Going Nowhere Fast: Lamborghini Supercars

March 13, 2012
Lamborghini Parked
Lamborghini's supercars are, by and large, immune to criticism. Their job description is simple: to be a rolling exclamation point, capturing the attention of everyone within eyesight and earshot. Rational concerns like the ability to provide transport from point A to point B are better left to lesser cars -- you don't even need a destination to take a journey in a Lamborghini. So when we were offered the opportunity to spend more time with the Aventador, we felt no need to take it on a contrived road trip. Instead, we orchestrated a family reunion on California's central coast, inviting a 1972 Miura SV, a 1988 Countach 5000 QV, a 1999 Diablo, and a 2006 Murcielago to join us. Five generations of Lamborghini supercars would spend the day together posing for the camera, filling the hills with hydrocarbons, and ultimately going nowhere. But very quickly.


The mid-engine Lamborghini supercar story starts forty-six years ago at the Turin motor show, where Lamborghini drew crowds with only the bare chassis of what would become the Miura. When the full concept appeared at the 1966 Geneva motor show, wealthy enthusiasts threw checks at Ferruccio Lamborghini the way their daughters were flinging panties at Tom Jones. The transverse-engine Miura wasn't meant to be more than a show car, but the public spoke and Lamborghini knew it needed to be built.
The first customer Miura was produced about a year later, but engineering development continued in parallel with production, so ongoing changes were made even as the cars were rolling off the line. The last 150 Miuras wore SV badges, for SuperVeloce. This ultimate Miura combined all of the running changes with wider rear tires (necessitating bulging fenders) and a 35-hp bump for the four-cam 3.9-liter V-12, for a total of 385 hp at a lofty 7850 rpm. A final update for later SVs separated the transaxle's oil supply from the engine's, allowing the fitment of a limited-slip differential. Weighing considerably less than 3000 pounds, the Miura SV is one fast car -- if you can get it moving.
Describing the Miura's shifter as heavy would be an insult to all other heavy shifters. First gear is an absolute mother to engage, requiring every bit of force your arm can muster; blame the shift linkage, which runs through the cabin -- and through the engine block(!) -- before finally reaching the transmission. The bottom-hinged clutch is no more forgiving, and the gas pedal (also bottom-hinged) is raked so far it's actually leaning toward the driver. It feels as if you're spraining your ankle when applying anything less than full throttle -- which isn't nearly enough, you learn, as the severely short-stroke V-12 stalls without so much as a fight.
A superlong first gear, a dearth of low-end torque, carburetors that want nothing to do with sudden fueling requests, and a lack of flywheel mass all require you to slip the clutch to get moving -- explaining those seemingly amateur Lamborghini drivers who always rev their engines uncomfortably high when setting off. At the soprano end of the tachometer, though, the Miura's cabin fills with 100 decibels of the loudest mechanical melange you've ever heard -- the four inches of polystyrene sound insulation on the firewall seem like a wasted effort, and the glass pane that bisects the mere inches between your ear and the engine's intake seems acoustically transparent -- or might actually amplify the sound.
The Miura's music is not loud and simple like a racing car's exhaust, it's a dizzying arrangement of noises that attacks your eardrums at every frequency, hypnotizing you into a trance in search of more speed, more sound, more dizziness. Then the car's owner reminds you that the Miura isn't just a fast car, it's a 170-mph sculpture that's worth as much as a whole Midwestern neighborhood. That's a sobering thought. After all, the car is also saddled with a legendary reputation for snap oversteer and is hampered by brakes that lack assistance. The steering wheel is so far away that you can't get the proper leverage to easily turn the front wheels -- power assist? ha! -- and the windshield is only inches from your nose, adding to the mounting sense of impending doom. Driving a Miura fast is an exhausting, exhilarating, and ultimately frightening experience that leaves you out of breath and wondering: how could Lamborghini ever recreate that kind of high?


