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The Bugatti Chiron is a velvet rocketship

Starting at $2,998,000

In these days of automakers wringing seemingly effortless power and performance out of vehicular powerplants of all shapes and sizes, from internal combustion to full-electric and everything in between, it takes something truly special to really raise the bar. The Bugatti Chiron is that kind of special.

This is a car with a spec sheet full of world-conquering numbers: nearly 1,500 horsepower, 1,180 pound-feet of torque, top speed somewhere north of 261 miles per hour and a cost of $3 million to name just a few. But, as I would learn after a morning spent behind the wheel, the Bugatti Chiron's numbers don't tell even half the story.

Surpassing a monster

The Bugatti Veyron, predecessor to the Chiron, was introduced as a concept in 1999 to immediate global acclaim -- and no shortage of skepticism. Disbelief was a common response to the company's claims that it could produce a car with 1,000 horsepower and a top speed in excess of 250 mph.

But that's exactly what it did, with top brass at parent company Volkswagen saying quite candidly that the car was not being sold to raise profits, but to simply push the boundaries of what was considered possible. That it did and, through numerous iterations and special editions over the years, it continued to be the de facto sledgehammer in a world of ever sharper automotive scalpels.

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Beneath here lie nearly 1,500 horses.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

But now the Veyron is gone and its successor is here, and while the Chiron hasn't fallen too far from the family tree, it's more than just an upgrade. But there is more of everything, starting of course with more horsepower. The Veyron got by with a whopping 1,000 hp, while the Chiron raises the bar to a nice, round 1,500 -- if you count in European, metric horses. The equivalent American figure is a somewhat more clunky but no less impressive 1,479 hp.

This pushes the top speed up to something beyond 261 mph. By default, the car will only go a paltry 236 mph, but slot a special key into the floor and the car hunkers down into top-speed mode, now willing to take you on up to the full 261 before cutting the power in the interest of keeping the tires from flinging themselves into countless tiny pieces. The real top speed of the Chiron has not yet been determined, but the Bugatti engineers and test drivers I spoke with are confident that it will absolutely shatter the 268 mph record set by the Veyron Super Sport.

That power comes from a heavily revised version of the W16 motor found in the Veyron. The 8.0-liter unit now has four turbos that are 69 percent bigger and, thanks to an active exhaust manifold with a flap that opens at 3,700 rpm, the Chiron can duct all its exhaust to just two of those turbos at low speeds to ensure optimal low-speed responsiveness. Once things really get going, though, the valve opens and all four turbos are spun at full song. The result? A whopping 26.8 psi of boost.

To deal with the extra power and speed the car has the requisite bigger brakes, carbon ceramics of course caressed by calipers about the size of an NFL-regulation football. Pistons made of titanium do the squeezing, while complex, ducted heat shields help dissipate the massive heat they generate.

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Massive brakes work with impressive finesse.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The active rear wing is far larger, running nearly the entire width of the car and swinging through a series of positions, from -10 degrees when fully retracted to 49 degrees when standing at attention in the air brake position. For a top speed run, it sets itself at just 3 degrees.

So, yes, the Chiron is more of everything, and that trend doesn't stop with the cost. The car is priced at 2.4 million euros in its home market, but here in the US we'll be looking to spend a rather more dear $2,998,000.

From purposeful to stunning

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The Chiron does not have a single bad angle.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The Chiron draws its styling from Bugatti's Vision Gran Turismo concept, which blew me and everyone else away at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 2015. While the real-world Chiron is far more tame than that digital beast, the production car is certainly no sleeper, especially cloaked in its hero color scheme, the two-tone blues of the car we tested.

The overall, somewhat brutish shape is faithful to the Veyron, and of course it's all fronted by Bugatti's trademark horseshoe grille. That, however, is about where the similarities with the old car end. The grille is far more prominent in the Chiron, the nose cutting back dramatically before tucking in behind the headlights, each comprised of four individual squared rings of light that stand out among the air inlets for cooling the front brakes.

Those are just two of the many ducts and vents hidden within the car, providing airflow to the numerous radiators and other components that tend to get really, really hot when pushed to the sorts of extremes possible here.

As prominent as that nose is, however, it's the sweeping, curved bar of chrome along the side that really sets the Chiron apart. This line, which extends through to the front splitter, is meant to invoke the swinging signature of founder Ettore Bugatti, though its C shape handily matches the name of the car. This structure, too, conceals a set of intakes for cooling the radiators and keeping those four turbos fed with cool air.

A similar line bisects the interior, subtly illuminated for extra effect and giving the cabin of the Chiron a special feel. The center-console is also thin, housing just four knobs. Each has its own high-resolution display, by default controlling the climate system and heated seats.

