Some sequels are more difficult to top than others. What happens when you have to make a follow up to the all-conquering Veyron? The Bugatti Chiron happens! Our foreign correspondent, Matthew Prior, headed to Portugal to give a whirl...
It’s 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 420 kph, but that’s misleading because it is both electronically limited and slower than the old Bugatti Veyron Super Sport when that became the world’s fastest production car at 431 kph. That had a mere 1 183 bhp (882 kW). The new Chiron has 1 479 bhp (1 102 kW). So, it ought to go faster than that, especially given that the Chiron’s brief was very simple.
The Chiron is still easily distinguishable as a Bugatti. The design team has modernised its looks whilst making sure it can hit 400 kph plus.
The Chiron brief was the simplest that Bugatti boss Wolfgang Durheimer - 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 Volkswagen Group’s Ehra Lessien test track with the Chiron in 2018, 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, Durheimer says, by a notable amount, although nobody at Bugatti cares to speculate how fast that might be. If it were 10% faster, and with 50% more power that’s not unreasonable, that’d be 475 kph.
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 mph under the point of detonation. Let’s call it, for the sake or argument in this feature, 440 kph; this is my number, not theirs, and if I’m under by 10 kph either way, so be it. Four forty is 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 remember, it’ll do 440 kph and that entirely defines what it is like, like in no other hypercar.
Sixteen cylinders and 4 whopping great big turbochargers are homed beneath the body of the Chiron.
When they tell you about the engine, you stand there and they begin to hand you parts and show you graphs. The chase of such a big number is so obsessive that it's easy to get lost in the details. You would want hundreds of pages and minutes to tell you all of it, but the short of it is this: the Chiron is a carbon fibre-tubbed two-seater with conventionally opening doors. It has an 8.0-litre, 16-cylinder engine in a W layout – which means four banks of four cylinders around a common crankshaft, the upper two banks with a 90-degree vee between them, and the lower two another 15 degrees each side of those.
They are fed through four turbochargers; 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.
The Chiron is mid-engined - like the Veyron, the 1 500 badging rounds up the engine horsepower output.
That they drop in and out contributes to a near-flat torque curve, of 1 600 Nm from 2 000 rpm to 6 000 rpm, a number that seems no smaller no matter how many times you write it. It travels to all four wheels via a revised Ricardo dual-clutch transmission – there are heavier duty clutches, lighter gears – with power going mostly to the rear wheels, but with a Haldex coupling pushing it to the fronts when it troubles the rears, which would be often.
Wheel sizes are up by an inch each end over the Veyron, so 20's at the front and 21's at the rear, but the tyres are wider at the front (285 mm) and narrower at the rear (355 mm) than on a Veyron Super Sport, to give 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. Being a Volkswagen Group car, the Chiron must work all over the world and 1 100 kW and 1 600 Nm wants an astonishing amount of cooling, so although the Chiron is low (1 212 m), it is wide (2 038 mm).
Reinforced carbon fibre is used liberally to keep the weight down and improve chassis stiffness.
Literally hours of them. Turbochargers that look bigger by about 50% than the Veyron’s; an intake manifold now crafted from carbon fibre; conrods that can take half as much more strain as a Veyron’s but weigh no more; 420 mm diameter carbon ceramic brakes; a steering wheel milled from one solid piece of aluminium; suspension bushes that contain three different rubber compounds to give different responses laterally, longitudinally and vertically; the CFRP underbody, flat apart from Naca ducts, a few strakes by the front wheels, a deeper diffuser and constructed from a new, honeycomb-cored, carbon skinned composite that, in thinner form and with a smarter finish, comprises the 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, so I will. The passenger cell is carbon fibre too, naturally, but now so is the rear subframe/engine carrier. The engine is put in position at Bugatti’s Molsheim factory – more of an assembly area than an industrial heartland – and the cell and carrier are assembled around it, joined by just ten titanium bolts, it has, Bugatti says, a torsional rigidity of 50 000 Nm per degree, racing car levels of stiffness.
The Chiron may not win many beauty contests but it's unmistakeable and awe-inspiring to look at.
These relay stats like: 0-100 kph in 2.5sec, 0-200 kph in 6.5sec, 0-300 kph in 13.6sec. And possibly, 440 kph.
Oh, one more number: R40 million as I write. There will be only 500 Chirons made and the truth of it is that R40 million each is too cheap. Yes, Bugatti will make money on the project, Durheimer 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 two million quid before taxes; multiply that by the 500 and you have a billion pounds, with which to design, engineer, produce and support an entirely new car that is homologated for sale the world over and must meet VW group’s testing 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 didn’t make a bean in the process. This time, Durheimer 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 Volkswagen’s board and pitch for a replacement.
This stuff matters. Not because a R40 million hypercar matters a jot in the great scheme of things, but because with the inevitability that the sun will rise, so, certainly, will more mainstream cars get bigger, faster, stronger, more expensive, and with it will come the trickle down, the democratisation, of uber-expensive materials and processes that the Chiron spearheads.
