Date posted: 11-17-2005
Eleven years ago, I was lucky enough to road test the McLaren F1. We spent two days on road and runway, during which time it got from rest to 60 mph in 3.2 seconds, and to 200 mph in 28 seconds. I ran out of nerve at an independently timed 211 mph, long before its mighty 6.1-liter V12 engine ran out of urge. So I made a prediction: I said in print that there would never be a faster car than this. I said that the power of political correctness would overwhelm man's desire to outdo himself and that the McLaren would stand for all time as the high watermark for road-car performance.
Which just goes to show that predictions are for idiots. I've just driven a 2006 Bugatti Veyron and, once you have initiated launch control, you need do nothing more than straighten your right foot to see it pass 60 mph in 2.46 seconds. That's as fast as a Formula One car and, conceptually, in as different a league to the McLaren as the McLaren was to, say, a Porsche 911 Turbo.
Worth the Weight
But this is probably the worst indication of the Veyron's true pace because it is a heavy car, about 4,299 pounds with fuel and oil, and heavy cars are never at their best at such low speeds. So let me throw a few more choice statistics at you: How does zero to 125 mph in 7.3 seconds — less time than it takes most fast cars to reach less than half that speed — grab you? There is no official 0-200-mph time because Bugatti works in kilometers but when I asked its chief engineer, Wolfgang Schreiber, to give an estimate, he paused only for a second before replying, "Under 20 seconds, for sure." That's 8 seconds — an accelerative lifetime — quicker than the McLaren F1. And, if you're interested, it'll do zero to 250 mph in 55 seconds and stop again in less than 10 ticks of the clock. An F1 won't do 250 mph at all.
The Veyron is an orgiastic monument of automotive excess. For your million euros, plus local taxes (about $1,172,000 U.S.) you will own not only the most expensive production car in the world, but also the quickest, the fastest and, by a frankly ludicrous margin, the most powerful. You will buy a carbon-fiber monocoque onto which are hung carbon-fiber and aluminum panels. The car is suspended by forged-aluminum wishbones which support the fattest tires ever to be used on a road car, those at the back boasting an astonishing 14.6-inch width.
And then there's the engine, all 8.0 liters and 16 cylinders of it. It has 64 valves and four turbochargers, and the power and torque they generate find their way to the road via all four wheels through the medium of a twin-clutch, seven-speed semiautomatic gearbox. When all is said and done, that power adds up to 1,001 horsepower if you record your figures at an air temperature of around 110 degrees. In a more normal climate, it's more powerful even than that, with up to around 1,050 hp available.
And because of this four-figure output, it is the Veyron's power that everyone will naturally focus on when, in fact, it is its torque that should really be frying your brain. A McLaren F1 has 479 pound-feet of torque which, as anyone who has driven one will tell you, is more than adequate. The Veyron, however, puts out 922 lb-ft, or very nearly twice as much. It occurred to me that piloting this car was going to require a slightly different approach.
Usually when confronted with a very fast car, I do everything backward — driving first and thinking later. Were I to do that with the Veyron, I strongly suspect that my career, something of which I am rather fond, would come to an end as abrupt as it would be spectacular.
From the Cradle to the Crazed
So I spent some time installing myself in the surprisingly spacious leather and aluminum cockpit that looks about as close to a million-dollar cabin as any car's could. Offset pedals aside, the driving position is ideal even for very tall drivers. The key looks too much like that of a Golf's for my liking, but once you've twisted the ignition on and thumbed the start button, such mild complaints soon flee the mind.
At first I drove it very, very slowly. The car feels huge, its extremities are invisible while over-the-shoulder visibility is nonexistent. I left the gear selector in "Drive" as I threaded my way down a steep, narrow hill toward the Sicilian autostrada.
Very carefully, I drove out of a toll booth and, this being very early on a Sunday morning, onto a completely deserted carriageway. Until this moment, I had done little more than breathe on the gas because when the big moment arrived, I wanted no warning, no teasing introduction to the Veyron's performance. I just wanted it all, straight between the eyes. Which, when I flattened the throttle in 2nd gear, is precisely what I got.
