We're blasting past the ancient Roman Colosseum at the wheel of a 1973 Lamborghini Countach, the original prototipo owned by the Museo Lamborghini — the most ancient Countach in the world. We're part of a procession of 10 V12-powered Lamborghinis sweeping through these narrow streets while thousands cheer. And with us is the newest Lamborghini in the world: the 2012 Lamborghini Aventador.
Our little bit of performance art in Rome puts the Aventador in perspective. Lamborghini's latest V12-powered exotic is a tribute to the latest technology, but it's also part of a grand tradition that can be traced back from the Murciélago to the Diablo and thence to the original Countach.
Is the Aventador the real deal — a raging bull like the Countach that shocked the world so long ago? Or is it just an Audi-engineered concoction of frippery with scissor doors attached?
As we ponder the question, the sound of the Countach's V12 echoes in the narrow streets of Rome.
Then as Now?
It's a revealing exercise to place new and old side by side. The 2012 Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4 embraces the modern theme of lightness with its exotic carbon-fiber monocoque chassis, not to mention its carbon-fiber bodywork, so it's no wonder it weighs 198 pounds less than the Murciélago it replaces. Yet the equally modern themes of crash safety and top-speed capability have had their impact, too, because this 3,472-pound car is positively portly compared to the relatively dainty 2,778-pound Countach.
When it comes to style, however, the Aventador comes from the same mold from which sprang the Marcello Gandini-designed Countach. Filippo Perini, the Aventador's designer, is a big fan of the great man's work and hopes that the angular elements of this new design will measure up in time to the lasting impact of the low, wedge-shaped Countach with its unique trapezoidal surfaces. The Aventador gets plenty of cheers from the bystanders, but then again, they're celebrating the 150th anniversary of Italy's unification this year and will cheer at almost anything Italian.
The Key to History
That morning we were offered the keys to the Countach LP400 and took them without hesitation. Given the history of this car, we'd be mad not to. It's the oldest surviving example, a factory prototype that was the second car produced. The first was the famous yellow car that wowed the crowds at the 1971 Geneva motor show, only to be subsequently destroyed during crash testing at the MIRA proving ground in the U.K.
Slipping inside its cabin, the LP400 is a time capsule of 1973, as the exotic upholstery of leather and suede contrast with the trio of Fiat-style keys hanging off their ring from the ignition lock. Firing up the freshly restored V12 engine is a joy, and the engine snuffles through its side-draft carburetors as it lights up and then revs cleanly and tunefully. The action of the throttle pedal is long and surprisingly fluid considering the long run of cable that goes to the linkage for the six 45mm Weber DCOEs, and the cable-operated clutch is equally progressive and surprisingly light.
As we wait in line for the drive past the Colosseum, an Aventador nearby fires up its own V12. It's loud enough to frighten small children and successfully manages to drown out the 1973 car. These two cars have the same kind of aural signature, even though the Aventador carries a newly designed V12 that is similar only in the broadest way to the 60-degree, 24-valve, DOHC V12 that ex-Ferrari engineer Giotto Bizzarrini (the man behind the Ferrari 250 GTO) designed for Ferrucio Lamborghini's new car company in 1963.
Marching Past the Colosseum
Driving along the Via dei Fori Imperiali toward the Colosseum, the Countach's ride quality impresses. On this turbulent road surface in the oldest part of Rome, the combination of relatively soft springs and 70-series tires with tall, compliant sidewalls is just what you want. Yes, there's plenty of banging from the tubular spaceframe chassis and rattling from the aluminum bodywork as the LP400 registers the bumps, but if you concentrate on what your backside is really telling you, this car is actually very refined.
Once we leave Rome for the countryside, the Countach's 375-horsepower V12 pulls strongly, even though outright acceleration is stunted by the extra-tall gearing. This is still a mighty-quick car, capable of reaching 60 mph in 5.6 seconds and completing the quarter-mile in 14.4 seconds. The hype surrounding the Countach when it was introduced included claims of 200 mph, but 160 mph proved to be more like it according to testing of the day.
