The Bugatti Chiron is just a car. That’s the thing to remember. Just a car, like any other: four wheels, some seats and a tank of petrol. It’s just that the Bugatti Chiron happens to be a car that’s able to do…what, exactly?
Well, some numbers, if I may. The official figure says the Chiron is able to do 420km/h, or 261mph, but that’s misleading because it is both electronically limited and slower than the old Bugatti Veyron Super Sport was when that became the world’s fastest production car at 267.8mph. That had a mere 1183bhp. The new Chiron has 1479bhp to be getting on with. So it ought to go rather faster than the Veyron.
Especially given that the Chiron’s brief was very simple. The simplest that Bugatti boss Wolfgang Dürheimer – once head of Porsche R&D but, by dint of him being brilliant and several of his Volkswagen Group colleagues being suspect, now in charge of both Bugatti and Bentley – had encountered in his career.
“Be better than the Veyron in every respect,” it said.
Which means that, when Bugatti goes back to the Volkswagen Group’s Ehra-Lessien test track with the Chiron next year, to tell us exactly how fast it’ll go, it’ll be a bigger number than that official figure.
Bigger than the Veyron Super Sport’s number, Dürheimer says, by a notable amount, although nobody at Bugatti yet cares to speculate how fast that might be. If it were 10 percent faster - and with 50 percent more power, that’s not unreasonable - that’d be 295mph.
But it won’t be that. The Chiron will go, by my reckoning, only as fast as its tyres will allow before they explode. So my guess is they’ll test some to destruction on an aerospace rolling road, instruct a driver to swallow some brave pills, strap in, hold on and ease off at a few miles per hour under the point of detonation. Let’s call it, for the sake of argument, 275mph (this is my number, not theirs, and if I’m out by 5mph either way, so be it, it’s a plenty big number).
But it’s important because everything else you read about the Chiron here has to be tempered by that fact. A car defined by massive numbers is at once constrained and liberated by that singular top speed. It dominates yet compromises its character. Yes, it’s just a car. But it’s one that’ll do 275mph, and that entirely defines what it is like.
Can the Chiron better the Bugatti Veyron?
It means, for a start, that when they tell you about it, you stand there and they begin to hand you parts and show you graphs. The pursuit of such a big number is so obsessive that it is easy to get lost in the details.
I would need hundreds of pages and minutes to tell you everything, but the short of it is this: the Chiron is a carbonfibre-tubbed two seater with conventionally opening doors. It has an 8.0-litre, 16-cylinder engine in a W configuration, which means four banks of four cylinders around a common crankshaft, the upper two banks with a 90deg V between them, and the lower two another 15deg each side of those. There are four turbos, two of which are blowing all the time and fed by eight exhausts apiece, to minimise what would otherwise be unimaginable lag. The other two are valved, to drop in and out depending on throttle position and rev range, and when they’re ‘on’, each of the four turbos is powered by four exhausts.
That they drop in and out helps to make a near-flat torque curve of 1180lb ft from 2000pm to 6000rpm, a number that seems no smaller no matter how many times you write it. It travels to all four wheels via a revised version of the Veyron’s Ricardo dual-clutch automatic transmission that uses heavier-duty clutches and lighter gears. Power goes mostly to the rear, but with a Haldex coupling pushing it to the front when the rears can’t cope. Which would be often.
Wheel sizes are up by an inch each end over the Veyron, so 20in fronts and 21s at the rear, but tyres are wider at the front (285mm) and narrower at the back (355mm) than on a Veyron Super Sport, for a better handling balance. Yes, Bugatti cares about track times and handling: by its calculations, it would be among the fastest cars in the world around Le Mans, thanks largely to its performance along the Mulsanne Straight.
