The Countach may have established Lamborghini as a world-class exotic carmaker in 1971, but it's Audi's ownership, which began in 1998, that has defined the modern Sant'Agata automaker in the 21st century. Under Audi, the Italian firm debuted the midengine, V12 Murciélago in 2002 and the V10 Gallardo in 2004. Both cars continue to function as the picturesque, visual feast we've come to expect from vehicles wearing Ferruccio Lamborghini's name. But with the cold, calculating discipline of Germany's largest automaker ultimately pulling the strings, can the spirit and passion that inspired the original Countach survive in a division of Volkswagen AG?
It's got Italian supercar numbers
That's the question we found ourselves asking during a road test of the 2006 Lamborghini Gallardo SE. As with the new Gallardo Spyder, our SE test car (one of 250 produced) was equipped with the updated 520-horsepower version of Lamborghini's 5.0-liter V10. Those extra horsepower, along with shorter gearing in the first five speeds of the "e.gear" six-speed transmission (a traditional manual is also available), imbue the car with enough forward thrust to reach 60 mph in 4.1 seconds. That's just a tick behind the 2006 Ford GT's time from our American Exotics Comparo, and it's a time that handily beats the Chevrolet Corvette Z06 and Dodge Viper GTS Coupe from that same test. Suffice it to say, this Lamborghini is one of the quickest street-legal cars you can buy.
Getting that 0-60 time required a combination of technical aptitude and fancy footwork. The technical side comes via turning off the electronic stability program (ESP) and putting the car's transmission into its "Sport" setting. At this point the Gallardo is in "Thrust Mode" (Lambo's official term), meaning all that's left is to floor it and go. Doing so causes the V10 to shriek toward its 8,000-rpm redline before the e.gear system drops the clutch and unleashes 376 lb-ft through the Gallardo's all-wheel-drive system.
While the engineer in us cringed at the concept of sending that kind of power through the Gallardo's drivetrain, the reality is the car seems quite capable of withstanding this type of abuse. For one thing, turning off ESP allows the V10 to direct the majority of its power to the rear wheels. This results in more wheelspin than we would have expected from an AWD vehicle, but it also means all that power has an outlet — one that doesn't involve shredding driveshafts or shearing clutch plates. This is where the fancy-footwork element comes into play, as it required a prudent balancing act between wheelspin and forward motion to get that 4.1-second 0-to-60 time. And somewhere in the midst of all this you have to blip the right steering-wheel paddle before the tachometer hits 8,000 rpm. Keep the throttle pinned through 3rd gear and you'll clear the quarter-mile in 12.1 seconds at 117 mph.
Steers better with the throttle than the steering wheel
Beyond preserving drivetrain bits during acceleration testing, this rear-drive bias allows the Gallardo to be driven like a traditional two-wheel-drive sports car. That means throttle-induced oversteer and four-wheel drifts are always just a pedal-stab away — something we didn't expect from an Audi-influenced exotic. That's the good news. The bad news is that even with this ability to rotate the car through corners it still requires too much work to fling the Gallardo down a compelling set of twists and turns. Much of this centers on the Lambo's steering, which remains both heavier and slower than comparable models like the Ferrari F430 or Ford GT, despite supposedly being tweaked for "improved response" for 2006. It's not a deal breaker if you otherwise love the car, but it does hamper the enjoyment level if you prefer steering that is light, quick and communicative.
If the hefty steering doesn't bother you, the car's ultrastiff suspension tuning — even by exotic-car standards — might. There's no way to alter the suspension settings, as the "Sport" button on the console only pertains to drivetrain behavior. Along with steering response the ride quality isn't atrocious, but it is stiffer than many of the Gallardo's competitors. There is an upside, however, as the Baby Lambo snaked through our 600-foot slalom at an average speed of 71.1 mph. To put that in perspective, the Ford GT did it at 69.5 mph and the Corvette Z06 could only manage 68.3. Even the F430 Spider we tested last fall was held to just 68.9 mph in the slalom.
Stops as good as it goes
OK, so we've confirmed the Gallardo is quick in a straight line and fast when dodging cones. But what about bringing those 3,200 pounds of bright orange origami to a halt? The Gallardo scores again with a 108-foot stopping distance from 60 mph. That beats the F430 and Ford GT, with only the Corvette Z06 besting that number in our history of testing (it stopped in an eye-bulging 106 feet). However, as with steering feel and ride quality, we felt the Lamborghini's stopping ability was compromised by unnecessarily heavy and uneven brake pedal response. There was an initial "squishiness" to the pedal that had to be pushed through before getting to the pedal's "real" braking zone, which didn't add to the experience when hustling the car between apexes. Again, not a deal breaker, but something we could do without in our $200,000 sports car.
