Lifestyle

A Revolution in Swede Speed


Slide Show >>Swedish automobiles have long been known as safe and steady, not fast and furious. It's no accident you've never heard the phrase "Swede speed." Right now, you're thinking about boxy, safe Volvo wagons, handy in the snow and adept with the kids and groceries, not high performance roadsters.

Enter Christian von Koenigsegg, a 33-year-old Swede with fast dreams. And he's got a former fighter jet assembly plant to bring them to life. Clocking in at 245 miles per hour, Koenigsegg Automotive broke the world speed record for a production car last year with the Koenigsegg CCR.

Since the first production car rolled off the assembly line in 1996, Koenigsegg has shipped ultrafast autos to the Middle East, Hong Kong, Eastern Europe, Russia, Britain, and Japan. Everywhere, it seems, except to the U.S., because Koenigsegg's cars have not met stringent U.S. safety and emissions standards.

That's about to change. Koenigsegg and his team of engineers are celebrating a decade in the high-performance auto business with a new model -- the Koenigsegg CCX -- engineered to comply with U.S. specifications. The CCX will carry a supercar price tag -- $722,534, fully equipped and before taxes. (The price even includes driving lessons from the world record-setting driver himself, Loris Bicocchi.)

GET IT RIGHT. Christian von Koenigsegg doesn't see the price as an impediment to sales. He estimates his company will ship 20 to 25 cars this year alone, doubling the company's entire output over the last 10 years. That means even if he's wildly successful, the car is going to be scarce. "This car is perfect for those who find Lamborghinis or Ferraris too common, too pedestrian," he says.

Cracking the U.S. market is imperative if the company is to reach its goal. Philipp Rosengarten, an analyst at Global Insight in Frankfurt, Germany, who keeps track of the world's fastest and most expensive cars, says "I would put a big question mark on the whole thing. The money, the demand is there, but you have to have the right cars to whet the appetite. They can do it, but it's going to be a challenge."

Indeed, the global market for these supercars is about $3 billion, a market that analysts say will double in the next five year. The U.S. represents about half of global sales, and California alone accounts for half of the American market. "It's the most challenging market, from a legalization point of view," says von Koenigsegg, "but now that we've done it, California is going to be big for us."

CHILDHOOD FANTASY. California has the world's toughest emissions standards. American safety standards, meanwhile, differ significantly from European. The new 2006 Koenigsegg CCX is an evolution of the previous record-breaking design, tweaked to meet U.S. standards. Not to worry, the car retains its speed rating, and it's the industry's only car with 806 horses under the hood. That's nearly twice the horses in Porsche's top-of-the-line 911 GT3, and more powerful than Mercendes-Benz' supercar offering, the SLR McLaren.

In setting the new speed record, von Koenigsegg realized a childhood fantasy. As a youngster, he was captivated by a cartoon series in which a repairman souped up his bicycle into an ultimate racing machine capable of competing with cars. The impression was lasting. At 22, von Koenigsegg financed his dream company with proceeds from selling a lucrative trading firm he started as an economics student in Brussels.

Not so much speed freak as precision-obsessed technician, von Koenigsegg says "I enjoy driving fast, but I'm not reckless. We've converted an old air runway into our 'proving ground,' where we can get our cars up to 190 miles per hour."

EAT MY DUST. Koenigsegg is located near the city of Ängelholm, in southern Sweden, in a facility that was once home to a unit of the Swedish Air Force. The company builds its cars by hand in a hangar that used to house JAS 39 Gripen fighter jets. Like those jets, the 2006 Koenigsegg CCX is a study in lean design and space-age materials. The body and chassis are made of extremely lightweight carbon-fiber composite, reinforced with Kevlar and aluminum honeycomb.

The CCX may have a price tag that's out of reach for most car buyers but it's a steal compared with the competition. Speed-wise, the only car capable of keeping up with the CCX is the VW-built Bugatti Veyron, which comes fully equipped for a whopping $1.47 million.

In fact, the CCX will be competing with a wide variety of high-performance vehicles, some with much-recognized, race-winning nameplates. Koenigsegg will have to battle it out with offerings from Ferrari, Porsche, and Mercedes-Benz, among others. Rosengarten notes that established brands are beginning to sell out and that Koenigsegg has an opportunity, "a risky one, but definitely worth it."

CALIFORNIA DREAMING. Whether for sheer speed or relative value, the response to the CCX at this year's Geneva Auto Show has been impressive. The U.S. road-worthy model is in such high demand that there's currently a nine month waiting period. The first model will roll off the line during the second week of April.

Meanwhile, Koenigsegg is rapidly building an American network of dealerships for sales and service. The first U.S. dealer location is expected to open during this summer. Where? The company won't say, because the details of the deal have not been settled. But it's a good bet that it will be in the Golden State.


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