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Bugatti Veyron in the real world (CAR archive, September 2006)
27 July 2012 10:00
The Bugatti Veyron sounds like a low-flying chopper as it starts climbing the hill on the far side of my home village. The roar is muffled for a few seconds by the two-storey buildings that form the core of the settlement in the Munich stockbroker belt. But then, rapidly gaining intensity, the noise morphs from subconscious to ‘what the – ’ at the bottom of the approach road to our house. A dog barks, a child cries, the evil neighbour emerges from hiding, the friendly neighbour applauds. Max, our 17-year-old son, does a Carl Lewis down the driveway to welcome the meanest, baddest and most extreme car that will ever spend the night in the Kacher garage.
Tiptoeing across a drainage pipe, fighting for traction at walking pace, the sizzling and crackling monster grinds to a halt. We have touchdown. The driver lets the engine idle for a few more moments to cool the turbos, but then he turns off the 16 cylinders and the rural silence rules again.
This is one of Bugatti’s five demonstrators. Two of them circle the US, appearing at high-visibility enthusiast events like Amelia Island or Pebble Beach. In the course of these weekends, the company is auctioneering test rides for prospective customers and wannabes, at up to $10,000 per 30-minute session. Let’s do some quick maths here: on a busy day that’s $20k per hour, $140k per day (assuming a one-hour lunch break), or $700k per five-day week. At that rate, a new Veyron would pay for itself within a month.
But you could lose it all again at the petrol station. At 11.7mpg you can virtually watch this thing drinking an oil well dry. And that’s a figure you can clock up without really trying. Night-time autobahn stints in the 180 to 250mph bracket will dip under 6mpg. And at the VW test track at Ehra-Lessien, a lead-footed Bug will return 3mpg. At this rate, the 987bhp beast takes only 65 minutes to empty the 100-litre (22-gallon) fuel tank. So before I get in the Veyron, I go back indoors and get another couple of credit cards.
My first time in a Veyron was an impromptu autobahn-and-cross-country stint around Wolfsburg. Next, they flew us to Sicily and let us loose on the Targa Florio loop, which proved to be not quite wide enough for serious driving. Finally, we experienced extreme speeds on the Enna circuit, which is a bit like a huge version of Indianapolis, without banked corners but with plenty of chicanes. Now, finally, for the real test: I’m living with a Veyron for 61 hours.
So, what to do first? We start at Max’s school, where in half an hour he collects enough brownie points from his mates to be guaranteed free drinks until the end of term. We soon learn that when you’re out in the Veyron, you’d better know your Bugatti stuff, as people are fascinated by the pub facts. Like this: our two-seater costs as much as 47 Golf GTIs in Germany. Or this: VW’s own insurance company refuses to cover this model. Only a broker who typically does yachts and planes will take care of the £895,000 8.0-litre coupé.
On the way home, we take the back route and thunder through the state forest in full fighter mode, leaving a cyclone of conifer needles and deaf deer behind us. As long as the road is reasonably straight, this car has no rival. Its top-end urge is so irresistible that not even an F1 car, which is typically handicapped by too much drag, could keep up beyond 185mph. Thanks to stability control and four-wheel drive, irritations in the pavement can only be felt as kicks and tugs, never as serious threats to the impeccable directional stability, which is almost mechanical in its Velcro-strap sure-footedness.
There are, however, quite a few things the Veyron does not like. Kerbs, for instance, be they parallel, transverse or at an angle to the car’s flight path. At around £40,000 per set of wheels and tyres, you really don’t want to scratch a rim. Automatic car washes are off-limits, too – they can’t cope with the enormous 22-inch road rollers. And you need to take care entering a multi storey car park. Unlike the Lamborghini Gallardo and Murcielago, the Bugatti has no front-end hydraulic lift, so it keeps scratching its chin on ramps and inclines. I’m assured it’s okay, but the Kevlar protection plates make a horribly expensive noise. The turning circle is a limo-like 12 metres, and the poor visibility makes merging with traffic a heart stopper. When you travel one up, it’s best to scan the huge blind spot via the tiny passenger door mirror. Alternatively, you can boot the loud pedal and hope for the best.
