At 200 mph, the Bugatti Veyron pounds a beautiful, howling hole in the sweltering haze hanging over the motorway.
This, the fastest production car in the world, is broad and low, an enameled ellipse in a spiffy two-tone paint scheme. By comparison, its now-vanquished supercar rivals, such as the Ferrari Enzo and McLaren F1, are all edges and blades and angles, like F-16 fighter planes or Japanese stunt kites.
The Veyron is not, strictly speaking, the fastest car I've ever driven, but the one that's faster had a jet engine and a parachute. The guardrail to my right is blurred into a dirty stream of quicksilver. Houses fly by before my brain has time to register the word "house."
About nine seconds ago, I was dawdling at 100 mph. Then I squeezed the throttle. The seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox clicked twice, the engine took a huge lung-busting toke of atmosphere through its twin roof snorkels -- and then things got interesting. Something slammed me from behind and I realize it was the seat. Captain, it appears we have fallen nose-first into a wormhole.
Two-hundred mph. And I'm not even in top gear.
A superlative on four wheels, the Bugatti Veyron 16.4 is not only the world's fastest production car but also the most expensive: $1.25 million before taxes and richly deserved gas-guzzler penalties. Also, the most powerful: Its 8.0-liter 16-cylinder quad-turbo engine produces about 1,000 horsepower and churns it through a high-tech all-wheel-drive system and gob-smacking foot-wide tires. Also, the quickest: The Veyron accelerates to 60 mph in 2.1 seconds, faster than a Formula 1 car, but then it's just getting started. In 20 seconds -- about the time it takes a fast reader to get through this paragraph -- it reaches 200 mph. In 53 mind-blowing seconds, the Veyron reaches its marquee speed: 253 mph.
At that speed, the tires would begin to soften in about half an hour. Fortunately, at top speed, it runs out of gas in 12 minutes. "It's a safety feature," Wolfgang Schreiber, the Veyron's chief engineer, says with a smile.
The Veyron, which is making its way to the first customers this month, is many things: It's a mirror held to the automobile industry's near past of irrational exuberance. It's a monument to the ego of Ferdinand Piech, former chairman of Volkswagen AG, which purchased the Bugatti name in 1998. And it represents a defining moment in the history of the automobile, the likely pinnacle of production-car cost and performance. Six years and an estimated half a billion dollars in the making, the car trades on one of the most famous names in motoring. Revered among aficionados, Bugatti dominated Grand Prix racing for a time between the world wars and built sinfully beautiful works of transportation art, including the Type 57SC Atlantic and Bugatti Royale, which holds the Guinness record for the highest price paid for a car -- $15 million.
Volkswagen was in tall cotton in 1998. Led by Piech, a prodigious engineer-designer and grandson of Porsche founder Ferdinand Porsche, the company went on a buying spree, acquiring the Italian carmaker Lamborghini, the British luxury marque Bentley and Bugatti.
This in itself wasn't unusual. The decade saw many storied firms absorbed by larger car companies: Ford, for instance, purchased Aston Martin and Land Rover, and BMW acquired Rolls-Royce. Volkswagen, riding a crest of record sales, had the money; its after-tax profit in 1998 was $1.2 billion.
Bugatti, however, seemed peculiarly cursed. It's doubtful that even Ettore Bugatti, the artist-engineer who founded the company in 1908, made money on the venture. In 1988, an Italian entrepreneur, Romano Artioli, purchased the rights to the name and built a state-of-the-art factory in Campogalliano, Italy, to produce a supercar called the EB110. Less than a decade later, in 1996, Bugatti was again bankrupt. What VW purchased amounted to no more than a glorious scrapbook.
Piech -- unyielding and autocratic but possessed with a vision as pure, in its way, as that of Ettore Bugatti -- promised that the new Bugatti would be VW's crown jewel, the ultimate in automotive technology. It was he who set the well-rounded parameters for the Veyron: 1,000 hp and faster than 400 kilometers per hour (248 mph). Such a car would eclipse the McLaren F1's seemingly unassailable record of 240.1 mph.
"Piech was maniacal," says Peter DeLorenzo, an industry analyst and founder of Autoextremist.com. "He was one of the great engineering geniuses of the late 20th century, but he proved that brilliance on the engineering side doesn't necessarily transfer to managerial vision."