Other notable details? Literally hours of them. Turbos that look about 50 percent bigger than the Veyron’s, a carbonfibre intake manifold, conrods that can take half as much more strain as a Veyron’s but weigh no more, 420mm diameter carbon-ceramic brake discs, a steering wheel milled from a solid piece of aluminium, suspension bushes that contain three different rubber compounds to give different responses laterally, longitudinally and vertically, and the CFRP underbody, flat apart from Naca ducts, a few strakes by the front wheels and a deeper diffuser and constructed from a honeycomb-cored composite that, in thinner form and with a smarter finish, comprises the car’s body – a body whose weave is so exquisitely constructed that you can leave it bare if you like, or colour it mildly through the clearcoat.
I could go on, and I will. The passenger cell is carbonfibre, naturally, but now so is the rear subframe/engine carrier. The engine is put in position at Bugatti’s Molsheim factory and the cell and carrier are assembled around it, joined by just 10 titanium bolts. It has, Bugatti says, a torsional rigidity of 50,000Nm per degree, so racing car levels of stiffness.
The other numbers are equally astonishing: 0-62mph in 2.5sec, 0-124mph in 6.5sec, 0-186mph in 13.6sec. And, let’s say, 275mph.
Never forget the 275mph.
Getting settled behind the wheel of the Bugatti Chiron
Oh, one more number: £2,518,000, at the exchange rate as I write. There will be only 500 Chirons made, and the truth of it is that £2.5m each is too cheap. Yes, Bugatti will make money on the project, Dürheimer tells me, but not so much that Volkswagen would necessarily have sanctioned it in the climate the company currently finds itself.
But still, yes, too cheap: it’s £2m before taxes, so multiply that by the 500 and you have £1bn with which to design, engineer, produce and support an entirely new car that is homologated for sale the world over and which must meet the VW Group’s exacting standards for seemingly trivial but no doubt expensive things like keeping its interior cool when it’s hot and clearing the windscreen when it’s cold. It is, after all, just a car.
Bugatti set out to sell 450 Veyrons, and after painting some of them like Ming vases and by getting pianists to put their name to others, eventually it got through them all, but it didn’t make a bean in the process. This time, Dürheimer says, it knows what it’s doing, so already 250 Chirons are sold and he’s confident of selling the rest. In two years’ time, he’ll have to go back to the VW Group board and pitch for a replacement.
This stuff is important. Not because a £2.5m hypercar matters a jot in the greater scheme of things, but because it is inevitable that more mainstream cars will get faster, stronger and more expensive, and with that will come the trickledown, the democratisation, of ultra-expensive materials and processes that the Chiron spearheads.
Among the materials there is leather, obviously, and metal, obviously, and not a lot else inside the Chiron. It feels beautifully assembled because it will be, but the leather covering is firm, not soft, because you’re aware that with weight to save – hey, we’ve 275mph to do – adding tens of kilos of insulation is a premium one cannot afford.
But there are reminders that this is a £2.5m car, as you’d hope. Stitching is lovely and the gaps between materials are nanometre perfect. The world’s longest automotive lighting bar, it says here, swoops around behind you, enhancing a feeling of separation between driver and passenger while splitting the view rearwards in two and making you wonder how they’ll do a convertible and how much floppier it’ll be.
The seats are supportive, not broad, and electrically adjusted, but the cabin feels wide. The steering wheel gets manual adjustment, a start button, a drive mode selector and shift paddles. The handbrake is electronic, the centre console ultra-slim (hence the swoopy bar, to add perceived width and strength down the car’s centre) and covered in a piece of beautifully machined and satin-polished metal, adorned with knobs that turn with the oiliness of those on a top-end hi-fi. There’s still a special key if you want to unlock the full 261mph top speed and not be limited to 236mph, but these days it lives in a socket in the car, so could as well be a button, which would save weight and not look like a metallised fob from a 2006 Skoda Octavia.
Visibility is pretty average but ergonomics are otherwise straight out of the VW Group handbook. So you thumb the starter like you might in an Audi and the engine fires to a voluble but, from a cylinder-count perspective, indistinct cacophony, and it is ready. Foot on brake, pull gearlever back to D, away you go.
