Ettore Bugatti – aka Le Patron – used to ride his horse alongside the production line in Molsheim, Alsace, his exacting gaze sizing up everything from beneath the brim of his bowler hat. But then Ettore always did have a finely-crafted sense of the ridiculous; from his fantabulous Royale model, to boats, planes, trains and furniture. Did I mention furniture? Oh wait, that was his dad, Carlo.
Anyway, given the prodigious oeuvre and idiosyncrasies of Le Patron, the idea of a £2.5 million, 261mph supercar seems not (quite) so daft. Plenty of today's designers have egos enough to imagine they control all they survey, but Ettore really did. He studied at the Academy of Art at Brera in Italy, which left its mark on everything he produced; superlative design as the key to great engineering.
That such an approach could be even considered today is symptomatic of Volkswagen under the command of Ferdinand Piech, who acquired Bugatti from Romano Artioli in 1998, reasoning that building the world's best and fastest automobiles would set technical goals just as head-scratching as whizzing round a race circuit summer Sundays – Bugatti was to become the VW Group's Formula One.
After a trio of concepts – the 1998 Giugiaro-designed W18 EB118; the 1999 EB218; and the 18/3 Chiron, in 2005 it produced the 253mph, €1 million Veyron. This was superlative engineering worthy of any race track, if not absolutely the finest thing to drive.
Two years ago, the last Veyron Grand Sport Vitesse was produced and the Chiron is its replacement. Named after Louis Chiron, the oldest-ever grand-prix driver, Bugatti's habit of naming its cars after famous former drivers must surely eventually result in the Bugatti Williams after Grover-Williams, winner of the first-ever Monaco GP?
Since work on the Chiron predated the diesel emissions scandal, it's possible to consider that VW wouldn't have made the decision to embark on a €1 billion hypercar project in more recent times. We'll never know. But with a production ceiling of 500 (50 more than the total Veyrons produced), Bugatti reckons it'll make money on the Chiron not least because owners will splurge an average £250,000 in extras on their cars – and there are already 250 names on top of the build sheets.
Under the carbon-fibre skin is a technical tour de force, some of which might one day influence the cars you and I drive, though I doubt the voided carbon-fibre suspensions turrets, reinforced internally with aerospace-type metals will make it into mass production, or for that matter, a carbon-fibre racing-car-stiff tub, which is assembled around the engine with just ten Titanium bolts.
Oh that engine. While still an eight-litre W16 quad turbo unit (yep, that’s 16 cylinders arranged in two offset banks of eight cylinders) attached to a seven-speed, twin-clutch transmission driving all four wheels via Haldex clutches, the effort of extracting over 50 per cent more out of it than when it resided in the Veyron has resulted in the replacement of almost every single part including the engine block, gearbox and clutches.
It’s practically pornographic. From the sculpted con rods capable of handling 50 per cent more power but no heavier, to a gorgeous carbon-fibre inlet manifold, which allows for the twin fuel injectors per cylinder. The four turbos half as big again and now deployed sequentially, the second set puffing in at 3,800rpm and all controlled by a wonderfully expensive investment-casting of the nickel-chrome alloy Inconel 713C, normally used for jet-engine turbine blades.
There's also a new form of honeycomb-filled carbon-fibre composite for the floors and the AP racing brake callipers are organically cast to save weight and increase surface area for cooling.
The Veyron's exorbitant Michelin PAX tyres have been replaced by slightly more conventional Michelin covers; 285/30/20 fronts and 355/25-21 rears. The aerodynamics are tweaked with a flat floor and ducting plates, which pull cool air over the carbo-ceramic discs and draft it out of the wheel arches. Flaps forward of the front wheels increase downforce and there's a rear wing as big as a scaffold plank, which has four different positions depending on which mode is selected and also doubles as an airbrake at speeds above 120mph.
Speed is an addiction, which has occupied the minds and bank balances of men for centuries. Like mountain climbing, going faster is its own reward and while the Chiron's electronically limited maximum of 261mph is impressively more than half the cruising air speed of the Airbus A320 which I took to meet the car, it's also slightly disingenuous, since Bugatti hasn't yet fully tested an unrestricted Chiron.
When it does drag this two-tonne behemoth to VW's Ehra-Lessien test track next year, it's the Michelin tyres that will be the limiting factor. Insiders think that the engine could easily transport the Chiron to almost 300mph, and Michelin has tested its tyres to over 279mph on aircraft rigs in the USA. So what does test driver, Andy Wallace, multiple Le Mans winner and sports-car racing virtuoso think?
"The big problem with Erha-Lessien is getting back on that dog leg [track], with sufficient speed," he says. "Then you'd be running against the way the Tarmac has been pressed and moulded down. That might heat the tyres too much.