The first step in creating a supercar to follow the Miura was to make it look so outrageous that anyone who saw it would react by uttering a slang term of awe -- and then name it after such a word. Next, Lambor-ghini introduced the new car at the same time as the Miura SV to see if it would upstage the latest version of the old car. The final step was to start taking orders and rush it to production as fast as possible.
That last step ended up taking three long years, and by the time the first Countach was delivered to a customer in 1974, Ferruccio Lamborghini had sold his stake in the company -- but it was he and the young guys who'd created the Miura (see sidebar) who were responsible for the Countach, and its spaceship body was designed by Marcello Gandini, who also penned the Miura. Lightning does strike twice, it seems.
The Countach's goals were to improve upon the remaining shortcomings not addressed by the SV: front-end aerodynamic lift, snap oversteer, the recalcitrant shifter, structural rigidity, and engine noise. Its angular body, made from one-millimeter-thick aluminum, was bolted to a steel spaceframe that was stiffer than the Miura's sheet-steel frame, and its sloped front end solved aerodynamic front-end lift issues. The V-12 engine was mounted longitudinally -- but not to be overshadowed by the car's styling, Lamborghini engineers mounted the engine backward, so that the transmission was nestled between the passenger seats, its output end pointing toward the front of the car. Now, instead of the shift linkage passing through the engine, the transmission's output shaft did. Crazy, yes, but it worked, and it removed the Miura's complicated shift linkage.
As for reducing cockpit noise? Thankfully, Lamborghini didn't come close -- the Countach was even louder than the Miura. Its asymmetrical fender openings even look like they're warped from the V-12's fury. The entire car looks as extreme now as it must have forty-one years ago -- and that's before the vertical scissor doors open. If the Miura's conventional doors draw blood (thanks to the shape of the louvered upper vent that tempts you into holding the door there while closing it, smashing your fingers in the process -- I speak from painful personal experience) the Countach's scissor doors draw crowds.
The Countach has a rearview mirror for the sole purpose of admiring the engine. The side mirrors? They're for looking at the bodywork. The view out the front is all windshield wiper and no body whatsoever, although the dash itself is as angular as the body panels you can't see. And although the driving position is better than the Miura's (the wheel and the pedals no longer seem to be mounted on the same plane), the pedals are severely offset to the right, and the clutch and steering are so heavy that the average luxury car buyer would likely have given up before even getting the car to move.
Ferruccio Lamborghini wanted it that way. Ironically, the man whose original mission was to build faultless GT cars seemed a bit frustrated at the characters who bought (and wrecked) his Miuras -- and he wanted the Countach to be just uncivilized enough to keep away the pretenders. The company reluctantly made provisions for air-conditioning but hoped its customers would prefer to endure the oppressive cabin temperatures guaranteed by the large, flat windshield and the side windows that barely opened.
Thankfully, the U.S. Department of Transportation didn't consider excessive cabin heat when it evaluated the Countach's roadworthiness, and in 1986 -- sixteen years after the car first appeared -- it finally certified the Countach 5000 Quattrovalvole for sale in the United States. The QV's V-12 was bored and stroked to 5.2 liters, and it was fitted with four-valve heads, catalytic converters, and Bosch KE-Jetronic fuel injection. It produced 420 hp, enough to reach more than 170 mph, and 60 mph could be had in just over five seconds. It wasn't faster or quicker than the original 3.9-liter Countach, thanks to a steady weight gain and increased aerodynamic drag courtesy of the wider wheels, tacked-on fender flares, and spoilers. But no one cared then, and no one cares now.
And it certainly wasn't going to stop us from begging to drive the QV. We're glad we did, because it's full of surprises. That magnificent mechanical fuel injection makes metering power a cinch -- aided also by the long-travel gas pedal -- and the steering provides Porsche levels of road feel. In fact, we'd go so far as to call the Countach a driver's car. As long as that driver never, ever has to sit in traffic. The clutch pedal is so stiff it feels like it's attached to a pulley that's lifting the engine off its mounts every time you press it, and the shifter might be more precise than the Miura's, but it's not much lighter. Driving a Countach slowly is like working out in a leather-upholstered greenhouse.
Sitting in the cabin of the Countach's replacement, the Diablo, is like looking at that same dashboard in a fun-house mirror. Everything is swoopy and round -- not even the side-window lines escape superfluous curvature -- and inboard seatbelts keep the wacky theme going. But what's most impressive about the Diablo is that it exists at all. Automobili Lamborghini stumbled from financial catastrophe to financial catastrophe, changing hands no fewer than four times during the nineteen years from the Countach's show-car debut until someone was brave enough to replace it. And when they did, Chrysler, the new owner, insisted that the updated supercar be more practical.
It would also not be the all-new, revolutionary bombshell its two predecessors were -- and by that we mean the Diablo no disrespect. Riding on an updated Countach chassis is hardly something to be ashamed of -- and as a bonus, this car not only had windows that opened fully, but the curvy body reduced the drag coefficient from 0.40 to 0.31, making the Diablo a damn sight faster. With a revised, 485-hp V-12 displacing 5.7 liters, the Diablo smashed through the 200-mph barrier, and it blew through the mile-per-minute marker in just over four seconds. More important, the Countach's backward engine layout made it a breeze to add four-wheel drive -- which is exactly what Chrysler did. The weight gain was considerable, but the 3900-pound Diablo VT (for viscous traction) is far easier to drive than the Countach: it has power steering and a light shifter that anyone can operate, and, thanks to an electronically controlled suspension, it even rides well.
The Murcielago also rides on an evolution of that same steel spaceframe, and it also has nothing to be ashamed of. It replaced the Diablo in 2002 under the stewardship of Audi and was given the barely pronounceable name of the bull that sired the Miura family of fighters. (For the record, and for the love of God, please repeat after us: Mercy-ELL-ago, not Mercy-eh-LAH-go.)
The Murcielago kept the progression of porkiness at bay with carbon-fiber body panels, and it featured an actual trunk, a driving position genuinely suited to real people, and a new 6.2-liter V-12 that helped it better the Diablo in both top speed and acceleration -- no small task -- achieving 205 mph without unnecessarily scaring its driver to death. From behind the wheel, the Murcielago is frightening only because it's so expensive and so wide -- it's nearly twice as broad as it is tall. The ride is direct without being harsh, and it refuses to roll or pitch in corners. In fact, it feels like the world's biggest go-kart, and although it prefers to understeer, it'll occasionally see red, pitch sideways, and try to slam you against a building. You, too, would have a temper if no one ever pronounced your name correctly.


