Driving the world's second-fastest car

CNET Car gets a little wheel time in the SSC Ultimate Aero, the world's second-fastest production car.

SSC Ultimate Aero
This SSC Ultimate Aero held the record of world's fastest production car until recently, when the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport took the lead. Mike Markovich/CNET

When we first covered the limited-production supercar known as the SSC Ultimate Aero , it had just laid claim to the title of fastest production car in the world. More recently, Shelby SuperCars announced it would install an electric drivetrain and thereby make the SSC the world's fastest electric car as well.

We have yet to see the electric version, and as of late June, the new Bugatti Veyron Super Sport had snatched away the production car speed crown from the Ultimate Aero. But SSC was in Monterey for this year's global pilgrimage of car nuts, and we were able to get some seat time in the car that was the world's fastest for almost two years. It's not an experience for the faint of heart.

SSC Ultimate Aero
The Ultimate Aero is nearly 7 feet wide. Mike Markovich/CNET

SSC was founded in 1998 by lifelong car enthusiast Jerod Shelby, a trained mechanical engineer who had previously helped start a medical-device company. For the record, he is no relation to that other automotive Shelby, but one can be forgiven for assuming a connection based on each company's humble origins as one man's vision, not to mention their penchants for producing seriously hairy-chested machinery.

The Ultimate Aero is a beast by any measure. Its SSC-designed 6.8-liter engine is based on a billet aluminum block, and twin turbochargers boost output to a heady 1,287 horsepower and 1,112 pound-feet of torque, according to current figures on the company's site. Serious rubber is required to keep that power reasonably useful, and that helps push the overall width of the car to nearly 7 feet. Again, the timid or twitchy need not apply.

On lesser-trafficked public roads around Monterey on the morning of the 2010 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance , we got our eyeballs compressed first riding with Jerod Shelby, then briefly trying out the Ultimate Aero for ourselves. The version we drove is from the initial batch of 6 cars that did without ABS and traction control, those aids having been adopted for the final 9 cars of the 15-unit run. Shelby opened the car up in third gear on a short stretch of frontage road, and let's just say the road suddenly seemed even shorter than it was. Probably the most satisfying element, beyond just the sensation of frightening speeds being attained almost immediately, is the way the turbo wastegates hiss with each upshift. This is audible in most turbocharged cars, but with the volumes of air in question and everything happening directly behind your head, you get reminded just how serious this engine is.

We pulled over to the side of the road and both semi-scissor doors flipped forward, and it was time to switch seats and see what a 1,000-plus horsepower feels like underfoot. Surprisingly, the Ultimate Aero is relatively easy to step in and out of--the doors swing fully out of the way and the sills aren't so wide as to require the rump-first approach required to enter some cars with a similar layout. The seats are very heavily bolstered and don't adjust, but nevertheless we were comfortable and able to reach everything, although rear visibility is negligible. Hey, when you're doing 250 anything without red flashing lights behind you is of no consequence.

The steering wheel and pedals are all placed well despite the relatively tight footwell, and the shifter with its carbon-fiber knob falls to hand easily despite the very high and wide transmission tunnel. The triple-plate clutch is extremely robust as one might expect in a car with four-digit horsepower and torque figures, and the pedal seems like an on-off switch compared to a typical road car's smoothly engaging take-up. In fact, yes, we admit to stalling it, ONCE, as Jerod Shelby assured us we probably would. But once underway at moderate highway-entry speeds, the overall impression is of docility and even an unexpectedly compliant ride. When the speeds become less moderate, as they do with the slightest hint of opening the throttle, things change in a hurry.

SSC Ultimate Aero
The interior of the Ultimate Aero is surprisingly plush. Mike Markovich/CNET

With other cars around, we were mostly focused on keeping the wide car safely in its lane on the highway and enjoying the thumbs-up and/or open gawking from literally every car we passed. One guy in a new Ferrari 599 GTB (this is the Monterey car week, remember) snapped a phone picture of us while not bothering to suppress the huge grin on his face. Once back on the aforementioned frontage road, which incidentally had a posted 25 mph limit, it was our turn to see how much thrust we could handle. Gently up to third gear, and then into the gas as much as we dared. It wasn't very much, as it turned out, but enough to understand what a potent machine SSC has created. Shelby later guessed we'd gotten about a third of the way into the throttle, just enough to get the turbos starting to spool up.

Even without their help, the car felt like a train gaining speed and we were frankly just happy to have kept it pointed straight. A couple of twists and turns back uphill to the car's home base and we were again impressed with the tractability of a car capable of such velocity. Jerod Shelby estimates that the record-setter we drove has done about 2,000 of its miles at more than 220 mph, yet it lugged up a steep, curvy driveway without any drama.

Our ride over, we chatted a little more with Shelby and some assembled suppliers about Bugatti's having taken the top-speed crown away from SSC. As it turns out, they have been in quiet development of the Ultimate Aero's successor for quite some time, and in fact will be unveiling it very soon. Jerod Shelby promises some innovative new technology like one-piece "cast" carbon-fiber wheels, and a bold new design, which was penned by Jason Castriota, the American who until recently was design director for Bertone and who now heads the same department at Saab. And of course, more top speed is in the offing. The speed crown may not be on the Italian-French-German head for long.

 

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