The closest thing I can imagine would be strapping myself into an FA-18 for the thrill of a catapult launch off a Navy carrier. Instead, I’ve slipped into the new Bugatti Chiron, belted up and given my co-driver the thumbs up. This time, I’m only along for the ride. At $2.7 million a pop, I can’t argue when it’s “suggested” I first take a check ride to feel what it’s like when a 1,500 horsepower coupe takes off in anger down a nearly three-mile straight. So, after firing the beast up and running through a checklist a pilot might admire, he gives me back the thumbs-up, revs the engine a couple times, slips the transmission into gear and hits the throttle.
Carrier launches can generate 6Gs or more—that is, six times the force of gravity—and without specially designed pressure suits pilots would black out. The Chiron can only deliver a 1G launch but that’s still enough to drain the blood from my eyes as I sink deep into the Bugatti’s heavily bolstered sports seat. By the time I can focus again and turn to check out the speedometer we’ve already blasted through 60. It took a mere 2.4 seconds, and four seconds later we’ve topped 125. But the Bugatti keeps on pulling, topping 200 mph in barely 15 seconds. We’ve already used up a fair amount of pavement, so the driver decides to back down before quite reaching the 250 mark.
The recently introduced successor to the spaceship-like Bugatti Veyron lays claim to being the world’s fastest street-legal production automobile, though it faces some surprisingly intense competition for that crown from an expanding array of products like the American-made Hennessey Venom F5 and Sweden’s Koenigsegg Agera RS.
They’re all street legal, albeit with price tags that only a one-percenter might consider. Churning out horsepower numbers that push well above 1,000, they make more familiar muscle and sports cars, whether the sleek, 640-hp Ferrari 488 GTB or the ballsy 840-hp Dodge Challenger SRT Demon, seem tame. Indeed, they are so powerful and blindingly fast that they require the unique sobriquet of “hypercars.” Exactly what that means, however, is a matter of debate.
From the days of the very first automobile, buyers have been craving more power and performance. “The fascination for high speed has lost none of its appeal to this day,” read a statement from Daimler AG earlier this year, marking the 80th anniversary of race driver Rudolf Caracciola’s record 268.9 mph run down a stretch of Autobahn near Frankfurt. He drove a specially modified Mercedes-Benz race car. Even the most exotic vehicles available to consumers of the 1930s could barely top 100. It wasn’t until the 1950s that products like the Jaguar XK120 and the Mercedes Gullwing SL made triple-digit runs possible on a routine basis.
While it might not be the first brand to come to mind, some experts credit Ford with coming up with the first true supercar, a street-legal version of the GT40 race car that it designed specifically to take down Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which it won from 1966 to 1969. The production version, introduced in 2004 as simply the GT, made what seemed almost impossible at the time, a whopping 335 horsepower and 336 pound-feet of torque. It could hit 60 in just 5.1 seconds and topped out at 172 mph.
Today, any number of vehicles lay claim to being a “supercar,” a term that actually dates back to the 1920s. An ad for the Ensign 6, a behemoth meant to challenge the likes of Bentley and Rolls-Royce, declared the sedan to be “The supreme development of the British super-car.” Today, the Collins English Dictionary describes supercar as, “a very expensive, fast or powerful car with a centrally located engine,” a definition that can cover a lot of territory, including familiar models like the Porsche 911 Turbo and pretty much anything from Lamborghini or Ferrari. But hypercars take things “to the next stage,” says Don Sherman, a long-time racer and a veteran reporter for Car and Driver magazine. “They’ve got even more power, less weight, more technology and a lot more performance.” If you want something more definitive, he suggests, “It’s gotta go 250 mph, certainly well over 200, which has become almost commonplace these days.”
No car fit that definition better than the Bugatti Veyron. Long, low and sleek, it featured the sort of outrageous design that might have seemed more appropriate on the set of a sci-fi flick. The Veyron EB 16.4 was unveiled in 2000 and marked the revival of the legendary brand founded by legendary designer Ettore Bugatti nearly a century before. (Volkswagen AG purchased it in 1998 as part of a campaign to dominate the extreme luxury and performance market. Other examples of such VW acquisitions include Bentley, Lamborghini and, more recently, Porsche.)
