After testing those little Car2Go Smart cars in Seattle over the past few months, it was time for a change of pace, perhaps a different kind of transportation innovation.
Like the world’s fastest-production convertible, which just happened to be available for a test drive last week.
The $2.5 million Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Grand Sport Vitesse is one of the world’s most exciting machines, a road-going rocket ship and a thrilling new goal post for entrepreneurs and plutocrats around the world.
Whether any of its technological advances trickle down to mass-production vehicles remains to be seen.
We can only dream about the day that mainstream cars need an electronic-suspension system that keeps them steady when turning at 200 miles per hour.
Like the Boeing 787 and a few other supercars, the Vitesse is skinned and trimmed with carbon-fiber composite material to lower its weight and maximize its efficiency and performance.
Bugatti takes this to the extreme. Workers in Molsheim, France, meticulously line up the woven pattern of the Vitesse’s carbon-fiber sheets, so their pattern continues across body panels, similar to the way wood grain is matched on handmade furniture.
As with airplanes, bird strikes are a concern on a car that goes 255 mph. During early testing a bird went through the Veyron’s aluminum, horseshoe-shaped grille, so it’s now made of titanium.
A bigger concern during my drive last week was a police-radar strike. You can innocently stretch your leg a bit and double the speed limit before you notice what you’ve done.
The car’s power feels limitless and effortless. Bugatti said it goes from zero to 62 mph in 2.6 seconds.
I was thrilled by the Vitesse’s midrange flexibility. In two blinks the car leaps from 40 mph to well beyond the speed limit. Allegedly.
Speed records come and go.
Decades from now, when we’re all gliding around in whispering electric cars upholstered in hemp and guided by Google, these Bugattis will be coveted most for their magnificent sound.
There is nothing else like the whirring, whooshing, roaring symphony of the Veyron’s 16-cylinder engine, which sits open to the elements, a few inches behind your ears.
You find yourself constantly revving the motor just to hear the four turbochargers spin and whine as they boost air pressure in the cylinders, then gasp and hiss when they open their dampers to exhale. It’s like spurring a mythical bronze dragon.
“Bugatti is in a class by itself. I’ve driven just about everything there is out there in exotic cars. I can’t find anything that even comes close,” said Tom Nault, a technology entrepreneur who invited Bugatti to show cars in the Seattle area.
Nault organizes a monthly gathering of exotic cars at Redmond Town Center where the Vitesse was to be shown Saturday. It was then going to appear at the “Staycation” event at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville.
Nault bought a Lamborghini after selling Open Interface, a Bluetooth software company, to Qualcomm in 2007. He’s not sure that he’ll upgrade to a Vitesse, which he said costs about as much as a twin-engine airplane to own and operate. But he knows of about six people in the area who are considering buying one.
“Most of them are tech guys who made their money in a tech offering and are sitting on a lot of stock,” he said.
Several Veyrons are already owned locally, even though the nearest dealerships are in Vancouver, B.C., and Northern California. China has been the biggest market lately, followed by the Middle East and then North America and Europe.
Bugatti, a legendary French automaker, was resurrected by Volkswagen in 1998 and first showed the Veyron concept in 2000. At first it was a 650-horsepower hardtop. The company has steadily developed new and more powerful models, including the Grand Sport line of roadsters, which debuted in 2008.
So far Bugatti has sold 80 roadsters and it will produce only 70 more.
The Vitesse model was introduced last year. It upped the Grand Sport’s horsepower from 1,001 to 1,200 largely through the use of larger turbochargers. The car also received a more taut suspension using racing-style dampers.
Weight didn’t increase, though, in part because it’s made with more lightweight composite material. Highway mileage actually increased — to 15 miles per gallon, up from 14. In city driving it still gets 8 miles per gallon.
The redesign also made the interior feel sportier and less like you’re reclining in the buttery-leather armchair of a sheik as you fly down the road.
Once you stop worrying about the price, the Vitesse is a breeze to drive, even in traffic and the rain. (The roof stayed on during my drive through the drizzle, but the sun came out at the end, when our photographer arrived. I took these photos, mostly with a Nokia Lumia 928.)
Rainy days are actually a good opportunity to experience the car’s safety and stability, according to Butch Leitzinger, a race driver who accompanies the Bugatti on test drives. Yet he’s had potential customers cancel drives because of weather.
“They can’t imagine trying to drive a 1,200 horsepower car in the rain,” he said. “It’s actually one of the best times for them to come in, because it can really show how easy the car is to drive, how safe it is. It’s hard to make people believe a car with this much power can be as calm as it is, as civilized. Everyone expects it to be just an animal trying to break free.”
I’m just glad I wasn’t driving the $2.5 million car over a certain bridge on Interstate 5 last week. Though if you goose the throttle a bit, it could probably fly over any gaps that suddenly appear in the road.