Did you play Top Trumps as a kid? And yes, I mean the car kind: was there any other? Of course you did. And the same instinct that lit your little heart when you saw you’d been dealt, say, the Cizeta with its unassailable sixteen cylinders makes the adult you want to own that car. Or, if you’ve grown up to be an automotive engineer, build something even badder.
Extreme cars, and especially those at the top end of their scale – the fastest, the most powerful, the most expensive – can also be absurd, flawed and pointless. Chasing one automotive superlative to the exclusion of all else can leave you with a car that’s virtually unusable, and there will almost always be a row over your claim to whatever title you’ve targeted. But there can be a benefit too; in the single-minded pursuit of top speed, say, we’ve learnt stuff about cooling and aerodynamic efficiency that will trickle own to cars we can all afford.
I’ve just driven an extreme machine. And for once, there isn’t a row about its main claim. The Bugatti Veyron Super Sports is the fastest production car in the world, and it has a certificate from the Guinness Book of Records to prove it. But the cynic in you will say it also puts a big tick in the absurd box. We’ve previously reported how the standard Veyron, with ‘just’ 1001PS, capable of ‘just’ 253 miles per hour, can’t actually do 253 miles in an hour because at that speed it will drain its tanks in about twelve minutes and fifty miles. The Super Sports can trump that. Customer’s cars will be electronically limited to 258mph, because if you started with a full tank of fuel and accelerated to the true, drag-limited v-max of 268mph the tyres would disintegrate before you needed to fill up; less than five minutes, Bugatti reckons, though nobody’s yet volunteered to find out. That’s assuming you’d found a 22-mile straight on which you could hold 268mph for five minutes, but the Volkswagen Group isn’t prepared to bet you can’t. Some billionaire owner might just build one.
But of our three failings that afflict extreme machines – absurd, flawed, pointless – the Veyron Super Sports doesn’t do too badly on the last two. It’s far from flawed. Its colossal 365-section rear tyres with their shallow 4mm tread depth mean you won’t want to do more than about 30mph through standing water. But otherwise, for something so savagely, shockingly fast – it holds all the production car acceleration records too - it’s amazingly docile and driveable at low speeds, and feels like it will last as long as a Golf.
Pointless? There wasn’t much point in Edmund Hillary climbing Everest either. And the Veyron was conceived by the Hillary of the car world; Ferdinand Piech, the head of the family that controls Volkswagen and Porsche, a brilliant engineer and businessman, and Mr. Extreme. While still in his thirties he developed the legendary Porsche 917 racecar. The CanAm version – the 917/30 – is the most powerful car ever raced, making an insane 1580bhp in qualifying trim from its turbocharged 5.3-litre V12, and getting to 60mph in 1.9 seconds. One-point-nine. But at the same time as he commissioned the Veyron, he started another team of VW engineers on the one-litre car project: a two-seat diesel-powered coupe that can cover 100km on a litre of fuel. That’s around 300mpg. A production version is expected in 2013 which, once it’s laden with all the safety stuff the EU demands before it will give a car number plates, might ‘only’ return 200mpg. And you can bet that despite being as single-minded in its pursuit of an extreme as its Veyron cousin, it will also be every bit as driveable and reliable as a Golf.
The pursuit of extreme parsimony might be politically more acceptable now, but it’s subject to more controversy than any other measure of a car’s performance. It’s almost impossible to disentangle the relative environmental claims of electric vehicles versus fuel-cell cars versus hybrids. It’s hard, however, to argue against the claims of French firm MDI, which has started building cars that run on compressed air, although yes, you do need electricity to compress the air in the first place, and no, we don’t expect to see fleets of them whistling down our roads like un-knotted party balloons any time soon.
These kind of radical leaps sometimes need to come from outside the automotive mainstream. Piech has done fast and frugal but he hasn’t yet done extreme cheap. For that we need to look to another visionary, Indian industrialist Ratan Tata, who was so appalled by the carnage caused on his country’s roads by families of four riding on a single scooter that he ordered engineers at his fledgling car company to design something with four wheels for 100,000 rupees, or £1400, or the price of a motorbike.
We’d heard rumours about this new ‘car’; that in order to meet that price target it would have no side glass, a plastic body and a fabric roof. But the Tata Nano, when it arrived, looked and drove remarkably like a normal car. Just like the Veyron, its engineers had worked very, very hard to hit an almost impossible target while keeping the car usable. But their achievement is greater than Bugatti’s; the Veyron is only a few miles per hour faster than its rivals, but the Nano is less than half the price of the next-cheapest car, and the mainstream carmakers – Piech included, probably - are still scratching their heads about how to catch up.