Bugatti Chiron First Drive: Piloting The 1500HP 261MPH Two-Ton Hurtling Meteor of Molsheim – Forbes
When my Bugatti Chiron co-driver, 1988 Le Mans winner Andy Wallace, turned loose the 1500 horsepower W16 engine to help acclimate my senses before taking the helm, I felt like I was strapped spread eagle on the face of a meteor hurtling through the heavens. Chiron is the fastest and quickest in a straight line, and the most powerful, docile, civilized, luxurious, and artistic hypercar ever—gasoline, hybrid or electric. One can write a book about all the technical details.
It’s a bit much coming from a journalist interloper, but if $3 million for a car doesn’t cause a blink or stammer, I highly recommend Chiron as a lifetime achievement award. Bugatti has accepted requisite hefty deposits on more than half the planned production run of 500. Bugatti will deliver perhaps 70 of these 261-mph bolides in 2017.
In the aggregate 20 or so seconds I invested completing three full-tilt acceleration runs from standstill to just shy of 130 mph—there wasn’t enough pavement or sightline to go significantly faster without being stupid—Chiron transformed my thoughts on Bugatti from quizzical to convinced. Each time I stabbed the throttle I hit 128-129 mph in less than seven seconds, no sweaty death grip on the carbon-and-leather wheel, not a single chirp from any of the four monstrous Michelin tires, no great physical or mental effort required. Head and spine properly positioned to land squarely in the butter-soft leather of the seatback, I experienced Chiron’s ability to suck points on the distant horizon into its horseshoe snout.
I’ve done Launch Control in a Porsche 911 Turbo S, McLaren 675LT Longtail, Ferrari 488, and all manner of Lamborghinis, which do the deed in close to three seconds, or less. By shaving just four or five tenths off the 60-mph sprint, to 2.5 seconds flat, Bugatti changes dimensions of the universe. To outdo Chiron, one needs a serious American drag car that is only nominally road-legal, and such cars are single-purpose sleds always on the edge of implosion, not silky luxury sports cars for well-bred gentlemen.
At roughly 40 percent, Europeans comprise the largest market for Bugatti—this is an autobahn and autostrada car, able to jump easily in increments of 25, 50 or 100 mph with a dip into the throttle. But this ultra-luxe rocket sled would prove right at home in Streets of LA drag racing. Jackson Hole is an ideal American launch point for Chiron, string-straight roads shooting out of the Tetons across open plain.
Chiron engineers and designers gathered all the lessons-learned from its predecessor, the Veyron, to create a completely new car. I spent an hour grilling a Bugatti engineer one-on-one (he started his career creating fast bikes with BMW Mottorad) and another half-hour in pleasant conversation with Achim Anscheidt, La Maison Bugatti’s cerebral chief designer. Chiron is not a computer-tube evolution of Veyron, though Chiron adheres to a similar engineering brief and fills the same market space. Veyron and Chiron share almost no parts. The entire engine, gearbox, and aerodynamic package had to be rethought to add 500 horsepower while keeping the engine reliably cool, a challenge that would sweat bullets out of engineers at JPL, NASA and Lockheed-Martin.
Blendline between functional demands of a 1500-horsepower engine and 21st Century Art Deco design is elegant to the millimeter. Chiron is cohesive in its human factors, aerodynamics, cooling, performance, everything. My six-three frame settled perfectly into the cockpit, plenty of head, shoulder and leg room, though my size 13s required careful placement. Chiron proved docile as a lamb, just another sexy sports car for impressing a dinner date while toddling down to the local bistro, but tramp the throttle and you’re riding the meteor, singeing the very atmosphere. Wallace and the other Bugatti folks call it “unleashing the beast.”
Andy Wallace piloted the McLaren F1 to its top speed record of 240 mph in 1998, and drove the Harrod’s-sponsored McLaren F1 with Derek and Justin Bell to third place overall in McLaren F1’s surprise victory at Le Mans in 1995. An old friend and colleague who was marketing manager for the McLaren F1 said this: “At Le Mans I helped put the on-board cameras in Andy’s car for one of the first in-qualifying commentaries.” They were filming to help Electronic Arts create a video game. “Easy-going guy. He was brilliant in single-seaters and could have made F1.” Bugatti hired Wallace as primary development driver because danger is his business. Wallace is an unassuming character, modestly cool—just what you want in a high-speed assassin.
To manage the engine’s 1180 lb-ft of torque, Bugatti turned to its English gearbox partner, Ricardo, to reinvent Veyron’s dual-clutch 7-speed gearbox. Chiron’s is the smoothest dual-clutch I’ve experienced, or at least seemed so with a pint of adrenalin coursing my veins. Chiron’s W16 war song is akin to a 1960s big-block Can-Am racecar mixed with a 27-liter World War Two aviation engine, with a measure of grace and good manners. Deep, affirmative, profound, yet nothing raw or harsh. Sound and speed are delivered in an eerily refined way thanks to the all-wheel drive that forbids smoking tires.
Well, unless you want to smoke the tires by engaging a layer of software Bugatti introduces with Chiron that allows drifting at extreme angles and speeds before the electronics step in to save the day. When will this technology be demonstrated in an action movie, I wonder. With the matrix of speed, acceleration, design, and cosseting luxury fully realized, drift software expands the Bugatti universe. Considering the damage such a heavy car can do to those expensive Michelins, an owner had better enjoy every second of tire shredding lateral acceleration.
Details down to the tire valve cap are engineered with excruciating thoroughness to conquer the physics of speed. As example, the paper-thin tire valve cap weighs 2.5 grams in your hand, but at top speed “weighs” about 16 pounds due to 3000 G’s applied to it. The spinning tire itself is experiencing 3800 G’s at top speed. As Wallace says, “It’s a very large ask to make a car go 300 miles per hour. Land speed record cars don’t use rubber tires. They ride on solid metal discs. Michelin has done a fantastic amount of work.” Keep in mind that to achieve 261 mph, you must insert and twist a second key located on the driver’s door sill—I’ve dealt with car company attorneys for 20+ years, and I bet they had something to do with that second key. Twisting it affirms that you know the obligation, so don’t make a hash of it. Otherwise, the car is limited to 236 mph, a mere stroll down to the taco shack for carnitas and a side of guacamole.
In a world populated with 700, 900 and 1000 horsepower hypercars and supercars built primarily for short stints on racetracks, many armchair racers and contrarian journalists who will never experience a Bugatti contend that like Veyron before it, Chiron is not a worthy hypercar because it weighs well over two tons (4398 lbs, a little more than a Nissan GT-R), or because it is too refined and easy to drive, or because it’s all about acceleration and speed and not handling on a road course, or because it’s simply the wildest, most specialized evolution of a gasoline-powered sports car and as such is somehow not forward-looking like a “ludicrous” electric vehicle.
That’s all nonsense. Chiron presses the absolute limits of gasoline-engine and materials technology, all wrapped up in a carbon-fiber and alloy car that’s as luxurious inside as a Bentley or Rolls and as easy to drive as any big German sedan or coupe you might find on a dealership lot here in Los Angeles. No other car combines so much power, acceleration, speed, luxury and artistic accomplishment. Chiron is an ultimate at this moment in time, a pinnacle, a car that has no peer.