There are good days and there are really good days. Then there's the day you manage to talk yourself into an unexpected drive of the Bugatti Chiron.
Even before finding myself sitting in front of a 1,500hp W16 things were going well. I was part of a small group of journos invited to visit the old Bugatti factory at Campogalliano near Modena. This is the plant that was purpose built to construct the EB110 when Romano Artioli relaunched the brand in 1990. And which was shuttered just five years later when the company collapsed.
These days it’s a spectacular bit of ruin porn, vandals kept at bay by a very dedicated caretaker, and although it doesn't have any official connection to modern-era Bugatti, the fact we were taken there is a broad hint at a future model making reference to this era of the brand's past. But I’ve signed an NDA so can’t say anything about that.
There was also a Chiron, brought for photography and in the care of regular Bugatti test driver Andy Wallace, 1988 Le Mans winner and about the nicest bloke to ever pull on a set of flameproof overalls. If you buy a Chiron then you get a day with Wallace to introduce you to what it’s capable of. But with no VVIPs demanding his attention we start to chat and try to find some shade in which to avoid the 40-degree heat. I suggest we sit in the Chiron and take advantage of its air conditioning.
“Have you had a go in one?” asks Wallace. I admit I haven’t. “Well let’s go for a drive, then.”
So thanks to the heatwave, I get to experience the most powerful car in the world. Obviously this was a brief spin rather than a full fang. The horses did get exercised but the whole drive took 20 minutes and was on the busy roads within a few kilometres of the old factory. Still special, though.
Wallace has done this hundreds of times before. He's been working for Bugatti alongside various other gigs for years and reckons he has covered 100,000 miles in Chirons. He drives first, at a sedate pace while he explains the basics and gives a run-down on what the local roads are like. Working for Bugatti has given him near-supernatural powers when it comes to spotting speed cameras and traps. He admits he has also become adept at negotiating with police officers over the years. I hope that won’t be necessary today.
The cabin isn’t quite what I’m expecting. The car is the lighter and more dynamic Chiron Sport, with lots of carbon trim in place of the copious leather I remember from a similarly brief drive in a Veyron. I’m sure buyers could opt to have it trimmed in something plusher if they wanted to – the average options spend on a Chiron is more than a quarter of a million quid – but it doesn’t feel quite as Flavio Briatore as I’m expecting. It is more spacious than I remember the Veyron being, and more civilised too.
At urban speeds the ride feels pliant and Wallace and I can talk without raising our voices, the W16 wuffling unobtrusively in the background. It certainly doesn’t feel like something with twice the firepower of a McLaren 720S.
This is all part of the show, of course. Wallace finds a road with enough space and good enough sight lines for a demonstration of what the Chiron can do – he even waves a couple of locals past to create a gap; they’ll be telling everyone they overtook a Bugatti later. Eventually there is a few hundred metres of space and nothing coming the other way; Wallace shifts down to first using the steering wheel paddles and stamps on the throttle.
The experience is over so quickly it has to be unpicked later. The engine is suddenly loud and angry and I’m pressed hard against the passenger seat. For the first second or so it’s not outside the frame of reference; subjectively two and a half seconds to 60mph feels similarly brutal to the four seconds of something like a launch-controlled Audi RS3. On Tesla’s numbers a Model S in Ludicrous mode is just as fast, and less than a twenty-fifth of the price.
But you don’t buy a Chiron to stop at 60 and, beyond that, reality tilts. The rate of acceleration doesn’t slow down as the speed piles on, at all. Indeed, it feels like it is starting to pull more quickly. Within a few seconds Wallace’s carefully cultivated gap has disappeared, a truck has done that come-from-nowhere cliché (in reality it has just been rumbling along at 80km/h) and we’re hard on the brakes. We pull into a lay-by and it’s my turn.
I opt to follow his start-gently approach. The view from the driver’s seat is more special than the passenger side, although it’s a surprise to realise the Chiron still uses a conventional speedo rather than a digital display. Gentle progress is effortless, the twin-clutch box shifting like a torque converter, control weights good and visibility better than I remember it being in the Veyron; there’s certainly a better idea of where the edges of the car are.
The novelty of rumbling quickly wears off and I’m soon pushing harder on the throttle. Not the Wallace Stamp – I will save that for later – but building a sense of how the quad-turbocharged engine responds at low revs. There is some lag – it would be remarkable for an engine with nearly 200hp/litre not to have any – but it’s remarkably little considering the size of the turbochargers, with power coming in over half a second or so. Lifting off produces a brief gasp from the wastegate and then it’s back to rumbling.
A bigger gap gives the chance to press harder. Even at half-throttle it feels supercar fast, pushing further increases the volume from the engine and the G-loadings, but the Chiron doesn’t feel savage. It’s absolutely hooked up, the electronics might be working hard beneath the surface but there’s no sense of drama.
“That’s the biggest difference over the Veyron,” reckons Wallace. “That was struggling to get 1,200hp down, the Chiron never feels loose.”
He switches the readouts on the central panel to report peak speed, engine revs and power – and reports that I’ve not actually broken into four figures yet. Shameful. It’s time to look for a bigger gap.
There’s a chance to play with a few other controls, too. The dynamic mode has been in EB, which leaves it to make its own decisions, but turning to Sport puts a noticeable edge on the adaptive dampers, it also activates torque vectoring, which the regular Chiron doesn’t have, and which can’t be felt working at a gentle pace on an Italian B-Road (Autobahn and Top Speed modes will have to wait for another day). The steering has a nice weight to it and responses are delivered cleanly and quickly, but even at a canter there’s no doubting the Chiron is bigger and heavier than a true sportscar.
But that’s not what it is about, of course. This is a machine designed to go exceptionally fast. We’re most of the way back to the factory when the Chiron finds itself surrounded by space. There’s a white van behind and most of a kilometre of straight road ahead, and Wallace promises there aren’t any speed cameras lurking. I follow his lead and downshift to first at around 30km/h, count backwards from three and stamp. The sensation of acceleration is more exciting from the driver’s seat, the sense of being in command of something utterly unique. But it doesn’t feel any harder from this side of the car as the scenery turns blurry. And after a few short seconds it’s time to brake back into the real world. I didn’t look at the speedometer – honestly officer – but a glance in the mirror shows that the white van has become a tiny spec.
Wallace also reports the tell-tale is showing I’ve experienced the full 1,500hp – for a couple of seconds, at least.
At the old factory there’s a final challenge. There’s been some Italian parking around the Chiron’s designated space and some nifty manoeuvring is going to be necessary to slot it back in. I get ready to relinquish the seat to Wallace, not wanting to risk grinding a wheel or dinging ten grand's-worth of paint off a bumper. He gives me a withering look: “you have reverse parked before, haven’t you?”
So I do, into a gap that’s only three or four feet longer than the car is, and – although there’s a bit of back-and-forth – it’s as easy as it would be in a supermini. That’s a huge part of the Chiron’s appeal, the world’s fastest car can accelerate like a dragster yet be wheedled into gaps like a Nissan Micra. It can trundle around town without complaint or re-arrange your internal organs with enormous G-forces. It’s hugely exciting, yet it doesn’t require any particular skill to operate. Oh, and it also has excellent air conditioning.
SPECIFICATION - BUGATTI CHIRON SPORT
Engine: 7,993cc W16, quad-turbocharged
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch, all-wheel drive
Torque: 1,180lb ft@2,000rpm
0-62mph: 2.6 secs
Top speed: 261mph (limited)
CO2: 516 g/km