It's nearly impossible to secure seat time in a Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Grand Sport. Not only are they hard to find (production volume in the low hundreds makes the supercar as rare as active members of the Right Said Fred fan club), but the $2 million sticker price dissuades most owners from handing over their sacred keys. When an opportunity to drive one of the world's fastest vehicles does present itself, it is most often a short jaunt on a restricted route, as each mile on the odometer is understandably very precious.
But some of us do win the lottery.
As luck would have it, Bugatti North America was entering a factory-supported vehicle in the Goldrush Rally. The cross-country jaunt would be following a discontinuous route from Beverly Hills to Miami and the automaker was looking for someone to drive the first long leg. With a solemn poker face hiding my giddiness, I accepted the invite.
One expects a supercar experience and the sensationalized bloody fast acceleration – the Veyron delivered both – but I didn't realize the Bugatti would reveal so much more about its true personality during my extended date.
The Goldrush Rally, like most events of its type, isn't really a "rally" in the literal sense of the competition. Stripped free of the sugar coating, it is nothing more than an excuse for affluent owners of high-end vehicles to congregate, drive fast and party with scantily clad females at multiple venues across the country. Whether you agree with the attention-hoarding spectacles or not, the events are actually a great deal of fun, and it's important to note that the Goldrush Rally raised money for the Taylor Lynn Foundation this year.
The day before the event I drove down to Bugatti Beverly Hills to check out the Veyron and meet Robert Franklin "Butch" Leitzinger. Butch is a Bugatti factory "pilot" and three-time Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona winner. As Veyrons typically go out on a short leash and with a chaperone, Butch would be my instructor, and my co-pilot, for the entire journey.
I asked about luggage capacity as I needed to bring some gear. "None" was the quick answer.
After a quick introductory walk-around, I asked about luggage capacity as I needed to bring some gear. "None" was the quick answer, as the roadster's small front compartment would be completely occupied by its soft temporary "umbrella" top. Anything I chose to bring on the trip would be relegated to the passenger cabin – crammed into the thin space behind the passenger seat or in the passenger's footwell. During our preflight check, the two of us also unanimously decided to leave the heavily tinted glass roof in place. There is no place to store it within the Veyron once removed and our plotted drive route was sending us directly through the scorching desert in the middle of summer. Formalities settled, we agreed to meet at 7:00 AM the next day, for the start of the rally.
(Rather than saturate you with Goldrush Rally tidbits about a parade of Bugatti, McLaren, Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche exotica flaunting with a police escort through the streets of Beverly Hills with a helicopter filming from overhead - head over to the official Goldrush Rally website for that promotion or check out the video one of our readers shot – my story picks up in San Marcos, just west of Interstate 15, when Butch handed me the Veyron's leather and aluminum switchblade key and I jumped into the driver's seat. The main pack of exotics, by this time, had blasted far ahead.)
With the rather garish pomp and circumstance of our departure out of Beverly Hills and a relatively empty Interstate 405 behind us, we pulled into a gas station for fuel and to switch seating positions. I'd be lying if I told you I hadn't been waiting more than six years for this bucket list opportunity.
Doors shut and seat belt pulled snug tight, I ran through the firing sequence in my mind (insert and turn key to initiate power, press foot brake and then press start button) to bring the 8.0-liter W16 to life. There was a momentary pause after the key was twisted, followed by a whirling noise and then the engine spun over. The idle was 16-cylinder smooth, of course, but the noise was unique. From inside the cabin with the glass roof in place, there was almost no exhaust note. Most of the clamor, other than the wind blowing through the vents from the automatic single-zone air conditioner, was from the electric motors, pumps and fans keeping the various accessories and components cool and viable (the driver gets a quick sense that there is a boatload of stuff going on behind the scenes).
Revelation number one was that the Veyron is a nightmare to maneuver through a parking lot.
Revelation number one is that the Veyron is a nightmare to maneuver through a parking lot. Massively thick A-pillars, and even the exterior mirror housings themselves, blocked the view to each forward quarter. The view outward to the rear, essentially everything behind the driver's ear, is also fractionally above non-existent. While the Veyron doesn't seem to have any issue going 250 mph in a forward direction, 2.5 mph in reverse is a serious challenge.