Lamborghini test-drivers Bob Wallace and Paolo Stanzani had also learned a lot while trying to improve the roadholding and high-speed stability of the Lamborghini Miura, and they applied their knowledge to the Countach. The result is responsive, pin-sharp steering, and this car grips the corners beautifully even on its relatively narrow Michelin radials.
Just 2,042 Countachs were built over the 16 years the model remained in production, and most of these only came once Chrysler took over ownership of the company in 1987. The Countach LP400 has rough edges, yet it's still the car that first defined "supercar."
A New Definition for a New Century
Alongside the Countach, the new Aventador LP700-4 looks angry, a Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk fighter plane inexplicably rolling across the cobblestones near the Colosseum. But once we arrive at Autodromo Vallelunga Piero Taruffi, the well-known racetrack about 20 miles north of Rome, this car seems more in its element.
In terms of technology, the Aventador is a million years along in supercar evolution compared to the original Countach. Thanks to the latest production techniques for carbon fiber, the Aventador is more like a Formula 1 car than a production sports car, as its carbon-fiber passenger cell carries aluminum sub-assemblies to mount double-wishbone suspension arms and racing-type pushrod dampers.
The all-new 60-degree V12 displaces 6,498cc, and its oversquare cylinders and 48 valves represent the latest modern thinking (although the engine does not yet have direct fuel injection). It makes 690 hp at 8,250 rpm and 509 pound-feet of torque at 5,500 rpm. Under your elbow is the single-clutch, seven-speed automated manual transmission from Graziano that sends power to all four wheels through the latest, clutch-type Haldex IV center differential.
Firing up the new V12 is an occasion. Within the cabin you face an array of aircraft-style LCD instrumentation and when you flick the starter switch under its aircraft-style protective cover, the big engine barks into life with venom.
Engage Forward Thrusters
The gears engage smoothly when you trigger the shift paddles on the steering wheel, and the response from the electronic throttle is equally smooth if you trickle away from a stop in Strada mode rather than Sport or Corsa. Once you floor the long-travel throttle pedal, the experience is almost mind-altering.
Unlike the old V12, there's no sudden urgency as the revs climb, but instead, a steady rush of power. Full-throttle acceleration is a seamless wave that seems almost too calm for 690 hp. Fortunately, the all-wheel-drive system harnesses the power with ease, the fast-acting center clutch continuously varying the torque split as traction requirements change. Lamborghini's own test numbers tell you what's really happening, as 100 km/h (62 mph) arrives in 2.9 seconds. Braking to a stop from this speed takes just 98 feet.
The Aventador's ability to develop extreme amounts of grip grabs your attention in corners, although the suspension rates are far from harsh. The Aventador understeers if you plunge into a corner too hot in Strada mode, gets pointier in Sport and delivers enough opposite-lock action to amuse in Corsa. The steering communicates, and it gives you the confidence to play with the throttle to adjust the cornering attitude of the car in high-speed bends. The Haldex IV helps you by varying the torque split to the front wheels, and the traction you get at the exit of corners is staggering if you get things right, although slightly nerve-wracking if you don't.
In their own way, both the Countach and the Aventador managed to impress during the low-speed run through Rome. Both ride well, and the snug cabins make you feel great. Both have the ability to loosen the elastic in your knickers at 100 paces.
As we stop at the Arco di Constantino alongside the unmistakable Colosseum, we're engulfed once again by well-wishing enthusiasts — and it's difficult to work out which car they're more attracted to. Certainly the purity of the Countach's styling is breathtaking.
Is the Aventador everything we expected? Yes, it improves on the Murciélago in just about every respect, yet has retained the Lamborghini DNA, and it's brimming with the essence of what makes a Lamborghini so special. If you crave the unhinged character of the Countach but want modern ease of driving, look no further.
Portions of this content have appeared in foreign print media and are reproduced with permission.