Driving exotic cars inevitably causes strangers to approach and ask about the car you are driving. Far and away, the most common question is “how fast will it go?” As I begrudgingly answer this question, my inner voice always screams “you’re missing the point!” Even driving a Porsche 930 (155 mph) or a Countach (160 mph if it has a wing), I feel a bit apologetic and want to add “but that’s not really the point of this car, especially today. You really have to look at it in context and it’s really more of how the power and speed are deployed and in these cars, it feels plenty fast, especially given the technology of the era and…” Usually I just tell them the top speed or say that I don’t know.
Today, however, we are driving the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport. Not only is the top speed (268 mph when unrestricted) a genuinely impressive figure, but that is the point of this car for once. Virtually every significant decision in the car was made to help it fulfill its extraordinary mission: be the fastest production car in the world. The figures that enable this achievement are jaw-dropping: 8 liters of displacement, 16 cylinders, 64 valves, four turbochargers, 1200 hp. Secondary technical features are no less remarkable: in addition to the 8-piston front and 6-piston rear AP Racing carbon brakes, the handbrake is equipped with ABS for use in the event of an emergency descent (deceleration seems too routine a word) from hyperspeed, while 10 heat exchangers serve the massive cooling needs for all the systems (three intercoolers, three coolant radiators, and one each for the transmission oil, engine oil, differential oil, and air conditioning refrigerant). And when it was new, all this sophistication was backed by a 2-year unlimited mileage warranty, which seems comedically pedestrian for such an exotic piece of equipment.
This puzzling dichotomy sums the Veyron Super Sport up well. It is massively competent, but it is civilized and more or less pleasant to drive. No driver’s suit, roll cage, or fire system are needed to drive nearly 100 mph faster than the top speed of a Porsche 718 Cayman. You simply get in it and go. You could do it without even putting pants on. Not that the car would laugh at you if you did so; it’s not a car with much of a sense of humor. Despite the car being built in France, it was developed by Germans since Bugatti is part of the VW group, and the car’s personality reflects that. It is a serious car, focused on going very quickly with utmost security and stability. The acceleration is of course explosive, but the car is free of the lively, effervescent character of say an MX-5: these are not the attributes that help the driver feel a sense of confidence when traveling faster than the Westland Lynx, the world’s fastest helicopter (top speed: 249 mph when specially configured).
The livery of the Veyron Super Sport we are driving reinforces that impression. With its monochromatic white exterior and monochromatic black leather interior, it is businesslike and stern, like a world-class track athlete about to toe the line at the Olympics. Although it is the last Veyron coupe built, it doesn’t seem to be celebrating anything at all. This car makes the jewel-like objet d’arte liveries that adorned most of the Veyrons built seem frivolous, and it seems fitting that the last coupe is finished so simply. It is as if the car is saying, “at the end of the day, this is who I actually am.” I admire it for that, and also feel a bit intimidated as I set off.
It starts at the push of the starter button after the wonderful whirring starter sound that seems to be reserved for V12s, and apparently W16s too. The idle exhaust note is loud, bassy, and a bit confusing. It sounds like nothing else, with a deep and complex sound that could perhaps be the lovechild between a straight-eight and a W12. The 7-speed dual clutch gearbox is competent and unobtrusive by modern standards and must have been a revelation 15 years ago. It delivers the super quick gear changes that typify DSG and left in auto mode, shifts to high gears as quickly as possible, keeping engine speeds under 2000 rpm when the driver is just pottering around. Built by Ricardo, the gearbox must be massive to handle the 1106 ft-lb of torque the Super Sport generates, a notion reinforced by the very wide transmission tunnel. Certainly the price tag is: a replacement transmission costs around $120,000.
Steering is light and it’s easy to place the car on the road, which is appreciated because it feels very wide and has virtually no rear three-quarter visibility. The ride is firmer than I was expecting, appreciably more so than say a Ferrari 458, which is demonstrative of the magical progress that modern performance cars have made in terms of balancing performance and ride quality. Or maybe all 268 mph cars are like this. The car changes direction with an eagerness I was not expecting given its 4200 pound curb weight. It feels keen and confidence-inspiring through corners, though I feel no desire to push the limits.
The centerpiece of the Veyron Super Sport experience is of course the engine. As we wind our way up toward California’s picturesque highway 280, my anticipation builds. Occasionally prodding the throttle on city streets, I can tell the car is very powerful. It probably makes more power off-boost than 90% of the cars I have driven. Excursions into and out of throttle are accompanied by a variety of noises, the most prevalent of which is the whooshing of the turbochargers, followed by the curious exhaust note. As we turn onto the highway onramp, I give the car a bootful of throttle and experience genuine boost for the first time. From the outset, the thrust is impressive, and by the time the revs climb enough that the motor is properly boosting, things have gotten very exciting. What was a fast car off-boost is explosively violent once full boost arrives. I’ve run out of clear road and am traveling considerably faster than the highway traffic once I merge.
On a subsequent onramp, I keep the throttle buried all the way to redline through a couple gears and confirm that the rate of progress the car is capable of is absolutely insane. Once I have caught my breath, I burst out laughing aloud with incredulity. The forces that the car subjects its occupants to are fantastic and are all the more visceral because of the way acceleration builds with RPM as the turbochargers spool. The accompanying noises add more drama, and the whole experience is very much old school: I suspect this is the epitome of internal combustion. The character is thoroughly different from electric cars. I think to myself, “I’m going to miss these dinosaurs when electric cars take over.”
After a few fast bursts, normal highway speeds feel hilariously slow, like a passenger could simply open the door and step out of the car while it’s still in motion. The raw competence of the car is so great that it alters reality like this. In all circumstances, the car is unflappable and the net result is awe-inspiring. Its focus on going fast never wavers. At 160 kph (100 mph), it raises the windows automatically if they are open, at 220 kph (137 mph), it automatically enters handling mode, a high downforce configuration which lowers the ride height to reduce the amount of air going under the car (and thus lift) and extends the rear spoiler to an aggressive position to increase rear axle downforce. The car is full of decisions like this: all aimed at making it as effortless and routine as possible to travel indecently fast.
As I reflect on the Veyron Super Sport, it’s this single-minded approach to going fast that most impresses me. The difference between this and a 200 mph car is stark. Cars like the Dodge Charger Hellcat and Ferrari FF are capable of transporting the occupants and their possessions at 200 mph on the way home from the grocery store with 200 pounds of dog food aboard. The packaging of the Veyron keeps it from being practical to this extent: the trunk will hold a briefcase but no more, while the interior is sufficient but not spacious, despite the car being heavy and dimensionally large. As you start to look the car over, you realize that a huge percentage of the space of the car is consumed by the sophisticated and extensive mechanical systems that allow it to go from a “mere” 200 mph car to a 268 mph car. The jump in dollars that goes with this increase in capability is similarly large.
The Veyron Super Sport is awesome in the truest sense of the word. It is a monument to the capacity for human achievement. I finally get it. No one needs it, it’s sort of pointless, and it isn’t a driver’s car like an Ariel Atom or a race car for the road like a Porsche GT3RS. It exists for the same reason that humans climbed Mount Everest, went to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, and landed on the moon: because somewhere out there, there were humans who wanted to know what was possible.
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