Eventually free of the parking lot (thanks to a helpful spotter standing outside the vehicle), it was time to get intimate with the quad-turbo W16.
Hung just aft of the Grand Sport's carbon-fiber passenger cell, mid-mounted in the monocoque chassis, is an 8.0-liter 64-valve 16-cylinder engine fitted with four turbochargers. On good gas (say 93 octane or better), it is rated at 1,001 horsepower and 922 pound-feet of torque. The 880-pound W16 is mated to a sturdy twin-clutch seven-speed automatic gearbox sending power to all four wheels (the torque split is variable, but it mostly maintains a 40:60 rear bias). Despite a curb weight of 4,162 pounds, Bugatti's Grand Sport is capable of blasting to 60 mph in about 2.5 seconds with the help of launch control. As just about everyone who has ever read about it knows, it will accelerate until it runs out of steam at a blistering 253 miles per hour.
Revelation number two is that the Veyron has noticeable turbo lag. I expected tire-shredding power with an inch of accelerator travel, but that was not the case at all. Punching the aluminum pedal was followed by a slight delay and a whooshing sound as air was sucked loudly into the intakes just aft of the passenger compartment. Then, like a heavy Boeing 777 modulating its throttle at taxi, the overwhelming thrust hit and the machine surged forward. Mind you, the whole lag/thrust process happens in a horizontal distance of about eight feet – nobody, short of an AMS Alpha 12 GT-R, is likely to beat a Veyron to the other side of the intersection.
Revelation number two was that the Veyron has noticeable turbo lag.
Heading towards the highway, and still getting used to the throttle (plowing into the bumper of a lagging Toyota Camry wasn't part of the driving agreement), Butch explained that there are three ways to drive the Veyron, and each delivers a very unique experience.
In the default mode, the driver simply releases the electric parking brake (to the driver's left, affixed to the sill next to the floor) and nudges the transmission shifter to the right into Drive ("D"). In this mode, the gearbox automatically seeks the highest possible gear to maximize efficiency. Acceleration is unreasonably strong, but there is a slight delay when calling for a punch of power while the DSG drops several gears and the engine builds boost.
For a very drastic change in pace, the operator pushes the shifter to the right once again and the gearbox enters Sport ("S") mode. Immediately, and without even the slightest hesitation, the transmission shifts to the highest gear just short of sending the engine into redline - if the Veyron were a machine gun, this would be considered "full-auto" mode as everything in front of it is effortlessly annihilated. Boost is immediate, and a slight press of the accelerator smashes occupants firmly into their seats leaving nothing but an impression of their spine in the thin cushion. If the instantaneous reaction from the gearbox doesn't alarm cabin occupants, then the ensuing intake and exhaust roar from the W16 engine will (I still have vivid dreams about it).
By far the most enjoyable way to drive the Veyron, especially from an enthusiast's perspective, is with the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The little metal tabs seemed to be electronically connected to the brain as their actuation delivered near-instant response from the gearbox. The DSG unit (a twin clutch design built by Ricardo with two wet-running multi-disc clutches) snapped off commanded shifts, both up and down, impeccably. There was no delay, no shudder, no slamming - just silky smooth solid-rocket-motor acceleration when requested. Porsche's PDK is an industry benchmark, but the DSG in the Veyron is every bit as good.
I pointed the Bugatti eastward on California State Route 78 and left the city behind. Traffic lightened then and the two-lane road opened up. Obeying posted speed limits was nearly impossible. Like a kindergartener toying with the controls of an electric slot car, the Veyron doubled its speed each time I playfully goosed the throttle. Even with my GPS-enabled Passport 9500i radar detector suctioned to the windshield (mounted oddly, as the 12-volt accessory plug is down low by the driver's left thigh), I was driving paranoid and feeling vulnerable. A Veyron on the open highway is about as discreet as a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird flying in the airspace over New York City.
