The words barely penetrated my waking consciousness, but something registered from the pages of a weekly British car magazine: "Bugatti Veyron replacement will have over 1500 hp and hit 290 mph." Whatever. I couldn't care less, I thought, as I went off to water the tomato plants. Ten years ago I'd have struggled to suppress my delight and frantically written a column fantasizing over the concept of 290 on a public highway. Not now.
Why the ennui? Maybe I've just become an old fart. Maybe the memory of a sudden lane change at 227 mph in the original hyper-Bug hit me. But really, the very-high-performance car currently sits at a crossroads, and the Veyron replacement is on the wrong side. It's a faceless collection of numbers designed to appeal to the offensively rich, most of whom will never see 100 mph in it. I defended the Veyron for years, citing the pioneering use of a dual-clutch transmission and the car's vast yet usable performance, rather than doing the easy thing and moaning that it wasn't a McLaren F1.
But 10 years is a long time in automotive engineering. Most supercars now have dual-clutch transmissions and turbochargers and, visibility aside, are no more difficult to drive than a Ford Focus. This is potentially a bad thing indeed, and it's born of this industry's obsession with conforming to templates. When something works, everyone else follows suit. It's also due to component fetishism centered around mind-scrambling R&D costs. Getrag's development costs for a dual-clutch gearbox are so insane, it has to sell them to Ferrari, Mercedes, et al.
Under the skin of most fast cars, you'll find the same technologies, the same bits supplied by the same companies. It is not financially sound to develop your own stability-control system, so everyone goes to Bosch and buys one off the shelf. But what if the shelf systems were no good? That's hypothetical— they're actually damn fine—but you get my point. The fast-car industry is inexorably being led down a metaphorical road I'm not entirely sure it wants to follow.
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It's this accepted template of the very fast car that has suckered Bugatti into quietly leaking those details of the next Veyron. It might as well say, "The prevailing technologies over the next few years, or so our suppliers tell us, will be turbocharging alongside electro-gasoline hybridity, so we'll be using those." For a marque that gave us the Type 35, I think that's a tragic capitulation.
Someone needs to step away from the component-menu system and try to redefine this space. Is it any wonder that prices of desirable previous-generation supercars have spiraled out of control? Yes, we're in the middle of a boom, but makers of new supercars are stymied by making new machines as desirable as the back catalog. As one project boss said to me recently, "I don't care so much about our rivals, but we now have to compete with buyers who will pay $1 million for a [40-year-old] Porsche 2.7 RS, and we can't do that if we keep engineering the emotion out of our cars."
So why couldn't the next Bugatti have been a carbon-magnesium slither of moderation and cleverness? Perhaps 400 naturally aspirated horsepower and featherweight batteries pulling 1700 pounds with a revolutionary transmission that allows the driver to shift manually with a clutch but also (and I have no idea how this would work) with a fully automatic mode to keep the urban wafters in business? We can determine the core DNA of a living organism, but we can't manage this?
You'll hear many reasons such radical thinking is impossible, most of them centered on emissions. That is not a credible excuse. These car companies are big enough to be able to hide small volumes of very special, less efficient machines, so they should listen to their own engineers and grow a pair. Speak to any of the brilliant young minds involved in developing the current crop of übercars. After a few drinks, they'll quietly admit they want low mass, less complexity, and a return to the driver-as-center-of-the-universe mind-set. That's not to say they despise hybridity or electric power steering, but they see the base context of the fast car being shunted into the wrong place—a place where the modern representation of Ettore Bugatti's fanatical attention to detail will exist simply to bludgeon its way to speeds usually associated with light aircraft.
The fast-car industry is ripe for an iPod moment, an episode of unprecedented change that forces both maker and consumer to reconsider their roles in the process. Of all the machines I've driven this year, it's the McLaren P1 and BMW i8 that feel like they attempt to embrace this change: They radiate a sense of being completely removed from their contemporaries, and for all the right reasons.
Just imagine if someone gave us a light, beautiful, technically astute driver's car, and most important, it was celebrated by the masses such that it forced a recalibration of what a supercar should be. And that thinking percolated down through the price ranks, and Bugatti thought twice before delivering a 290-mph lummox obsessed with its own obsolescence.
Or else … I see Dodge has built a 707-hp Challenger called the Hellcat.
Maybe we should all just buy those.
Chris Harris is R&T's U.K. guy. As potential old farts go, he's fairly young.