The Bugatti Chiron Super Sport's W16 engine, explained
We drove a $4 million Bugatti featuring diamond membranes in the sound system and a W16 engine made up of 3,500 parts.
By Kristin Shaw | Published Aug 28, 2023 3:30 PM EDT
Piloting a new Bugatti Chiron Super Sport down the Pacific Coast Highway on a random Saturday afternoon is a bucket-list item for anyone who loves cars as much as I do. Bystanders crane their necks as the Bugatti roars by; it’s not often these beasts are seen in the wild.
This French-made Bugatti is very, very expensive and very, very powerful. These $4 million(ish) cars can accelerate from zero to 62 miles per hour in 2.4 seconds, and the top speed for the Chiron Super Sport is 273 miles per hour. That’s speedier than Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train, by the way.
However, what makes this machine interesting is not just its beating heart, which is the car’s 1,600-horsepower engine. The car sports a sleek, prowling silhouette with wide aerodynamic scoops carved from the flanks, and cathedral-like buttresses anchoring the rear. It’s also unique in its engineering; built on a hand-constructed carbon fiber monocoque (the car’s structural frame), the Chiron Super Sport is powered by 16 cylinders and four turbos, which breathe more air into the combustion chamber to fan the flames.
This vehicle, even at its base configuration, sets itself apart with features like diamond membranes in the Accuton audio system and titanium in the exhaust system.
Let’s take a closer look at the unique touches that will take your breath away, even when the Chiron Super Sport is sitting perfectly still.
Bugatti customers can request a customized vehicle through the brand’s Sur Mesure program (“custom made” in French). Anything goes in the design studio, and one customer chose a Chiron Super Sport to be the canvas for a celebratory mural honoring the company’s history. Bugatti designer Jascha Straub rose to the challenge and led a team that invested 400 painstaking hours drawing 45 sketches by hand on the sides of the car.
For this specific vehicle (dubbed “Golden Era”), Straub tells PopSci that it was important to the design team to use pencil sketches directly on the car. The pencils they chose incorporate a bit of wax, giving the drawings an oil pastel effect. “There are easier ways to do it, like using a pen or marker, but a pen drawing doesn’t look like a pencil sketch,” he says. “We wanted to keep the grain and shading and highlights intact, which was why it was clear we had to use pencil.”
During the first set of tests, the designers used body prototype panels and sketched directly on the paint, then covered it with a transparent protective layer called clear coat. The problem, they discovered, was that the clear coat cracked atop the pencil markings. As a result, the designers defined a process to achieve the desired effect: First, a light layer of clear coat was laid on top of the gold paint, and then the images were sketched on top with professional-quality Prismacolor and Polychromos pencils. Then they added another thin layer of clear coat, and the artists sketched right on top of that. Every image was drawn at least three to four times, Straub says.
And there’s more: just above the gear shifter, the dashboard on all of these vehicles is fitted with embedded tweeters each using a one-karat diamond membrane for extremely low-distortion, high-quality sound. The membrane looks like a contact lens, but made from the hardest naturally-occurring substance on Earth. Because diamonds are so strong, the sound waves pass through them quickly and without warping. Paired with titanium parts, the Accuton audio system is about as good as it gets.
The Chiron Super Sport’s W16 engine—which is currently the only 16-cylinder powertrain in a car—does the work of moving this automotive cathedral on wheels from place to place. First seen in the brand’s 2005 Veyron, the W16 is made up of 3,500 individual parts, each piece assembled by hand.
Some quick engine background: A V8 engine has the “V” in it because of its shape; two banks of four cylinders each are arranged in a V configuration. In this case, the W16 has the “W” in the name because the cylinders are arranged in a ‘W’ configuration for efficiency of space. Essentially, the engineers at Bugatti created a 16-cylinder engine that is the size of a 12-cylinder engine.
But this W16 is more than just the sum total of two V8s. Bugatti’s W16 is enhanced by four turbos (two on each cylinder bank). Typically, turbos are added to boost power to a smaller engine, but that’s not the case here, clearly: The engine is massive and the turbos are the icing on top. An intricate water-cooling setup keeps it running smoothly without overheating. For that matter, the brand turned to titanium for the exhaust system, as the W16 kicks off a lot of heat. This iconic engine setup is as distinctive for its artistry as its sheer power.
Right now, the French company’s future is uncertain.
A century after he founded the company, Ettore Bugatti himself might be surprised to see his company still building cars in his name. (Bugatti died in 1947.) Even more so, he might be shocked to learn that Croatian EV-maker Rimac owns a majority stake in Bugatti, with plans to electrify the brand. He’d surely find kinship with Rimac’s founder and CEO, the young Mate Rimac himself, who kick-started his career converting the powertrain of his 1984 BMW 3 Series from internal combustion to electricity.
While former Bugatti CEO Stephan Winkelmann has already said that the W16 engine is “the last of its kind,” that doesn’t necessarily mean the supercar builder is finished with massive powertrains. If the automaker takes a tip from Lamborghini, it may opt for a high-powered hybrid going forward. The partnership with Rimac is surely going to charge things up.
Kristin Shaw has been writing about cars for Popular Science since 2022. She accrued extensive experience in the telecommunications, tech, and aviation sectors before she became an automotive journalist specializing in anything with wheels.