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.