It's a spectacular April day in Emilia-Romagna, and the rising sun is splintering across the budding green valleys of the Apennines. We're heading up into the hills above Maranello, leaving a wide berth for the ambitious, Saturday-morning bicyclists clad in Ferrari-branded, red-and-yellow Lycra jerseys. This is prancing horse country, and tomorrow is the San Marino Grand Prix in nearby Imola, where Ferrari's Michael Schumacher is destined to win his first race of the season.
Yet we hardly feel like we're driving the wrong brand of Italian exotic as we hustle the latest version of Lamborghini's big bull, the Murcielago, from corner to corner. The firm's famed test driver, Valentino Balboni, is riding shotgun, and we soon learn that he isn't interested in having an American journalist explore the edges of blind corners, even though the all-wheel-drive supercar sticks to the tarmac like gnocchi sticks to your ribs. We can hardly blame him. Just yesterday, he marked his thirty-eighth year at Lamborghini, and he clearly intends to make it to thirty-nine. And it's not as if the Murcielago has to be driven in extremis to expose its charms. Just the sight of it trundling through a sleepy village is enough to get plenty of Italian heads to turn.
Discerning eyes can distinguish the Murcielago LP640 from the car that debuted in 2001 and has since sold some 2000 copies. (LP640 represents the car's engine position-longitudinale posteriore-and its horsepower, 640.) A new front bumper, molded of carbon fiber like all the body panels except the steel roof and doors, provides more downforce. The side mirrors are resculpted, and a larger driver's-side air intake accommodates a bigger oil cooler. The rear diffuser's huge center exhaust replaces the previous quad pipes in an acknowledgement that many owners were installing similar setups via the aftermarket.
A bigger bore and a longer stroke for the 60-degree V-12 bump displacement from 6.2 to 6.5 liters and output from 580 hp to 640 hp, just in time to maintain bragging rights over the 612-hp V-12 in Ferrari's new 599GTB Fiorano. The Lamborghini's basic block design carries over, with new heads, intake and exhaust systems, and engine-control electronics. Balboni claims that the engine is "60 percent new."
The V-12 now can be served up under glass, which is a welcome development, since there is no sense in hiding the engine of one of the world's most extroverted supercars. Gear ratios for the six-speed manual or the six-speed e-gear, paddle-shift transmission also were modified. Lamborghini says that, with e-gear, the LP640 reaches 60 mph in only 3.4 seconds, an improvement of 0.4 second over the original Murcielago, and the top speed rises from 205 mph to 211 mph, a claim we had no opportunity to test. Not that Balboni would have let us, anyway.
As before, the rear funnels that flank the engine compartment deploy automatically when a calculus of ambient air temperature, water temperature, and vehicle speed deems them necessary to direct extra cooling air through massive ducts. To step behind an idling LP640 is to be reminded of just how much heat a 640-hp, 6.5-liter V-12 can generate. From eight feet away, it's like a blast furnace. Tie a foil-wrapped chuck roast to the rear air grate, and dinner will be ready in a couple of hours.
The all-wheel-drive system sends 70 percent of torque to the rear axle under most conditions. If you think that real men buy only rear-wheel-drive supercars, get yourself a Ferrari or an Aston Martin. The Lambo's springs, antiroll bars, and dampers have been massaged, and ceramic-composite brakes are newly optional. Although U.S. pricing hasn't been set, you can be sure that the ceramics will cost as much as a Korean economy car.
Pressing the lever at the top of the Murcielago's scissors-style doors and watching them rise toward the sky is always a thrill, even if the process of dumping yourself into the driver's seat is never as graceful a maneuver. Once there, you can run your hands over the new, Chanel handbag-style quilted leather, which lines the seats, headliner, door panels, and center console. The new chairs are wider, but we were still squirming after a couple of hours. As before, the driver's footwell has room only for small feet clad in the narrowest Italian-leather driving shoes, and there's effectively no dead pedal.
Turn the key and count one, two as the starter motor whines and the beasty V-12 leaps into action behind you. Our test car had the conventional manual, and the aluminum-ball shifter and aluminum gate continue to look and feel exactly as you'd expect in an Italian exotic-a bit anachronistic but deeply satisfying. The clutch action would please Goldilocks, as it's not too stiff or too long or too forgiving: it's just right. The gearbox responds to careful, deliberate use; anything else risks a sharp rebuke from the transmission, which is located just under your right elbow. Feathering the accelerator pedal in first gear is not the best strategy, as the V-12 is calibrated for a "quiet" response in the first twenty percent of pedal travel, says development engineer Michele Caggiano. Better to get the revs up and hammer your right foot at the start gate, or you'll limp away from stoplights.
Once under way, there is no limping. This V-12 wants to fly, and it's immensely tractable in first, second, and third gears, which are all you need on slow- to medium-pace two-lane roads. It's only when the road straightens that you might want to slip into fourth, especially since the higher you take the V-12 toward its 8500-rpm redline, the louder it performs its metallic-edged concerto grosso. (Over dinner, Caggiano was happy to play his cell-phone recording of the engine during the 0-to-60-mph blast.) Still, we wouldn't mind a bit more of the piercing, shattering-glass exhaust sound you get in the Gallardo, especially on downshifts. The Murcielago beats its little brother, though, in the messages it sends to your palms. Although you can't see the front end of the LP640, the car's sweet steering feel and precision encourage you to toss it into corners, because it always follows an extremely accurate line.
Like the original Murcielago and the Diablo, the LP640 is more intimidating to look at than it actually is to drive. Once you're behind the wheel and have adjusted to the lack of rearward vision and the huge, encroaching A-pillars, you just point it down the road as if it were a Honda (well, maybe an Acura NSX), and the huge mass of car obediently comes along for the ride. The ceramic brakes are fantastic, but they require a more delicate pedal touch than the accelerator.
Lamborghini claims it has no plans for a production version of the Miura concept from this year's Detroit show, and it only hints at the possibility of replacing its infamous LM002 SUV. The LP640, which is now the sole Murcielago, likely will remain the top of the range, a role for which it's well suited (the Murcielago roadster will upgrade to LP640 status later this year). Technical and financial assistance from parent company Volkswagen is allowing Lamborghini to make useful updates such as the LP640 to its lineup, enabling the Ferrari competitor from Sant'Agata Bolognese to look and act like a real car company rather than some sort of stop on the Italian cultural tour.