Indeed, Volkswagen AG is a company in crisis, beset by plummeting market share around the world, high labor costs and -- particularly in the crucial United States market -- a dearth of new products in its bedrock brands such as VW. In addition to other problems, the company is embroiled in a sex scandal involving allegations the company paid for "sex junkets" for its labor representatives. Last week on the Frankfurt stock exchange, a VW share hovered around the 45 Euro mark, less than half its peak value in 1998. Piech was replaced as chairman in 2002 by Bernd Pischetsrieder, former chief executive of BMW.
By most accounts, Piech's failing was of the classical Greek hubris variety. "He was obsessed with putting VW onto a par with Ferrari," says DeLorenzo.
Piech's effort to drive the VW brand upscale produced the VW Phaeton, an eight- or 12-cylinder luxury sedan that costs as much as six figures in the United States (the company announced last month the Phaeton model was being discontinued). The Phaeton directly competes with another of VW Group's offerings, the Audi A8 sedan.
"I think [Piech's] crazy," says Mike Kamins, a professor at USC's Marshall School of Business. "The Phaeton just didn't make any sense. VW doesn't have that image and you can't change an image that fast. People ask what you paid for your car and you say, '$100,000,' and they say, 'Well, what kind of Porsche is it?' You say, 'No, it's a VW.' They say, 'What, are you stupid?' "
VW's bigger problem, analysts say, is that during Piech's reign it took its eye off developing its core product -- cars like Golf, Jetta and Passat -- while diverting engineering resources to exotica like the Phaeton, the new Bentleys, Lamborghinis and, of course, the Veyron.
"I think the Bugatti venture gets lost in the rounding error for the overall VW Group," says Jay N. Woodworth of Woodworth Holdings Ltd. "What really matters is that the successor to the main VW car lines has been delayed."
The result is that the Veyron -- named after one of Bugatti's most successful race drivers, Pierre Veyron -- has been born into a world very different from the one in which it was conceived. Other super-exotics, including Mercedes-Benz Maybach limousines, the SLR McLaren and Porsche's Carrera GT, haven't sold as briskly as was hoped when they were drawn up in the bubbly days of the late 1990s.
And, it should be noted, the executives who lead German car companies -- people like Piech and Pischetsrieder, former DaimlerChrysler chief Jurgen Schremp and others -- are intensely competitive, and the Veyron project had an almost irresistible logic for Europe's biggest automaker.
"I don't think it's dramatically different than the relationship among auto executives at country clubs at Detroit," Woodworth says.
Whatever the cause, the result is this artifact called the Veyron, a heroic and historic automobile.
Meanwhile, back at 200 mph, technical director Schrieber is urging me on. "This makes fun, doesn't it?" he asks.
The main autostrada of Sicily is not exactly glass-smooth, nor particularly straight, and as I bend the car into a sweeping right-hander at about 205 mph, a flock of butterflies the size of vampire bats alights in my solar plexus. The suspension is working hard and I can feel the static of the tires coming through the stitched-leather steering wheel. I am very curious to see if the car will hold the line in the corner or slide off into the heavenly yonder.
As fast as it is, the Veyron is actually late for its own party. The first Veyron 16.4 concept car appeared at the Tokyo Auto Show in fall 1999, and the final draft, so to speak, appeared in September 2001 at the Frankfurt auto show. The plan was to have cars to customers by the end of 2003, but the Veyron posed an unprecedented engineering challenge: a car capable of 250 mph that is civilized, safe and reliable -- passing all the durability and crash-test standards that a VW Golf has to pass.
"Its performance was achieved through state-of-the-art engineering rather than simply shoehorning a giant engine into thinly disguised race car," says Csaba Csere, editor of Car and Driver magazine, who performed a max-speed test on the car this fall. "The Veyron is completely usable on the road and can be piloted by anyone with a regular driver's license."
When Schreiber took over the project in spring 2003, he says, there were about 500 technical issues with the car. It was too heavy. The dual-clutch gearbox was too noisy. The fuel pumps weren't sufficient to supply the gallons per minute the engine requires at full honk. And everything was too hot. The car now has 10 radiators, cooling components such as the hydraulics system and the gear-box oil.