Back to the family reunion. While sharpshooter Andrew Yeadon works diligently to capture the beauty of the vintage Lamborghinis generously trekked here by their doting owners, I sneak away to capture the beauty of the Aventador's 691 hp. The road has been closed off to traffic -- ostensibly for Andrew's low-speed photography -- offering far more temptation than I have self-control.
I use the term "sneak away" loosely when describing my actions in a car that can be heard from two miles away. I come around a slight corner, touching the rev limiter in fourth gear before getting hard on the brakes just as a certain officer of the law comes into view. He flags me over toward him. I get a horrible feeling in my stomach.
I open the window and he starts speaking -- far more slowly than I expected. "When I close off a road for you, I expect..." (I'm now anticipating the worst) "...a lot more speed than that. Now go back and do it again."
Did a man with a badge standing on the side of the road just tell me I wasn't going fast enough when I was doing 135 mph? I would have asked someone to pinch me, but the Miura's door had already done that, and my finger was still bleeding. Besides, I'm not one to question authority -- so I nod, say a polite "yes, sir," and complete my three-point turn. Using the Aventador's crystal-clear rearview camera, I back up to a spot six inches from the officer's knees.
"Thrust mode possible" appears across the colorful LCD tachometer. Oh, you don't say?
The virtual tach needle spins to 5000 rpm. I release the brake pedal, and the computer orchestrates a clutch-dump so violent it knocks the sunglasses off my head. I don't have time to even contemplate what the blast of exhaust and rubber chunks just did to the officer's groin -- there is sufficient power to spin all four enormous tires, and enough torque makes it to the front axle that the steering wheel is yanked out of my hands. A quick steering correction keeps the Aventador aimed down the empty road, and then it happens.
It being the 50-millisecond upshift into second gear.
I've never been hit in the chest with a bar stool, but I imagine it wouldn't feel much different. Lamborghini says its new seven-speed single-clutch automated manual was tuned to provide "highly emotional" shifts. Yes, surprise and fear are emotions.
Sixty mph comes in three seconds, although I would have sworn it was actually 0.3 second. I lift again after four gears, but if I kept my foot on the gas long enough, the Aventador would stop accelerating at 217 mph with the transmission in seventh gear and the engine only 400 rpm short of its 8500-rpm fuel cutoff. At that speed, the V-12 is carefully orchestrating an incomprehensible 810 explosions per second. More impressive, its computer monitors every combustion event by watching the power signals to each spark plug and adjusts the ignition timing and mixture for the next power stroke in real time.
Seriously? I'm still trying to process the fact that I did a 691-hp hole-shot in front of a cop and didn't get arrested. And my brain is being rattled around by a ride that could only be described as horrendous -- the pushrod-type suspension uses Oehlins dampers that allow practically no wheel travel, even if they look gorgeous staring back at you from the engine bay.
Launch-control antics aside, the Aventador earns its own chapter here because it finally abandons the forty-year-old spaceframe and leaps straight to the future by using a carbon-fiber monocoque with aluminum front and rear subframes. All of the body panels are made from lightweight materials -- carbon fiber, aluminum, or plastics -- and carry the jet-fighter design theme that we first saw on the limited-edition Reventon. The angular theme permeates every visible surface of the Aventador -- down to the buttons on the infotainment system so shamefully yanked from some plebeian Audi.
We're just happy the Aventador has a modern cabin, replete with the bedazzled LCD screen that recreates bright, colorful, beautiful, and supremely legible gauges. It also has multiple driver-assistance technologies (like a front-end lift system and that helpful reverse camera) and all the regular gizmos (keyless ignition, automatic climate control, and an electronic parking brake) that work so well in luxury cars.
Of course, the Aventador is a Lamborghini, which means it's not supposed to be too easy to live with. To that end, the automated manual transmission can perform either barroom-brawl-fast shifts or slurred-alcoholic-slow shifts but nothing in between. The raked windshield has visible imperfections in it, so the cars in front of you change size and position constantly as you bob around in your seat. The engine computer revs the cold engine to 3400 rpm on startup -- presumably for the sound -- before the bearings have received their supply of oil. For drivers with any mechanical sympathy, that's even more painful than the brutal full-throttle upshifts. Last, Lamborghini moved the door handles to the floor -- meaning you have to unlatch the door with one hand while you simultaneously open it with the other. How dreadfully annoying.
That's not nearly as dreadfully annoying, however, as the jail cell I'd be in had I pulled that launch-control stunt on a public road, open to traffic, in anything less than a Lamborghini. It's easy to criticize a car like the Aventador, but when you step back and look at the effect it has on people and the doors it opens, you realize that none of it matters.