With its unusual, quad-turbo, W-16 engine—referenced by the 16.4 in its name—Bugatti boasted that the Veyron would become the first-ever, street-legal, factory-produced vehicle to deliver 1,000 horsepower. The concept was so bold that the BBC declared it “Car of the Decade” before the first one even rolled out of the factory in 2011. The original version set a top speed of 253 mph, but Bugatti engineers weren’t done yet. They steadily amped up the 16-cylinder power plant, capping their efforts with the Veyron Grand Sport Vitesse model which captured a Guinness world record for street legal cars with a top speed of 267.856 mph. The roadster version hit an average 254.03 mph during testing in April 2013.
After taking an order for the 500th Veyron, Bugatti officially ended the production run in late 2014. But it wasn’t about to close up shop, unveiling a successor model, the Chiron. By then, the race was on and a growing list of worthy competitors has since thrown down the gauntlet hoping to best Bugatti at its own game. The numbers have grown ever larger and faster, with the Hennessey Venom F5 rated around 1,600 hp. But for those who think even that—and a top claimed speed of 301 mph—just doesn’t cut it, a small, Mideast-based start-up may finally be pushing the upper limits. Making its debut at the Dubai Motor Show last November, the appropriately named Devel Sixteen is claimed to deliver a jaw-dropping and neck-snapping 5,000 horsepower from its own, quad-turbo, 16-cylinder engine. Devel promises the two-seater will top out somewhere around 310 mph—albeit without any official test runs. And it can be yours for $1.8 million, a relative bargain in today’s hypercar class.
Plenty of skeptics question whether Devel can deliver on its claims, something we may not know for another year or two. But one thing seems certain: with new billionaires being minted every day, there’s plenty of money out there to support the hypercar industry. And some intriguing new technology that change the way the game is played.
With the launch of the Tesla Model S, the Silicon Valley automaker showed that electric cars don’t have to be slow and ponderous. With its optional Ludicrous Mode, the Model S P100D edition can match the Bugatti Veyron’s 0-to-60 times. Then there’s Rimac, a Croatian start-up whose Concept One is not only being billed as the world’s fastest electric vehicle but a hypercar in its own right, making 1,224 horsepower and capable of hitting 60 in a mere 2.4 seconds. Meanwhile, late last year Tesla CEO and founder Elon Musk unveiled the company’s second-generation Roadster, declaring his intent to “give a hardcore smackdown” to vehicles running on internal combustion engines. It will create a mind-boggling 10,000 pound-feet of tire-spinning torque, he promises, and will hit a top speed of 250 mph. How far it will get on a full charge at that speed, well, Musk isn’t saying. But speed is the enemy of energy-efficiency for any fuel type. In a flat-out run, the Bugatti Veyron would empty its 26-gallon gas tank in just 12 minutes.
Aston Martin Valkyris
Unveiled at the 2017 Geneva Motor Show and still a ways from production, the British sports carmaker’s first true hypercar is being developed in cooperation with its track partner, Red Bull Racing. Both the street-legal and track versions will be produced in very limited numbers. The ultralight, monocoque-design two-seater will use a mid-engine 6.5-liter Cosworth engine expected to make “at least 1,000 horsepower.”
While the Chiron picks up on key styling cues of the brand’s previous exotic, the Veyron, it is anything but a “carryover.” A closer look reveals significant updates made to ensure that Chiron can deliver a whopping 25 percent more power than the old Bugatti Grand Sport Vitesse, something that should help it regain a number of world records, including power, torque and top speed. Surprisingly, getting 1,500 horsepower and 1,180 pound-feet of torque out of the Chiron’s 8.0-liter quad-turbo W-16 engine was less of a challenge than keeping brakes and powertrain cooled at 260+ mph.
Chevrolet Corvette ZR1
A Chevy? Well, that’s a matter of debate because the latest version of the seventh-generation ’Vette retains its up-front engine placement. Nevertheless, it delivers what GM calls “unprecedented performance.” Its supercharged 6.2-liter LT5 V-8 churns out a solid 755 hp and 715 pound-feet of torque, and it can clip 60 in barely two seconds, with a top speed of around 216 mph. What the automotive world is really watching for, however, is the long-awaited mid-engine Corvette caught by “spy” photographers while it was tested at places like Germany’s Nurburgring.
