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Updated Wednesday, May 30, 2012 at 06:23 AM

Bugatti Veyron goes topless in Seattle

Brier Dudley

Just my luck.

The day I get to test a $2 million car with a built-in umbrella -- in Seattle -- the sun comes out.

Not a single drop fell during my time Friday with the Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Grand Sport, a hand-built showcase of design and engineering.

So the umbrella stayed in the tiny little trunk up front.

Except for a quick demo of how you convert the four-wheel-drive missile into a ragtop, just in case. And because people in Seattle need to know.

The Grand Sport -- in town for car shows over the weekend -- comes with a carbon-fiber and polycarbonate hardtop. If it's at all sunny, you press quarter-sized buttons near each headrest to unlock the top. Carefully slide it back a bit to disengage from the windshield, then lift the 36-pound panel over the hood and stash it somewhere.

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That gives you a 1,001-horsepower roadster that would make Speed Racer drool. Not just because of the sky above and gut-tugging acceleration, but because the open cockpit gives you the full glory of the Veyron's mechanical symphony of a 16-cylinder turbocharged engine that whines, howls and gnashes behind your ears.

If you're motoring about and it starts raining, the trunk is filled almost completely with a black bag about the size of a rolled-up sleeping bag. Inside is a black, cloth umbrella. The handle goes between the two seats, while the canopy locks to the windshield and a crosspiece behind the headrests.

Exactly how fast you can go with the umbrella is a bit of a mystery, adding to the mystique of the rare and fabulous Veyron, which became the fastest and most expensive production car when the original coupe version debuted in 2005.

It was a challenge to create a roadster version of a lightweight car that's faster than most helicopters. To restore rigidity and protection lost when the fixed roof was removed, Bugatti reinforced the monocoque structure with more carbon-fiber components, using technology similar to what Boeing used in the 787 and what Bugatti's corporate cousin, Lamborghini, is refining in a research lab that it's funding at the University of Washington.

For instance, the Grand Sport has wide pieces of carbon-fiber in the large air scoops above its engine, giving them strength to provide more rollover protection.

Carbon-fiber is even used in the umbrella.

Bugatti's press material says the umbrella is usable at up to 62 mph, but a warning label printed on the umbrella itself says you can take it up to 100 mph.

You can actually double that with the bumbershoot in place, but you'll get some buffeting and a few drops will get into the cockpit, according to Butch Leitzinger, a race driver who escorts the media and potential buyers driving the Grand Sport.

"They've tested it over 200 -- they said it makes a lot of noise but stays on the car," he explained.

Leitzinger has driven the car up to 208 mph, on a closed airport. Bugatti claims it will do 253 mph, while a newer model with a 1,200 horsepower motor and all-carbon skin goes nearly 270.

One of my chances to flex the 16 cylinders was in the woods near Fall City -- part of a scenic loop I'd planned from Woodinville toward the mountains and then back into Seattle.

But sure enough, I ended up following an RV towing an old dinghy slowly through the curviest stretch of road. That kept me from driving to Portland during my lunch hour, though I could have made it to Walla Walla and back before dinner.

Instead I took pleasure in the small things. Like tapping the throttle to shoot past an Audi R8 dawdling in the fast lane on Interstate 90 near Issaquah. Thank heaven for the HOV lane.

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Average fuel consumption is 8 mpg in the city and 14 on the highway, according to Bugatti. Leitzinger said you need 93-octane fuel to get the full 1,001 horsepower. If you can find only 91 octane, press and hold the "Start" button on the console for five seconds and the car adjusts itself, lowering the horsepower to 850.

I didn't have time to test the mileage, but I estimate that Bugattis consume more digital memory than gasoline. Everywhere you drive in one, people take pictures of the car. It draws mobs of photographers when parked, and when driving, it magnetically pulls flashing cameras and smartphones from the windows of passing cars.

I'll bet one reason companies are building so many data centers in Eastern Washington and beyond is to store all the snapshots and videos people take of Bugattis being driven by sheiks, oligarchs, tech tycoons and the odd journalist.

Bugatti was a legendary producer of sports and racing cars in the early part of the 20th century but faded during World War II and stopped production in 1956. The brand was resurrected in the 1980s and acquired by the Volkswagen Group in 1998. The Bugatti factory remains at its original location in Molsheim, France.

The full run of 300 Veyron coupes sold out last September. At least one ended up in the Seattle area. Since the Grand Sport debuted in 2008, Bugatti sold 55 of the 150 that will be made. Leitzinger planned test drives for a few potential buyers over the weekend.

Driving the Grand Sport is remarkably easy. It's smooth and stable, with a seven-speed automatic transmission that's activated by tapping sideways on a short stick on the console. It can be operated manually with paddle shifters on the steering wheel, with an override system that shifts automatically if you rev too high in a particular gear.

New drivers are cautioned about the launch effect when you punch the accelerator in automatic mode.

There's a brief, deceptive lag -- like the fuse on a bottle rocket -- as the gears engage and the motor winds up. Then you're suddenly flying down the road with trees blurring and four turbochargers screaming, passing 60 mph in three seconds and 125 in just over seven.

Yet the car doesn't hunch down, wobble or squeal its tires, which is good because a set costs $35,000.

Leitzinger said the original Veyron design goals were to produce a 1,000-horsepower car that went 400 kilometers per hour -- about 249 mph -- and could still be driven to the opera. People who can afford one generally got there by doing things other than learning to drive racing cars, so the car accommodates a range of driving styles and skills, he said.

Most Bugattis are driven rarely -- about 1,000 miles per year on average -- but a few owners drive them about 10,000 miles per year, Leitzinger said. His 2011 demo model has gone nearly 15,000 miles and looks brand new. There are no juice spills or crayon marks on the buttery Austrian leather upholstery, made from cattle raised high in the mountains, where their hides are never blemished by mosquitoes or barbed wire.

It didn't take long to start daydreaming about using a Grand Sport as a daily driver. Especially going through the Mount Baker tunnel, with the motor's howl echoing off the walls and the overhead lights dancing across the chrome steering wheel trim and the fish-scale pattern milled into the aluminum console.

Although, really, who actually uses an umbrella in Seattle, anyway?


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