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COLUMN ONE

253 MPH and Still a Little Late

The Bugatti Veyron is a superlative on wheels. But for VW, which spent six years and about half a billion dollars, it may be obsession run wild.

December 10, 2005|Dan Neil | Times Staff Writer

Indeed, Volkswagen AG is a company in crisis, beset by plummeting market share around the world, high labor costs and -- particularly in the crucial United States market -- a dearth of new products in its bedrock brands such as VW. In addition to other problems, the company is embroiled in a sex scandal involving allegations the company paid for "sex junkets" for its labor representatives. Last week on the Frankfurt stock exchange, a VW share hovered around the 45 Euro mark, less than half its peak value in 1998. Piech was replaced as chairman in 2002 by Bernd Pischetsrieder, former chief executive of BMW.

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.

By most accounts, Piech's failing was of the classical Greek hubris variety. "He was obsessed with putting VW onto a par with Ferrari," says DeLorenzo.

Piech's effort to drive the VW brand upscale produced the VW Phaeton, an eight- or 12-cylinder luxury sedan that costs as much as six figures in the United States (the company announced last month the Phaeton model was being discontinued). The Phaeton directly competes with another of VW Group's offerings, the Audi A8 sedan.

"I think [Piech's] crazy," says Mike Kamins, a professor at USC's Marshall School of Business. "The Phaeton just didn't make any sense. VW doesn't have that image and you can't change an image that fast. People ask what you paid for your car and you say, '$100,000,' and they say, 'Well, what kind of Porsche is it?' You say, 'No, it's a VW.' They say, 'What, are you stupid?' "

VW's bigger problem, analysts say, is that during Piech's reign it took its eye off developing its core product -- cars like Golf, Jetta and Passat -- while diverting engineering resources to exotica like the Phaeton, the new Bentleys, Lamborghinis and, of course, the Veyron.

"I think the Bugatti venture gets lost in the rounding error for the overall VW Group," says Jay N. Woodworth of Woodworth Holdings Ltd. "What really matters is that the successor to the main VW car lines has been delayed."

The result is that the Veyron -- named after one of Bugatti's most successful race drivers, Pierre Veyron -- has been born into a world very different from the one in which it was conceived. Other super-exotics, including Mercedes-Benz Maybach limousines, the SLR McLaren and Porsche's Carrera GT, haven't sold as briskly as was hoped when they were drawn up in the bubbly days of the late 1990s.

And, it should be noted, the executives who lead German car companies -- people like Piech and Pischetsrieder, former DaimlerChrysler chief Jurgen Schremp and others -- are intensely competitive, and the Veyron project had an almost irresistible logic for Europe's biggest automaker.

"I don't think it's dramatically different than the relationship among auto executives at country clubs at Detroit," Woodworth says.

Whatever the cause, the result is this artifact called the Veyron, a heroic and historic automobile.

*

Meanwhile, back at 200 mph, technical director Schrieber is urging me on. "This makes fun, doesn't it?" he asks.

The main autostrada of Sicily is not exactly glass-smooth, nor particularly straight, and as I bend the car into a sweeping right-hander at about 205 mph, a flock of butterflies the size of vampire bats alights in my solar plexus. The suspension is working hard and I can feel the static of the tires coming through the stitched-leather steering wheel. I am very curious to see if the car will hold the line in the corner or slide off into the heavenly yonder.

As fast as it is, the Veyron is actually late for its own party. The first Veyron 16.4 concept car appeared at the Tokyo Auto Show in fall 1999, and the final draft, so to speak, appeared in September 2001 at the Frankfurt auto show. The plan was to have cars to customers by the end of 2003, but the Veyron posed an unprecedented engineering challenge: a car capable of 250 mph that is civilized, safe and reliable -- passing all the durability and crash-test standards that a VW Golf has to pass.

"Its performance was achieved through state-of-the-art engineering rather than simply shoehorning a giant engine into thinly disguised race car," says Csaba Csere, editor of Car and Driver magazine, who performed a max-speed test on the car this fall. "The Veyron is completely usable on the road and can be piloted by anyone with a regular driver's license."

When Schreiber took over the project in spring 2003, he says, there were about 500 technical issues with the car. It was too heavy. The dual-clutch gearbox was too noisy. The fuel pumps weren't sufficient to supply the gallons per minute the engine requires at full honk. And everything was too hot. The car now has 10 radiators, cooling components such as the hydraulics system and the gear-box oil.

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