Any new Lamborghini is an event, mainly because the lull between model releases is so painfully long. There were sixteen years between the Countach and the Diablo, a whopping twenty-eight between the Silhouette/Jalpa and the newest small Lamborghini, the Gallardo. But too often, the cars made news not with refinement and poise but with flashy bodywork, ludicrous top speeds, and handling so diabolical Lamborghini even named a car after it. Rudeness is at the core of the Lamborghini allure, but come on. Would you really want to ride a mechanical bull like the Diablo all the way up to 204 mph? The Diablo should have been equipped with dual-stage, front and side airsick bags.
Things are different at the little company from Sant'Agata Bolognese today, chiefly because the Italians have some very serious bosses from Audi peering over their shoulders. Proof of this is in the slightly less glacial pace at which Lamborghinis are arriving. The new Gallardo, due here in October, comes right after 2001's Murcilago, offering its own kind of proof that Lamborghini is serious about building world-class sports cars. The Gallardo is a comfortable, stylish, and thoroughly viable competitor to Porsche's 911 GT2 and Ferrari's 360 Modena-a daily driver of the type Ferruccio Lamborghini had in mind when he founded the company in 1963.
The legendary Ferrari-directed ire that prompted Lamborghini to make sports cars burns as fiercely as it ever did in Sant'Agata. The Gallardo's mission is to be the highest-performance car in its segment, and thus it uses some conventions of that segment as its starting point. Like the Modena, it has an aluminum spaceframe, optional automated-manual gearbox, mid-mounted engine, and twin front-mounted radiators that give the car its generous interior package. The Gallardo one-ups the Modena, though, in a few important areas. Instead of the 394-horsepower V-8 in the Ferrari, it has a 492-horsepower V-10. Instead of rear-wheel drive, it has a performance-oriented yet bacon-saving four-wheel-drive system. It is a bit heavier than the Modena, but its extra power puts it right in the low-four-second ballpark, acceleration-wise.
The V-10 that overcomes the Gallardo's 3153-pound curb weight is literally the centerpiece of the car. In contrast to Lamborghini's recent twelve-cylinder cars, power flows rearward from the engine to a tail-mounted six-speed transaxle. (In the Countach, the Diablo, and the Murcilago, the transmission is located forward of the engine.) A 90-degree V angle was selected to reduce the overall height of the undersquare (the stroke is longer than the bore) engine-a move that necessitated split crank pins to achieve even firing intervals. Other features include a dry-sump lubrication system that further lowers engine height and center of gravity, variable timing on intake and exhaust tracts, a two-stage intake manifold with long runners to optimize midrange output and short runners for peak power at high rpm, and dual electronically actuated throttles.
Two versions of the six-speed transmission are offered. The gated manual version uses cables to change gears. The rev-matching, all-singing, all-dancing E-gear alternative has three operational modes: normal (with fast, paddle-controlled shifts), sport (with superfast paddle-cued shifts), and automatic (what are you, a wuss?).
In both cases, a viscous coupling attached to the rear of the transaxle sends a portion of the available power to the front axle. The normal distribution is approximately 30 percent of the output forward, 70 percent rearward. In the event of slippage, the coupling automatically allots more torque to the axle that has more grip. Rear traction is enhanced by a friction-type limited-slip differential, and a front tire verging on slip is automatically snubbed by a momentary brake application.
An aluminum spaceframe, made up of an extruded-beam skeleton, sheetmetal floor, and cast joints, carries the running gear, which is heavier than the frame itself. The car's structure and body together weigh just 550 pounds, hardly enough to get a Norwegian strongman out of bed in the morning. Additionally, the frame is incredibly rigid, with a torsional stiffness fifteen percent higher than the Murcilago's, providing the suspension with a firm base of operation.
Also made mostly of aluminum, the Gallardo's double-control-arm suspension eschews the electronically adaptive dampers of the Modena for new Koni FSD (frequency selective damping) dampers. These are purely mechanical adaptive units, stiffening up at low frequency and relaxing at high frequency via a system of internal valves. Brakes, from Brembo, are eight-piston front calipers on 14.4-inch discs and four-piston rear calipers on 13.2-inchers, and they provide well more than one g of deceleration from 60 mph.
