Lamborghini isn't exactly renowned for building roadsters. Whereas Ferrari has produced ragtop (or targa) versions of many of its cars over the years, there have been only two series-production Lambos: the Silhouette and the Diablo roadster. The Touring-bodied 350GT convertible was built in tiny numbers, and there was a single Miura roadster, so they hardly count. In Lamborghini land, then, the Murcilago roadster is an event. The latest roadster from Sant'Agata is definitely a fair-weather friend that's perfect for the U.S. Sun Belt, the Costa Rolex, and the Cte des Millionaires. The canvas top is a bit of a joke, to be honest. You need a doctorate in mechanical engineering to operate it, a bridge to park the car under while you're doing it, and a bottle of Lambrusco to soothe your nerves. A folded fabric top and a bunch of supporting posts are stuffed into a bag that occupies a good third of the bonsai luggage compartment. Certified Boy Scouts eventually may get this jigsaw puzzle perched and installed, but by the time you get around to it, it's likely that the sun will be shining again. And once it's up, you'll probably forget that you shouldn't exceed 100 mph with the fabric roof fitted.
But this is Italy in early July, and instead of fiddling with the roof, we reach for sun block with a high UV protection factor. This is going to be a long, exhausting drive, from Bologna through Tuscany to the Mediterranean coast at Grosseto, then up north on the Via Aurelia (SS1), almost all the way to Portofino, then inland again to Parma and back to Bologna. The itinerary includes a fair amount of auto-strada, but that's not so bad, because the sections between La Spezia and Parma and Bologna and Florence are twisty and challenging.
Via Aurelia-constructed by the Romans and allegedly the world's first significant fully paved road-can be anything from a four-lane superstrada to a winding mountain pass. More often than not, it leads through bleak industrial districts, past mushrooming blocks of apartments designed by the same visionless architect, and through suburbs so poor and ramshackle that your guilty conscience refuses to go away for miles afterward. Luckily, though, Italians regard a Lamborghini not as a capitalist plaything but more as a national treasure. When they spot a Murcilago, kids instinctively give you the thumbs up, notoriously aggressive Fiats and Alfas move over as if struck by lightning, truckers honk, and streetwalkers lift their tops. Even the cops waved us through with authority and grand go-faster gestures.
Wherever we stopped, the scissor-door roadster drew a crowd. The filling-station aficionados were primarily interested in numbers (how much, how fast, how many horses), the village-square regulars lined up for a quick peek at the sizzling engine bay or the all-black interior, and the teens down at the beach took turns posing in front of the car and taking pictures with their cell phones. Everybody had the same request: that I start the engine and floor the throttle as long as I dared. I obliged.
In terms of sheer presence, the Murcilago roadster can take on a freshly landed UFO. At 42 inches high, it is lower than the lowest Caterham Super Seven; at 88 inches wide, it is broader than a Maybach; and yet, at 180 inches long, it is actually shorter than supercars such as the Ferrari Enzo Ferrari and the Porsche Carrera GT. With 2.8 inches shaved off the top of the coupe, the proportions are as badass and gung-ho as those of the Batmobile. Sadly, the visibility is poor. Even the steeply raked windshield acts more like a full-width periscope, and it's prone to glare. Space utilization is not exactly a forte, either. The cabin is unusually wide, and the seats are nicely supportive, but although the headroom is actually unrestricted, the airflow over the cut-down windshield limits speed. If you take the impractical top with you, the tight luggage space is further restricted. And another impractical aspect is the ridiculously wide turning circle of 41.2 feet, which makes this hard-core sports car about as maneuverable as a school bus.
Designed by the gifted Luc Donckerwolke, the Murcilago roadster looks radically modern from the outside and luxurious from behind the wheel. Monochrome leather with contrasting stitching takes the place of modish finishes such as carbon fiber and wood, and there aren't features such as a starter button, a folding navigation screen, or a neatly integrated car phone. Instead, the Lambo welcomes you with six clearly legible circular dials, a row of five secondary push buttons, two column stalks, a CD radio, and a panel that offers two extra transmission settings and an ESP-off mode. Welcome convenience features include folding door mirrors, power cooling air scoops, and the ability to raise the nose by 1.8 inches to avoid costly curb contact.
When cold, the 6.2-liter quad-cam V-12 settles into an agitated idle. Moments later, its 571 horsepower are ready for action. With my foot on the brake, I click into first gear on the E-gear sequential manual transmission, wait for the clonk-clonk confirmation from deep within the transmission housing, then push the throttle. The wedge-shaped roadster growls like a bunch of hungry tigers, the nose lifts as it spears forward, and the first gust of headwind pushes down the brim of my hat at 60 mph.
