PALERMO, Sicily — At 200 mph, the Bugatti Veyron pounds a beautiful, howling hole in the sweltering haze hanging over the motorway.
This, the fastest production car in the world, is broad and low, an enameled ellipse in a spiffy two-tone paint scheme. By comparison, its now-vanquished supercar rivals, such as the Ferrari Enzo and McLaren F1, are all edges and blades and angles, like F-16 fighter planes or Japanese stunt kites.
The Veyron is not, strictly speaking, the fastest car I've ever driven, but the one that's faster had a jet engine and a parachute. The guardrail to my right is blurred into a dirty stream of quicksilver. Houses fly by before my brain has time to register the word "house."
About nine seconds ago, I was dawdling at 100 mph. Then I squeezed the throttle. The seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox clicked twice, the engine took a huge lung-busting toke of atmosphere through its twin roof snorkels -- and then things got interesting. Something slammed me from behind and I realize it was the seat. Captain, it appears we have fallen nose-first into a wormhole.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 14, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Bugatti Veyron -- A graphic with an article in Saturday's Section A about the Bugatti Veyron said the car weighed four times more than the Dodge Viper. The Veyron weighs 4,300 pounds, approximately 1,000 pounds more than the Viper.
Two-hundred mph. And I'm not even in top gear.
A superlative on four wheels, the Bugatti Veyron 16.4 is not only the world's fastest production car but also the most expensive: $1.25 million before taxes and richly deserved gas-guzzler penalties. Also, the most powerful: Its 8.0-liter 16-cylinder quad-turbo engine produces about 1,000 horsepower and churns it through a high-tech all-wheel-drive system and gob-smacking foot-wide tires. Also, the quickest: The Veyron accelerates to 60 mph in 2.1 seconds, faster than a Formula 1 car, but then it's just getting started. In 20 seconds -- about the time it takes a fast reader to get through this paragraph -- it reaches 200 mph. In 53 mind-blowing seconds, the Veyron reaches its marquee speed: 253 mph.
At that speed, the tires would begin to soften in about half an hour. Fortunately, at top speed, it runs out of gas in 12 minutes. "It's a safety feature," Wolfgang Schreiber, the Veyron's chief engineer, says with a smile.
The Veyron, which is making its way to the first customers this month, is many things: It's a mirror held to the automobile industry's near past of irrational exuberance. It's a monument to the ego of Ferdinand Piech, former chairman of Volkswagen AG, which purchased the Bugatti name in 1998. And it represents a defining moment in the history of the automobile, the likely pinnacle of production-car cost and performance. Six years and an estimated half a billion dollars in the making, the car trades on one of the most famous names in motoring. Revered among aficionados, Bugatti dominated Grand Prix racing for a time between the world wars and built sinfully beautiful works of transportation art, including the Type 57SC Atlantic and Bugatti Royale, which holds the Guinness record for the highest price paid for a car -- $15 million.
Volkswagen was in tall cotton in 1998. Led by Piech, a prodigious engineer-designer and grandson of Porsche founder Ferdinand Porsche, the company went on a buying spree, acquiring the Italian carmaker Lamborghini, the British luxury marque Bentley and Bugatti.
This in itself wasn't unusual. The decade saw many storied firms absorbed by larger car companies: Ford, for instance, purchased Aston Martin and Land Rover, and BMW acquired Rolls-Royce. Volkswagen, riding a crest of record sales, had the money; its after-tax profit in 1998 was $1.2 billion.
Bugatti, however, seemed peculiarly cursed. It's doubtful that even Ettore Bugatti, the artist-engineer who founded the company in 1908, made money on the venture. In 1988, an Italian entrepreneur, Romano Artioli, purchased the rights to the name and built a state-of-the-art factory in Campogalliano, Italy, to produce a supercar called the EB110. Less than a decade later, in 1996, Bugatti was again bankrupt. What VW purchased amounted to no more than a glorious scrapbook.
Piech -- unyielding and autocratic but possessed with a vision as pure, in its way, as that of Ettore Bugatti -- promised that the new Bugatti would be VW's crown jewel, the ultimate in automotive technology. It was he who set the well-rounded parameters for the Veyron: 1,000 hp and faster than 400 kilometers per hour (248 mph). Such a car would eclipse the McLaren F1's seemingly unassailable record of 240.1 mph.
"Piech was maniacal," says Peter DeLorenzo, an industry analyst and founder of Autoextremist.com. "He was one of the great engineering geniuses of the late 20th century, but he proved that brilliance on the engineering side doesn't necessarily transfer to managerial vision."