2018 Bugatti Chiron First Drive: Record Wrecker
– Lisbon, Portugal
You enter a vortex where the trees speed up and then blur around you, and it all happens in a blink. The Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s dig their claws into the asphalt, four rubber tornados. The second set of turbos – made 69-percent larger on the Chiron – engage, meaning all four are now helping propel this blistering land rocket through the ether. Countless CPUs fire off data, communicating constantly; 16 cylinders are now deliberately puncturing the surrounding atmosphere; the gears of the seven-speed dual-clutch change without the violence you’d assume, instead composed and confident. You hear a sound which may be the wing raising, meaning you’ve surpassed 112 miles per hour, but by the time that information has registered in your brain, you’re already beyond the electronically limited top speed of most cars. Well beyond.
It’s not that this all happens, but how quickly and shockingly effortlessly it all goes down. This is an experience that must be felt to be truly understood. It simply is unlike anything else that exists today, and perhaps that will ever be again.
Times are changing, tactics are emerging – hybrids, electric motors, new-age trickery – yet the Chiron delivers stomach-sinking acceleration without any of that. Instead, it’s a modern marvel of heat transfer, aerodynamics, and old-school grit. And it’s not just acceleration; it’s seemingly a given to Bugatti engineers that the Chiron will break the speed record for a production car when official testing occurs next year. “For us, this is certain,” Martin Grabowski, head of exterior and structural development, tells me as we’re seated at a long table in a bustling restaurant in Lisbon. “It’s not a matter of will we do it, it’s by how much. We are very confident in this.” The fact this statement is said at dinner just a couple hours after I’ve driven the Chiron resonates in a different way than when it was said during our technical presentation the evening before.
That confidence is an important selling point, or at least it was on the Veyron, the Chiron’s predecessor. But after having actually driven the Chiron – and previously having experienced Bugatti’s most potent Veyron, the 1,200-horsepower “La Finale” – I think the engineering team’s anticipation is well warranted. Veyron was a singularly focused rocket that achieved a then-record-breaking top speed, and delivered blistering straight-line performance any which way you wanted to measure it. It was the Volkswagen Group’s mic-drop moment, the revival of a legendary brand left dormant for five decades, the ignition that propelled Bugatti onto magazine covers and rap videos, and into your ear canal and on through to the deep recesses of your brain, where it lodged itself permanently as the automotive equivalent of summiting of Mount Everest. While other supercars were touting base camp, Bugatti offered the moonshot rocket that’d get you to the top, for a price.
Frank Heyl, head of exterior design, said designers would sketch “+25%” on everything they worked on to keep the target in mind.
In a simplistic way, the Bugatti Chiron is essentially more of everything the Veyron was. Last summer at the Bugatti Atelier in Molsheim, France, Frank Heyl, head of exterior design, said designers would sketch “+25%” on everything they worked on to keep the target in mind. One place this is numerically evident is in the Chiron’s nearly 1,500 horsepower, about a quarter more than the 1,200 hp of the final Veyron hypercar. As far as price, Bugatti was also hyper-successful in eclipsing that 25-percent target, with a current starting price of $2,998,000, including transportation, duties, gas guzzler, and net tax. This price is higher than what I’ve heard (unofficially) the first customers paid, and it will go higher still.
As Bugatti has already sold about half of the 500 examples it said it would build – well ahead of anyone’s estimated pace – I asked Bugatti CEO Wolfgang Durheimer if the price would remain fixed. “No, it will go up,” was his immediate reply. “As we sell more cars, the price is going to go up.” Note to readers, if you’re considering a Bug, I’d get that routing number handy pretty soon. Or Noir credit card, or duffel bag(s) of cash, however it is that these things get done.
But back to the more-of-everything mantra. With all of that additional power – not to mention a brutal 1,180 pound-feet of torque – everything had to be reconsidered. The chassis, suspension, and wheels would now have to contend with more pressure and heat. Greater aerodynamic work and thermal engineering would be essential. Make no mistake: This 8.0-liter, 16-cylinder, 64-valve, quad-turbo, carbon-fibered projectile is unquestionably the real Mother of Dragons.
Dealing with the immense air pressure would be no small challenge, and a few crucial changes were key. The front splitter geometry was revised, which also helped add downforce while not adding much drag. Behind the stunning eight-eye LED headlights are functional air intakes, which also plays into Chiron’s “form follows performance” design philosophy. Air intakes and air curtains up front help push and manage air around the wheels, which under wicked-fast rotation, can use all of the cooling they can get. The area rear of the B-pillar was also opened up to make a larger air intake, because as design director Etienne Salomé tells us, “this was a completely, 100-percent high-pressure zone, and we knew we had to open it up very early on.” A new rear diffuser, some calculated strakes on the basically flat underbody, and extensive wind-tunnel testing all combined to make the Chiron a master-tamer of everything in its orbit.