But the biggest problem was air. At 200-plus mph, air is not the insubstantial nothingness of everyday experience but a thick, turbulent fluid that wants to pull the car off its wheels. To thwart what is known as aerodynamic lift, the Bugatti -- like most race cars -- has a wing, as well as a smaller spoiler, deployed on aircraft-grade hydraulics on the back. These keep the car from fluttering off the road like a thrown playing card. However, the same wing that provides down force also creates drag. As recently as March, the car was falling well short of the target speed of 248 mph.
Only when Schreiber and his engineers created what is now called the "top speed" configuration was the car able to achieve its maximum speed. It works like this: When the car reaches 137 mph, hydraulics lower the car until it has a ground clearance of about 3 1/2 inches. At the same time, the wing and spoiler deploy. This is the "handling" mode, in which the wing helps provide 770 pounds of down force, holding the car to the road. This drag-limits the car to about 230 mph.
To go faster, drivers have to stop the car and activate the top speed mode with a special key in a lock to the left of the driver's seat. This lowers the car to a ground-skimming clearance of about 2 1/2 -inches and retracts the rear wing so that it just peeks out over the bodywork. At 250 mph, a little wing angle is all you need. At the same time, openings for aerodynamic tunnels built into the car close, creating a fully flat-bottom car.
In April, Schreiber and his team had hit upon the ideal setup for the car and were putting down consistent 250 mph runs.
The Veyron has a lot of other tricks up its carbon-fiber sleeve. When the brakes are activated at high speed, the rear wing tilts to 70 degrees, creating what is effectively an air brake -- should the 15-inch carbon-ceramic disc brakes not prove to be enough. Here is a fun fact: In a panic stop from 253 mph, the Veyron comes to a halt in less than 10 seconds -- hard enough to pull the sunglasses off your face.
"My philosophy is that you should be able to brake better than you can accelerate," Schreiber says.
So it can go like the hammers of hell and stop on a pfennig. But will it sell? That is the $1.25-million question.
"It remains to be seen," says Peter Mullin, a Los Angeles car collector who owns several vintage Bugattis. "They certainly have put the resources into it. I just wonder what is the appetite for a car that can go 250 mph on the street? It's kind of a limited market."
And yet the "fastest car" superlative is indispensable to the car's mystique. The Veyron is the latest in a long list of what you might call dorm-room poster cars -- cars with names like Lamborghini, Ferrari, Koenigsegg and Saleen.
"Once this car comes out, it will be the car that people think of when they think ultimate sports car," says Leslie Kendall, curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum. "It will be the new standard."
Bugatti has said it will build no more than 300 of the cars, optimally 50 to 80 per year. There will be 20 dealerships worldwide, including O'Gara Coach Company in Beverly Hills. Ehren Bragg, president of O'Gara, says the dealership has four orders in hand. The down payment is $413,000, enough to buy six Chevrolet Corvette Z06s.
O'Gara is expecting to make its first deliveries in August or September 2006, but it will have a demonstrator model. Bragg wouldn't be surprised if that car is bought off the showroom floor. "Here in Beverly Hills," he says, "when people can't have something, they want it more than they thought they did."
Even if Bugatti sells every car, it won't make a dime. "Volkswagen will only net about $350 million from the Veyron," says Car and Driver's Csere. "That's hardly enough to pay for the engineering, development and manufacturing costs of this car. But making a profit was never the point. The goal was to relaunch the Bugatti brand as a builder of noteworthy cars. That the Veyron has done."
Bugatti's president, Thomas Bscher, has said as much in the media. The idea is that the glow of the Veyron's halo will light up other products to come, possibly a four-seat coupe. But under VW Group's current financial constraints -- and the fact that the gas-hungry world has shifted under the company's feet -- it's possible the Veyron will turn out to be a magnificent anomaly.
"I would have some healthy skepticism of the survivability of these proposed products," Woodworth says. "They may never get off the launch pad."
When asked what he thinks of the Veyron's legacy, automotive marketing analyst Daniel Gorrell, in a literary turn, recalls some lines from Percy Bysshe Shelley:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"