“It’s just like driving a fast Bentley,” the man in the passenger seat said as I gripped the steering wheel of the $2.99 million Bugatti Chiron.
“What does that even mean?” I thought to myself.
About a mile down Highway 101 in Paso Robles, California, his point was becoming clear. In the initial moment when I sank myself into the Bugatti’s low driver’s seat, I was careful to make sure my shoes didn’t scuff the leather-covered door panel, and that I remembered to take the pen out of my back pocket so there would be no chance I would blemish the fantastically stitched red leather seats. Unlike other extraordinarily powerful and fast cars, this car is no more stressful to operate than an Audi, which is why observers had more wild expressions on their faces than I did as it passed other cars on the highway.
Admittedly, extraordinary performance figures have made up a lot of the Chiron’s allure since it was unveiled in 2016. It gets up to 62 mph (100 km/h) in as little as 2.4 seconds, to 124 mph (200 km/h) in still less time than most conventional cars take to reach half that speed. That’s due to the 8.0-liter, 16-cylinder engine that’s assisted by four turbochargers to produce 1,500 horsepower. Placed behind the two seats, you hear at least one of the turbos whoosh and whir every time you gently touch your foot to the accelerator pedal. Those sounds alone are intoxicating, likely even more so at its 261 mph top speed. The interior is weirdly serene for a car that does this kind of speed — unlike driving an Audi, and more like riding in the back of a big Bentley sedan. Oh, and it stops, too. Bugatti set a record in September with the Chiron, going from 0 to 400 km/h and back to 0 again in 42 seconds – only to be beaten by a Koenigsegg a few weeks later. (Not that I needed to test that out, mind you.) The technical brilliance of this car is how it stays on the road.
The Chiron is the follow-up to the Bugatti Veyron, the previous titleholder for fastest car in the world. It’s also a follow-up to one of the most technically ambitious cars ever, something beyond your “everyday” Ferraris and Lamborghinis that can make 250-ish mph feel somehow calming. I didn’t get to take the Chrion up to its top speed, as I was stuck on a highway that the California Department of Transportation is always doing something to. But at those highway speeds (and a little higher than highway speeds), you’re able to appreciate how the Bugatti remains calm when you want to remain calm.
Being part of the vast Volkswagen Group, some of the instrument panel pieces and graphics are similar to those found in recent Bentleys and Porsches — cars that cost a mere $100,000 to $300,000. It’s not cost-cutting; it’s usability. Unlike hyper cars made by tiny manufacturers in what are pretty much office parks around the world, Bugatti has the backing of one of the world’s largest automakers. Everything works, and that’s rather beautiful.
But then you look at the really striking pieces, such as the minimal knobs along the center console, where even makers Porsche and Lamborghini stick a big infotainment screen and other various knobs. Instead, a single piece of carefully finished metal splits the carbon fiber dashboard and houses the quartet of multifunction knobs for adjusting the audio system (the one with diamonds in it), or fan — you know, all you really need in a car. If you really need to know vital car information, it’s in one of the screens near the speedometer. It’s all meant to hide in the background, rather than inundate you with unnecessary information.
There are cars that have already topped the Chiron’s improbable in the 18 months or so since it’s been out. A Tesla Model S P100D can technically beat it to 60 mph, too. But there’s more to a Bugatti than its speed. In many ways, its straight-line performance deserves a mere mention considering the attention paid to every other detail in it. Outside, it looks like what a fantasy car should look like: low, wide, with enormous air vents running along the sides, and the appearance that more space is devoted to the engine than to the occupants. The most terrifying thing about driving the Chiron on public roads is watching eyes turn to gawk at it when those eyes should be looking at more important things.
Driving the Bugatti Chiron confused me a little. Maybe the opportunity to drive it hadn’t sunk in once I got out of it. Since it doesn’t seem to scream at you at parking lot speeds, it leaves little impression when you just want to get somewhere. Maybe there aren’t enough buttons or screens or menus to play with once you’re in it. It took me a while, but the Chiron is likely meant to be appreciated more than driven quickly. It’s packed with so much sophistication that it creates a serious demeanor — perhaps intimidatingly so — which is why I’ll forever be in awe of it, even if I don’t talk about it all the time.
Update Jan. 4 10:05 ET: This story has been updated to reflect the current price of the Chiron is $2.99 million, not $2.6 million.