2006 Lamborghini Murcielago LP640

Alex P

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.

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