2020 hasn't been entirely terrible…
By Mike Duff / Saturday, January 2, 2021
There's an element of Stegosaurus versus Tyrannosaurus Rex to a comparison between the Veyron and the Chiron. Both are undeniably awesome, ultimate expressions of both speed and automotive exoticism. But both obviously belong to the era of combustion, with this contest therefore conducted in the harsh light of a meteor that is already streaking through the upper atmosphere. A decade from now, new cars like these almost certainly won't exist, and while the electric hypercars that will follow might offer even greater levels of acceleration and torque-biased thrills, none will match the visceral experience of a hard-worked quad-turbocharged W16. Oh, and good luck finding a 100km stretch of limit-free Autobahn to legally unleash them on.
The story of Bugatti's modern era is inextricable intertwined with that of the man who pretty much willed the Veyron into existence: Ferdinand Piech. Having proved his engineering credentials with the Porsche 917 and Audi Quattro, Ferdinand Porsche's grandson had risen to take control of Volkswagen in the early nineties and was soon plotting both dramatic expansion and a series of spectacular engineering projects.
The VW Group would go onto create an abundance of V8, V10s and even W12s under his watch. But the company's most ambitious powertrain project came straight from the boss's brain, with a back-of-an-envelope sketch in 1997 for an 18-cylinder engine to be made from the combination of three narrow-angle VR6 cylinder banks. Piech seems to have been thinking of Rolls-Royce when he penned this, this being the time that Volkswagen was negotiating to purchase the brand alongside Bentley. But when BMW swooped in to nab Rolls at the 11th hour, Piech started to consider an alternative brand worthy of such an outlandish motor. At which point, the corporate legend has it, his youngest son Gregor asked him for a model of a Bugatti Type 57 Atlantic.
Bugatti was in abeyance at this point, Romano Artioli's ambitious refounding of the brand in 1987 having ended in bankruptcy eight years later, after just 139 examples of the EB110 supercar had been sold. Once Piech's interest had been piqued, Volkswagen quickly bought the rights to use it, and work soon began on creating a range of cars targeted at the one percent of the one percent of the one percent. No fewer than four motorshow concepts were shown, all designed around the 18-cylinder engine, but work on the powerplant hit a major hurdle with the discovery it would be impossible to deliver Piech's performance targets with natural aspiration.
Hence the decision to switch to forced induction with four turbos, and a W16 configuration that effectively combined two narrow-angle V8s on a common crank. At the 2000 Geneva motor show Piech announced the targets: a car with a power output of 1001PS (986bhp) with a top speed of over 250mph and a sub-3-second 0-62mph time, yet also capable of, as he put it, 'taking the owner and his wife to the opera.'
It took another five years, hundreds of millions of Euros and plenty of Piech's famous no-prisoners approach to man management to bring the Veyron to production. This was a project underwritten by pride more than rational criteria: the Veyron would never earn back more than a fraction of its development budget despite a seven-figure price tag. Just 450 cars were built over its ten year lifespan. It was replaced in 2016 by the even-quicker Chiron, which uses a heavily developed version of the same quad turbocharged W16, and which has proved itself capable of hitting 304mph in unrestricted guise.
The chance to drive both a Chiron Sport and Veyron Grand Sport Vitesse came in the happy, lockdown-free days of September, when Bugatti organised a drive between the EB110 factory in Campogalliano in Italy and Molsheim in France, the brand's traditional home and the place Volkswagen chose to reestablish its HQ. The route between the two involved both a selection of Italian and Austrian mountain passes, and also a chunk of derestricted Autobahn. I was one of four journos on the trip, taking turns to drive each car in company with an ultra-knowledgeable chaperone.
In the case of the Chiron, my co-pilot was Andy Wallace, bringing on an early dose of déjà vu: he was also in the passenger seat when I had a much shorter drive in a similar Chiron Sport during a tour of Campogalliano last year. As Bugatti's test pilot Wallace is used to sitting next to those experiencing a Chiron for the first time – if you buy one he pops round to show you what it's capable of. Doing this he has developed the calm manner of a driving instructor, although one introducing his charges to a 1500hp hypercar rather than a supermini. He's also the man who set the Chiron's 304mph speed record at Ehra Lessien last year. His enthusiasm for both the car and Bugatti brand is strong and infectious, even behind the mandatory facemask it's obvious he is normally wearing a broad grin.
The Chiron is as effortless as I remember it being. The cabin is much more spacious than the cramped, carbon-lined crypts of most hypercars; there's still a couple of inches of unused seat travel behind my six-foot frame. The Bugatti is plusher and more obviously luxurious than the pared back alternatives, milled metal and high-grade leather more prominent than carbon fibre, even in this sporty Chiron Sport. The engine fires up with an off-beat burble that makes it sound as if there's a pair of V8s behind the passenger compartment. Which, when you think about it, there pretty much are. At everyday speeds it feels outrageously gentle for something with so much power, the twin-clutch transmission doing a good impression of a torque converter and with deft suspension absorbing urban bumps. If you can drive anything, you can drive a Chiron – slowly at least.
