VW launching world's priciest car: $ 1 million
Wall Street Journal
Dec. 14, 2005 01:08 PM
After seven years of false starts, a $1 million car billed as the world's fastest factory-produced automobile is about to arrive on American shores.
Volkswagen AG is launching early next year the Bugatti Veyron, a curvaceous two-seater with air-intake scoops and a large radiator grille that prominently displays the Bugatti badge. For the German car maker, it represents an unusual bet on the high-end market at time of cost cutting for the company and as U.S. car makers continue to struggle with slow sales.
The Bugatti Veyron boasts a massive, rear-mounted 16-cylinder engine with 1,001 horsepower - roughly the equivalent of a couple of Porsche 911s combined - and a rear spoiler that helps keep the car from spinning out of control at high speeds. It needs just 2.5 seconds to accelerate from zero to 62 miles per hour, and burns rubber so quickly that its makers had to hire France's Michelin SCA to develop a special compound for its tires. Its top speed: 252.9 mph.
Yet for all the car's horsepower, VW acknowledges that many of those who buy the Veyron will seldom drive it, let alone at its top speed. Few, if any, public streets in the world allow motorists to approach anything near the car's top speed. Repairs are another challenge. Bugatti officials say their dealers will have staff trained to handle routine maintenance needs, such as oil changes. For more complicated problems, the company says it will send over technicians from Europe.
It's also not clear how long VW will keep making the car, which is being produced at the rate of less than one a week at a glass-walled factory in the Alsace region of France. The Veyron will be sold through a half dozen Bentley dealerships across the U.S., including sites in Miami, Troy, Mich., Beverly Hills, Calif., San Diego, Pasadena, Calif., and Greenwich, Conn. VW hopes to sell 300 over the next five years or so, but acknowledges production might stop if it doesn't get enough orders.
Many buyers, who can select a two-color scheme for the exterior, are expected to be collectors who will keep the car largely for displaying. "It's considered more a piece of art than an actual car that's going to be driven," says Dave Mast, a Bugatti sales representative in Troy.
Georg Sturzer, an auto-industry analyst with HVB Corporates & Markets Research in Munich, Germany, has a different view: "It's a complete waste of time and money."
VW officials concede the Veyron is likely to be unprofitable. But they are hoping the exercise of building the car will serve as a kind of research project that will yield technologies they can use in cars for its Audi and Lamborghini divisions.
With oil prices nearing all-time highs, the Veyron is arriving at a difficult time for makers of "super-luxury" cars, generally defined as those selling for roughly $300,000 or more.
The road leading to the Veyron's imminent launch - it will be presented to American car buyers next month at the Los Angeles auto show - has been filled with detours. At Volkswagen, the project got rolling in the heady days of the late 1990s after a rebound from near bankruptcy in 1993. Profits were strong again, thanks to pedestrian models like the Golf, Jetta and Passat. Emboldened, Ferdinand Piech - then VW's chief executive and now chairman of its supervisory board - decided to turn the inventor of the "people's car" into more of a luxury-car maker.
Mr. Piech, the grandson of legendary German sports-car maker Ferdinand Porsche and an engineer by training himself, spent billions to develop upscale models and acquire Italian sports-car maker Lamborghini and Britain's Bentley. The crown jewel in the effort was to be a super-luxury sports car that would cast an aura of exclusivity over all of VW's brands. For this "halo" car, Mr. Piech paid an undisclosed sum in 1998 for the rights to one of the most storied names of Europe's prewar auto industry - Bugatti.
Founded by Italian entrepreneur Ettore Bugatti shortly after the dawn of the 20th century, the original Bugatti auto company built elegantly styled race cars and limousines for European royalty and aristocrats. Not quite 8,000 were made between 1909 and 1939, when World War II interrupted production.
The world's clique of Bugatti fans had mixed feelings about the brand's resurrection. While some welcomed VW's investment as a boost to Bugatti's prestige, Veyron's aggressive look and over-the-top power came as a disappointment to others. The car, says Sandy Leith, a Dedham, Mass., stockbroker and Bugatti collector, is "a little too much - too much money, too much horsepower, too flamboyant."
In 2002, Piech retired as CEO and handed off his luxury strategy, and the Bugatti project, to his successor, Bernd Pischetsrieder. It didn't take long for the Veyron's problems to grab Mr. Pischetsrieder's attention. In August 2003, VW invited dozens of Bugatti collectors and potential buyers to a lavish party and presentation of the Veyron at the opulent Stonepine Estate Resort in Carmel Valley, Calif.
But the next day when the car roared down a race tack during a demonstration, it spun out in the first turn and only narrowly avoided a crash. "We were embarrassed for them," says Mr. Leith, who attended the event. "There was a lot of whispered chatter like, 'They spent all this money for this?' "
By that point, Pischetsrieder, back in Germany, had taken the car for a spin on his own and walked away disgusted with the car's aerodynamics, according to people familiar with incident. A few weeks later, Bugatti's president, Karl-Heinz Neumann, left the company. Mr. Pischetsrieder brought in a former Formula 1 race-car driver, Thomas Bscher, to take over the project. A plan to launch the Veyron by April 2004, in time for Piech's birthday, was scrapped, according to a company official familiar with the matter.
Volkswagen engineers then retooled the car, tightening its brakes and stiffening its suspension, before announcing that the car's launch was being delayed until the second half of 2005.
Through a spokesman, Mr. Piech declined a request for an interview, but in response to written questions he said VW has to be represented in both the auto industry's mainstream segments and "in the top class" to be profitable. "You have to be represented in well-balanced proportion," he says.
Production began in France in September. Volkswagen has taken orders for about 45 cars, almost a full year's production. Among those waiting, according to a company spokesman: Piech, who has bought one for his wife, Ursula.