It's the spring of 2009 and we're standing at the Nardo test track in Italy waiting to get our first glimpse of the car that will replace the Lamborghini Murcielago. After excitedly discussing what it might be (rumors suggest it will be called the Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4), a garage door opens and all the conversation ceases. Before us, wearing a heavy disguise that consists mostly of black duct tape atop four monumentally huge wheels and tires, sits the future of Lamborghini.
This is the car that will either make or break the famous old company from Sant'Agata. It's the car that will define what Lamborghini means to the rest of the world for at least the next 10 years. And it's a car, or at least the prototype of a car, that we'll be driving in less than half an hour's time.
The Real Sesto Elemento
Lamborghini's head of research and development, Maurizio Reggiani, gestures for us to climb aboard. He's grinning because he knows what we are about to experience. He's so excited to know what we all think — he almost forgets to tell us what's underneath the disguise. As in, what exactly it is that's new about this brand-new Lamborghini.
At this stage, though, he's not allowed to give away too much. We know that the tub is made entirely from carbon fiber and that the suspension is of single-seater-style pushrod design, both firsts for any Lamborghini. We know also that the engine is still a V12 but that it's an all-new motor that displaces 6.5 liters and will eventually produce over 700 horsepower.
What we don't know, and what Maurizio won't yet tell us, is what the car weighs. Just before I climb aboard I ask him what the target weight might be, and he just shakes his head, grinning that same grin, only this time with a more serious expression beneath the smile. As if to say, "Look, my friend, if a Murcielago weighs nearly 3,700 pounds with a conventional backbone chassis, and you already know the new car has a carbon-fiber tub because I just told you it does, how much do you think the damn thing weighs?"
Fewer Quirks and More Room
A press of the big starter button on the console and the all-new Lamborghini erupts into life, much like every other Lamborghini erupts into life — with an enormous burst of revs, like it or not. There are some noticeable new characteristics, though. There's no vibration through the tub once the engine settles to its still noisy idle. The sound from the engine and exhaust is smoother and less grainy than the Murcielago. And the response from the crank when we blip the throttle is ridiculously quick; the revs rise and fall just like a full-blown formula car — rap-rap — and the effect can't help but make you smile.
Before it's even moved this car feels both more refined and less physically intimidating than previous Lamborghinis. One you'd half expect to see from the more extreme edges of a company like VW. And that's before you so much as mention the cabin, or the driving position, both of which are hugely more resolved than in the Murcielago.
The driving position is a giant leap forward because they really did go back to the drawing board with the car's basic proportions this time round. The pedals, steering wheel and driver seat are exactly where they should be relative to the rest of the cabin. No longer (at last) are there offset pedals or a curious lack of headroom to deal with, even with a crash helmet strapped to your head.
Then there's the dash and the new TFT instrument display, both of which represent radical departures from the Lamborghini norm. The instruments themselves are digital, and you can switch between various menus Gran Turismo-style to make either the speedometer or tachometer the main dial within the binnacle.
A Civilized Bull
The moment it moves, the new Lambo feels every bit as advanced dynamically as it does aesthetically inside. The ride, even on this early prototype, is calm and controlled in a way that a Murcielago owner simply wouldn't recognize. It glides quietly over ground that the old car shimmies and thumps across; we know this because an hour earlier they let us loose in a current Murcielago over the same roads.
On the high-speed bowl at the Nardo test track, the new car feels unequivocally like a big hairy Lambo, which is good. But it also has an aerodynamic stability and a maturity to its gait that is quite unlike any other car with a raging bull on its nose. There's no kickback through the steering wheel whatsoever, nor any shake through the column at speed — both of which were issues in the Murcielago. And the steering is both lighter and much more precise.
Best of all, we no longer get the impression that we're sitting at the front of a very long, triangular-shape machine whose tail contains a bite so venomous that there is no known cure beyond a certain threshold. Instead, the new car feels fundamentally better balanced, as if it has a much lower, broader center of gravity. Thankfully, it won't tear off your arms and then kick you in the nuts if you do the wrong thing with the throttle in a corner. And all this, remember, from the very first prototype.
The Second Time Around
It's now the fall of 2010 and we're at Nardo with Lamborghini once again. This time we're staring at not one but three different prototypes. The first car is the original test mule from our drive back in 2009. The second car is a "mid-program" prototype, while the third car is pretty much what will go on sale next March. And once again Maurizio is grinning.
We climb inside the third car and discover that the cabin has a much more polished feel to it this time. It looks impossibly high-end and has a discernible air of quality to the way its switchgear, door handles and buttons operate. If there's a glitch in the design it's the digitized instruments that look a little too Gran Turismo compared to the rest of the cabin.
When it fires, however, the V12 sounds as potent and as angry as ever, although the throttle response and gearchanges feel peculiarly un-Lamborghini. It may not be fully signed off yet, but this car feels more like the finished article than any Murcielago ever did. And it feels faster — much faster — than the old-timer as we rumble down toward the high-speed bowl and open the taps for the very first time.
The kick of acceleration is genuinely outrageous in 2nd gear, as is the speed and severity of the gearchange as the new gearbox slices up through its seven forward gears. Surprisingly, this car doesn't use a DSG (direct shift gearbox). Instead, Lamborghini has opted for a single-clutch, paddle-operated manual that shifts at roughly twice the speed of the e-gear transmission in the Murcielago. Sadly, as we expected, there will be no manual gearbox offered.
Up in the outside lane at Nardo you can do 150 mph hands-free, which means at 170 mph it still feels like a breeze. Except the new Lambo is one of those rare cars that can make a five-lane high-speed bowl feel cramped and claustrophobic quite readily. At 200 mph the front end also begins to bounce slightly, so at 210 mph we back off, despite the fact that it's still accelerating at that speed.
Not sure why but something didn't feel quite right beyond 200 mph on that first run. Turns out that the pushrod suspension was nudging its bumpstops due to the cornering loads, a condition that will be eradicated, says Maurizio, before the car goes on sale next year.
Lamborghini Grows Up
Despite this minor glitch (which is what preproduction testing is designed to uncover, after all) the new car proves itself beyond all doubt around the handling circuit the next morning. We drive a Murcielago SV first, then all three versions of the new car; and again the differences in balance, feel, steering precision and pure speed are shockingly obvious.
The SV, all of a sudden, feels clunky and old beside the new car, and nowhere near as stable under braking or during turn-in. The new car's basic dynamic ability is so much greater, in fact, that it laps the circuit several seconds quicker in the end.
When the drive is over, we have many questions unanswered, and a notebook full of stuff that we're not allowed to write about just yet. One thing we can tell you right here and now, though, is that the new V12 Lamborghini — whatever it ends up being called — is a thundering good car. One with the heart and soul of a traditional Lamborghini combined with the pure dynamic excellence of a true super sports car.
It's quite the enticing cocktail provided you have the skills — and the bank account — to go with it. In other words, it's business as usual for Lamborghini, only this time its flagship is better made, lighter and faster than ever before.
Portions of this content have appeared in foreign print media and are reproduced with permission.