The Veyron’s biggest foe is the radar trap. Although we didn’t get stopped for speeding, the police kept flagging us down just to take a closer look at this unknown flying object. Veyron owners may well find that they can limit the damage to their licences by offering any wavering traffic cops a brisk spin round the block. Almost the entire team of Munich’s 12th precinct has now been through this routine, and even the top man came by to let the brute acceleration force dimples into his cheeks. It’s impossible not be impressed by a 0-62mph time of 2.8 seconds, but the men in olive were even more thrilled by the stopping power, which leaves your tummy upside down as effectively as any funfair ride.
The Bug was soon the talk of the town on Cop Radio, and it wasn’t the near bald front tyres or the poorly adjusted headlamps they were talking about. By the end of day two, we were getting the thumbs up from just about every patrol car that crossed our path. All I need now is to discover a way of transferring this good karma to my A8.
To our great dismay, nobody tried to race us at the lights, nobody tried to follow in our slipstream, nobody challenged us for g force. In a straight line, the Bugatti is of course unbeatable unless you’ve got ‘Lufthansa’ written along the side of your vehicle. But through tight corners, the Veyron can’t overcome its weight, and its stability control system is definitely calibrated for minimising risk, not maximising drama. It took me half a day to locate the ESP off switch (it’s about halfway down the driver’s left shin-bone), and it took me three more hours to pluck up the courage and push it. The difficult bit was to lose the minder and to find an open corner in the middle of Munich. We finally spotted what we were looking for in the Olympic Park, where you can get four-wheel spin in first, experience a pupil-widening gap between early understeer and eventual oversteer, and learn to modulate 921lb ft, or more than double the getting-out-of-shape oomph produced by the Ferrari 599.
I’m sure Walter Röhrl could powerslide this thing into and out of a Eurotunnel train, but mere mortals are better off paying attention to such instincts as fear and self-preservation. Having said that, I did deactivate ESP once more on a familiar autobahn on-ramp, and the Veyron’s tail stepped out with the perfect elegance of a talented debutante to whom three-four time is second nature. When the car finally swung back in line, the speedo read 100mph and my guardian angel ordered a large whisky.
During my time with the car, no passenger stained the seat, although my wife came close. ‘I want out,’ she yelled as I was shifting into third at an unmentionable speed on a challenging country road. ‘Did you hear me?’ I did, but I was busy keeping the cruise missile ground-bound. ‘If you don’t back off NOW, you do your own laundry and ironing.’ Immediately, I feathered the throttle, but it may have been too late: with arms folded firmly across her chest, Raphaela looked as if she’d just signed the divorce papers.
Heaven forbid, but should I need to woo the ladies, the Veyron would make a fantastic ally. George Clooney certainly doesn’t need a car like this, but when your name is Georg Kacher, and when your gym membership ended with the last world war, a bit of extra visual and aural attraction brings about a quite remarkable transformation. Just cruising along with the traffic, it couldn’t have been sheer speed that was attracting so much female attention, but the sense of special occasion brought about by that exquisite mix of looks and sound. After 15 minutes of telling a young lady about the paddleshift transmission, the sat nav display in the rear view mirror, and the power gauge that spans from zero to 1001bhp, I found myself with a telephone number. I promise you, I really didn’t have to try.
As we meandered around town, you could see the virus spreading through the population. When I parked the car at the verge of the pedestrian precinct, we got swamped instantly. How much? How fast? How many? The answer to that last question is actually very few. The fact that so far only 14 cars have been delivered, out of the 300 Bugatti would like to build, may be bad for VW, but it’s fantastically good for turning heads. It’s safe to assume that every single person who saw our Veyron was seeing it for the first time.
On the morning of the third day I took the Veyron out on my own, away from the crowds, to focus on details such as the seats. Most owners would be perfectly happy with the optional non-electric racing buckets fitted to this car, but a big frame is definitely better off in the standard seats. The main instruments are close to useless. The rev counter is big enough, but the speedo is the size of a wristwatch, and the digital read-out needs to be blown up threefold to make any sense at all. I love the machined metal surface of the centre console, but you need sunglasses to filter the worst reflections. The proposed full-size sat nav screen has been ditched as too distracting, and there is nowhere to hook up your iPod. The glovebox is about as big as the boot, and total luggage volume is something like 30 litres. At least the missus can take along her’ favourite jewellery.
