French automaker Bugatti survived 2 world wars. Can it outlast the electric crusade?
Does every automaker have to go electric?
Industry trends and government regulations are pointing in that direction. No more naturally aspirated engines. No more turbochargers. No more engines, in fact. Instead, mute conveyances happily trundling along on city streets and highways, the roars, barks and pops of internal combustion engines a distant memory.
Not so fast.
Illustrious French automaker Bugatti has been building powerful race cars since 1909. There are no plans to replace the marque’s deafening, rocket-like, quad-turbo 16-cylinder engines with electric motors.
Volkswagen AG, the automotive conglomerate that owns Bugatti, has recently ramped up its electric vehicle efforts and reportedly may find a new owner for the brand. Can Bugatti’s thirsty 8.0-liter engines mesh with Volkswagen’s electrification strategy?
“Customers are not asking for electric Bugattis,” Cedric Davy, chief operating officer of Bugatti of the Americas, told ABC News. “We live and breathe the W16 [engine]. A lot of customers say, ‘This may be my last chance of owning the iconic W16. I don’t know what will come next.'”
In June, Bugatti showed off the new $3.9 million Chiron Super Sport, the latest member of the Chiron family that launched in 2016 and succeeded the Veyron supercar. The Chiron Super Sport’s 8.0-liter W16 engine delivers 1,577 horsepower and 1,180 lb-ft of torque and reaches an electronically limited top speed of 273 mph. Redline happens at 7,100 rpm.
Last year Bugatti unveiled the $4 million Chiron Pur Sport, a 1,479 hp unadulterated beast that’s raw, loud, nimble and engineered with shorter gear ratios for faster acceleration and cornering prowess. The fixed wing in the rear spans more than 6 feet across, generating more downforce than previous Chirons. Only 30 Super Sports will be produced; 60 for the Pur Sport.
“The Pur Sport is not a rocket someone put wheels on,” longtime Bugatti test driver Butch Leitzinger told ABC News. “This car is meant to work for you. I can talk until I am blue in the face about how easy it is to drive but no one believes me nor should they.”
Bugatti’s Chiron Super Sport 300+ shook up the automotive community in 2019 when test driver and Le Mans winner Andy Wallace piloted the car to history. The slightly modified 1,600 hp Chiron reached 304.773 mph, the first car ever to reach a speed of over 300, an incredible feat of engineering. The Chiron Super Sport 300+ was immediately declared the “fastest sports car in the world.”
Even with Bugatti’s staggering prices — upward of $3 million per vehicle — and the COVID-19 pandemic, the company reported record first-quarter sales, delivering more vehicles between January and March than the first three months of any year in the company’s modern history. Davy said the Pur Sport in particular has helped to boost sales, with 70% of Pur Sport owners in North America new to the brand.
“It’s a more visceral driving experience and we’re seeing more drivers than collectors with the Pur Sport,” he said.
A Pur Sport owner in France racked up 2,000 miles on the odometer the weekend he took delivery of the car, according to Davy, proof that these rarefied vehicles offer comfort and convenience as well as insane power and speeds.
“The cars are extremely reliable. There are customers with well over 10,000 miles on their Chirons,” he said.
Jason Cammisa, a veteran automotive journalist, said the Chiron could have been even more fearsome and supreme with an electric or hybrid powertrain.
“The Chiron was a missed opportunity. If Bugatti was looking far enough ahead, they would have known electrification means incredible amounts of acceleration,” he told ABC News. “Gas engines will be legislated out of existence and it’s in Bugatti’s interest to go electric.”
Cammisa noted that the $130K Tesla Model S Plaid sedan, which hurls occupants from zero to 60 mph in a reported 1.99 seconds, will trounce a Chiron on the track — a problem for Bugatti and other carmakers that rely on their performance laurels to sell cars.
“There’s no Chiron buyer who would get out of that and not be impressed,” he said. “The acceleration of the Plaid is painful, terrible, nauseating. In the real world that thing is a magic trick.”
Erin Minoff, a specialist in the motoring department at Bonhams in New York, said every industry has its “moment of terror.” Unlike mainstream brands, however, Bugatti is not trying to sell a lot of cars or please a lot of people, he said.
“Bugatti has different motivations than what Ford, Mercedes and even Rolls-Royce are trying to pursue,” he told ABC News. “No one is buying a Bugatti or any supercar because they are looking for an efficient mode of transportation or because they are an environmentalist.”
Jalopnik editor-in-chief Rory Carroll doubts Bugatti will upend its business model to accommodate government policies. Volkswagen had larger aspirations for the struggling marque when it acquired the rights to Bugatti in May 1998, he argued.
“Bugatti was effectively a dead brand when Volkswagen bought it and was revived to build a car that would break a speed record and do so in comfort,” he told ABC News. “Bugatti demonstrates technical prowess and attracts talent for the VW Group.”
Cammisa and Minoff both pointed out that the most in-demand toy right now for the uber wealthy is not electric or even a hybrid. It’s a six-speed manual transmission, mid-engine, rear-wheel drive, high-revving lightweight supercar that makes 650 hp from a 12,100 rpm naturally aspirated V12 engine. The T.50, the latest creation of Gordon Murray, the brilliant designer behind the famed McLaren F1, costs $2.6 million and all 100 units sold out within 48 hours of the prototype’s debut.
“There have been several bespoke EV hypercars — Rimac and Pininfarina’s Battista — and no one wanted any of them,” Cammisa said.
Bugatti has amazingly survived two world wars, worker strikes, the death of its founder, Ettore Bugatti, and his son, Jean Bugatti, the company’s designated heir, the sale of its Molsheim factory, bankruptcy and multiple owners. But the greatest threat to its existence may be the electric motor. Bugatti, however, has an “enduring appeal” that will keep fans wanting more from the company in the years to come, according to Carroll.
“An electrified Bugatti — that’s not the point of the brand,” he said. “There’s something very human about Bugatti’s superlatives and achievements. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bugatti never did an electric vehicle.”
Added Minoff: “Enthusiasts want the fastest, most visceral machine they can purchase. Electric vehicles are like appliances. Bugatti will continue to build these hyper luxury supercars.”
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