Bugatti Veyron: The most powerful car on the road

It can do 250mph but has no space for your luggage. Paul Horrell sees the remarkable Bugatti Veyron as the end of a motoring era

Reckless? Insane? This astonishing car argues otherwise. It's actually capable of 250mph: making 180 is an absolute cinch to it.

This is a bright, glassy-clear morning. Traffic is light. So here's how it happened. I looked ahead. A clear straight, unbroken barrier on both sides, no vehicles in either lane. I flexed my right foot. The colossal engine behind me drew breath - a sigh of intake air, a turbo whistle. The mechanical and exhaust noise spooled up like someone was opening the soundproofed door of a giant industrial plant. Simultaneously the automated transmission was slipping down a couple of gears. That lot took up maybe half a second, the car flexing its muscles, the veins on its forehead popping out. And now it was really charging. Passenger jet on take-off? Doesn't begin to describe the feeling. This was kick-in-the-back acceleration, even at 100mph. Now 120, 140, 160, 180.

Two little Fiats ahead: I wasn't going to blast past them in warp drive. I peeked down at the speedo (small and hard to read, stupidly) and stood on the brakes. Calipers clenched the vast carbon-fibre discs, and an airbrake erected itself proud of the rear spoiler, and with that, speed evaporated in magical violence. I tensed my arms against the steering wheel, felt the seatbelt clinch against my chest, pulled down again to a sedate motorway speed. That whole sensational up-and-back exercise was the most memorable 15 seconds of my life with cars.

That's why it wasn't irresponsible (even though, in Italy, it wasn't particularly legal). In Germany, such speed is legal and people do it in big Mercedes and BMWs. But they take time and distance to get to those speeds, during which time they'll probably mix it with other traffic. It's a big event. In the Bugatti, it happens in a snap, in the distance you can clearly see and plan for. And all the while you're betting on tyres and brakes and aerodynamics that were designed for 250mph. Honestly, it feels so safe. And even against the hypercars, the Porsche Carrera GT or Ferrari Enzo, the Bugatti might not be much quicker from 0 to 100mph, but from 100 to 200 it flies ahead even of them, as well as feeling more comfortable and stable.

The Bugatti has a scarcely credible 1,001 horsepower. The same as three Porsche 911s or 10 Focus 1.6s. Its engine makes such intense demands of the cooling system and transmission and brakes that the engineers continually bumped their heads on the limits of the law of diminishing returns. For much of the car's protracted gestation it looked an impossible goal to get enough cool air in (it has 10 radiators in all), and hot air out, and ensure that all this turbulent air didn't make the car take off at speed. So did making a transmission that didn't shatter, tyres that didn't explode, brakes that didn't melt. There was nowhere for the engineers to turn for precedents, not even motorsport.

Its 8.0-litre, 16-cylinder engine is composed of two narrow-angle W8 units in a larger-angle V. Squeezed around it are four turbochargers. The turbos slightly dull the initial accelerator bite (and the sound), but once they're going, there's immense thrust at practically any point around the rpm clock, so you don't need to make busy with the gear lever to access the Teleporter action.

In any case, you've no clutch pedal or gear lever to operate. It's a DSG system, with two automated clutches: one engages a gear while the other disengages and prepares the next gear. When you touch the fingertip steering-wheel shifter paddle, the transmission whips up the next gear with no interruption whatever. It's a sensationally effective device. And around town, you're automatically slurred along with limousine-like smoothness. If the immensity of the Veyron's motive force is amazing, its docility and manners are even more so.

The traction is pulverising. It does 0-60 in under 2.5 seconds. Thanks to four-wheel drive, the widest rear tyres in history and a super-sophisticated electronic stability system, you barely need to worry about deploying the engine's full beans even on the way out of a corner. No need to get yourself aimed straight ahead, no need to gingerly tread the pedal in case of wheelspin.

It may be easy speed, but it isn't boring speed. You feel well-connected into this extraordinary machine. The steering is a precision instrument, light to the touch but direct and very accurate, allowing you to place the car on beautifully measured arcs. More than with most four-wheel-drive cars, that steering also feeds back the state of the road, loading up as you push the car, going lighter when the corner is damp. The car pivots with you at its centre, all four tyres feeling completely rooted to the tarmac.

The ugly consequence of all this power and warship-grade engineering is weight. The car is all but two tonnes. It hides its weight remarkably, swinging between S-bends like a proper athlete. But on smaller roads the act falls apart. It's as wide as a truck, and the visibility round tight turns is rotten: thick screen pillars make a blind spot that merges seamlessly into another caused by the fat and high door mirrors. Scary.

Bugatti makes much of this car's wide spread of ability. It's no stripped-out racer; you could drive it to the opera. The cockpit is exquisite. All the stuff that's usually plastic - facia, vents, climate and hi-fi controls, column stalks - is a twinkling, wonderfully tactile metal alloy, and all the controls move with a clockmaker's precision. It cruises more quietly than rivals, and doesn't ride too uncomfortably.Trouble is, in squeezing in all the hardware, the engineers gradually ate away the luggage space. One small soft briefcase is all the boot allows. The only way you could go on a journey would be to send an accomplice on ahead with the baggage. It would be devastating to own this car and then find the practicalities would preclude its use.

Never mind the practicalities, how about the ethics? Of a car that, if there were any road straight and empty enough to sustain its top speed (and there isn't, anywhere) would drain its fuel tank in under 15 minutes, doing about 3mpg, pumping fuel at the rate a barman draws a pint? Surely it's calculated to cause righteous outrage? Or how about the fact that it costs, give or take, £800,000? (Actually precisely €1m plus VAT and road tax.)

Well, that's the thing. It's so over the top that I think its maker, Volkswagen, will struggle to find the planned 300 buyers worldwide. And many of them will never use it, just keep it as a collectors' trophy. On the global scale, that's a tiny fuel issue: about three long-haul return jumbo trips would burn as much fuel as all the Veyrons ever will, combined.

And it should bring an emphatic full stop to the car industry's chase for ever higher power and performance. The engineering might of Volkswagen - the people who also bring you Audi, Lamborghini and Bentley - has strained every sinew to make the Veyron work. And lost a hill of money in the process. For the world's specialist supercar companies, small and financially vulnerable as they are, to even try to top it would be suicidally fruitless. The Bugatti is an automotive Concorde, the last of an old ideal not the first of a new breed.

Oh, but what a way to go.

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