Finally, a fun and functional automatic
One area of performance where the Gallardo bests its classmates is located between the seats. The e.gear system, which is essentially the same Magneti Marelli/Ferrari-developed unit used by the Prancing Horse for its "F1" transmissions, is perhaps the most effective use of this technology we've yet experienced — short of Audi's own DSG. We're still anxiously awaiting the arrival of dual-clutch technology in the exotic car segment, but until it happens, we'll take Lamborghini's e.gear system over the competition every time. Like most of these systems, e.gear works fabulously in manual mode by matching revs on downshifts and rapidly swapping gears — almost before the steering paddles have reached the end of their travel. We were glad for the responsive e.gear transmission when hustling the car, because the V10's relatively narrow torque band required frequent gear swaps to keep the engine in its happy zone.
However, unlike most of these transmissions, e.gear also works remarkably well when put into full "Auto" mode and left to figure things out on its own. In standard driving mode, it gets the job done about as well as the Ferrari or BMW versions, meaning mediocre responsiveness and plenty of head toss between gears. But hit the "Sport" button on the center console and the transmission will aggressively hold gears, readily and rapidly downshift when prompted by throttle inputs, and generally do a passable job of making the most of those 520 horses. Normally we only leave these transmissions in auto mode long enough to confirm they're garbage, but this one was left in auto for much of our loan period in traffic-snarled L.A. Bottom line, Lamborghini's e.gear is capable of doing what these transmission have long promised — provide the best of automatic and manual transmission characteristics in one package.
It's a work of art inside, too
Looking beyond the car's performance figures reveals a number of areas where the Gallardo SE clearly trumps the competition. Its host of safety features, including the aforementioned electronic stability control, plus standard side airbags, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, BrakeAssist, and automatic slip reduction could have been pulled from Audi's top-of-the-line luxury sedans probably because they were.
Same goes for the interior, which sports supple leather and suede on every surface that isn't brushed aluminum or chrome. Audi's soothing white gauge-cluster lighting also makes its appearance, as does the Driver's Information System between the tach and speedo, and the Multi-Media Interface (MMI) for controlling the audio, climate and navigation systems. Heck, it's even got a reverse camera in an effort to offset the usual parking nightmares associated with midengine cars, and a nose-lift system to avoid scraping Aurora Borealis paint on every driveway and speed bump you encounter. We'd happily call it the "Cadillac of exotics" — except Audi would probably want us to reference a different premium brand.
Very, very good — but not great
However, despite the Gallardo's impressive pedigree of technology, luxury, styling and performance, when it came time to give the car back, many of us still hadn't come to a conclusion regarding this Italian-German hybrid. There's no denying its exterior design, interior quality or sheer capability. But there's similarly no escaping the German influences we feel in its driving dynamics, not to mention the litany of mechanical pops and buzzes it emitted throughout our loan period. Many of these were related to the various high-tech systems found on the Gallardo, but none of them added to the driving experience, nor did they seem appropriate in a $200,000 car.
Perhaps this inability to come to a final verdict regarding the 2006 Lamborghini Gallardo SE is the final verdict. Unlike the Ferrari F430, which was universally loved by every staffer fortunate enough to get seat time, the Gallardo is an acquired taste that some editors simply never acquired. Those addicted to unwinding ribbons of asphalt couldn't get past the heavy steering and inconsistent brake-pedal response. But those looking to revel in a palatial cabin, while simultaneously enjoying the gawks and double takes from every passerby in the surrounding ZIP code, thought it was easily the best expression yet of the $200,000 Italian exotic.
Now all you have to do is figure out which side of that fence you land on.
System Score: 8.5
Components: At first glance this system appears very full-featured. It has two media slots for reading MP3 files on SD/MMC cards, and it can also play MP3s recorded on CD-Rs. You can use the navigation system's slot behind the head unit to play a single CD-R, but if you want to play multiple CDs you must use the changer in the front cargo area. The head unit also offers speed-sensitive volume with three settings, and the entire audio system is controlled by Audi's familiar Multi-Media Interface (MMI). That means a bright, clear LCD screen with impressive animations for everything from radio tuning to tonal adjustments. However, the system only has two 6-inch, full-range speakers (one in each door) and those media slots can only read cards of 256 megabytes or smaller (not wise in a world where you can now buy 2-gig cards). The level of effort required to manually tune a radio station frustrated us more than it impressed us. As with all of these "one-dial-for-everything" systems, this unit can't replicate the ease of use from dedicated controls for specific functions — like a simple tuning knob in this case.