The other side of the Chiron's character is always close. Anything more than gentle pressure on the throttle creates a rapid swell in longitudinal G-forces and turns the engine note from gentle to angry. But heading north towards Lake Garda on busy roads opportunities to stretch the Chiron's legs are limited – however much other drivers seem keen to see it unleashed. There seems to be a filming phone being held to every window, and many spectators seem keen to demonstrate the limits of the Chiron's rear three-quarters visibility by sheltering in its blind spots for as long as possible. The few opportunities to properly open the accelerator – and to experience the brutal warp-speed effect as the transmission sheds ratios and the turbos spool – are limited to no more than a couple of seconds each.
In most hypercars this sort of low-tenths progress would be frustrating, or at the least mildly uncomfortable. Yet the Chiron feels completely unflustered when dealing with the real world, performance locked away like a coiled spring: just as happy playing Dr Jekyll as Mr Hyde.
The logistics four journos sharing two cars means I spend the next stint riding in a T6 Transporter to an overnight stay in a hotel. So I get my first experience of the Veyron the following morning on the considerably more demanding terrain of Austria's Hahntennjoch pass. The Veyron is Bugatti's own Grand Sport Vitesse, and is the very car that set a 254mph open-topped production car speed record in 2013 – although the roof will stay fixed in place today. (The black-and-orange livery and black badge were then also used for the eight World Record Edition production cars.) Being the Vitesse also means it gets the upgraded 1183hp version of the 8.0-litre engine with bigger turbochargers; taking longer to spool these actually knocked back the 0-62mph slightly compared to the standard Veyron, but it was quicker for every other acceleration increment.
The older car feels very different. The cabin is tighter and considerably darker, and without the specialness of the Chiron. The Veyron didn't actually share its instruments or switchgear with lesser models from the VW Group – although the keyfob will be familiar to anyone who had a late noughties Volkswagen or Audi – but the touchpoints feel basic and plasticy compared to the billionaire-grade Chiron. And while the newer car has digital displays flanking a central speedo, the Veyron uses conventional dials with an XL rev counter front and centre, a smaller speedometer to the right and a 'power meter' showing how many horses the engine is producing on the other side.
My new chaperone is every bit as knowledgeable as Wallace. Pierre-Henri Raphanel is another sportscar racing veteran and Bugatti record setter, having been in the hot seat when the Super Sport went 267.9 mph back in 2010. He knows the company's products as well as Wallace, reckoning he has accompanied 7500 test drives of Veyron and Chiron over the last 15 years.
On a quiet mountain pass, the Veyron feels immediately raw and more thrilling. My last experience of a Veyron was a regular EB 16.4 back in 2007, a car I remember feeling big and heavy on tight roads near Molsheim. But on this barely wider tarmac the Vitesse is more wieldy and agile than I was expecting. And, compared to the Chiron, louder and firmer too.
The Vitesse's power band is narrower and its peak output lower, but not by enough to make any obvious difference to the savagery of the organ-squeezing accelerative forces it can generate at minimal notice. The Hahntennjoch combines well-sighted stretches with twisty sections and a steady climb to a 6200ft summit, one that makes it popular with the sort of cyclists who have thighs the size of tree trunks. But traffic is light and there's room for the Veyron to play, with the grip levels generated by its hugely expensive Michelin PAX run-flats deeply impressive.
Yet even these struggle to digest the brutality of the engine's full output, fighting for traction and – in tighter turns – front end bite. The transmission is louder and the change feels much snappier, too. Poor visibility limits confidence on narrower bits, it's hard to sense where the car's extremities lie and its substantial mass is obvious when changing direction. None of which makes it feel properly exciting, with the sense of having slightly more engine than chassis.
Swapping back to the Chiron confirms that the newer car delivers its higher output with less drama, finding even more traction and turning with greater assurance on its Michelin PilotSport Cup 2s. Smarter electronics and torque vectoring undoubtedly play a big part in its heightened enthusiasm to stick to a chosen line. Choosing the Handling dynamic mode also gives a definite rear-bias to the power delivery – although not one I've got any desire to press to the point of breakaway on a slender, rock-lined road. The Chiron weighs almost exactly the same as the Veyron, but it feels lighter on its feet and is undoubtedly quicker and more confidence inspiring. Yet it can't deliver quite the same jagged adrenaline peaks as the older car.
