When you build one of the fastest, most expensive cars in the world, there are really only two things you can do to improve it: make it faster, or take the top off.
In the case of the 253 mph Bugatti Veyron 16.4, the latter was deemed the appropriate choice. At first blush, it seems like the path of most resistance to achieving a new round of buzz for the 4-year-old supercar.
Ever since pretenders to the production car top speed throne started showing up on the scene, like the SSC Ultimate Aero and Koenigsegg CCXR , car enthusiasts have waited anxiously for Bugatti to put the upstarts back in line by adding a couple of horses to the Veyron’s stable of 1,001 hp. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with this vehicle, that is not a typo. But just so you're sure, I'll spell it out like on a check: One Thousand and One.)
Surely, a small boost in output couldn't be that difficult to achieve?
No, it wouldn't, but for Bugatti to do so in answer to a challenge would be uncouth, and explicit recognition that any other vehicle on the planet deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the Veyron.
Consider for a moment what we are discussing: the Veyron has a 16-cylinder engine measuring 8 liters in displacement that is boosted by four turbochargers and directs its power through a twin-clutch 7-speed transmission to an all-wheel drive system. What Bugatti has created is nothing less than the ultimate expression of the pure, gasoline-fueled internal combustion era. Will there be faster, more complex vehicles created in the years to come? Certainly. But they will be hybridized and hydrogenated on some new technological plateau and, very likely, a few of them will carry the name Bugatti as well.
In the meantime, we now have the Grand Sport, which is not so much a convertible as it is a targa top version of the Veyron. And when I say "we" I'm referring to the 150 members of our species who can afford a car that costs $2.1 million and have the inclination to buy one, because that is how many are being made.
Keep in mind this is far from one of the Sawzall jobs that the custom shop down the block from you performs on Camaros. Several calls were made from Bugatti's headquarters in Molsheim, France, to the local carbon fiber supplier, and a large quantity of the material was engineered into the structure of the car to maintain the rigidity and safety lost by turning the ceiling into a gaping maw while keeping weight gain to a minimum, which is very important in a car that weighs nearly 4,400 pounds.
Fitted with a transparent removable roof, the Grand Sport is still as fast as the hardtop Veyron, but top speed drops to a more pedestrian 215 mph when it comes off. That is still enough to qualify it as the world’s fastest open-top car, at least for now.
The car’s active, kite-surfing-ready rear wing has been recalibrated to deploy at different angles corresponding to top-on and top-off motoring. Technically this isn’t much of a feat, but the aerodynamic modeling that went into calibrating it is mind-boggling, and evidence of a couple of very expensive trips back to the wind tunnel. The effort put into the conversion may seem like a lot for the purpose of letting Veyron owners see the sky and be seen by passersby, but there's much more to it than that.
I recently took a Grand Sport on a painfully short drive on the country roads and highways surrounding Greenwich, Conn. It's the kind of place that’s filled with people who can afford a Veyron, but where there are far too many speed limit signs with the number 25 printed on them to experience even a hint of its full potential.
I'd like to think that those who possess this car are met with the same types of limitations, but I know that I am wrong. Veyron owners live on a higher plane of existence. When they want to drive fast they don't just rent racetrack time like other exotic car owners, they hire airport runways and purchase large parcels of land in the Middle East. Shackled by law and propriety to subsonic speeds, I was instead forced to appreciate the Veyron on a very different level.
After sliding into the spacious driver’s seat, the first thing you notice is the simple elegance of the interior. No over-the-top glitz on display here, just the finest materials known to man formed into oblong shapes complimenting the exterior. The leather alone is so precious that it comes from cows bred at high altitudes, where there are no mosquitoes to leave bite marks in the hides. Similarly, the aluminum trim is a custom alloy blend, also free of nibbles.
There is a stereo with an iPod connection, but no satellite radio, and the monitor for the backup camera is integrated into the rearview mirror along with the navigation system. To program it, you use a wireless PDA hidden in a compartment between the seats. No touch screen or unsightly knobs are found here.