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A stunning, high-tech interior.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

But, give a long-press on any of those knobs and they switch over to an alternate mode. Here you can reconfigure them to show anything from turbo pressure to maximum g. I confess the notion of a boost gauge does feel a bit pedestrian on a $3 million hypercar, but I appreciate the configurability here. Those data-loving billionaires lucky enough to take one of these home will surely appreciate it, too.

All the other controls of note are isolated to the steering wheel, which places traditional five-way buttons beneath both thumbs, the left primarily for controlling the (stellar) sound system, the right for manipulating the infotainment, visible to the right of the massive, analogue speedometer. That speedometer goes all the way up to 500 kilometers per hour, by the way. That's 310 mph.

The infotainment system in the Chiron is simple, but functional. There is navigation, but entering addresses is a bit of a chore. Put the car in reverse and the output from the rearward-facing camera is displayed here, though sadly there's no overhead, 360-degree view available. That's a shame, as I can't imagine the cost of replacing one of the car's wheels should you get a little too close to the curb while parking -- assuming you actually want to park one of these by the curb. While the Chiron does have cruise control, it is not adaptive, which is honestly a bit of a disappointment, given you could reasonably cover a lot of miles in comfort in this.

Located centrally on the steering wheel, down towards the bottom, is a single, wide button marked simply LC. Find yourself a long road or, ideally, a closed runway before pressing this.

The launch

To engage launch control in the Chiron, come to a complete stop, then press the brake pedal hard to the floor with your left foot. After that, press that LC button and immediately mash the gas pedal to the floor with your other foot. The engine will rev to about 3,000 rpm and hold.

Wait a little over a second for the boost to build, which you can monitor via the integrated boost gauge or simply by listening to the increasingly angry induction noise from behind your head. This brief moment is an important opportunity to collect your thoughts and place your head against the headrest before you slip your foot off the brake pedal and catapult yourself into an alternate dimension where everything outside the cabin is a blur and straights that seemed impossibly long have suddenly become uncomfortably short.

The Chiron doesn't leap off the line quite as fiercely as some other cars I've had the pleasure of launching before, such as the Nissan GT-R or Porsche 911 Turbo S, both of which should come with the addresses of chiropractors preloaded into their navigation systems. That first fraction of a second in the Chiron is more subtle, but what this latest Bugatti offers is acceleration that is nothing short of astonishing.

With the GT-R or 911 Turbo, after a few moments you can take your head from the headrest and start to enjoy the experience. In a Chiron you will stay well and truly embedded within the padding of the seat for as long as you keep your foot to the floor. The experience is utterly relentless, borderline terrifying and basically fantastic.

The rush of continued, unabated acceleration into and well beyond triple-digit speeds is the sort of thing I figure you're not likely to experience unless you make it through the astronaut training program -- though hopefully SpaceX will make that a bit more attainable for the rest of us in the not too distant future.

The package

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Out in the real world, the Chiron is remarkably good.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

That acceleration is quite literally breathtaking, but you'll have to believe me when I say that the rest of the package is even more impressive. While the Chiron is more than capable of violating the laws of physics in any gear, shifting from one to the next is so impossibly smooth you'd swear the thing is spinning a CVT, not a seven-speed dual-clutch unit.

The gigantic Michelin tires offer prodigious grip and the kind of structural integrity to stay intact at truly ludicrous speeds, yet the cabin stays remarkably free of road noise and there isn't much in the way of unwanted wandering on the highway thanks to surface imperfections.

And those massive brakes, which in concert with the movable wing at the rear can generate two gs of deceleration, are light and easy to modulate. Doddling your way in traffic or through town is remarkably easy, spectacularly so. The seats are comfortable, there's a respectable amount of headroom and the suspension provides a perfectly acceptable ride, even across the occasionally unacceptable roads of Portugal.

And of course the interior is impeccable as well. Though the car I drove was preproduction, there was nary a stitch out of place nor an unwanted crease in the leather.

Outrageously refined

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In any gear, at any speed, the Chiron is a force to be reckoned with.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The Bugatti Chiron is the fastest thing I've ever had the pleasure to experience, yet also one of the most refined. You might say this mix is the sort of combination you should expect in exchange for $3 million, and you're not wrong, but there are so many high-dollar supercars out there that offer the performance but fail to deliver the refinement, or deliver a luxurious but ultimately uninspiring experience.

The Chiron nails both sides of the equation with a 1,479-hp hammer. This is a car that doesn't just raise the top speed bar, it excels across the board. It is very much a continuation of the Veyron's legacy but shines brightly enough to abolish any fears of getting lost in the long shadow of its predecessor. The Chiron is quite simply a remarkable accomplishment.

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