NARDO, Italy — The visit to the famed Nardo test track is marked red in the diary inside our heads. We’re here for our first taste of Lamborghini’s new high-flyer, to find out if it has what it takes to rocket straight to the top of the high-performance SUV charts. So come join us for some hot laps in a prototype of the all-new 2019 Lamborghini Urus, which turns the laws of physics upside down while keeping all four wheels firmly on the ground.
Wrapped in annoying swirl-foil botox camouflage, the general proportions of the Urus nonetheless eventually form a whole at third sight, though its details blur beneath the false cheeks and fake eyebrows. By 8 a.m. sharp, the three Urus prototypes and drivers have gathered here at Nardo, which was bought by Porsche in 2012. Early morning will be spent on the handling course, followed by a wild off-road loop surfaced with gravel and sand. After lunch, the team departs for the skidpad, nudging cones and putting the launch control to the test.
A Lambo must look, feel, and sound like a Lambo, even if it is the belated successor to the brick-shaped LM002 pseudo-pickup that could be had with a gun rack and falcon cage. In order for it to fly underneath the wind tunnel radar, the Urus has been draped in more drag-cutting and downforce-increasing addenda than a NASCAR racer. But instead of opting for active aerodynamics, the R & D team under Lamborghini chief engineer Maurizio Reggiani saved weight by fitting a battery of spoilers, splitters, and diffusers in fixed positions—an attack stance that also reduces rear visibility to a narrow observation slit.
The starting procedure is business as usual for a Lamborghini. Lift the red cage door, hit the growler button, lock the transmission in manual, and wait for the vehicle in front to take off. The first lap is provocatively slow. Everyone warms up the tires, the engine, and their self-confidence. Then the flag drops and it’s push-push-push. But not too much, too soon. After all, impatience is instantly penalized by soaring front tire temperatures, which provoke early understeer and frustration. So it’s wait-wait-wait until way past the apex before you can give it stick again, and there’s a lot of that. Namely some 650 hp and 627 lb-ft of torque, enough punch to drift through the fast fourth-gear right-hander and barrel down the long straight, where the digital speedo briefly touches 155 mph just before the braking zone begins. Although it’s eager to rev, the 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 powering the Urus cuts out a nanosecond before the analog readout in the head-up display hits the rev limiter.
While its eight-speed automatic is correctly spaced, it shifts up more leisurely and smoothly than most sequential wham-bang boxes. To give the Urus a distinct Italian flair, Reggiani invented the so-called tamburo ergonomics. Tamburo means drum, and this accurately describes the shape of the two semi-circular drive mode selectors positioned on either side of the starter button. On the left, there is Anima (soul), which lets you choose from six settings labeled strada, sport, corsa, sabbia (sand), terra (gravel) and neve (snow). To the right, the drum named Ego invites you to personalize the driveline, steering response, and suspension setting. It’s a neat arrangement, offbeat yet logical, a welcome complement to the notoriously smudged touchscreen.
The dashboard is a busy blend of trademark hexagonal air vents, the usual overkill carbon-fiber and leather treatment, and loud instrument graphics that glow pachinko red in Corsa mode. The remaining switchgear is arranged in a pattern similar to the Audi Q7 and Porsche Cayenne, with which the Urus shares some componentry—and most importantly, its MLB evo architecture, developed by its Volkswagen Group overlords.
The most obvious difference between the Lamborghini and its German siblings is the extended wheelbase it shares with the Bentayga. But while Bentley’s goal was to create more cabin space, the Italians used the extra inches to further enhance directional stability at speed, be it on a long straight or through fast sweepers. Despite the sloping coupe-like roof made of carbon-fiber at extra cost, there are oodles of head- and legroom in the Urus, though its standard front seats lack support in just about every direction.
Time for the first rotation: Three hot laps, one cooldown lap, back to the pits, change of cars, go for it. The tires need deflating three times. Regular adjustments are also advised to hone the driving style, define braking points, find the quickest line through corners, and trigger spot-on up- and downshifts. Since the Urus weighs more than 4,400 pounds, you’re better off in a taller gear more often than not. Why? Because every gear change costs time, and because riding the crest of the Urus’ mighty torque wave maintains the flow. Late braking is okay, but brake much too late and the car in front will rip open a depressing gap. One ill-timed mid-corner upshift invariably dents the flight path; one missed apex is all it takes to make it run ludicrously wide. But despite its intentions and dimensions, there is no doubt about it: this Lamborghini is a high-roof sports car with four doors and four seats. A look at the official Nardo lap times proves the point: on the handling circuit the Urus is every bit as fast as the Huracán.
