Kevin Hackett reviews the Galibier, the four-door saloon designed to commemorate Bugatti's centenary.
Bugatti, unlike anything else
Think of a car that epitomises excess in every possible area (apart, perhaps, when it comes to luggage space) and there's really only one that springs to mind: the Bugatti Veyron. Its place in the pantheon of motoring legends is assured. It's a triumph of engineering excellence over common sense and we're unlikely to see the likes of it ever again. Or are we? Bugatti had been rumoured to be considering building a four-door car for some time now, but without any spy shots appearing on the internet and without any official comment, it was something that could well have been pure conjecture. Not any more, and The National was among just 14 of the world's media representatives to be invited to an exclusive viewing of what Bugatti is calling the 16C Galibier Concept.
Dr Franz-Josef Paefgen, the man charged by Volkswagen to manage Bentley and Bugatti, is there to greet us and he seems less than keen to divulge much in the way of information. We've been gathered together at the factory in Molsheim on the French/German border near Strasbourg and, as if the sight of a glut of Veyrons as we approached the venue wasn't enough, we're expected to ask very few questions despite being granted a private viewing of the Veyron's possible new sibling.
Dr Paefgen says this is a concept (others will be coming, too) that has been built to explore certain options for the future of a brand that many have written off as all but irrelevant in these cash-strapped times. What appears on screen initially seems to be a Bentley Continental GT on steroids. A fastback shape with unfortunate Porsche Panamera overtones and a smattering of traditional Bugatti design trademarks. I feel a palpable sense of disappointment and after less than ten minutes it's all over. But then we're ushered into a brightly lit studio next door where this very car is sitting.
Paefgen tells me it's been unveiled as a fitting finale to the company's centenary celebration ceremonies. He's clearly very proud of the Galibier - the name is taken from an Alpine pass along the Tour de France route and was used on another classic Bugatti (Type 57 variant) model - but is remaining tight-lipped about the technology that's under the car's huge body mass. Up front, there's an engine straight out of a Veyron. That means 16 cylinders in W-formation with a displacement of eight litres. However, unlike the Veyron, there aren't quad turbos to help propel this gargantuan vehicle. According to Paefgen, that wouldn't give the Galibier the character Bugatti wanted to achieve. It's supposed to be the most exclusive and luxurious four-door car anywhere, so it needs refinement and that means torque. Lots and lots of torque. And that engine is made visible by lifting a two-section bonnet that folds back from either side, nodding to classic Bugattis of old.
To give the desired GT effect, twin superchargers have been pressed into service instead of the Veyron's four turbochargers. The engine is also able to run on bioethanol as well as petrol, something that helps reaffirm the VW group's commitment to reducing its impact on the environment. Unlike most concepts, this one is a complete, running vehicle that's been built with the most impressive attention to detail I've ever seen on a show car. Fashioned from carbon fibre and polished aluminium, much of the chassis is also carbon which reduces weight and adds strength. It also ups the cost of manufacture, but considering that Bugatti has always operated in its own stratospheric part of the marketplace the cost seems somehow meaningless.
The handmade carbon fibre body panels are covered by a perfect dark blue paint that, when illuminated, beautifully shows off the material's weave. There is a very prominent crease (or spine) from nose to tail, reminiscent of the Type 57 Atlantique designed by founder Ettore Bugatti's son Jean - a car viewed by many to be one of the most elegant and beautiful in history. And, while I can't bring myself to think of the Galibier as beautiful, the effect is still mesmerising without being in the slightest bit naff.
The centre line down the rear of the car houses a vertical brake light that seems like a very neat touch, and there are a discreet couple of spoilers that rise at speed. Then there are four tailpipes either side, again in deference to the Type 57. The Galibier rides on 22-inch wheels with blue illuminated Bugatti logos in the centres and even the tyres feature the signature Galibier script on their sidewalls. Behind the massive wheels are carbon ceramic brakes (naturally) and the car utilises full-time four-wheel drive.
While I still haven't made up my mind about the exterior styling (it lacks some of the daintiness of its illustrious forebears and seems ostentatious), the interior is undoubtedly a stunning piece of work. Glancing over to the Bugatti's eagle-eyed minders, I gather that it's permissible to open the door and climb aboard for a proper inspection. Paefgen joins me in the passenger seat and explains the design. "There's simplicity here," he says. "Just look at the beauty of the dashboard, with just two centre dials displaying the essential information, not only to the driver but to all occupants. It's important for everyone to be aware of what the car is doing."
Those dials display the speed and power reserves. Tellingly, the power meter goes all the way up to a thousand horsepower as in the Veyron, hinting that it could well be, as its makers intended, the fastest, most powerful four-door saloon in the world. Continuing the theme of the exterior, the cabin is bisected by a long, curved piece of polished timber that sits atop the transmission tunnel, and everything combines to give a contemporary yet traditional look that makes a Veyron interior look a little bit low rent.
There's enough room in the rear quarters for the car's owner to feel comfortable should he or she wish to be chauffeured around, and underneath the rear hatch is a large-capacity boot housing some gorgeous bespoke leather luggage. Everything is finished in the highest quality hides, even the floor mats are woven leather. The Parmigiani clock can be removed and worn as a wristwatch, which seems a bit unnecessary but if this was my car I don't think I'd ever want to get out.
I do get out though, for fear of being forcibly removed by the other journalists wishing to take my place. Paefgen climbs into the driver's seat and starts the masterpiece of an engine, filling the room with a deep, purposeful rumble and, in a few minutes, has the Galibier reversing outside for a drive around the grounds of Bugatti's chateau. It's now that the car makes sense on a visual level. Without the constraints of four walls and a low ceiling, the Galibier looks incredible and, while it evidently doesn't photograph particularly well, all thoughts of Bentleys and Panameras are quickly banished. This thing looks and sounds incredible - quite unlike anything else out there, which of course is what a Bugatti customer rightly demands. Insiders are saying that the Galibier, if it goes into production, will share a similar price point to the Veyron and that we should expect no more that 100 cars to be built every year.
A market research programme will shortly commence and this car will visit a handful of key Bugatti territories over the coming months (including the UAE) to accurately gauge interest levels. The Veyron commanded respect for its uncompromising engineering and that alone was enough for some wealthy enthusiasts to buy one. You can't heap the same praise onto the Galibier's enormous head because it hasn't had to overcome the physical constraints of a supercar's dimensions. But it's definitely one of a kind and, for some, nothing else matters. firstname.lastname@example.org