The Bugatti Veyron, the world's most expensive production car, is instantly recognisable.
Bugatti Veyron: brutal, breathtaking and surprisingly easy
For us motoring journalists, it's a question often asked: have you ever driven a Bugatti Veyron? And if you're able to reply in the affirmative, that's closely followed by several expletives about how fortunate you are, then another question: "What's it like?"
And it's at this point that any journalist struggles to find words appropriate to describe what it's like to be catapulted down a road while behind the wheel of the world's fastest production car. Amazing? Astonishing? Hardly ample descriptions, those, so here are a few I find more appropriate: brutal, furious, shocking, insane, breathtaking and, something most inquisitors really aren't prepared for, surprisingly easy.
The world's most expensive production car (the company only quotes the price in US dollars and, if you have to ask, it's a minimum of $2.25 million for the new Grand Sport Vitesse) is instantly recognisable, wherever you are, having been the source of many a controversy. Written off by armchair pundits and rival manufacturers as simply an exercise for the Volkswagen Group (who bought the defunct Bugatti name and factory to build the thing) to flex its mighty muscles by producing, not only the world's costliest, but also fastest, car, it is by its very nature little more than a plaything for the very wealthiest. And yet, in my previous experience with the Veyron, I can confirm it's so much more than that. It is not, contrary to the naysayers, an irrelevance.
The unveiling of the new Grand Sport Vitesse came as no surprise. We're now used to manufacturers spouting nonsense about how no further models are planned and yet they continue to emerge, with the same PR people insisting that their employers are simply reacting to customer demand. When the record-breaking Super Sport entered the ring in late 2010, Bugatti remained insistent that its drivetrain would not be shoehorned into the open-top Grand Sport. And yet, just 18 months later, the wraps were taken off it at this year's Geneva Motor Show. Is this the final variant, before Bugatti's self-imposed production run of 450 Veyrons comes to an end? I wouldn't bank on it.
Vitesse is a French word used to describe speed - more apt in this application than in any previous automobile. And, at this juncture, it's probably worth mentioning a few numbers. 1,200hp of power, 1,500Nm of torque, an engine with 16 cylinders that displace eight litres, four turbochargers, four fuel pumps, seven gear ratios, 10 radiators, a 410kph top speed and a 0-100 sprint time of 2.6 seconds.
As impressive as those figures undoubtedly are, it's perhaps worth remembering that race cars were just as powerful as this back in the early 1970s. But could you drive one to the shops? The real genius exhibited by the Veyron, however, is that Bugatti has packed all of this engineering might into a shape that has remained fundamentally unaltered since it was first sketched. And, here's the real kicker: your grandmother could get in one and drive it fast - really very fast - without any bother whatsoever. It's as easy to drive as a Nissan Tiida but don't think for a split second that it's in any way, shape or form, dull.
I'm one of the fortunate few to arrive in Spain for the first wave of media drives, and even writing those words causes a smile to creep onto my face. Because I know what you're thinking. You want my job, don't you?
Leaving the confines of the airport, I catch sight of two Bugattis, one of which I know I'll be driving in a couple of hours' time. They're both two-tone blue, and the darker hue, I discover as I walk up to them, is a tinted lacquer, through which the carbon fibre weave body panels are clearly visible. If your idea of luxury begins and ends with simply having the best that exists, you should see the way these cars are constructed - the quality of build is breathtaking.
We're ferried to our hotel, which nestles on the coast near Barcelona, and are given a briefing. Within an hour, I'm summoned and am greeted by Frenchman and former Le Mans racer, Olivier Thévenin. He is the one who showed me the ropes with the original Grand Sport back in 2009, before handing me the keys, getting out and telling me to "avv foon". That was a very good day.
As before, he takes the wheel first. We rumble our way out of the hotel grounds, with camera-toting car spotters on each side - the Veyron is a bona fide celebrity for people of every age and background. Soon enough, we reach some more conducive road space with few other motorists, and he guns it. Again, I reel with shock and utter joy at the way this thing gathers pace, but the noises generated by this monster also have to be heard to be believed. As the huge, exposed engine sucks in air, the quad-turbo wastegates expel it as soon as you lift off the throttle.