This remarkable achievement required plenty of extra work by Reggiani’s team, especially in the chassis department. The Urus’ all-wheel drive system utilizes a Torsen center differential, enabling a wide front-to-rear torque split range, and a mechanical rear diff lock for a subtle left-right distribution. In other words, there is no brake-induced torque vectoring and no conventional self-locking center diff. Part of the package is a 48-volt system which powers the fully adjustable sway bars along with the air conditioning. Another item included in the list price that reportedly starts somewhere south of $200,000 are huge, 17-inch carbon-ceramic brake discs. Completing the high-tech DNA is an adaptive air suspension and rear-wheel steering. At this point, Urus customers have no choice in terms of engine or equipment pack, but there is a plug-in hybrid V-6 in the works for China and possibly the rest of the world later. We also expect a lighter Performante version rated at 700-plus horsepower.
— Lamborghini (@Lamborghini) November 21, 2017
Complaints? I already mentioned the seats and leisurely eight-speed autobox, and I’m going to add to the list the mildly irritating front end pitch through very fast corners, the not exactly superfast tip-in, the generous measure of brake dive and acceleration squat, the somewhat messy ergonomics, and the puerile exhaust note in Corsa mode. And its brawny twin-turbo V-8 is in no way as special as Lamborghini’s charismatic, naturally-aspirated V-10. That said the Urus has many talents, with its key assets being totally involving handling and raw, sports car-like performance all the way to the limit. Despite its genetic detriments—considerable dimensions, high center of gravity, substantial weight—the Urus hugs the road like a salamander climbing up a sheet of glass, it juggles power and torque like an orangutan brachiating between trees, its responses are as sharp as a chameleon’s tongue, and it decelerates like a serpent recoiling from an attack. In the exercise of these talents, it downs fuel at the rate of a Hummer H2 or a stretched black Escalade.
Said Hummer should do well on Nardo’s off-road setup, but it wouldn’t do as well as the Urus, and that’s a promise. After all, there are no serious climbs and descents, deep ruts, grooves or potholes. The surface is a mix of sand and sealed gravel, more high-speed turf than rugged surf. Riding shotgun with me is a former racing driver named Silvio who now oversees suspension development. Since the left-right-left labyrinth is lined on both sides with tall shrubs that block the view through corners, novices need directions. We’re still on road tires, ESC is fully active, and I’m advised to use only the bottom three gears. It’s a narrow track and the grip level is deteriorating lap by lap as sand starts piling up alongside the polished loam-and-pebble racing line. Once more through the mulberry bushes in an effort to memorize the hairpin and a couple of double-apex left-handers, then the fearless Silvio gives me the final thumbs up. “Fasta! Fasta!”
Silvio’s a quick-thinking, rapid-talking co-pilot. “Sharp left, first gear, grip improves two-thirds through the corner.” (Too timid, too slow, too rough.) “Third-gear right, slow in, fast out. Lots of grip.” (Better, but still way off the pace.) “You should deactivate ESC. It helps, trust me. This car has got talent. It will be putty in your palms,” Silvio urges. I wish—but for a change, the wish comes true. There’s more wheelspin now, a more pronounced rear bias, a more blunt invitation to kick out the tail and keep it there. Bingo! I tasted blood. I want more. I want fasta.
“First, you must develop a rhythm. The rest falls into place almost by itself,” Silvio says, which means tap-dancing on the pedals, twirling the wheel, and clicking through the ratios—up and down, down and up. I’m a hero, but also a fool who forgot that pride comes before the fall. In my case, the fall is a dramatic 180-degree slide that hits the greenery side on and rips off a strip camo in the process. “No big deal. No big deal at all,” Silvio says. If it wasn’t for the ears, my grin would go full circle.
As for how fast the Urus goes in a straight line on the skidpad’s clean tarmac, less than 3.7 seconds to 62 mph is the official word, but 3.35 seconds is what the digital in-dash readout says on location. Yes, that’s with launch control on duty, live from the grippiest piece of tarmac in the Roman Empire, and in perfect weather. If the readout is to be believed, that’s a hair quicker than the Huracán and only half a second slower than the Aventador. Maximum speed? In excess of 188 mph is the answer, which would make it the fastest SUV on earth, a mark that speaks volumes for the aerodynamic efficiency of this thunderbolt designed by Filippo Perini, who has since moved on to Italdesign. Needless to say the ground-effect body is virtually immune to axle lift at any speed except through the cones, when it’s wheel up and nose down, when the steering could be a touch more direct, when ESC should be off for improved waltz-ability.
The Urus is the answer to the question that about 3,500 customers are expected to ask annually once production ramps up following its launch next year, which would roughly double the marque’s production output — a vehicle that opens the door for Lamborghini to the most profitable segment of a booming market. It’s clear after our day at Nardo that those who can afford to buy this 650-hp SUV will be getting a splendid vehicle with rare pace and agility, one that can do things no other SUV can.