Next week, I'm off to northern Germany to cover Bugatti's attempt on the land speed record for a production car. The target is 250 mph and if Bugatti fails, it will suffer a huge dollop of corporate embarrassment. The Veyron, like no car before it, was built for a newspaper headline. When McLaren developed the F1, it sought engineering purity, but Bugatti focused on statistics. The car had to have 1001 bhp and reach 250 mph, or it would be deemed a failure. Bugatti thought about what it wanted to read in the press and worked backwards.
Veyron owners can rest easy that they will never be overtaken on a high-speed bowl, but do such high speed histrionics really matter? As time goes by, I'm increasingly of the opinion that the pursuit of top speed is no more than corporate willy-waving. It's as relevant to enthusiasts like you and I as a Starbucks is to the residents of Baghdad.
Regular readers of this magazine might remember that last year I drove a Brabus EV12 at 201 mph on a German autobahn. To legally travel at over three miles a minute on a public road was undeniably thrilling, but the exercise was academic. To achieve the required result, we had to get up in the middle of night, when the traffic was light. And even then, we had to take our chances with trucks that were traveling at a quarter of our speed.
At above 180 mph, the Brabus felt like it was going to tear itself apart. The wind and road noise were extreme, my vision became tunneled and the whole world started to vibrate in harmony with our velocity. We sustained 200 mph for no more than a quarter of a mile, before I leaned on the brakes and exhaled. Despite the early hour, my girlfriend insisted I call to reassure her my head was still attached to my shoulders.
Even on the unrestricted highways of Germany, it's impossible to sustain more than about 150 mph for any length of time. The forces and the fuel consumption are too great and there's always the fear that other drivers will precipitate an accident by pulling across your lane. Few people anticipate being overtaken by a car traveling at 200 mph.
This pursuit of a headline-grabbing top speed wouldn't be a problem if it didn't compromise the car. The graph of the power requirement versus speed is not linear, it's exponential. Manufacturers suffer the law of diminishing returns, which is why a 101-bhp car is capable of around 110 mph, but you need 1001 bhp to achieve 250.
Cooling a 1001-bhp car is a major engineering challenge-just ask Bugatti-and you need gargantuan brakes to scrub off the speed. The gearing needs to be unfeasibly tall, so you need lots of torque, and even the windscreen wipers must be engineered to withstand extraordinary force. You need downforce to stop the car from taking off, but this creates drag, so you need yet more power. Then you need special tires. You end up in a self-perpetuating cycle of adding more to achieve less. The Brabus weighs 4453 pounds, while the Veyron comes in at 4162 pounds. In place of lithe athletes, you end up with heavyweight sluggers-George Foreman after one grill too many. And the end product is inevitably expensive: the Brabus looks like a bargain next to the $1.2 million Bugatti, but it still costs $420,000. That's a lot of money for a Stuttgart taxi.
Contrast this with the Citron C4 rallycross car I drove last week. It had 514 bhp and weighed 2646 pounds, but it was geared to achieve no more than 125 mph. Couple this with the traction of four-wheel drive and you have one of the most thrilling cars in the world.
The C4 will sprint from 0-62 mph in a ridiculous 2.39 seconds. Through the gears, it accelerates so hard that your senses struggle to keep up. On a tight and twisty rally stage, I probably never exceeded 70 mph, but this was the most exhilarating drive I've experienced in a long time. This car was so reactive that it felt thrilling in the paddock.
The Citron was a competition car, but the lessons learned are equally applicable to the road. The ingredients of an exciting car aren't difficult to fathom: instantaneous throttle response, searing acceleration, an evocative noise and agile, responsive handling. These are qualities that are as potent at 20 mph as they are at 200, but too often they're sacrificed in the pursuit of a publicity-seeking top speed.
Lotus founder Colin Chapman understood this better than anyone, and the company remains true to his values. The Elise is one of the most exciting cars on the road, but it's capable of no more than 133 mph and costs just $42,990.
Makes you think.