Everything is where you expect it to be. You could be in a VW Golf – a 1479bhp, 8.0-litre, two-metre-wide Golf that can do 275mph or thereabouts, but a Golf nonetheless. I mean that in a flattering way. It’s a remarkable achievement.
Unleashing the Bugatti Chiron on the roads
The truth is that the road testing part of the experience doesn’t take very long. Not when, despite Bugatti’s assurances that we could test the Chiron properly, it presented us with a vehicle with a top speed of 261mph on roads with a maximum limit of 75mph and reminded us we were responsible for our own licences. I have no idea what the inside of a Portuguese prison looks like and no particular desire to find out, but if I look over my shoulder and whisper, there are things I can tell you.
How fast is it? It’s very fast, obviously, but so are lots of cars. But it is the way it is fast. It’s not fast in a Tesla Model S P100d way. The Tesla is immediate, it gets up and goes before the Veyron has decided which of its turbos to send air through. It isn’t Ariel Atom V8 fast, which is hairy and immediate like a superbike. It’s not even McLaren P1 kind of fast. The P1 has a torque dip-filling electric motor to get it going and, relatively speaking, a race-style engine, two-wheel drive and much less weight.
No, the Chiron has a far more literal interpretation of acceleration than any of these. There’s lag – quite a lot of it usually – before it inhales massively and, about a second after you ask it to, begins to push you along the road, in loping, increasingly urgent strides of noise and blur. It’s not a soulful noise but it’s not unpleasant and it is always overwhelming – like standing next to an express train or hovercraft as it leaves a station or waterside. The Chiron spools and rushes up to the relatively modest speeds I took it to and it simply doesn’t stop. Bugatti’s test driver tells me the car is still accelerating notably when it hits the 261mph limiter. So you lift off when you’re afraid, at which point it whistles and exhales a volume of air like the tube has blown off a bouncy castle. And so do you.
Ride and handling? The former is reasonable and on the road the latter is fairly unapproachable. You can swap between EB mode (the standard one), Highway and Handling but, god, all this ‘making it comfier for this road and stiffer for that one’ business is somehow unbecoming of a £2.5m hypercar.
EB mode adjusts the adaptive dampers’ stiffness automatically, while the other two stiffen their parameters and reduce ride height. But regardless of the mode, body control is always good and the ride always firm yet rarely crashy. In EB the Chiron will even ride Belgian pave, but the key benefit, other than it being less likely to ground out, is that this mode enhances comfort. In terms of that, then, and body control, it’s good, but closer to a Porsche 911 GT3’s level of jarring than a Ferrari 488 GTB’s curious plushness.
Steering weight is good, if unnecessarily heavy in Handling mode, and the self-centering just right. Solidity around the straight-ahead is reassuring (as you’d hope), the lock is mediocre and the directness and feel (or the electrically assisted approximation of it) is decent and about as good as it is in a Golf R, in case you’re thinking of trading up. It grips and it handles up to the point I was prepared to push, given that power arrives in a hurry and you’re driving a car that often feels every inch of its considerable width.
Didn’t Ettore Bugatti once say Bentley “built fast trucks”? Well, I don’t mean to be rude, but making a car with a desire to do 275mph while retaining a comfortable, leather and metal-lined interior brings compromises of its own when it comes to agility and driver involvement.
But that’s understandable. Commendable, even. It would have been easy to give the Chiron a vast engine and forget the rest, but that would have been no harder than tuning a Nissan GT-R to 2000bhp. The Chiron is more than that.
When we road tested the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport, people with limited familiarity with the car arrived at our test runway, climbed in, drove at 200mph, drove back to the start and climbed out again. Easy. The Chiron would do all of that but with an extra 50mph, extra luxury, comfort and handling on top. Its crowning triumph is that makes it makes the utterly remarkable seem almost ordinary. Just a car? Some car.