While both cars are fully capable of demolishing an Alpine pass, it's not the challenge they were designed for. And after a law-abiding trundle across Austria's well-policed road network we arrive at a more natural environment to demonstrate their talents, crossing into Germany and onto the A7 Autobahn. Entering one of Deutschland's most scenic areas on a hot summer afternoon is going to cramp the two Bugattis' style in terms of all-out speed, there's too much traffic for sustained velocity. Yet the clumping of other road users, the need to frequently slow and to fit acceleration into the limited gaps actually shows their talents better than a true V.Max run would.
Speed is effortless, both in terms of the ability to make it seem as if everything else on the road has hit a slick of treacle, but also the sense of stability that both cars keep as velocities grow: this is what they were designed to do. Autobahn stories often read like reports of gladiatorial combat with other road users, but a Bugatti makes any contest entirely one-sided. And it's soon obvious that even the 'Bahn's self-appointed kings are keen to move over and see what this alien interloper is capable of. The difference isn't just different league, it's different sport: this is what it must have felt like to take the first E-Type onto an M1 filled with Ford Anglias and Morris Travellers, or to make progress in an early Porsche 911 in a world of VW Beetles.
The point is made, appropriately, by a new 992 on a stretch of derestricted two-lane. Traffic has slowed to pass a line of trucks and then, with a goodish gap ahead, German lane discipline is demonstrated as the cars ahead move right in reverse order of cruising speed. Soon there's just the 992 in front, whose driver is obviously keen to see how his car will cope against the toothiest predator in the pond. He pulls right at around 200km/h, while accelerating at a rate that leaves little doubt his throttle pedal is denting the bulkhead. The Veyron doesn't even need to break sweat, surging past even as its turbos are still building boost and the transmission is thinking about how many ratios to shed. By the time the power meter has reached its stop the 992 is little more than a spec in the rear-view mirror – although I haven't gained an inch on the Chiron behind.
The Veyron can reach 300km/h in less space that it takes for even something properly quick to get to 250km/h. Meaning that even those attuned to Autobahn cruising speeds can be caught out by its sudden approach – Raphanel's eyes are scanning ahead for any sign of incipient pulling-out as keenly as I am. Yet it feels entirely confident at these velocities, the cabin growing louder and ride becoming firmer as the active suspension prioritizes directional stability over comfort. But the ceramic brakes bite hard and tirelessly, accompanied by the noise of the hydraulic actuators moving the rear wing to its high drag position.
Yet the Chiron is significantly quicker. Below about 100mph there isn't much subjective difference in acceleration beyond the fact it takes the Veyron slightly longer to get all its power flowing. Above that, the performance gap becomes obvious. Swapping positions demonstrates the disparity as the road clears ahead; the Veyron's engine is bellowing and the scenery is blurring as I'm being squashed into the seat – but the Chiron is still pulling away.
A final driver swap reveals that as the Chiron adds speed it subtracts drama. The new car's cabin is much quieter at big velocities, there's a Darth Vaderish induction roar under full throttle, but much less wind and road noise than in the Veyron; I can talk to Wallace in normal tones even as the speedo needle gets beyond the 90 degree angle that indicates 250km/h. Ride quality is much better, too – Autobahn mode (which the car automatically selects at speeds above 180km/h) lowers the suspension and firms up the dampers, but it still feels much more relaxed. And steering is even more steely-eyed, the front end imparting total confidence through curves and even the extra-narrow lanes of German roadworks.
As we leave the Autobahn network beyond Stuttgart, Wallace switches the climate control displays to show peak power, revs and speed, these reporting 1504PS, 6772rpm and 325km/h – 202mph, or almost exactly two-thirds of what he managed at Ehra-Lessien.
There are other cars that can travel this quickly, and even some that can accelerate faster. But none can deliver velocity with the ease of this pair. Piech's demand for usability has been delivered every bit as well as his outrageous performance stipulations.
Which is the best? As a piece of engineering, the Chiron – which feels like a step forward in pretty much every area. But in terms of raw experience the Veyron is my pick, a car that delivers similar performance but with much less of a filter. In terms of numbers the Chiron is the greater car – perhaps the greatest – but when future historians look back at the late combustion era it seems likely the Veyron will be regarded as Piech's greatest achievement. As the world looks to an electric future, we should celebrate combustion both as the pinnacles they truly are.
SPECIFICATION | BUGATTI CHIRON SPORT
Engine: 7993cc W16, quad-turbocharged
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch, all-wheel drive
Power: [email protected],700rpm
Torque: 1180lb [email protected],000rpm
0-62mph: 2.6 secs
Top speed: 261mph (limited)
CO2: 516 g/km
SPECIFICATION | BUGATTI GRAND SPORT VITESSE
Engine: 7993cc W16, quad-turbocharged
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch, all-wheel drive
Power: [email protected],400rpm
Torque: 1106lb [email protected],000rpm
0-62mph: 2.6 secs
Top speed: 254mph (limited)
CO2: 539 g/km
Price: €1.65m (2012)
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