Remarkably, the Veyron uses an old fashioned key to unlock all of this elemental goodness, rather than some high tech smart fob. To start it, there is a button located just behind the shifter for the automatic transmission. Press it and the engine comes to life, not with the kind of head-turning, frightened animal roar that we’ve come to expect from cars of this ilk, but more of a smooth purr that slinks its way into a crowd the way an out of costume Catwoman suddenly appears in the middle of one of Bruce Wayne’s dinner parties. “Oh, hello. I didn’t realize you were standing there, Ms. Kyle.”
Cruising through town, the Grand Sport is as sedate as a power boat idling across a no wake zone, but much easier to helm. The power is entirely under control, the gearbox seamless, and the speed-sensitive steering as light as a feather, which is astonishing. Veyrons are the same length as a Ford Focus, but weigh nearly as much as a Ford Explorer. It is an immensely dense vehicle, the automotive equivalent of a chunk of neutron star. Behind the wheel, you’d never know it.
Trawling around town Grand Sport is a good neighbor, and not at all obnoxious like its Italian-sounding name would suggest. Bugatti is a French company, owned by Germans, and the Veyron knows when to keep to itself.
Thankfully, all roads eventually open up, traffic subsides, and the Grand Sport lives for these moments. Press on the accelerator and you are rewarded with a sound that many liken to a jet engine, but that is really more like a vacuum powered by one. There is no engine cover. Like you, the powerplant is exposed to the elements, and one of the air intakes is directly over your head, sucking in however much air is required to combust eight liters worth of atomized gasoline. This is the payoff for losing the roof.
Acceleration is beyond comprehension. Even on the soaking wet roads encountered on the day that I drove it, the Grand Sport’s tires didn’t spin a hair before hurling the car down the road. The trip to 60 miles per hour technically takes about two and a half seconds, but, when you floor it, you feel as though you’ve been instantly transported to that speed without having wasted any time going through 1 mph, 2 mph, 3 mph...
As far as handling goes, at sensible velocities, the word "dynamics" doesn’t even come into play. The Veyron brushes off curves and corners like an elephant being run into by a field mouse. The ride is understandably firm, but not punishing, and the car remains as flat as the dry lake bed you wish you were driving it on, regardless of what kind of twists it encounters.
But the Veyron’s most entertaining trick is the way the transmission kicks down when you’re cruising on the highway and put the pedal to the fine carpet. First, the engine winds up with an unearthly sound that hangs in the air for a long breath before anything happens, then the transmission drops into second gear and you enter a state of what feels like horizontal freefall.
Fuel economy, you ask? Ten miles per gallon combined, which ties the Lamborghini Murcielago at the bottom of the oil guzzling barrel. The Veyron is not exactly a model citizen in the arena of consumption, but the tires on the car cost $30,000 a set, so even if gasoline was priced at $20 a gallon, its owners wouldn’t be bothered at all.
The only bit of absurdity found on the car is the soft top, which you can characterize as either a design failure or an eccentricity, depending on where you stand on the Veyron. There is no room onboard to carry the removable roof. Instead it comes with what is essentially a rectangular, carbon fiber framed umbrella that clips into the opening, with a droopy fit that looks a little a tent at a Renaissance fair. When in use, you are advised not to drive over 100 mph. Having had the unfortunate need to try it out, all I can say is, it doesn’t leak.
Whether you despise the Veyron for its excess, or are intoxicated by its sheer audacity, one thing is for sure: a hundred years from now, when someone is telepathically ingesting the history of the 21st century during a trip to the local spaceport in their automated ion-engined hoverpod, more than a few paragraphs in the chapter on transportation will be dedicated to the Veyron.
Heck, if telepathically ingested history books have covers, the Grand Sport will probably be on it.
2010 Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Grand Sport
Base Price: $2,100,000
Type: Mid-engine, all-wheel-drive, 2-door roadster
Engine: 8.0L W16
Power 1,001 hp, 922 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Fuel Economy: 8 city/14 highway
What do you think of the Grand Sport?
Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.