Revelation number three is that the cabin of the most technically advanced pure-combustion vehicle ever designed is far from serene. Regardless of its cost-was-no-concern materials or impeccable craftsmanship, the smooth womb of the Veyron is acoustically reflective. With buttery high-grade leather, artfully polished aluminum and a tinted glass top overhead, sound enters the cabin and bounces everywhere without being absorbed. The massive Michelin tires at each corner produce a monstrous drone when the road surface turns coarse – on some surfaces, it was like riding inside a bass drum - then mix in the gnarl of the intake and the booming three-outlet exhaust. Butch and I were having good conversation (the guy is a superstar), but I noted we were nearly yelling at each other.
There are five round analog gauges on the primary instrument cluster, but after an hour or two it was apparent that only three are actually useful to the driver. This particular vehicle was European-spec, meaning everything was metric (keen observers will note the lack of US-required orange reflectors on the front corners). It didn't matter to me, as the speedometer was too small to read at a glance and the temperature gauge never moved a hair once it warmed up. The tachometer was mildly helpful, but not nearly as much as the power gauge or the fuel gauge - both seem to work hand-in-hand. As it turned out, keeping an eye on the Bugatti's fuel flow is job one. When the power gauge is on the right side of the dial, indicating punch-drunk levels of horsepower, the W16 is chugging unleaded faster than a college student slurping on a beer bong (my rough calculation says about 1 gallon of fuel is burned every 30 seconds at full throttle).
The Veyron's suspension is adjustable for ride height (it's at its lowest when the rear splitter is raised), but damping is fixed. The result is a firm ride, a characteristic that is magnified by the four custom-made Michelin PAX zero-pressure tires. Super wide and R-compound sticky (265 mm up front and 365 mm in the rear with an 80 UTQG treadwear rating), they act like steamrollers impacting every bump, crack and dead bumblebee on the road. Road feel is a strength.
By this point, the other participants in the organized event were far and few between. We followed the agreed route, but rarely caught glimpses of the others (we were in no rush, knowing perfectly well that Butch would catch up with them at a party in Scottsdale later in the evening).
Route 78 heads through its fair share of canyons, and the Veyron attacked everything with the confidence of a Hot Wheels car sliding down its railed orange track. Despite its two-plus-ton curb weight, the Bugatti maneuvered with a grace that was completely unexpected – it drives light. The hydraulic-based steering was accurate and precise, and there was no throttle kickback or torque steer noted. My only concern, while driving zig-zag in a $2-million vehicle, was its width. It is so wide that a pile of broken rocks on the right side of the lane meant moving over the solid line in the middle of the road – not something anyone is ever comfortable with.
We then stopped for fuel, again.
Revelation number four is that the Veyron is still an A-list celebrity.
Revelation number four is that the Veyron is still an A-list celebrity. Butch and I pulled into a nearly vacant gas station, locked the car and went inside for a cold soft drink (this was before I realized that there are no cup holders in the Bugatti, so anything I purchased would have to be downed before climbing back into the cabin). A moment later we stepped outside and a crowd had materialized, strangers mesmerized by the unfamiliar glimmering silver coupe in their small town. The fueling stop took a full 30 minutes. Twenty-five of it was just showing off the car.
Crossing the Anza-Borrego Desert, west of the Salton Sea, I took advantage of the open roads. It goes without saying that passing required very little real estate, but it did take some practice to ensure the DSG was in the proper gear for instant thrust. The process was simplified with a few paddle-actuated downshifts before stabbing the accelerator and feeling the unearlthy surge of power. That completed, removing slow cars from the front windshield was swifter than punching 'delete' on a keyboard.