Although there are 7700 revs waiting for me, I begin by shifting up at 4000 rpm, instantly awestruck by the intense blend of noise, draft, and forward thrust. But curiosity and lust overcome sense and reason, so I press on. Up to 4500 rpm, the dry-sump powerplant plays monotonous heavy metal-rough and loud, hoarse but rhythmical. Beyond that, the explosive acoustics begin to develop an increasingly melodic pattern, climaxing in a concerto grosso that gets silenced abruptly by the merciless rev limiter.
Lamborghini quotes performance figures that put the Murcilago in the same league as the Ferrari Enzo, the Maserati MC12, the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, and the Porsche Carrera GT. Sant'Agata's most aggressive bull takes just 3.8 seconds to roar from 0 to 62 mph-just 0.2 second slower than the Enzo, as fast as the Benz and the MC12, and a tenth quicker than the Porsche. Yet the Murcilago roadster costs $319,250-hardly cheap but significantly less than these rivals. There's only one area in which the Lambo falls short, and that's top speed. The roofless two-seater pays tribute to its (lack of) aerodynamics by running out of steam at 200 mph.
The brutish two-seater is not a particularly useful intracity tool, but it takes some beating as a seemingly supersonic intercity express. When the going gets twisty the Murcilago never ceases to amaze. Fitted with 245/35ZR-18 Pirelli P Zero Rossos in the front and giant 335/30ZR-18 rollers out back, the winged roadster hugs the blacktop like a centipede with glue on its feet. The Murcilago roadster loves fast corners, whether they're secondary roads like certain sections of the SS1 or three-lane highways like the A1. A low center of gravity and permanent all-wheel drive certainly help out here.
To get the best out of the chassis, which was revised recently, it helps to be sensitive with the steering as well as applying the power early on corner entry, thus killing understeer. Thanks to a lot of attention to eliminate squat and dive, as well as using electronically controlled Koni dampers, typical mid-engined sports-car vices such as front-end pitch, excessive yaw, and emphatic body movements are not an issue.
The 60-degree V-12 relays up to 480 pound-feet of torque, but it does so through a viscous coupling to a pair of limited-slip differentials. This configuration likely will produce more grip and traction than the memory chip inside your head has ever been subjected to. You can switch ESP off, but if you try a burnout on dry blacktop, you are likely to smoke the clutch rather than the tires.
Although it's possible to provoke power oversteer in first and second gears, very few racetracks are tight enough to allow the Lambo to dance. On public roads, you get your kicks out of the entertaining dialogue between steering and throttle. It doesn't take long to develop a rhythm that links these inputs, lets them complement each other, and strikes the right balance between timing and effort. The Murcilago loves to be thrown into a corner, smearing through on the limit before storming with vigor onto the next straight. This sounds like PlayStation stuff, but to score big numbers, you need to keep the revs up, continuously adjust the steering angle, and lay the power down early.
In summer, Italy's roads are a zoo. Of the prehistoric kind. The raptors are roaming the roads. Although a yellow Lamborghini should leave a lasting impression in this animal kingdom, it's almost impossible to prevent close encounters with kamikaze scooter artists, no-risk, no-fun Valentino Rossi imitators, and breakneck delivery-van drivers. In the Murcilago, you can avert disaster by simply rocketing away from it-or by braking so hard it will miss you. Upgraded brakes are the key dynamic improvement over the coupe. With larger-diameter and fatter discs, stronger eight-piston front calipers, and a bigger brake booster to reduce the pedal pressure, the brakes are now easier to modulate, more prompt in their response, and a lot sharper. Optional ceramic brakes are in the pipeline for next year and should be even more convincing on the track, but they may well be less efficient when cold. After all, the roadster's setup will reel the car in from 125 mph to a standstill in just a little more than 500 feet.
The extra-cost E-gear transmission is convincing in the Gallardo, but we're not so sure about its efficiency in the V-12 car, where it costs a cool ten grand extra. The fingertip controls are much easier to use than a clutch-which can be capricious in this car-but the software still needs more fine-tuning. When the throttle was nailed immediately after clicking into first, our Murcilago decided more than once to leap forward, stutter, and then stall. There's not much smoothness or progressiveness, faults that also can be attributed to BMW, Aston, Maserati, and Ferrari, among others. Attempting to start on a steep hill produces more adrenaline than a Tarantino movie, and the transition from forward to push-button reverse takes too long for a car that is this vulnerable and difficult to see out of. On the credit side, we noticed perfectly shaped and positioned shift paddles, energetically spaced gear ratios, and a more inspired shift action in sport mode (which also firms up the suspension and sharpens the throttle).
Lamborghini expects the latest storm-in-the-hair model to account for 50 percent of all Murcilago sales, about 70 cars a year, worldwide. No doubt, if you want to go V-max anywhere on the planet, the upcoming 640-horsepower GT coupe is your ticket, but for anyone who lives for the moment, such as Venice Beach boulevardiers with offshore bank accounts, this extrovert plaything is the perfect car for one or two glorious seasons in the limelight.