Bugatti's Supreme Supercar

A spin along California's Pacific Coast Highway in the Veyron, the world's fastest, most expensive, production car.

It may not have a golden horn protruding from its hood, but the Bugatti Veyron is the automotive equivalent of the unicorn. Like the mythical creature, the $1.6 million supercar is mysterious, strong, and virtually unattainable.

The Veyron grew out of one man's vision. In 1998, as the head of Volkswagen (VLKAY ), Ferdinand Porsche's grandson Ferdinand Piëch, purchased the rights to produce cars under the elite Bugatti brand, which had gone out of business with the onset of World War II. (Bugatti was revived in 1987, only to shutter again in 1995.) He then led a team of 80 engineers on a quest to fashion the fastest production automobile on the planet. Their creation has a top speed of a blinding 253 mph and an astonishing 1,001 horsepower.

The Bugatti name exudes class and pedigree. (Ralph Lauren owns three vintage Bugattis in addition to a Veyron.) This is precisely why I jumped at the chance to drive the brand's newest flagship, the 16-cylinder, quad-turbocharged Veyron, along the California coastal path connecting Monterey and Half Moon Bay. My escort was to be Pierre-Henri Raphanel, a former French race-car driver and Bugatti's chief ambassador who typically co-pilots the test runs.

My encounter with the Veyron came in mid-August on the heels of the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, one of the world's most fabulous vintage-car extravaganzas. All the high-society auto buffs in attendance were staying at my hotel, and the parking lot contained enough precious metal to warrant its own admission fee. As I was walking outside on the morning of my drive, I was gazing so intently at all the prancing horses, winged B's, raging bulls, and other purebreds that I almost missed the grand entrance of the yellow-on-black Veyron.

Some might say the Veyron is more function than form, with its massive cooling ducts and mechanically operated wings that improve its aerodynamics. But for all its design naysayers, this automobile has presence. I knew the Veyron would warrant serious attention, but nothing could have prepared me for the camera-phone snapping, jaw dropping, and finger pointing that would take place throughout the roughly 500 miles I logged during my two days of driving this rocket ship on wheels. We followed the Pacific Coast Highway for most of the journey. Pierre was riding shotgun, telling me about the Veyron's conception, development hurdles, and why no other automaker wants nor is able to undertake such a project.

He told me about how the Veyron differs from other exotics not only in its acceleration (2.5 seconds to 60 mph from a dead stop in first gear), but also in parent Volkswagen's insistence on the highest quality standards. "Do you think Ferrari and Lamborghini are out doing hot-weather testing in the desert?" he asked.

Now comes the fun part. Turn the leather-wrapped key fob and hold down the starter button for two or three seconds. The Veyron's W-16 engine, with its four turbochargers spooling up, whines to life in what can only be compared to a jet engine. It sounds different from the distinct grumble emitted from the likes of a Ferrari, Aston Martin, or Maserati.

Whiplash-inducing thrust aside, the Veyron is unbelievably easy to drive. Throwing the big shift lever into fully automatic mode, the default setting, means optimal comfort for driver and passenger. The Veyron's 7G DSG (7-gear, direct shift gearbox) setup always shifts to the highest possible gear even at cruising speeds of 40 or 50 mph. This conservative gearing in auto mode not only improves the gas mileage (I averaged between 7 and 14 mpg depending on how hard I was driving and in what mode) but provides a less thrashing ride. The massive power plant positioned directly behind our heads was still quiet enough to allow Pierre and me to speak comfortably.

Tap the stick once to the right to engage sport mode and an altogether different animal emerges. Whether at a standstill or at speed, the gearbox throws the revs way down and shifts to the lowest possible gear for optimal thrust. For those who crave a manual transmission, a similar sporting effect can be had using the steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. Pierre tells me the Veyron's sweet spot lies between 2,200 and 5,500 rpm, and I can attest to this from many instances of mashing the gas just as the tachometer hit 2,200.

To say the Veyron is fast does not do it justice. Along one ocean-adorned stretch of highway, I hammered the gas pedal, and the car ripped furiously through each gear. One second longer and I would have ended up in handcuffs. I have driven many supercars in my day, and I have never been so violently thrown back in my seat as in the Veyron.

Inside the car, leather lines the seats, much of the dashboard, the shift lever, and the steering wheel. My test car had a slick-looking, piano black instrument panel that felt like glass. You can also opt for machined aluminum. A thick strip of black magnesium, an extremely costly material, surrounds the instrument panel. Pierre tells me this reflects the "no expense spared" mentality that went into the engineering.

Even those who can afford one of the 300 or so Veyrons that will be produced may not be drawn to this car. Few drivers need to appreciate a ride's level of technical prowess to the extent a Veyron owner does. As far as I am concerned, the mythical beast lives up to the hype.

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By Stuart Schwartzapfel

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