Psssshhhhhhkuh, psssssssshhhhhhhhkuh. It's like Darth Vader is breathing just millimetres behind my head with the volume turned up to 11. Time and again, when Thévenin senses the road is clear, we go through the same process and I laugh out loud at the insanity of these sensations. Then it's my turn.
I turn the key, press the big starter button in front of the gear shifter and the Vitesse thunders into life with a deep, guttural bellow that sends the wildlife scurrying for cover and alerts anyone within a few kilometres that you've just started the world's fastest, most powerful roadster.
Knock the gear lever over to the right and engage Drive. From there on you're best using the paddle shifters so you can keep both hands on the wheel at all times. You'll undoubtedly live longer that way. The dual-clutch transmission, if left in automatic mode, seamlessly shifts between ratios, keeping everything calm and civilised at low speeds, but I'm wanting to get my kicks at something other than a pedestrian rate of knots.
Before long I get my wish. The road is completely deserted - no traffic, no police, just lots and lots of straight, perfect road as far as the eye can see. I swallow hard and knock down into third. As I floor the throttle, the behemoth roars, sounding as though war has broken out, and the car utterly destroys the road. My entire body is assaulted, such is the ferocity of the acceleration. Into fourth, then fifth as the attack relentlessly continues. As I select sixth, I quickly glance at the digital speedo and see it registering 320kph.
I back off the power and hit the brakes hard, adrenalin storming through my veins. As the big stoppers bite, I feel everything inside my skeletal frame seeking a way out through my chest and, in little more than a heartbeat, the Vitesse is at a legal speed once again. This entire exercise is over almost as soon as it began - like some white-knuckle fairground ride. But as impressive as the seemingly unending pace is, this remarkable automobile remains totally and utterly composed. No lift, no stray, it just stays true to the course its driver inputs.
Any Veyron is a politically incorrect mode of transport, whichever way you look at it. Even at pedestrian speeds, it drinks super unleaded petrol at an alarming rate of 23.1 litres for every 100km covered, and it churns out 867g of that nasty CO2 for every kilometre while trundling through town. I remain unrepentant - it's not like I get to do this every day now, is it?
For a further two hours I obliterate the deserted Spanish roads but then, reluctantly, we have to head back to base. As we do so, I dwell on what an amazing privilege it has been - this day in the wilds of Spain. The experience has reaffirmed in my mind what this stunning car is all about.
It isn't about the speed, it isn't about the handling or the looks - it's the total usability of the thing. One of Bugatti's top brass earlier remarked that it's a car you can use to embarrass anything else on the road, and then drive it to the opera with your unruffled better half in the passenger seat. I can't argue with that line of reasoning. Suited to straight-line speed only, a Veyron would be properly shown up by a Ferrari or McLaren on a normal circuit and I know I'd take either over the Bugatti any day of the week if I was simply out to have fun behind the wheel. Instead, this car is a real measure of mankind's achievements and, while the 458 and its like will soon be phased out for newer, better, more exciting models, the Veyron will be written about and obsessed over for decades to come, for it's easily the finest example of automotive engineering that exists today.
The Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport Vitesse (any Veyron, as it happens) is a truly shocking car on every conceivable level and it's been a privilege to experience it. And no, you can't have my job.
Extra Special Editions
With a price tag starting at more than Dh6 million, it's perhaps unsurprising that Bugatti has resorted to producing plenty of special editions of the Veyron (in addition to the ever expanding range of "standard" cars) to keep it in the headlines and sales trickling in. To date, no fewer than 23 different special editions have been produced - some as one-offs, some available in quantities of no more than two or three, such as the "Middle East Edition" models. The strategy has worked, with wealthy collectors viewing them as prime investment material and all have been sold, with prices far higher than the normal Veyrons. Undoubtedly the most famous model, the one-off L'Or Blanc featured a stunning blue and white colour scheme that incorporated exquisite porcelain sections from Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur in Berlin, which normally makes luxurious tea sets. It was rumoured to have been bought by an Abu Dhabi collector but, after having been spotted in a Parisian street earlier this year, its Saudi plates proved otherwise.