How about that new Bugatti Chiron? It looks pretty good to me. Better than the last one, anyway.
I always got the impression that its predecessor, the Veyron, wasn’t styled so much as it was excreted. There was just something unpleasant about it; I think the term used in modern architecture is “Brutalist,” and it describes objects that are designed to force themselves on the viewer without gentleness or grace. It applies well to the the Veyron, which was a technical achievement first, a statement of insane Gilded Age wealth second, and a car either third — or perhaps not at all.
Next to the sleek, purposeful-looking Chiron, the Veyron is a squat lump of offensive conspicuous consumption. Yet it had, and continues to have, an undeniable and magnetic attraction. One of our very occasional contributors at TTAC is a fellow who has owned everything from a Lagonda to a 458 to a Ford GT, and all at the same time to boot. For something like three years, however, his Facebook profile photo was of him behind the wheel of a Veyron. It is an object to which even the enormously wealthy aspire. Nothing says “my other car is a Gulfstream” quite like the Beetle-esque Bugatti.
The conventional auto journo wisdom about the Chiron, currently being vomited across every lifestyle magazine’s front page, is that it’s “boring” or “stupid” or “pointless.” This position, it goes almost without saying, borders on the moronic. The Veyron is the fastest mass-produced car that has ever lived. Res ipsa loquitur. No bona fide production vehicle has ever come close to the big Bug’s top speed. To compare this fully-realized and thoroughly bespoke automobile to a Callaway Sledgehammer or some other three-miles-and-a-cloud-of-oil-smoke tuner vehicle is the modern-day version of saying that your father is a TV repairman and he has this ultimate set of tools. There is nothing boring or commonplace about being able to drive a vehicle off the showroom floor and immediately accelerate it to a speed that would have won the 1926 Schneider Trophy. Which, by the way, was for airplanes.
No, my primary concern about the new Chiron, other than my iron-clad certainty that TTAC probably won’t get a slot at the wine-and-cheese overseas press preview, is that it will be too good. Wait. I’m entirely serious. Let’s get real for a minute and talk about why we haven’t yet had a French kind of revolution in this country, only with the famed “one percent” playing the role of the aristocrats and some populist demagogue in the part of Robespierre.
Sure, some of it’s the numbing effect that television and YouTube and online gaming has on young people. Hard to take any time out from your World of Warcraft campaign to sharpen a guillotine, am I right? And it’s also tough to imagine people taking up arms in the cause of economic redistribution when most of them can’t even be bothered to vote.
What I want to suggest, however, is that there is a social contract between the truly wealthy and the rest of us, and it goes something like this: As long as there’s no conclusive proof that money buys unadulterated happiness, nobody’s going to whip up a militia and raze Martha’s Vineyard or Jackson Hole or Napa to the ground. (The town, not the auto parts store.) We all accept that it’s great to be rich, but we also believe that there are consequences to said richness that we would perhaps dislike. As an example, don’t you truly enjoy going to McDonald’s on a whim without drawing a crowd or worrying about being kidnapped? Sure you do.
It’s great to have a massive mansion; it’s terrible to keep it clean and in good repair. Owning a private plane, particularly something like a King Air, is a genuine joy, but they do tend to arrow into the ground, or the sea, quite a bit more often than the flying Greyhound known as the Southwest Airlines 737-300. With the exception of that old guy who married Anna Nicole Smith, I can’t think of a single instance where simply buying something expensive makes you just as happy as you’d hoped it would.
Exotic cars used to be part of that mixed-blessing bag. Not even Ferruccio Lamborghini could get satisfaction out of his Ferrari ownership experience, which led to him creating a whole bunch of cars where you have to open the door and hang out like a monkey in order to back out of your parking space. The most reliable part of a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow was the transmission, which came out of an Oldsmobile Delta 88 or something like that.
There’s always been a sort of noblesse oblige involved in owning the most expensive cars available, whether it’s the Testarossa’s proclivity for engine-out servicing or the thousand little foibles of the P38-generation Range Rover. My father bought one of the latter vehicles new, at my encouraging, and it spent something like eight months in the shop out of the four years he had it. There were so many ways to accidentally drain the battery that Dad had to basically perform a pre-flight check every time he left it parked more than 24 hours. All windows fully up? Check. Steering wheel pointed dead straight ahead? Check. All known remotes for the vehicle separated from the vehicle, and each other, by at least 50 feet? Copy that, Ghost Rider.
The man on the street, therefore, might resent his economic and social betters a bit for having a nicer car than he did, but he could also smirk at the trials and tribulations visited on anybody who dared to drive anything more ambitious or exotic than a Cadillac Coupe de Ville. That, I think, is something that all of the auto journalists miss when they criticize the Lincoln Navigator or the Cadillac XTS or even the Lexus ES350.
They (we?) want to believe that the buyer of a Lexus ES is too stupid to realize that it’s just a Camry, when, in fact, the buyer is perfectly aware that it’s just a very nice Camry. That’s what he wants. He doesn’t want to be a “beta tester” for Bristol or Pagani. He just wants a nice seat and a decent stereo. And he doesn’t want to be on a first-name basis with his service advisor the way I was back when I had two VW Phaetons at once.
That, in a nutshell, was the automotive social contract, and it was reinforced every time you drove your Ford Tempo past a stalled-out Ferrari 348ts smoking on the side of the road. Lately, however, I have to say that the exotics aren’t keeping their part of the bargain. The Ferrari 488GTB, which I tested as part of Road & Track’s “Performance Car of the Year”, is a smooth-running sweetheart in all circumstances. The Lamborghini Huracan can be driven in bad weather and nothing leaks as a consequence. The Rolls-Royce Ghost and Wraith might as well be Honda Accords for all the willful eccentricity they display.
In short, today’s exotic cars aren’t just exotic; they’re also just plain good. They start without fuss and idle with the A/C on and have backup cameras. I’m not saying that the McLaren 675LT will have the long-term running costs of a four-cylinder Camry, but I am saying that when you read the McLaren owners’ forums you don’t see a lot of horror stories.
There is every danger, therefore, that the Bugatti Chiron will be a stunning-looking, massively powerful, 261-mph Concorde-for-the-road that can also be driven by your grandmother to pick up her medication. It might not catch fire in public. Somebody might get 100,000 miles out of one. In short, it threatens to completely revise the way we think of cars that cost nearly $3 million.
What will happen when the word gets out? Well, I expect that Occupy Wall Street will have a resurgence, only this time they’ll be blockading parking garages. Nobody’s going to let your Chiron out into traffic from a side street. “Why bother?” the woman driving the minivan will say to her kids, right before she cuts you off. “It’s not like his dual-clutch transmission will overheat while he’s waiting.”
If the Chiron is too good — and this is a big “if”, granted — it might even give the young people in this country a genuine mote of dust around which the crystal of effective populism could coalesce. Imagine what would happen if a Presidential candidate promised to tax the Chiron out of existence. “A chicken in every pot, and no Chirons in Kim Kardashian’s garage!” That’s right. It could change the course of politics in America, permanently. It could be just the push that’s required for our own little American revolution, via ballot and not bullet. Who needs superdelegates when you have the raw power of Chiron-induced class warfare behind you?
So I have just one bit of advice for the nice people at Volkswagen Group: Before you release this undeniably gorgeous hypercar, maybe you should give it a few flaws. Like Cindy Crawford’s mole, y’know? Make sure it’s not too flawless. ‘Cause if you don’t … well, are you truly ready for what future generations will doubtless call the Chiron-Sanders effect?