The 0-60 time of 2.5 seconds is certainly noteworthy, but it’s the 0-124 mph time of less than 6.5 seconds, and 0-186 mph in about 13.5, that really drop the jaw.
And then there’s the wing. A sophisticated, adaptive, full-width rear spoiler that not only helps with downforce depending on the driving mode, but can act as an air-brake, much like the flaps on a plane when landing. And to make sure all of this mass could come to a quick stop, Bugatti tapped Formula 1’s AP Racing. The eight-piston front and six-piston rear calipers clamp down and scrub speed in a linear, reassuring way.
Helping that cause, weight was removed from seemingly everywhere on the car, to get the 16-cylindered beast down to a comparatively lithe 4,400 pounds. If you see the mass and bulk and presence of that engine in person, you might think it alone could account for both tons. To make up for the significantly larger turbos, engineers pared pounds and ounces in everything from the engine itself, to the battery that runs the electrical components, to the exhaust manifold. Even the carbon fiber used in some places is a new design that saves weight, but provides the same strength. All of it works to help deliver a 0-60 time of under 2.5 seconds, noteworthy to be certain, but it’s the 0-124 mph time of less than 6.5 seconds, and 0-186 mph in about 13.5, that really drop the jaw.
And if massive displacement and awesome turbos are the appetizer and main, plush styling is the dessert. As Bugatti’s design head, Achim Anscheidt, told me last summer, “If you get into a McLaren P1, all you see is carbon fiber. You feel like you’re in a race car. We wanted to have a luxurious, GT cabin.”
Bugatti also says its research shows that, on average, a customer will decide if they want to purchase the car within the first 10 to 15 seconds of sitting in it. So they paid special attention to things the driver would notice. The way the steering wheel feels in the hand, or the stitch-work. The dials and bezels feel solid, nice to the touch. One thing the design team felt was very important, as recounted by Etienne Salomé, was that the speedometer be a standout, real display, as opposed to a digital screen. That way, in a few decades’ time, a child can walk up to the window on the Pebble Beach lawn, peer inside, and see the numerical 300 mph top speed even when the car was off. There are clever touches you can’t see too, like the first airbag to shoot through a carbon fiber housing. Overall, the interior feels modern, luxurious, and elegant.
If Bugatti set out to top Veyron, it managed to do so in spades, in every way and every mile per hour up to the electronically limited top end of 261.
All of these thoughts vanish from your mind the moment you plant your right foot down on the throttle. From the 650 rpm at idle, to the instant thrust as you climb through the revs, all of the synapses are firing off simultaneously, the sheer ferocity of what’s occurring actually masked by the Chiron’s composure at ultra-legal speed. As the boost mounts and cylinders hammer, inside the cabin is a relative sanctuary of determined driving.
As invincible as Chiron is relative to other cars, on one stretch of country road, the uneven camber – and awesome torque being unleashed on the wheels – causes a wiggle, one that immediately sends my right foot down on the brake. The quick linear deceleration is comforting as we drop down to what would be twice the speed limit on a freeway back home. In the hands of my co-pilot, Le Mans winner and general badass Andy Wallace, that would probably not be cause for him to blink.
Still, it’s once we’re on the relatively flat, surprisingly smooth Portuguese highway, the dial momentarily cranks to invincible. Just as confident as Bugatti is about setting a new speed record, I am that my diminishing fear has nothing to do with my bravery and everything to do with the Chiron’s chops. Speed comes on so smooth and quick, the speedometer’s needle ticking along so composedly as if it were an Audemars Piguet timepiece, it seems if it weren’t for hastily enlarging shapes on the road ahead that Andy tells me are cars, I could keep the right foot planted until dinner time.
“That one was 186 mph,” Andy says, converting the kilometers to miles. Good God, if you were to find an open stretch, just a little longer without any cars, I think to myself, half in amazement and half in shock… “And fourteen-forty-four,” he casually observes, meaning I just tapped into 1,444 horsepower. That’s two Ferrari 488 GTBs’ worth, with a couple Porsche performance packs thrown on top, and some leftover ponies to boot.
Absurdly, the Chiron could be a daily driver, as much as one would daily-drive a hypercar. There’s even space for things like your cell phone, sunglasses, and a bottle of water. And the front trunk can now even fit a standard carry-on bag. Whether the customer would fly commercial, we’ll leave to speculation. What we are sure of, is if Bugatti set out to top Veyron, it managed to do so in spades, in every way and every mile per hour up to the electronically limited top end of 261. And come next year, we should have a new world speed record, too.