Published April 07. 2012 4:00AM
Describing the Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Grand Sport is easy. Just recite the numbers: its 1,001 horsepower, 16-cylinder engine can propel two people to 62 mph in 2.7 seconds. In the time it takes for most sports cars to reach the double nickel, this car will easily be travelling twice as fast on the way to its top speed of 253 mph.
Sounds enticing, right?
Well check out this number: $2 million. That's its suggested retail price.
Even for those who can afford such pricey rides, these numbers warp the mind. They're incomprehensibly large, like the national debt or Donald Trump's hair.
And make no mistake: for this kind of money, you could get an original Bugatti. Or two, for that matter.
If you did, it would be one of the legendary sports and race cars built mostly before World War II by the father-and-son team of Ettore and Jean Bugatti. The brand faded in the early 1950s, after their deaths, only to be revived in the 1990s by Ferdinand Piech, Volkswagen's fearless leader and grandson of Ferdinand Porsche.
It was Piech who built Volkswagen Group into one of the world's largest automakers by acquiring luxury brands Bentley, Lamborghini and reviving Bugatti, perhaps the most fabled nameplate among car enthusiasts.
It is this new Bugatti, hand-built in Molsheim, France, like the original, that serves as Piech's ultimate symbol of engineering brilliance, distilled into the Veyron, which first appeared for 2006.
If you've never seen one, there's a good reason; three-hundred coupes were built and they're no longer available. Of the 150 Veyron convertibles to be built, 55 have gone out the door. Only 95 more will be constructed.
Yeah, it's rare. But there's a reason for that: as a car, the Veyron is over the top, almost clownishly so. It's so powerful, it's hard to find a spot where you could unleash its full power for any length of time before you're either hauled before a magistrate or fulfilling your last will and testament.
So what? Just call me a clown. If so, that makes the Veyron the world's finest clown car, if not the fastest.
What else would you expect from a car with an 8.0-liter 16-cylinder engine? It's mated to a seven-speed direct-shift gearbox, or DSG.
The DSG is an automated manual transmission, similar to the ones used in lesser VW products. Unlike some, which are air-cooled, this one is liquid-cooled to better dissipate the heat generated from channeling 1,001 hp.
"With this much power, you have to have a DSG," said Butch Leitzinger, a former Le Mans driver for Bentley who now serves as a factory pilot for Bugatti.
"With 1,001 hp, if you have a true manual, the clamping power that you need on the clutch has to be such that the clutch pedal has to be a Nautilus machine, or it's going to be completely dead with long travel."
The DSG holds another advantage, according to Leitzinger. Being that the Veyron is a turbocharged car, you want to maintain turbo boost at all times. With a true manual transmission, you can't do this. The gearbox is momentarily disengaged from the engine every time the car changes gear. This allows a small decrease in turbo boost.
This doesn't happen on a DSG, which has two clutches, not one. This allows the DSG to preselect the next gear so that the transmission is always connected to the engine, even when changing gears.
The net result: power is funneled to all four wheels, allowing all the Veyron's full power to reach the ground.
Remarkably, there's no tire squeal, no smoke, no theatrics. It just goes.
Superlatives are useless to describe the Veyron's acceleration; it's positively brutal, like a turbocharged Panzer division.
Believe it or not, with all of this power you're still able to drive it with two fingers on the steering wheel. It's surprisingly undemanding in this respect.
"A lot of cars wear their hearts on their sleeves that they are difficult to drive," Leitzinger said. "That can be fun as well, but you have to be in the mood to drive it. With the Veyron, if you don't feel like that, you can drive it like a Bentley."
Surprisingly, there's not a lot of wind buffeting with the roof removed. You're able to enjoy the open air without being a victim of it. To preserve this ambience as speed increases, the side windows automatically rise between 95 and 100 mph.
The best part of opting for the open top model is having two giant air intakes behind your head, so you can hear the turbos working. Give the Veyron some juice, and you'll be treated to the turbos building boost. Then, when you slow down, you hear the waste gates open and blow off the boost. The sum effect is a combination of a menacing rumble and an unearthly whistle. Its sound is intoxicating, rendering the car's $30,000 audio system unnecessary.
Who wants to listen to music when you have mechanical symphony unlike any you've heard?
Of course, the reason you hear it is simple: the engine is located behind the seats but ahead of the rear axle. Also, it's exposed to help keep its cool. This is one mill that produces a lot of heat. You can feel it on the back of your neck.
Speed aside, the simplicity of this interior design mirrors its easy drivability. Such clarity of design doesn't cost extra; it's the quality of the materials that costs extra. Everything is beautifully realized, as much a luxury car as it is a sports car.
Just don't expect a GPS navigation system screen; a clip-on Palm Pilot is offered. A better bet would be opting for the rear-view camera, which displays an image in the rear-view mirror; the car's engine and air intakes block any over-the-shoulder visibility.
But these are practical considerations in a car that caters to free spirits, albeit very wealthy ones.
"A lot of cars of this nature are race cars that they put some leather on and then call it a street car," Leitzinger said.
"Race cars are great at going flat-out, but they're horrible at doing anything else, especially driving through a city. This car has been designed from the ground up as a luxury car, but also a performance car."
Such opulence, such speed, such engineering audacity seem to be giving way to a new reality.
"When this car was conceived, the world was a different place. Car companies were making money and they had dreams," Leitzinger mused.
"Now, it's 'let's get our people-movers out there, and if there's something left over, we'll build something cool.' It's hard to believe that any car company would spend the money now to build one."
Larry Printz is automotive editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. He can be reached at email@example.com.
JUST THE FACTS
2012 BUGATTI VEYRON 16.4 GRAND SPORT:
Engine: 8.0-liter W-16-cylinder
Top speed: 253 mph
0-62 mph: 2.7 seconds
Wheelbase: 106.7 inches
Length: 175.7 inches
Weight: 4,387 pounds
EPA rating (city/highway): 8/15 mpg
Fuel consumption: You're kidding, right?
Fuel type: Premium
As tested: $2 million (estimated)