While under warranty, the Veyron is protected by a flying doctor service, but once that two-year/30,000-mile grace period is over you pay for all repair work. Which can be very expensive: a new gearbox is around £70,000. ‘We have yet to experience a serious engine problem,’ said Lars, our accompanying mechanic, who has to smoke the wheels off his Audi S4 Avant in a vain attempt to keep up. ‘Some of the mules have done over 100,000km without missing a beat.’
Bare naked and totally unprotected from the elements, the massive 8.0-litre 64-valve heart breathes heavily in its open-air display case right behind the rear window. Long term, you wonder about the corrosion. More pressingly, the seven-speed double-clutch gearbox started playing up after just 200 miles. It became rough around town, jerky away from the lights, and the shift quality deteriorated. At one point, a cog-shaped warning light came on. Lars hooked up his computer, nodded knowingly and mumbled something about a service in Wolfsburg next Monday.
Oil consumption? ‘Negligible,’ said Lars. Unlike the thirst for petrol. Still, filling up the Veyron is pretty entertaining. Within minutes of arriving at my local Shell station it had to be cordoned off because onlookers’ cars blocked the forecourt and then the main road.
At 2.5 turns from lock to lock, the steering is so much nimbler than the frame it directs, so roundabouts are a lot of fun until you run out of road. Fast corners succumb obediently to the grip of your palms, esses are lessons in rhythmical dance. Less confidence-inspiring is the car’s behaviour on rutted roads, where the wide track and the wide tyres are often at odds with the few remaining smooth bits of tarmac, so tramlining is an issue, especially in the wet.
The low-speed ride is as bad as most supercars: stiff sidewalls, stiff springs and stiff dampers add up to a degree of brittleness no electronic brain can neutralise. The suspension is height-adjustable in three steps, and the aerodynamic set-up also changes with speed and driver intention, providing 350kg of additional downforce when you run out of revs in sixth gear at 230mph. Behind the wheel, you barely notice the subtle alterations in stance and attitude.
Ordinary supercars excel in the 125 to 185mph speed range. Special supercars like the Bugatti demotivate the rest of the four-wheeled world between 185 and 250mph. Silly velocity? Impossible in today’s traffic? Wrong, and wrong again. You’re forgetting the Veyron’s phenomenal stopping ability. With a combined deceleration force of 2.0g – that’s 1.4g pulled by the car plus 0.6g added by the air brake – you can squash kinetic energy at a mind-blowing rate. A high-speed emergency stop is in fact such a physical manoeuvre that the stomach is likely to stage a protest. Since precious few fellow motorists check their mirrors with the frequency required to spot an approaching Veyron, the amazing brakes are an absolutely essential lifesaver.
Unlike anything else with the exception of Schumi’s weekend tool, the Bugatti takes very little time to reach the critical 185 to 250mph bracket. You enter it from zero in only 17 seconds, and about 20 seconds later you will hit an aerodynamic wall at 230mph. No, I didn’t venture into the final 20mph zone on public roads. But I can report that 230mph in this supercoupé on steroids feels about as wild and daring as 150mph does in a regular sports car.
As far as automotive overkill goes, the über Volkswagen from Molsheim will probably never be dethroned, not even by Messrs Koenigsegg and Pagani. The first Bugatti of the 21st century is without a doubt an amazing piece of kit, an engineering tour de force and a driving experience the lucky few will treasure forever. The Veyron had to break many rules to break new ground, and it probably deserves a planet of its own where it can show off without pushing onlookers to the brink of a heart attack.
Would I buy one if I had a few spare millions stacked up behind the house? Probably not. Don’t get me wrong: I love the speed, the power, the torque, the acceleration, the brakes, the sheer silliness of it all.
But not at close to two tonnes, not at this rate of fuel consumption. What the enthusiasts are waiting for is a modern minimalist Bugatti. It must be light, it must be nimble, and it must be a track star – which is something the Veyron will never be.
Our phenomenal two-tone crowd-stopper is the ultimate automotive manifestation of the Olympic motto: citius, altius, fortius, faster, higher, stronger. But its basic concept – although well meant, and developed with great diligence – was conceived in a cul-de-sac.