The military uses the term "supercruise" to describe sustained flight faster than the speed of sound – the Veyron's equivalent, meaning the speed at which the engine is spinning without turbo boost, felt to be about 100-120 mph. At that speed, the roadster is running fast, mostly efficient and completely effortless. Cruising faster was a no-brainer, but it caused the fuel gauge to unwind at an alarming rate (especially with those passing bursts). Bugatti has calibrated the little dial in easy-to-read liters, with 100 liters (about 26.4 gallons) registering as full. I was light on the throttle for 30 minutes of high speed cruising and the needle barely moved. One half-hour later, when blasting by a dozen slower cars on a two-lane road, the needle had plummeted to half a tank. As I neared the Arizona border in Blythe, the fuel gauge registered just 20 liters (less than 1/4 tank) and I found myself nervously hypermiling in a 16-cylinder supercar and feeling rather silly.
We again filled the 26.4 gallon tank with premium unleaded.
Revelation number five was that driving a million-dollar Bugatti on public roads is damn exhausting.
Revelation number five was that driving a million-dollar Bugatti on public roads is damn exhausting. By this point, I had been behind the wheel for eight hours on secondary roads and I was drained. It's a no-brainer driving a high-volume production vehicle as all one has to do is keep the tires between the stripes. The Veyron, on the other hand, required vigilant attention. Not only was law enforcement a constant threat, but it seemed that everyone within eyesight of the supercar was trying to get a closer look. Other vehicles darted and weaved dangerously to run parallel with us, and then drivers took both hands off the wheel to steady their cameras – this happened more than once! At first it was amusing, and then it became unnerving. My stress level rose exponentially.
By late afternoon, with Arizona's warm sun in my rearview mirror (about the only thing I could see rearward), I had finally become perfectly comfortable driving the Veyron. Leaving the smaller roads, I was looking forward to the final non-stop blast from Blythe to Phoenix on multi-lane Interstate 10. As fortune would have it, a major cross-country artery during the summer means traffic (and intermittent construction). While it seemed that everyone was moving at a constant 70-80 mph (all within legal limits in the Wild West), the roads were too congested for the Veyron's "supercruise," so I put the DSG into "D" and settled into the comfortable seat for the duration.
Butch and I spent the next couple hours driving east towards Phoenix at a disappointingly sedate highway cruise waving to gawkers, smiling for pictures and avoiding construction-related potholes (each hole caused a discerningly loud crash when the Veyron dropped into them). Stuck in a cluster of traffic, the Veyron was the star attraction in its impromptu one-car parade. We raised and lowered the huge rear spoiler, waving at our audience like Shamu in a Sea World show.
Revelation number six was the crushing realization that the world will never see another vehicle quite like this.
By the time we arrived at Phoenix International Airport, about sunset, the odometer had added 479 miles to its count. The Bugatti had consumed fuel at an alarming rate, which was to be expected with an engine capable of roughly 1,000 horsepower, but it had also performed flawlessly over the past twelve hours of travel. It had been a long day, but I was still craving for more seat time. Butch left me on the curb, with my camera bag slung over my shoulder, and headed to the hotel. Rather deflated, I snapped one last shot of the departing silver coupe.
Revelation number six was the crushing realization that the world will never see another vehicle quite like this.
Piloting a Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport across the Southwest was a fantastic opportunity, one that falls into that short list of events that I will never forget (as a car enthusiast, I had been daydreaming about driving the Veyron from the moment its design study, the "Bugatti Veyron EB 18.4," was introduced at the 1999 Tokyo Motor Show). The driving experience was extraordinary, even with the acknowledgement that I barely had an opportunity to push its performance envelope on public roads. How many other vehicles, after seven years of production, still own their performance category? Its capabilities are unquestionably herculean.
How many other vehicles, after seven years of production, still own their performance category?
Decades from now, when electric, hybrid and alternative power vehicles rule the road, this masterful machine will be remembered as the pinnacle of twenty-first century combustion automobile engineering. Future automobiles will offer better performance, but they will always fall short of this supercar's cylinder count, insatiable appetite for petrol and explosive raw horsepower (and, as my 13-year-old son Patrick reminds me, the Grand Sport isn't even Bugatti's fastest model).
There are nearly seven billion people on this plant. With the same sentiment as an astronaut returning from an awe-inspiring orbit around the earth, it's a shame that so few will ever be able to experience the astonishing machine that is the Bugatti Veyron.