is the boot. Or glove box. You decide.
Now we're on a long, sweeping Route Nationale and Pierre-Henri checks his mirrors, then slows to a crawl. He flicks the gear lever right into Sport mode and then steps on the accelerator. It's hard to avoid clichéd expressions, but in a flash everything changes. A massive roar erupts from behind as the W16 unleashes its full 1000-plus horsepower, accompanied by lightning fast upshifts as it hits 6500rpm in every gear. It's so quick that you can see why they chose an automatic: I doubt most drivers could keep up otherwise. The picture postcard countryside view of a few moments ago has transformed into something from a video game: the trees are rushing by, the corner in the distance is upon us, we're still accelerating through it as the Bugatti squats down on to the road, and the cars coming from the other direction are hurled backwards as if catapulted. We're at over 200km/h...Just as quickly as he accelerated, Pierre-Henri is hard on the brakes and I can feel the ABS coming on early as I'm thrust forward into my seat belt. In no time we're back at 30km/h, the engine humming away quietly as if nothing had happened, everything serene. I must have imagined it.
Left: At 5mpg, owners will get to know this detail well.
Right: If it wasn't for the founders initials, you could be forgiven for thinking you're in a Bentley.
Maybe I did, and so when a few minutes later Pierre-Henri pulls over and offers me the driver's seat I'm keen to see if I can repeat the 'warp speed' trick myself. Dropping down into the soft leather seat the first thing that seems out of place is the missing third pedal. If you're used to driving 'vintage' sports cars, the notion that something with such performance can also be easy to drive takes some getting used to, but the Veyron behaves- dare I say this- almost like a Bentley Continental GT if you just want to potter around. We set off, the 'box upshifting smoothly at little more than 1,500rpm, and at this point I think that my mother-in-law would be perfectly at home driving this car back in Scotland. It's smooth, doesn't feel that big (although at some 2m wide it's no Lotus 7 either) and very, very civilized. The stereo belts out concert hall quality Blues sax on demand (I would have expected at least Wagner), the aircon keeps the cabin at the perfect temperature and you can even see out of it, except for the rear buttresses which, as in almost every mid-engined sports car, obstruct rear ¾ vision. Straight back is fine though, nothing like the letter-box most supercar owners have to put up with.
After a few minutes getting used to being at the wheel of someone else's rather expensive motor car (especially a very fast one) Pierre-Henri suggests I try the 'Sport' mode. A quick flick of the gearlever to the right (left triggers neutral, which could be expensive when accelerating or cornering hard, so don't get it wrong) and the 'box goes from the highest possible gear to the lowest for the speed we're in. The transformation is staggering. From little more than backing noise, suddenly we have a jet behind us. Floor the throttle and you're pushed back hard into your seat, and the push is relentless. If you're quick you'll change up using the steering wheel mounted paddles, but the chances are you won't be (I wasn't) and the system will do it for you at 6,500rpm. The sound is...sensational. Nothing compares to that thunderous W16 bellow; it's not high pitched, it's a cross between a 7 litre Cobra and a jet engine. No wonder so many testers compare the experience to that of a plane: both the thrust and the sound are one-of-a-kind. And yet, just as soon as you've experienced it, your natural instincts (and seemingly stationary cars ahead which are in fact travelling forward) rein you in, and you can't help giving the brakes a firm push to check they work. As it happens, the only thing more impressive than the going is the stopping. You feel the ABS coming in early, but the stopping distances, especially to someone used to older cars, are unbelievable. But more about that in a minute.
Hustling the Veyron along the local B-roads, through the woods and around hairpins, is a magical experience, with torque, loads of it, in every gear and no matter what the revs. Consider that the Veyron has double the torque of a Ferrari Enzo and you begin to understand just what that kind of power means. This car flatters you, it ignores your mistakes, it allows everyone with enough money to experience the sort of performance that was reserved for Grand Prix drivers until not long ago. It's mind blowing, even if you've driven lots of fast cars before. You are reminded that even the Veyron can't completely defy the laws of physics if you really abuse the power in a tight corner, summoning a flashing traction control light to curb your enthusiasm, but you'd have to be insane or suicidal to go beyond the limits of this car's abilities and actually unstick it at high speed.
Left: Nudge that lever right and all hell breaks loose.
Right: Rolling thunder...a pit stop in our Wagnerian chariot.
After what must be one of the most memorable hour's motoring I can remember, the time inevitably came to return someone else's borrowed toy back to its box. Luckily our way home took in a brief stretch of French autoroute, and this, to me, is this car's raison d'être. In most other situations, there are cars which could do the job better or are at least more suited: a Lotus 7 to a twisty road through a forest, for example. But I can't believe that anything, not even an F.1 McLaren, would be quite as perfect a choice for a high speed motorway blast across a continent. For starters, nowhere else can you exploit the straight line acceleration: to put it into perspective, I'm told that if a McLaren were to start from standstill and reach 100mph before the Veyron took off, the Bugatti would have caught the F1 before it reached 200mph...
Secondly, and you'll recognize the benefit if you usually drive a fast but ordinary looking car, nothing short of a police car with all lights blazing shifts the traffic in front like a Veyron. Just the sight of that blunt snout, like a sinister automotive creature from the deep, is enough to send most average motorists scurrying for the inside lane. Our particular autoroute ended in a roundabout so prudence was advised, but a firm prod on the accelerator took us from 130km/h to double that in just a few seconds. You need very good eyesight or a very good lawyer (preferably both) whenever you take this beast out.
Finally we pulled into the driveway of the Bugatti factory, but Pierre-Henri motioned me to stop for his final party trick. Some 150 metres away, just in front of the main buildings, the (German) guard peered out of his hut by the security gate. "When you're ready", instructed Pierre-Henri, "you can accelerate flat out. When I hit the dashboard, brake." Gulp. Well, it's his company's car, so it seems impolite not to follow his lead. It may be my imagination but I think I can see the guard staring back at me, like two characters from a Spaghetti western. Here goes. Thunderous noise behind as I floor the throttle, the car squats down without even a hint of wheelspin and shoots off towards the guard's hut and the barrier alongside. I'm too busy to look at the speedo but my guess is we've reached well over 100km/h when Pierre-Henri hits the dash, I brake hard and the Veyron stops in its tracks. We're still at least 50 metres from the barrier and the guard, needless to say (he must have seen this act a hundred times), hasn't even raised an eyelid.
So is it worth the price of two Enzos? Four Carrera GTs? Fifty Lotus Sevens? It's probably more beauty than beast, more footballer than Fangio, but if you love cars and aren't an accountant...well, try it for yourself and see. Thank you Dr Piech and apologies to Greenpeace (although it does run on unleaded...at 5mpg).
The list price of the Veyron 16.4 is today €1.1m + taxes.
Production is expected to end late in 2009.
Clients may order their cars directly from the factory.
No major technical changes have been made during the production run other than a minor software update and moving the rear view mirrors 4mm backwards. The latest US cars will have updated emissions equipment.
The only extra cost options are comfort seats (€12,000) and a clear plastic nose film to protect from stone chips (€7,000). Personalisation options including a louder exhaust are under consideration but there is no plan to offer these yet.
A deposit of €300,000 is required with every order with the balance payable two weeks before delivery.
Orders are being taken now for delivery in the 2nd quarter of 2008.