I’ve never piloted the Concorde; but in early March, just before the coronavirus-fueled lockdown, I drove what may be the closest road equivalent to a luxury aircraft: the Bugatti Chiron.
At a typical starting price above $3 million, this ultra-sports car is more expensive than even some “entry-level” personal jets — and requires similar care and maintenance.
While the pandemic has caused untold economic misery, the Chiron’s target market makes it recession proof, and enthusiasm for owning one of the fastest and most expensive and exclusive production cars in the world is undimmed.
Nobody needs this car, but for those who have the means, it represents perfection.
“I own everything — a McClaren, a Pagani — and there is no comparison,” said one Bugatti enthusiast, Hezy Shaked, a businessman in Orange County, Calif.
Mr. Shaked likes the Bugatti so much, he has two; his first purchase was the predecessor Veyron model, no longer in production. He’s building a 20-car garage under his house to store them and his other luxury vehicles.
“The Bugatti is like a work of art — you want to hang it in your house,” he said. “And it’s perfect to take your wife out to dinner and the next morning go out with the guys on the track.”
Perfect, that is, if you don’t mind spending $8,000 a year for insurance, $12,000 for a set of specially designed Michelin tires and close to $20,000 for a yearly service.
“Our goal is to be the benchmark,” said Cedric Davy, Bugatti of America’s chief operating officer. “If it’s comparable, it’s no longer a Bugatti.”
It’s certainly an incomparable attention-getter. Driving a bright blue, almost $400,000 Lamborghini Huracán a few weeks earlier brought little attention to my California test drives.
In the Bugatti, even at a sedate and quiet 30 miles per hour, I became the pied piper of Santa Monica, with drivers stopping in the middle of Ocean Avenue to take pictures, pedestrians pointing and several owners of German sedans pulling alongside, daring me to race.
Fortunately for them, I declined the challenge. The Bugatti can reach a sustained speed of 261 m.p.h. and accelerate past 60 in just 2.4 seconds.
If those specs tempt you, get in line. Not more than 26 are sold in the United States each year, and last year just 82 were sold worldwide. Once 500 Chirons are built, the production run will end.
“The fact that Bugatti can sell hundreds of cars is a testament to their business sense,” said Jay Leno, who owns several classic Bugattis in his 189-car collection. “The Chiron is like a jet plane. It’s fun to take off and stop.”
The buying process is as unique as the vehicle. After ordering and paying a 50 percent deposit, you’ll be driving your old banger for at least seven months more before your completely hand-built Chiron arrives at your door with 200 miles on the odometer, having been road-tested by Bugatti engineers.
Just two demonstrator cars are kept in the United States. People deemed to be serious buyers will get a few hours behind the wheel, when one of three company representatives shows up with the vehicle in an enclosed transporter.
“Most potential buyers are thoroughly nervous to drive a car with 1,500 horsepower,” said Butch Leitzinger, a former driver for the Bentley team at Le Mans and one of three Bugatti customer representatives in the United States. “They’ve already driven 600-horsepower cars that have tried to kill them.”
After paying the $1.5 million deposit, most buyers fly to company headquarters in Molsheim, France. While being wined and dined, they’re introduced to even more options that they hadn’t considered, such as extraordinary paint treatments, or no paint at all, opting for the complete exposure of the all-carbon-fiber body, a meticulous, time-consuming option that alone costs more than many standard vehicles.
One new popular feature: the $60,000 sunroof. At superfast speeds, creating a glass-paneled roof that will stay put and airtight at racetrack speeds was an engineering challenge.
If you’re like the average schmo, you’re wondering, what makes a vehicle like the Chiron so expensive, and makes a Lambo look like a bargain? “It’s extremely complex to create a car that can go 240 miles per hour — not a racing car but a hyper GT that still lets you travel in style and comfort,” said Frank Heyl, the Chiron’s chief exterior designer.
Bugatti’s chief executive, Stephan Winkelmann, pointed to “high development costs, the best material quality and the most high-end technologies and innovations.” He added, “No other brand combines all these aspects in one single car and to this extent.”
As a supercar, the vehicle was designed around the engine. With the 16-cylinder, eight-liter powerplant in the rear, the gearbox is placed across the front, between the two passengers, to properly balance the car. To fit the gearbox, passengers are placed relatively far apart. It takes 11 radiators to cool this engine.
In this car, “all the fun happens between 40 and 120 miles per hour,” Mr. Leno said. “After that, you’re going to prison.”
I didn’t get sent up the river, but I managed to exceed the speed limit during what I was told was the full buyer’s experience. As we sedately drove up the Pacific Coast Highway, Mr. Leitzinger explained the controls and discussed the design philosophy and the vehicle’s superlatives.
Mechanical dials rather than video screens to create a timeless statement; leather sourced from blemish-free animals; the complexities in creating an all-carbon-fiber body; the crafting of a center control stack milled from a single block of aluminum that would perfectly align, expand and contract with other materials; and the difficulties in creating run-flat tires that won’t explode at more than 200 m.p.h. yet provide a quiet, smooth ride during standard freeway travel in all weather.
During a 2019 charity event in Sun Valley, Idaho, Mr. Leitzinger powered the Chiron to 253 m.p.h. on a closed, public road. “A racecar at 200 miles per hour is shaking itself to bits. The Chiron was incredibly stable at that speed,” he said. “If I hadn’t looked at the speedometer, I would have taken one hand off the wheel.”
Once we got to Mulholland Drive, I got behind the wheel. With encouragement to see what I could do, I floored it. Unfortunately, I got to only 90 m.p.h. before reaching an obscured curve. Fortunately, it was a weekday, with no police in sight.
Throughout, the Bugatti’s rear engine hummed; there was none of the raucous sound or backbreaking jostling that many supercar owners love.
The four turbochargers created a smooth windup, without any turbo “lag” when hitting the pedal. Accelerating created a seductive jet-engine-like whir; once I took my foot off the accelerator, the blowoff valves let the built-up air escape in a prolonged whoosh, akin to the sound of a buses’ air brakes.
Compared with its Veyron predecessor, the Chiron is a cinch to maintain. Only two machines in the world can change the Veyron’s tires; fortunately, one was in the United States. The Chiron’s tires can be changed by any Bugatti dealer. And Mr. Davy expects that the cost of the annual maintenance will be lower than the Veyron’s $20,000, once the Chiron’s four free years of service are over.
Wherever you live, your Chiron will be picked up and transported in a covered vehicle for its annual service. “Maintaining this vehicle is more akin to an aircraft,” Mr. Davy said. “There are lots of safety checks necessary for a car that can go 261 miles per hour.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, all the care and feeding, owners are passionate about their Bugattis. In October, Mr. Shaked transported his to Europe and joined 22 other owners as they drove in a convoy from Italy, to Monaco, to Paris, and then to the Molsheim headquarters.
The pandemic and economic pain in the world have changed the context of driving this stratospherically priced piece of perfection, however.
“To drive a Chiron during the Covid epidemic makes you look like a deposed dictator’s idiot son,” Mr. Leno said.