Performance: The audio systems in most exotic cars are rarely up to even entry-level luxury standards, as most manufacturers focus their energies on a vehicle's performance and styling, with the audio system often treated as an afterthought. When viewed through that prism, the Gallardo's system is actually quite impressive. Audio quality is easily as good as the Ferrari F430's, and clearly superior to the Ford GT's. Imaging is better than we expected from a two-speaker system, but we were forced to turn down the bass and crank up the treble to remove some midrange muddiness and improve high-end separation, and even after these adjustments, sound quality was merely "fine" — not grand. We like Lamborghini's effort to offer a 21st-century audio system that can read memory cards. Unfortunately, the 256-megabyte limit is a little earlier 21st-century (circa 2004) than we would choose.
Best Feature: Sound quality that is still the head of the class, even if it's only "fine" by normal standards.
Worst Feature: That's a tie, between the convoluted control system and the lack of clear midrange separation and clean highs.
Conclusion: Audi gets an "A" for its effort at bringing high-quality, high-tech audio to the exotic-car segment. But sound quality and execution are more "B-" level — which is still better than most cars in this class. — Karl Brauer
Inside Line Editor in Chief Richard Homan says:
Never one to say no to 520 horsepower when it's placed at my feet, I'm not about to deliver anything but an emotional response to driving the 2006 Lamborghini Gallardo SE — and my emotions are well alerted.
Even though the '06 Gallardo is a nightmare of whirring, clicking and servo motors, there is one sound that enters the cockpit to trump all the others: the wretched ripping-silk call of a 5.0-liter V10 as it threads a mountain of torque through the car's six-speed gearbox. If every paddle-shifter automatic snapped off gear changes this quickly and matched revs with equal determination and brio, I wouldn't need a manual transmission. Busting out of lurk mode into full launch in 2nd and 3rd gears is a combination of Mardi Gras and Magic Mountain (the adrenaline-powered Six Flags theme park, not the German dirge novel). And even though you're waking up every cop in the neighborhood for nine square blocks, it's worth every decibel.
The Gallardo puts a number of urban tools at your disposal, including a push-button nose-lifting system that gave the SE better front-end driveway clearance out of our office parking lot than some Hondas we've exited in. That kind of sick consideration in an exotic makes up for a lot, including heavy steering and an oh-my-god orange paint scheme.
Senior Road Test Editor Josh Jacquot says:
What to say about Lamborghini's Gallardo? Hmmm…here we have a car that's truly unique: The luxury of the plushest Audi, the power of a Viper, grip of an M1 Abrams tank, and looks of an Italian exotic.
Neither the Gallardo's style nor its performance is mild. Sixty arrives in 4.1 seconds and the quarter-mile passes in 12.1. Plus, it's good for almost a full 1.0g on the skid pad and as fast as nearly any car I've driven in the slalom. These numbers place it among the quickest, fastest and best handling cars on the road. And with retina-burning orange paint, a doorstop profile and the volume (not sound) of a lightly muffled Trans Am car, it damned well should be.
Problem is, all that speed comes with the subtlety of a topless Pamela Anderson waving the stars and stripes down Main Street in Baghdad. So if getting looks is your thing, then this is your car. Personally, that kind of attention is the last thing I want when driving one of the world's fastest cars. But maybe that's why Lamborghini owners buy these cars in the first place. Well, that and a chance at Pamela Anderson.
For my $200,000 I'll take an Evo and house in Colorado.
"Recently, a Philadelphia Flyer returned his Aston Martin DB9 because he took it home and it would not start the next day. He traded it for a Gallardo and said it was the best sports car he ever drove." — joeyevil, January 30, 2006
"A Gallardo is two rungs down from the refinement of a Ferrari 430. And I say that without prejudice, having never owned a Ferrari. But I did have a Miura in my younger days, and have driven both the Gallardo and 430, back-to-back." — spiritinthesky, January 31, 2006
"However, when you get north of $100K (on a sports-car/GT car basis, that is), I have a hard time justifying anything other than a Ferrari (most models — particularly the F430 — but not the hideous Enzo) or a Gallardo. Watch TopGear on the Discovery channel — just gave the Gallardo a brilliant review — only downside was that it's not a Ferrari — which is a criticism I can live with. — bsummer, February 11, 2006