Ferrari LaFerrari and FXX
Only this Italian automaker would name its first hypercar after itself. The LaFerrari was more than just fast and exotic. It introduced the world to the idea you could make a green (well, greener) hypercar using a Formula One–derived hybrid system that combines a 6.2-liter V-12 and 120-kilowatt electric motor that recaptures energy during braking and coasting. Now comes the successor, the FXX-K Evo. Built in extremely limited numbers, this four-wheeled arrow of a hypercar also borrows heavily from F1 for both its aerodynamics and powertrain technology—the hybrid engine package rated at 1,036 hp.
The successor to the original Ford GT40 was, like the ’60s-era hypercar, initially designed for the racetrack—dominating its class in the global endurance series for the last two years. Fittingly, only 250 will be built in the initial run, an upgraded version to follow with equal numbers. Some, however, might quibble about whether the GT deserves to be called a hypercar. It makes only 647 hp, and its twin-turbo 3.5-liter engine has but six cylinders. However, due to its lightweight construction it boasts one of the highest power-to-weight ratios of any street-legal performance car ever built.
Hennessey Venom F5
This American-born hypercar could soon not only capture the world speed record, but become the first production model to break 300 mph. No wonder it’s named for the most powerful tornado on the Fujita scale. The limited-edition F5 uses a Hennessey-designed V-8 that makes 1,600 horsepower. But power isn’t everything. With its carbon-fiber body it weighs just 2,950 pounds and wind-tunnel testing has helped minimize drag while maximizing the down force needed to stay on the ground at such extreme speeds.
Koenigsegg Agera RS
Starting with the “One,” this Swedish marque has rolled out a series of hyper-exotic machines that have challenged far more established ultra-performance brands like Ferrari, Lamborghini and McLaren. The Agera RS, in fact, claims a slightly higher top speed than the new Bugatti Chiron, at 278 mph, and there have been hints from the company that it could yet push to 300, challenging Hennessey’s Venom F5. Oh, and it can reach 250 mph in a mere 33 seconds.
Lamborghini Huracán Performante
When it comes to outlandish designs, few can come close to matching what Lamborghini routinely rolls out. And even its most mundane models deliver inspiring levels of performance. But the Performante clearly pushes the envelope with a car that can stand on its own on both the drag strip and on a more conventional race circuit. It will turn a quarter mile in a mere 10.4 seconds and it has lapped the grueling Nürburgring Nordschleife in just six minutes 52.1 seconds, a production car record.
McLaren P1 and XX
Claiming more F1 victories than any other manufacturer, the British carmaker was one of the first to push into hypercar territory with the exotic and unusual F1. It followed with the P1 earlier this decade and is now readying the $1 million Senna, named for Formula One legend Ayrton Senna. (He spent six years under the McLaren flag, winning 35 races and taking three world championships.) With its distinctive gullwing doors and ultralight carbon fiber chassis and body, it will be powered by a 780 hp twin-turbo V-8.
Mercedes-AMG Project One
After a long wait, we’ve finally gotten our first official look at the German marque’s first true hypercar. A major step beyond the earlier SLR and SLS supercars, the Project One’s specs might seem like a typo: it uses a miniscule 1.6-liter turbocharged engine, but one that can spin at 11,000 RPMs. And it’s paired with four electric motors that, all combined, thrust out over 1,000 horsepower with essentially no turbo lag. It even promises 25 miles in all-electric mode, as well as a 217 mph top speed.
Porsche 918 Spyder and Mission E
The 918 Spyder was a breakthrough model for Porsche in a variety of ways, among other things marking the first time the German sports car company opted for a hybrid drivetrain, one using Formula One technology. The mid-engine plug-in could even drive 19 miles in all-electric mode. The automaker will next year launch its first all-electric model, the Mission E. And though it won’t fall into the hypercar category it’s expected to deliver performance in line with some of Porsche’s fastest models.
We haven’t gotten much from Tesla yet on the second-generation Roadster. It’s focused, for now, on figuring out how to fix production problems with its new Model 3. But during an autumn 2017 sneak preview, Musk set hearts aflutter by showing off a prototype that, he claimed, will make an awe-inspiring 10,000 pound-feet of torque, hit 60 in barely two seconds and top out somewhere in the 250 mph range. Want one of the first? Tesla is taking advance orders for a $200,000 deposit.
Paul A. Eisenstein writes frequently on cars for Cigar Aficionado.