A “quiet drive” in a Lamborghini has never been a thing. But here we are, silently hitting 75 mph in one of Sant’Agata Bolognese’s first plug-in hybrids, its electric motors humming quietly, its V-10 engine waiting impatiently to snap on. We pull into Sant’Agata’s town square, where we park our test mule next to the car that started this all, the electric blue Lamborghini Asterion LPI 910-4 concept, which announced the marque’s hybrid ambitions to the world at last year’s Paris Auto Show.
“We did not want to create a shape that is even more extreme than Huracán or Aventador.” — Filippo Perini, Chief Designer
The one-of-one orange mule, Tosca, named after composer Giacomo Puccini’s operatic masterpiece, is an Aventador that’s been fitted with essentially the same plug-in hybrid powertrain as the Asterion. Both have V-10s at their cores instead of the marque’s classic V-12. Why? Primarily because the V-10 is more efficient and more compact, which makes adding three electric motors and a 200-kW-hr battery pack a lot easier. Even down two cylinders, the powertrain’s 898 hp eclipses the all-new, 740-hp flagship, the Aventador SV.
“We have settled for electric front-wheel drive and petrol-fed rear-wheel drive,” says Lamborghini’s il grande ingegnere Maurizio Reggiani. “The third electric drive unit, which incorporates a starter motor and generator, is sandwiched between the 602-hp V-10 engine and the seven-speed transmission. What this configuration gives us is on-demand four-wheel drive and a hybrid mode, which fuses all powerplants irrespective of the state of charge. Predictably, the biggest unknown right now is the batteries and their evolution.
The whole assembly weighs [about 450 pounds], which is much more than we saved by taking out the mechanical all-wheel-drive system. In addition, the energy cells are still in need of improvement in terms of sustainable performance, charging time, degradation, the number of charge cycles, weight, size, and cost.”
“This car points in a direction which is new for us. It is less about acceleration and top speed and more about environment-friendliness.” — Filippo Perini
It’s impossible to ignore the Tosca’s heft, but in-gear acceleration is simply sensational. Racing up the rev ladder, the naturally aspirated 5.2-liter V-10 joins the buzz from the front tires, which struggle to absorb all the instant torque from the aggregate e-power system that provides somewhere around 295 lb-ft of additional oomph, theoretically boosting torque to more than 1,000 lb-ft.
A holistic vision
Unlike the Tosca, which is strictly speaking a development mule, the Asterion represents something much grander for the brand, a holistic vision of what a future Lamborghini model line could become. “We did not want to create a shape that is even more extreme than Huracán or Aventador,” explains chief designer Filippo Perini. “After all, this car points in a direction which is new for us. It is less about acceleration and top speed and more about environment-friendliness. It is kind of a hypercruiser.”
The Asterion’s interior is user-friendly in approach. Perini and his team opted for ivory leather, bespoke dials, and sparse aluminum accents. It must be the roomiest Lamborghini since the LM002 SUV, and visibility is quite good, too. The main controls are logically arranged, and the comfortable seats aren’t too snug. There are power-flow and state-of-charge displays, efficiency and charge-time readouts, and an analog or digital rev counter, which drops to 0 when the batteries take over. Integrated in the helm are three drive-mode selector buttons: Zero (electric), Ibrido (hybrid), and Termico (gas engine).
Under a hexagonal glass pane reinforced by a Y-pattern leitmotif carbon-fiber structure lurks the nicely dressed up V-10 propulsione ibrido. Although the main in-dash display promises an electric range of 30 miles, the state-of-charge meter indicates otherwise, but there is always enough electric energy on board to silence the four tailpipes when tip-toeing through sleepy villages. The incredulous expression on bystanders’ faces is absolutely priceless.
The suspension, steering, brakes, and carbon-fiber monocoque of the new-look Lambo are closely related to the Huracán’s and Aventador’s, which explains why the Asterion feels familiar from the moment you lift the red gate to hit the starter button. Not surprisingly, the steering is somewhat handicapped by the ultra-wide, 20-inch front and 21-inch rear wheels; the ride quality has “provisional” written all over it, and the slow throttle response suggests that e-boost is at this point only a paper tiger. But as is the case with almost all design exercises, the dynamic qualities matter less than emotional impressions such as flair, impact, and that “I want one” longing.
An uncertain track
The Asterion’s target emissions figures, though still hypothetical, are a clear indication of this project’s objectives. One cornerstone is a zero-emissions driving range of roughly 30 miles, a number Lamborghini believes will soon be mandatory in markets such as China and the U.S. Curbing damage done by CO2 and making a modular plug-in hybrid powertrain that could comply with the current and future sports cars are priorities, too. But Lamborghini’s German parent company, Audi, is reportedly reluctant to pour money into a new project saddled with uncertain timing and financial risks. A board member from Audi says: “After 2018, when the Urus [SUV] starts to bring fresh cash to the table, we can talk about anything they like.”
“We must take things one step at a time,” states Stephan Winkelmann, who is not only Lamborghini’s shrewd CEO but also the perfect senior brand ambassador. “Lamborghini can at best be a fast follower. We are a small company, and we lack the funds to set investment-intensive trends. This is what the group must take care of. Do we believe in PHEV [plug-in hybrid electric vehicles]? Absolutely. Can we afford it? Absolutely not. The situation may change once the right technology is available at the right price. We are talking about the next-generation sports cars here, not about next year or the year after. You don’t have to be an expert in reading the crystal ball to assume that a hybrid edition of Urus is in the cards. But when it comes to Huracán and Aventador, Lamborghini needs a tailor-made concept that honors our chief brand values.”
“Do we believe in PHEV [plug-in hybrid electric vehicles]? Absolutely. Can we afford it? Absolutely not.” — Stephan Winkelmann, CEO
What Winkelmann does not say is that performance and excitement are values that rank higher than saving the planet. While the boss also refuses to talk about investments, a source at Audi tells us that in view of the expected tiny volumes, parts costs alone would exceed $90,000 per vehicle. Factor in develop-ment expenditure, and you quickly get to a retail price in the neighborhood of $1 million, where hybrid hypercars like the LaFerrari, McLaren P1, and Porsche 918 live.
We hope signori Reggiani and Winkelmann sign off on their first plug-in hybrid sports car before 2020 and start production by 2022. Today, who knows what will happen. Reggiani sums it up: “In view of the ever-changing legislation and the unpredictable hard-ware situation, we must do what Italians don’t do very well: Be patient.” With a broad smile, he adds, “But of course it does help to prepare for all eventualities.” A quiet drive in a Lamborghini might be one of them.