I wish I could tell you about driving the Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport Vitesse up to its record-breaking speed of 254 mph. Race car driver Anthony Liu did it. Of course, he drove the Veyron on a 5.6-mile straightaway at Volkswagen's test track in Ehra-Lessien, Germany, setting the speed record for a production convertible.
On the rural roads in Napa, Calif., the best I could manage was a few seconds of maximum acceleration, making all four wheels grab pavement with neck-snapping force from the engine's 1,106 pound-feet of torque.
With my foot flat on the gas pedal, I wasn't looking at gauges or consulting a stopwatch, but Bugatti says the Veyron, in its open-top Grand Sport Vitesse form, hits 60 mph in about 2.5 seconds. I've driven cars that hit 60 mph in 3.5 seconds, but those did not prepare me for the Veyron. It is in a completely different class when it comes to stepping off the line.
Put the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox in first, push the gas, and hang on. There's no time to tap the paddle shifters, but that's OK, the car will automatically grab the next gear before redline. No fuel shut-off to worry about.
Behind me, I hear disparate noises, most notably the whoosh of the Veyron's four turbochargers sucking in the immediate atmosphere. Somewhere underneath is the clatter of 16 injectors, each spraying fuel into its own cylinder. The 16 pistons drive up and down, turning the crankshaft at only 6,500rpm. It's enough, however. It is definitely enough.
When a prudent thought suggests that I end this mad dash, I hit the brakes. Rather than respond with a skidding slide into a nearby vineyard, the Veyron sheds speed like a Boeing 747 touching down. As it comes to a halt almost as rapidly as it accelerated, I'm treated to further turbo sounds, this time the waste gates dumping the other half of the Napa atmosphere, so that animals and people nearby can once again breathe.
And that is pretty much the Veyron Grand Sport Vitesse's big trick. It generates 1,200 horsepower and makes the wheels turn really, really fast, all while giving the driver a surprising sense of control.
Carbon fiber and classic styling
Along with its ruthlessly engineered power plant, 16 cylinders arranged in overlapping V-8s, a W-16 in Bugatti terminology force-fed by four turbos, it makes use of carbon fiber, lots and lots of carbon fiber, and a smart all-wheel-drive system coupled with extremely fast-acting traction control systems.
Borrowing from race car construction, the Veyron uses a carbon fiber tub with aluminum suspension components, while carbon fiber body panels give it a unique look. Even with the Veyron's massive performance, Bugatti still managed to infuse it with a 1930s aesthetic, an apparent salute to the Bugatti Type 57.
A two-seater, the Veyron lacks luggage space, cup holders, and even power adjustment for the seats. However, Bugatti covers the cabin in quality materials put together with impeccable construction. Each car is custom-built for its owner.
Although the Veyron Grand Sport Vitesse is a convertible, you can't just push a button and have the top disappear. The engine sits behind the cabin, leaving no space for a top to fold into. So instead, two people, possibly the owner and his personal Jeeves, need to lift off the 36-pound cabin cover and stow it away somewhere that is not in the car. As the Veyron is not ideal for a road trip, you won't need to take the top with you.
On this sunny day in Northern California, I was quite happy to drive with the top off, and listen to the wildly changing engine sounds.
Engine versus stereo
For company on this drive, Bugatti driver Butch Leitzinger rode along, giving me pointers about the car. He explained that the Puccini logo on the center console referred to a $30,000 audio system built into the car. I usually pay a lot of attention to car stereos, but in the Veyron I was too busy listening to the engine, and paying attention to the driving characteristics. I was mildly amused by the 30-pin iOS connecter hard-wired into the console.
Owners can also request that Bugatti install a navigation system in the car, but this one lacked that amenity.
The Veyron isn't something you drive to work every day, nor is it something you drive across country. Leitzinger even said he doesn't think of it as a track-day car, because running hard for multiple laps would burn up the tires.
So what is the Veyron Grand Sport Vitesse good for?
You might as well ask what the Mona Lisa is good for. Just like it, the Veyron attracts massive attention. It would be rare to see one on the streets. It represents an apex of engineering.
Most surprising, I found it very drivable. Even with 1,200 horsepower, the Veyron never tried to kill me. I could easily modulate the gas pedal and roll forward in heavy traffic. Taking a left turn from a four-way stop, I didn't end up spun out in the middle of the intersection, and subsequently the subject of a YouTube video.
With its fixed suspension, the ride was a little on the rough side. Not back-breakingly so, but it felt like a sports car. The electric power-steering system was perfectly boosted, letting me feel some heft from the wheel. Cornering was very precise, and the car felt extremely well balanced.
Taking the Veyron down a twisty mountain road, going around a 15-mph tight turn at something above that recommended speed, I could tell I was barely taxing the car's capabilities. There seemed to be nothing it couldn't handle.
The engine ran without fuss whether I had it at 2,000rpm or 6,000rpm. Playing with the transmission's manual shift mode, I popped it down from sixth, though fourth and third, down to second, maintaining pretty much the same speed, and heard no complaints from the car. And even cruising at 55 mph in second, the Veyron's gas pedal did not become oversensitive.
That 1,200 horsepower gives you a lot of leeway.
Leitzinger told me that, rather than building a race car and then making it street-legal, Bugatti built the Veyron from the beginning as a street car, and still managed to give it ultimate performance.
When one of our CNET crew members asked where the nearest Bugatti dealership might be, I speculated as to the buying experience. First, someone with so much money that the $2 million cost of the Veyron won't significantly affect annual income takes an interest in the car. He calls up Bugatti, suggesting he might want to buy a Veyron. Bugatti conducts a background check, and on determining that the proposal is serious, arranges a test-drive date. Bugatti brings a car to the prospective buyer, gives a demo, and offers a test-drive. To conclude, the buyer tells his business manager to cut the deal. The business manager proceeds to set up a shell company, arranges financing, and takes advantage of any tax loopholes, while Bugatti mobilizes its workforce at its studio in Molsheim, France.
For maintenance, Leitzinger said that Bugatti sends a crew over to each car for a 10,000-mile checkup. Beyond changing the oil and spark plugs, maintenance is more akin to the kind of checkups aircraft get, with technicians going over struts and panels, making sure there are no cracks or loose bolts. With a car that can go over 200 mph, you want to make sure nothing is going to fail.
Probably the most surprising fact about the Veyron is that, after eight years, Bugatti continues to find buyers for it. Thanks to its extraordinary performance, and despite its extraordinary price, Bugatti sells enough to keep the model alive.