Is it nice inside?
If you're paying R40m for a car, it better be lush inside. Compromises have to be made in order to keep the weight down.
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 440 kph to do – adding tens of kilos of insulation is a premium one cannot afford.
But there are reminders that this is a R40 million car, as you’d hope. Stitching is lovely and gaps between materials nanometre perfect. The world’s longest automotive lighting bar, it says here, swoops around behind you, enhancing a feeling of separating 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, electrically adjusted, but the cabin feels wide. The steering wheel is adjusted manually and comes with a start button, a drive mode selector and flappy 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 one-piece, beautifully machined and satin-polished metal, adorned with multi-function knobs that turn with the oiliness of top-end hi-fi’s. Column stalks are pleasingly crafted from aluminium. There’s still a special key if you want to unlock the full 420 kph maximum speed and not ‘just’ be limited to 380 kph, but these days lives in a socket in the car, so could as well be a button; that would save weight and not look like a metallised fob from a VW Polo Vivo.
This is what you get when no expense need be spared on the details.
Visibility is pretty average but ergonomics are otherwise straight out of the Volkswagen-group handbook. So you thumb a starter button and the engine fires to a voluble but, from a cylinder-count perspective, indistinct cacophony and it is ready. Foot on brake, pull gear lever back to D, away you go.
Everything is where you expect it to be. You could be in a Volkswagen Golf. A 1 100 kW, 8.0-litre, 2.0-metre wide Golf that can do 440 kph or thereabouts, but a Golf nonetheless. I mean that in a flattering way. It’s a remarkable achievement.
What's it like to drive?
There's a bit of turbo lag on initial pull away but despite that, the Chiron will still get to 100 kph in 2.5 seconds.
The truth is that the road testing part of the Chiron experience doesn’t take very long. Not when, despite Bugatti’s assurances that we could test the car properly, it presented a car with a top speed of 440 kph on roads with a maximum allowable speed of 120 kph 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. 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 considered 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 filling motor to get going and relatively speaking, a race-style engine, two-wheel drive and lighter weight to push it forwards.
No, the Chiron has a far more literal interpretation of acceleration than any of these. There’s lag – quite a lot of it, usually – and then it inhales massively and, about a second after you asked it to, begins to push you along the road, in loping, increasingly urgent strides of noise and blur. It is not a soulful noise, but it is not an unpleasant one and it's always an overwhelming one – like standing next to an express train or hovercraft as they leave a station or waterside. It spools and rushes and up to the relatively modest speeds I took it to, it simply doesn’t stop. Bugatti’s test driver tells me it is still accelerating notably when it hits the 420 kph limiter. So you lift off when you’re afraid, at which point it whistles with a volume of air like the tube has blown off a bouncy castle. And so do you.
Ride and handling?
Handling is not the Chiron's forte, it's more about reeling in horizons at mind-boggling speed.
It has a reasonable former and on the road a fairly unapproachable latter. You can swap between ‘EB’ (the standard one), ‘Highway’ and ‘Handling’ drive modes but, God, all this ‘making it comfier for this road and stiffer for that one’ is somehow unbecoming of a R40 million hypercar.
In short, the former adjusts the adaptive dampers’ stiffness automatically, the latter pair of modes 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 in this standard-height mode the key benefit that it’s less likely to ground out as it enhances comfort. In comfort/body control terms it’s good, but closer to a Porsche 911 GT3’s level of jarring than Ferrari 488 GTB’s curious plushness. Steering weight is good – albeit unnecessarily heavier in Handling mode – self-centering just right, solidity around straight ahead reassuring (as you’d hope), the directness and feel (or the approximation of it, given it’s electrically assisted) are decent; about as good as in a VW Golf R.
And it grips and it handles, up to the point I was prepared to find out because power arrives in a hurry, it’s two metres wide, and, often, feels every inch.
They Veyron's records are set to tumble when the Chiron gets its chance on Volkswagen's high-speed test ring.
Didn’t Ettore Bugatti once say that WO Bentley “built fast trucks”? Well, I don’t mean to sound rude, but making a car with a desire to do 440 kph and retain a comfortable, leather and metal-lined interior brings compromises 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 it would be no harder than tuning a Nissan GT-R to 1 500 kW. 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 320 kph, drove back to the start and climbed out again. Easy. The Chiron would do all of that but with an extra 100 kph, extra luxury, comfort and handling on top. Its crowning triumph is that it makes the utterly remarkable look ordinary.
Bugatti Chiron quick facts
Price: Approx. R40 million
Engine: W16, 7993 cc, quad turbo petrol
Power: 1 102 kW at 6 700rpm
Torque: 1 600 Nm at 2 000-6 000 rpm
Gearbox: Seven-speed dual clutch auto
Kerb weight: 1 995 kg
Top speed: 420 kph (380 kph in handling mode)
0-100 kph: 2.5sec
Economy: 22.5L/100 km