At first, I thought some unseen being was committing an act of physical violence on me. I was not pushed back in the seat so much as thrown against the rear bulkhead as if hurled rearward by the shockwave from a bomb detonating just a few yards ahead. By the time it even occurred to me to change gears, the horsepower meter (oh yes, it has one of those, too) had flung its needle past 1,000. Were the reactions of the gearbox electronics not rather swifter than mine, we'd have spent a second or two rubbing noses with the 6,500-rpm rev limiter. But, instead, the Veyron just changed up seamlessly all by itself and without anything you or I would discern as a pause, smashed me back into my seat again, engine bellowing its W16 roar.
And only now was there enough traction for the Veyron to put all of its torque on the tarmac. Third gear was really rather strange — it seemed to take the Veyron from one speed to another by missing out all the speeds in between; it was only when I tapped the right-hand steering-wheel paddle and selected 4th that I was able to really take in what was happening. And it was only then, at 120 mph, that the sheer magnitude of the acceleration became apparent. For had we instead been doing 120 mph in a McLaren F1 — until last month the very fastest road car ever made — and passed a stationary Veyron, by the time we reached 200 mph, the Bugatti would have already caught and passed us.
An Easy Beast
Sadly, Sicilian autostrade are not known for their straight sections and after one foray to the far side of 190 mph, I dropped 70 mph with one touch of the colossal carbon-ceramic brake discs and just cruised. And it felt like most cars do when traveling at less than half their maximum potential, it's just that we were doing 120 mph rather than 60. At that speed, even in 7th gear, 150 mph was a twitch of a toe away.
All of which made me wonder how this feral beast would handle once I left the highway and took to the roads of the legendary Targa Florio road race, won by Bugattis five times on the trot in the 1920s. I worried about its size, its weight and, to be honest, its driver.
In fact, my fears were unfounded. Once acclimatized to its proportions, I was surprised by how easy it was to drive the Veyron as hard as you'd drive anything on the public road. The engine's potential was not in doubt but careful throttle control combined with an impressive lack of turbo lag soon allowed me to drive it like a normally aspirated car, albeit one with a capacity of around 15 liters. I could squirt it between corners, confident that its phenomenal traction and its electronic safety nets would manage the power without spitting me off a cliff, and once I had angled the wheel into a turn, I knew I could trust the nose of the car to follow the instruction faithfully.
But this is where the tale turns ever so slightly sour. For while the Veyron handles as well as you could possibly expect a 2-ton car to handle, you have to make that qualification. A 1-ton Ferrari F40 or 1.2-ton McLaren F1 feels utterly different and, frankly, a whole lot more fun. It's simple physics: Two tons of car will not and cannot change direction like a 1-ton car, and the agility, intimacy and precision taken for granted in anything — from a Lotus Elise to a McLaren F1 — is notable only by its absence in the Veyron. There's no doubting its vast grip, or benign understeer-led behavior at the limit, but if you're looking for a car to talk back to you, to feed you every nuance of the road, and to make you feel truly part of the machine, look elsewhere. Objectively, the Veyron is hugely impressive on twisting roads, subjectively it is just a shade remote, which is the last thing in the world I'd want from a million-buck mega-car.
And which is why the Veyron will always be a thing to admire and respect, rather than to love and cherish. For all its apocalyptic pace and power, if you gave me a decent road and the choice of a Bugatti Veyron or an older and slower-by-far Ferrari F40, I'd take Maranello every time. Cars like that, and, to a slightly lesser extent, the McLaren don't simply put on a show for you to watch, they give you the lead role. I'd always rather be involved rather than spectating.
Too Cool to be Forgotten
But I'm still glad the Veyron exists and am truly in awe of its abilities. Any car that does things no other car has ever done is intrinsically interesting but there's more to the Veyron even than this. It's not just an unbelievably fast and powerful car, it is also an exquisitely engineered car. If you had told me when I was road testing the McLaren F1 that one day someone would create an entirely usable, docile street car with 1,000 hp, I'd have laughed in your face. But they have, it's here, it's called the Bugatti Veyron and I, for one, will never forget it.