"Michelin is looking for a consistent series of tyres popping around a given speed, which will give us some data, beyond which we wouldn't go. A rear tyre going would be drama, but a burst front would mean the car flies; I've done that before and don't want to again. Perhaps I'll be away on that day..."
What does it feel like, this phantasmagorical car? It's hard to describe something that few have ever experienced? Fairground rides have it, but not for long. Superbikes have it, but you are angled into the acceleration. My lunch was cheese and biscuits.
"I just want to show you the acceleration," says Wallace.
He floors it and there's perhaps half a second's pause before 1,471bhp squirms Michelins and I'm pinned to the seat back like a butterfly mounted on a board, my stomach left somewhere near Lisbon. Sixty, seventy, 100, 150 and 190mph all within 14 seconds, while I'm trapped in accelerative amber, fixed grimace and green of gills. Wallace grins: "amazing isn't it?" he says.
Not that the Chiron, is some sort of rocket-powered Trump Towers. First impressions are of a slimmed down, simplified and less tarty interior than the Veyron. You can choose from a broad palette of colours and materials, including some rather lovely coloured carbon-fibre weaves, but the grey carbon and black leather gives a better background for a clever mix of repurposed Audi TT switches and a multi-switch festooned steering wheel.
For something costing £2.5 mil, it's surprisingly simple, the seats adjust electronically, but the steering adjustment is manual. There's a lot you don't see of course, the diamonds holding the speaker diaphragms, or the especially thin leather, or the rear-lamp carrier machined out of a single billet, which runs across the car.
The seats are comfortable, but wide enough to accommodate most billionaire's posteriors. There's some storage, but not much (you'll get one airline carry on under the bonnet) and you can see precisely nothing in the rear-view mirror past that enormous wing. It's all immaculately put together of course.
The engine is menacingly muted, with its rumbly, uneven beat. The twin-clutch gearbox is as simple as that in a Golf and round-town manners are surprisingly good, the ride particularly so. Compared with the Veyron, the Chiron is a comfortable car though you'd never mistake it for a limo, those tyres and the suspension capable of holding the car off the road at nearly 300mph put paid to that.
New electronically assisted steering has a slower ratio but it feels sharp and a bit darty, particularly if you select Autobahn or Handling mode on the suspension, both of which lower the front end. Those dampers also lower themselves when the vehicle comes to park, not to aid egress, but because it looks sexier.
Perhaps most noticeable is the way the chassis communicates – to drive, the Veyron felt as talkative as a Toyota Corolla. Once used to the steering and the 6ft 8in width, on the right roads you can push this enormous car pretty hard and the steering and chassis will tell you what's going on. The Chiron's phenomenal grip, and it's stability and traction systems ensure you'd struggle to actually drift this car on a public road, although there is a setting to enable you to do just that.
In the end, though, it's all about the speed. You need to push an extra key to get up to 261mph, but even up to 236mph it feels superlative. Going that fast might not be comfortable, but it's addictive. On dry and grippy roads, under full throttle there's never a trace of wheelspin, you just feel the Haldex clutches shunting torque around when the going gets bumpy, and all roads are bumpy at that sort of speed.
Those huge turbos lag, but not much, and once all four are pumping, the horizon shoots towards you like ink from a defensive squid; so fast it obscures your vision. The engine slurps 1,000 litres of air a second, but your eyes are sucking harder at the scenery, willing it towards you. Details turn from hazy dots to windscreen fillers in microseconds, so much so that a distant heat haze feels like dense fog.
Blink at 261mph and you've travelled almost 200 feet, sneeze and you'll have covered nearly 400 yards with your eyes shut. You have to trust, breath lightly, fingers just skimming the wheel, barely touching the earth's surface. This is flying on the ground.
TESTED 7,993cc, four-turbo W16, seven-speed dual-clutch semi-automatic gerbox, four-wheel drive
PRICE/ON SALE about £2,500,000/now
POWER/TORQUE 1,479bhp @ 6,700rpm, 1,180lb ft @ 2,000-6,000rpm
TOP SPEED electronically limited to 261mph (236mph in handling mode)
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 2.5sec
FUEL ECONOMY 12.5mpg (EU Combined), on test 8.9mpg
Length: 4544mm, Width: 2038 mm, Height: 1212mm Wheelbase: 2711mm
Weight empty 1995 kg, boot 44 litres
VERDICT It's easy to scoff, but the Chiron is an amazing, gosh-wobbling achievement of engineering and design. Near 300mph potential with looks, handling and chassis feedback that feels if not Caterham-like at least more like a car and less like a moon rocket. Expensive, yes, but reckon on about £1 million per 100mph.
TELEGRAPH RATING Five stars out of five
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