An Accidental Legacy

Ferruccio Lamborghini started his car company to make a better car than Enzo Ferrari -- but better didn't mean faster, it meant that his cars would be more reliable and more comfortable than Ferrari road cars were because they wouldn't be designed for racing.
Ferruccio Lamborghini Profile
Lamborghini's first car was the fairly sedate 1964 350GT, but his engineering team had a trio of enthusiastic, talented guys in their twenties who had other ideas. If you know anything about twenty-something car enthusiasts, you know that a grand tourer won't hold their attention for long. In their spare time, the boys -- Giampaolo Dallara, Paolo Stanzini, and Bob Wallace -- created a mid-engine rolling chassis in the vein of Ford's breathtaking GT40 race car. Even though he had no plans to actually build it, Lamborghini figured it could serve as a four-wheeled demonstration of his company's engineering capabilities. To that end, he brought the chassis to the Turin motor show in November 1965, where it became the unexpected star of the show -- despite the fact that it didn't even have a body on it.
Lamborghini hired Bertone to sculpt a skin for the chassis, and the project was assigned to another twenty-something guy full of energy and imagination. Marcello Gandini had no formal design experience, but he became a legend the minute the car he designed debuted at the 1966 Geneva motor show. The Miura went on to become the template for the mid-engine supercar -- precisely the kind of compromised, over-the-top cars that Ferruccio never wanted to build.

The Countach's Crazy Cousin

Almost every reunion includes one family member that's just a little off -- and in the Lamborghini's lunatic V-12 family tree, it's the LM002 that's the most lovingly absurd of them all.
Lamborghini LM002 Front View
Long story short: In the midst of one of the company's many financial crises, Lamborghini was selling its engineering services to outside companies. Using funds borrowed from the Italian government earmarked for the development of the BMW M1 supercar, Lamborghini instead began working on a military vehicle for the U.S. government. The project was abandoned after an intellectual-property dispute, but Lamborghini recognized another opportunity when it saw one -- and continued development of a civilian version.
The LM002 was anything but civil, though, with the Countach QV's V-12 under the hood. At 6800 pounds, it wasn't nearly as fast as the similarly priced Countach, but it could still make it to 60 mph in less than eight seconds. If the old "slow and steady" adage works, the LM002 would win the race against any other Lamborghini -- with 76.6 gallons of gasoline on board, it could travel some 600 miles between fill-ups. More important, it's the Countach of SUVs -- a reminder that if a company like Lamborghini ever makes an SUV again (see page 53), it should be as over-the-top as its cars are.


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2012 Lamborghini Aventador

LP 700-4 4WD 2-Dr Coupe V12
starting at (MSRP)
6.5L V12
Fuel Economy
11 City 17 Hwy
2012 Lamborghini Aventador