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.