If the Gallardo's mechanicals remind you of the Modena, so will its shape. Its twin air intakes up front, long flying buttresses, and peaked front overhang are all 360 hallmarks. There are some beautiful and unique details, such as the forward-jutting side mirrors and the transaxle casing hanging down like some primal baboon display. But in general, its proportions are so similar to those of the Ferrari that the Gallardo looks a bit like a 360 in origami. To hear the car's lead designer, Luc Donckerwolke, tell it, the shape is Bolognese, not Modenese. "It is a one-volume body, like the Countach, with the very distinctive 'Egyptian Eye' side glass from the Diablo. It also has telephone-dial wheels resembling those on the Urraco, the Jalpa, and the Countach, but they are really the only round parts of the car. Many of the angles, such as in the hood, are references to the great Gandini-designed Lamborghinis everybody loves. . . . As [test driver, chief mechanic, and walking soul of Lamborghini] Valentino Balboni put it, the most important part of a Lamborghini is the engine. The rest is just engine cover."
Well, there is maybe a bit more to it than that. As its interior reveals, modern car-building techniques have buffed the rough, rude edges of the Lamborghini personality. True, there are many misplaced Audi bits inside, such as the coat hooks and the audio/navigation system, but these reflect a level of creature comfort heretofore unknown in cars from Sant'Agata. There is headroom enough for a mid-six-footer. It's easier to get into and out of than a Viper or even a Corvette. The pedals are placed perfectly for heel-and-toe downshifting, not crammed into the pedal box with as much offset from the steering wheel as possible. Previous Lamborghinis contorted their drivers into a bent and laidback driving position: This one will let you use a tollbooth without getting out of the car. A couple of trim pieces seem too cheap, especially since Lambo's Audi parent makes the best interiors in the car business. The plastic door handles, the easily scratched center console, and the flimsy eyeball vents are out of place in a car like this. The leather, also, is too puffy and old-school-Fiat in some places-an issue Lamborghini is working to fix-but there is still enough hide inside to set off some sort of alarm at PETA headquarters.
Our opportunity to drive-really drive-the Gallardo came at the Vallelunga test track outside Rome. Even on a racecourse, it was apparent that the Gallardo is truly the stuff of extreme daily driving. The car starts with a muted woofle, far more entertaining to those outside the car than to those inside. It moves away from rest calmly, its drive-by-wire system tuned to tame a would-be aggressive 11.0:1 compression-ratio lurch. The V-10 will spin quickly to 7800 rpm and won't strain up there, thanks to its inlet system and pulse-free, even-firing character. That its gear ratios are perfectly spaced is almost irrelevant in a car that uses so much of its engine. The engine's enthusiasm begins at 1950 rpm and stays relatively flat to its 4500-rpm torque peak. At high revs, the engine truly rips, cranking out the convincing part of its 492 horsepower at the outer edge of the spin cycle. It's a colossal surge, an inevitable blossoming of power and g's aided by the ram effect of the air swirling in the intake manifold.
Despite its extreme engine performance, the car is mostly benign on the track. It will understeer protectively into a corner, then provide a little line-tightening oversteer on its way out. We got the feeling, mainly from the way the ESP system was braking the front outside wheel, that the car could use a bit more P Zero Rosso up front, but the all-wheel drive and ESP ensure that it stays planted. With ESP off, even novices can use the throttle to dial up a lurid booty call.
This car turns in neatly and has very quick reflexes. The sensitivity of the controls, though, guarantees that you're never out of sync with the thing. Its steering is weighty and free of intrusive static such as bump steer, even if it lacks the sharpness of the Modena. Brakes are eyeball-poppingly good. The throttle could use a bit more feel, but in general the car is so together, relaxed, and rewarding to drive that Ferrari and Porsche should be worried.
Lamborghini's market ambitions dictated an ambitious car. It wants eventually to sell more than 1000 Gallardos per year worldwide, perhaps as many as 1400. The car will offer an array of options, from the roughly $8000 E-gear to yellow or gray brake calipers to-huh?-winter tires. A spyder version is expected by 2005, and a plexiglass engine cover, which that glorious V-10 so richly deserves, should be on its way, too. The A/C works all day, the seats are comfortable, and you can get fitted luggage for the tiny front trunk. This is a durable and lovable long-term sports car, backed by a three-year warranty. It is also a $165,900 object of not inconsiderable lust, one whose allure no photograph can properly depict. Yet the car on these pages makes one thing clear: After years in the wilderness, Lamborghini is back.