The Modena's performance envelope is too huge for mailing. But the best part is that the nooks and crannies of this speed and power portfolio are so accessible. The perennial search for the best-handling, most fun car on the planet ends here, at the sign of the prancing horse.
Give Lamborghini ample credit for challenging Ferrari's supercar sovereignty with the new Gallardo scheduled for late-fall arrival. (A pre-production U.S.-spec model chaperoned by technical services manager John Amette upheld Lamborghini's honor at this meeting.) The Murcilago's younger brother is first and foremost haute couture on wheels. But don't hold that against it, because high-caliber tech features are second on its priority list, and a raving lust for the road comes third.
The Gallardo's 5.0-liter V-10 engine is at its core an Audi 4.2-liter V-8 with two extra cylinders, new four-valve cylinder heads, variable intake and exhaust timing, dry-sump lubrication, and a dual-plate clutch. The piston displacement supremacy over Ferrari's V-8 is a substantial 38 percent, an advantage offset only slightly by the Lambo's 17 percent longer stroke. Compared with the Ferrari's humming-bird motor metabolism, the Lamborghini's is more like that of a predatory hawk.
Another strategic difference is what Lamborghini calls viscous traction. To supplement rear-wheel drive through a six-speed transaxle, an external output shaft runs forward alongside the engine to empower a viscous coupling attached to a front differential. Under most circumstances, the Gallardo's front axle provides only a small percentage of the driving impetus, but in the event of slippage at the rear wheels, the viscous coupling responds to the speed discrepancy by substantially increasing front-tire torque.
Packing such a meaty powertrain inside an envelope that's tidier than the Ferrari's means something has to give. Push comes to crunch in the cockpit. You sit low and farther forward, with the upward sweep of the beltline rising past your shoulder like a steel turtleneck. (The Gallardo uses aluminum skin-over-spaceframe construction except for its doors, which are steel-paneled for side-intrusion resistance.) The left front tire lives where your clutch foot would enjoy bracing. Sweeping windshield and dash-top surfaces intersect over the front wheel centerline, well ahead of your toes.
Outward visibility is sacrificed to the fashion gods. The inside mirror offers a mail slot's view of the world you've just departed. Flying buttresses obscure the rear quarters, and all you see of the hood is a brightly painted edge that peeks through a wiper linkage that is complex enough for aircraft duty. To their credit, the Gallardo's sculptors did skew the forward portion of the beltline low and keep the A-pillars narrow to facilitate flanking maneuvers.
The Gallardo's bucket seat feels as rigid as a cement park bench on initial engagement. Side bolsters apply a gentle bear hug to your hips and ribs, and the hard bottom cushion is raked steeply for excellent thigh support. To our surprise, the seat wore well during our long, fast day in the saddle. Trim quality and cabin furnishings-right down to the his-and-hers automatic climate controls and the electroluminescent instruments-are the best of the test, thanks in no small part to Audi's role as a doting parent.
The Gallardo's V-10 engine croons a throaty tenor's melody through the midrange, with a timbre that's richer than an American V-8's but less insistent than a Ferrari V-8 or V-12's. Jab the throttle with the tach needle shirking at the low end of the dial, and the surge forward is more enthusiastic than the Ferrari's off-song response. In fact, the Gallardo is strong like a bull no matter what the tach says. There's a crescendo to 5000 or so rpm, after which the reverberation subsides as the engine clenches its teeth for the climb to the 8100-rpm redline. Unlike the Ferrari, which screams incessantly for more whip, the Gallardo moves you by dint of its strapping torque curve.
Beneath the Gallardo's swiftness, there's a hint of deliberation. The flatter torque curve and four-corner thrust yield a super sports car that's distinctly less engaging than the Ferrari Modena. The controls, especially the steering, solicit less attention and issue less feedback. As you charge into a bend, a flashing stability-system lamp warns that you're pushing the grip limit long before the chassis thinks of losing its cool. Large throttle movements cause little or no deviation from the path directed by the steering wheel. Gearing is so tall and the ratios are so widely spaced that we shunned the shift gate's top three slots. The Gallardo is a powerful but gentle bull with most of the intimidation bred out of its soul. That makes it the ideal choice for supercar novices.