"It's a lot to take in all at once," I explain to my co-driver, former Le Mans Prototype racer Butch Leitzinger as I gazed around the cabin in quiet wonder. Leitzinger is now one of Bugatti's resident wheelmen, and those duties include introducing wide-eyed folks like me to the world of modern French hypercars. I'm grateful for the tutelage.
A few minutes before we set off, I sat down with a colleague of mine who'd just come back from his own experience with the Chiron. He asked if I was anxious about driving the Bugatti around in Los Angeles. I told him that as long as I didn't really think about the figures involved, I wasn't really concerned.
Truth is, when you drive supercars like the Lamborghini Aventador SVJ and McLaren 720S on a fairly regular basis, it's actually possible to become accustomed to obscene levels of performance and the astonishing price tags it can command. So what's the difference between a mid-engined performance coupe that's $400,000 and another one that costs three million?
A whole hell of a lot, as it turns out.
The Chiron makes it easy to elicit shock and awe with numbers. Sixteen cylinders. Four turbos. 1,500 horsepower. 0-60 in less than 2.4 seconds. An electronically limited top speed of 261 miles per hour. But while the numbers can set expectations, they ignore the elements that are more difficult to quantify, and more often than not, those intangibles truly define the experience. Would that be the case with the Bugatti Chiron—the fastest, most powerful production automobile in the history of motoring? With a few hours at my disposal in the Malibu hills and Leitzinger along for the ride, I intended to find out.
UPPING THE ANTE
It might be tempting to think of the Chiron as a merely refreshed iteration of the Veyron that debuted back in 2005, but it is not. Named after Monegasque racing driver Louis Alexandre Chiron, the Bugatti's latest performance machine is built around an all-new carbon fiber monocoque with a torsional stiffness similar to that of the single-seaters that Leitzinger piloted around Circuit de la Sarthe.
Attached to the new monocoque is a newly developed adaptive chassis, with the ride height, suspension stiffness, stability control, steering behavior, active aero positioning, and powertrain characteristics tied to five selectable drive modes: Lift, EB, Autobahn, Handling, and Top Speed.
Motivation comes from an 8.0-liter W16 that shares its basic architecture with the Veyron, but with substantial changes to provide the additional grunt. Although the air intake, cooling, and exhaust systems have all been optimized for greater output while minimizing weight, the real star here is Bugatti's new two-stage turbocharging system, which includes turbos that are 69 percent larger than those found in the Veyron. Designed to minimize turbo lag and provide linear power delivery, only two of the Chiron's four turbos are active between idle and 3,800 rpm, after which the other two join in on the fun.
Power is sent to all four wheels through a Ricardo seven-speed DSG gearbox that features the largest clutch ever designed for a passenger car. With nearly 1,200 lbs-ft. of torque available between 2,000 and 6,000 rpm, the Chiron undoubtedly needs it.
Although the Chiron's visual aesthetic draws from its predecessor, it does so with a more sculpted approach that's said to have taken inspiration from the legendary Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic. The "C-bar" that wraps around the sides of the Chiron is one of the car's defining elements, a feature that also finds its way into the cabin as a fin between the driver and passenger that's reminiscent of the central seam found on the Atlantic.
Along with an array of passive aero elements, the Chiron also employs a host of active aero features to either provide downforce or reduce drag, depending on the driving context. Out back, a rear wing that's 39 percent wider than the one fitted to the Veyron operates in four distinct modes—completely retracted, slightly extended (used in Top Speed mode), completely extended (used in the Handling and Autobahn modes), and also tilted forwards to serve as an air brake.
Like its predecessor, the Chiron is a tour-de-force of masterful engineering, the likes of which could fill volumes. But suffice to say, this is not simply a gussied-up Veyron. This is a vehicle that was purpose-built to raise the bar even higher—not just for performance, but in all aspects of the driving experience.
BEHIND THE WHEEL
"OK, your turn," Butch says to me as we head inland from Pacific Coast Highway. After swapping seats and getting situated, I press the ignition button on the steering wheel and the W16 comes to life with an authoritive rumble. I click the shifter to the right to put the car in gear, check my mirrors, and we're away.
After a few minutes I'm feeling comfortable enough to open up the taps a bit. I switch over to the paddles, bring the car to full attention with a few downshifts, and as I come out of a slow corner, I give it about one-third of full throttle. Turns out that's all it takes to pin Butch and myself to our seats as the world becomes a blur around us. In what seems like a split-second, I'm hard on the brakes again for the next corner, a fairly lengthy straight devoured in the blink of an eye. I can't help but giggle.
"You may want to put the windows down," he suggests. Sure, why not? And while I'm at it, we might as well switch over to Autobahn driving mode, which extends the rear wing, sets up the dampers for high-speed stability, adds some on-center steering weight, and lowers the front end of the car eight-tenths of an inch.
As we approach the next stretch of tarmac between corners, I'm feeling a bit braver. Wheel straightened out, I put the throttle to the floor. Intake noise and the W16 snarl from the Chiron's titanium exhaust system become all-encompassing almost instantaneously, and it's accompanied by thrust unlike anything I've ever felt outside of a GRC race car. It feels endless. It's acceleration on another level, and it's made all the more remarkable by the utter lack of drama. The car simply puts the power down and surges forward like nothing else on the road.
As I set up for the next corner and get ready to summon the Chiron's massive carbon ceramic stoppers, the rationale behind Butch's suggestion becomes clear as the wastegates belt out a loud whoosh. Bugatti wasn't afraid to give this thing some personality.
But it's not a one-trick pony. The Chiron is perfectly happy to live in the twisties as well, due in part to the ostensibly lag-free power delivery as well as the specially developed Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber it wears. It's a wide car—even wider than the Veyron—and I never lose sight of that, but it feels planted and predictable. Handling mode takes things a step further, sending more power to the rear end while also stiffening the dampers and beefing up the downforce provided by the rear wing, but it's a bit much on these less-than-perfect Malibu roads, and it already feels as though I've brought a ballistic missile to a knife fight.
As we descend back down to Pacific Coast Highway, I dial the drive mode over to EB, the Chiron's "normal" setting. With the double-pane windows up and the suspension softened, it's flat-out serene. And yet at every stoplight we come across, I can't help but drop the hammer when the signal turns green. The Chiron is happy to indulge me. "Maybe you could warn me next time," Butch says with a smile after suddenly being pinned to the seat as we rocket down the coast, cocooned in ultra-luxury accoutrements and propelled by the pinnacle of road car performance technology.
It's that juxtaposition which illustrates the brilliance of the Chiron. While the numbers demand your attention, this is not a car that was purpose-built to achieve a performance metric. Instead, what Bugatti has created is the most incredible grand touring coupe ever produced. It also just happens to be obscenely, wonderfully fast. The bar has indeed been set even higher now, and I can't help but admire them for that.