Cigar Aficionado

Lamborghini Charges in with New Models and Corporate Backing

238. It's not a number I'm used to seeing on my speedometer. Even in metric form, and certainly not on a narrow, two-lane blacktop weaving its way through the quiet farm villages outside of Modena, Italy. OK, a quick conversion and it's a nudge short of 150 mph. Still impossibly fast, especially when you consider I've just shifted into fifth and the big V-12 sitting behind me has a lot of breathing room and another gear left. "It's a race car, but it's street-legal," was the sage advice offered up by Lamborghini's global marketing chief, Bernd Hayden, as I prepared for my first turn behind the wheel in the new Murcielago. Ready for the street perhaps, but even in tolerant Italy, I'm not quite sure about the legal part.

The $273,000 Murcielago is the latest in a series of astounding performance machines to emerge from the medieval town of Modena, an ancient community that has been dubbed Speed Central by some and The Silicon Valley of Speed by others. Either term is justified, for within a 10-mile circle around Modena reside more high-performance automotive nameplates than anywhere else in the world, including Ferrari, Maserati and their smaller rival, Lamborghini. In the 40 years since Ferruccio Lamborghini set down plans for his first production car, the 350GT, the automaker has produced barely 2,000 vehicles. It's best known for the legendary Countach, an angular, spacecraft of a sports car that has adorned more posters than any Italian since Sophia Loren. It was replaced in 1990 by the Diablo, which has now given way to the Murcielago, the 10th "volume" car in Lamborghini's brief history.

The name translates as "bat" in Spanish, and it's pronounced "mercy-AY-lah-go." Unless you're Castillian, that is, where you add a lisp, and it becomes "mirthy-AY-lah-go." The new two-seater actually honors a bull of that name, which 122 years ago defied the best matador of Barcelona, surviving a score of sword strikes and living to a ripe old age making other brave bulls. Either interpretation is appropriate. A raging bull is the symbol of the Lamborghini brand, but the Murcielago moves like a bat out of hell.


Fast Cars, Slow Operation

It's a different pace entirely at the Lamborghini plant in the Modena suburb of Sant'Agata Bolognese. "Glacial" is the rate that more immediately comes to mind. This is not an assembly line, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. A typical Ford factory will produce more cars on a single, eight-hour shift than the 502 employees at Sant'Agata will build in an entire year.

While the factory has gone through some significant changes in recent years -- notably using computers in engine production -- things are mostly done the way they were when founder Ferruccio first set up shop. Virtually everything is done by hand. As you walk around the sprawling facility, you see a mass of Murcielagos in various stages of completion, lightweight carbon fiber sheets hanging from their stiff, steel tube skeletons. Workers wander the floor, spending a few minutes here, another 20 minutes there. But slowly, each vehicle begins to take shape. And on average, one or two will roll out the door each day.

It is this "genuine exclusivity," as much as the incredible brute power of a car like the Murcielago, that gives Lamborghini so much appeal, says Greg Brown, editor of Los Angeles-based European Import magazine. On any given day in the land of make-believe, you're likely to see plenty of Ferraris, Brown notes, but a Lamborghini sighting is a rare event and, as he found when he parked one recently at the pier in Venice Beach, it's likely to draw quite a crowd. "In jaded L.A.," he says, "it provoked more reaction than any other car I've ever driven."

Much of the appeal comes from the fact that Lamborghini has always pushed the limits of design. The legendary Countach sat impossibly low and looked as if it had just zipped in from another planet. At any moment, you expected it to lift off the ground, fold its wheels away and quickly hit Warp 9.

Compared with the cars that preceded it, Lambo's latest entry, the Murcielago, is almost subtle in appearance, far less angular than the Countach, and not nearly as ostentatious as the Diablo. Even so, it virtually shouts, "I'm different." Standing still, the Murc boasts incredible, raw visual power. When it crawls through traffic, heads turn as it goes by. At full speed, passersby aren't likely to see very much.


Distinctive Features

Indeed, the car's most distinctive visual feature is normally apparent only when you're running flat out. The Variable Airflow Cooling System, or VACS, is a two-stage air intake system process that employs side-mounted openings on either side of the rear of the Murcielago's upper body. In normal driving conditions, when the engine is running cool, the intakes remain folded away, reducing aerodynamic drag. When coolant temperatures rise -- or the driver decides to impress observers and touches a button on the instrument panel -- the menacing side scoops pop open.

The engine certainly generates the heat. The Murcielago is powered by an aluminum 6.2-liter V-12 that features variable intake and exhaust cam phasing, a variable-geometry intake manifold and four separate drive-by-wire throttles. The package produces more than 570 horsepower at peak, though most of its 479 foot-pounds of torque comes on low. Even in fifth, the car's got enough to lumber along at a crawl without bucking or stalling out.

Inside the lightweight body, the engine provides a higher power-to-weight ratio than just about any other car on the planet. You discover that fast when you stomp on the accelerator and let out the clutch. Lamborghini claims that the car will shoot from 0 to 100 kilometers per hour (0 to 62.5 mph) in 3.8 seconds. It has a rated top speed of 205 mph; early last year, a Murcielago maintained nearly that speed for 100 miles, capturing the international record for a production vehicle. (The test car was randomly pulled off the assembly line, with no modifications allowed.)

Anyone who has driven one of Lamborghini's previous production cars well knows that it handled like a race car. They were harsh, demanding and, in some ways, downright crude. The Murcielago isn't the type of vehicle you'd call a daily driver, but it's definitely easier to manage on the street than even a latter-generation Diablo, which, after just a brief, high-speed run, would leave you sitting in a pool of sweat and in need of a helping hand to climb out from behind the wheel.

Part of the difference comes from the new electronic suspension system that all but instantaneously adapts to road and driving conditions. (There's a manual override, if you prefer.) To plant the Murcielago even more firmly on the ground, the car features another electronic pop-out, a three-inch spoiler that tilts to a 50-degree angle at 130 kmh (about 81 mph) and then extends to 70 degrees at 220 kmh (137 mph). Huge brakes and a surprisingly easy-to-shift gearbox complete the package.


Transforming the Company

A big difference between Lamborghini past and present is the surprising refinement of the Murcielago interior. Gauges are far more visible than in the Diablo, controls are more easily reached. Fits and finishes are world-class. And, to be blunt, things like the climate control system and power windows actually work. The last time we took a Diablo out for a few days, the electronics proved exceedingly unreliable, often leaving windows stuck half down. The only problem we experienced with the Murcielago was a bit of bucking in idle after the hardest portion of our drive. Turning the ignition off and on again solved the problem, which never reoccurred.

An emphasis on quality and reliability comes in the wake of the 1998 acquisition of Lamborghini by the German automaker Audi -- itself a subsidiary of Volkswagen AG. The acquisition came as a bit of a surprise, especially since it was just one of a spate of upmarket moves by Volkswagen, which now owns the British luxury marque Bentley as well as the reborn French brand Bugatti.

The takeover was good news for Automobili Lamborghini, which has been struggling for survival almost since the day it was founded. In the early 1970s, the company's already modest sales collapsed in the wake of a global economic downturn worsened by the first oil shock. By 1974, Ferruccio Lamborghini was forced to sell out. But the new owners were reluctant to invest the money needed to keep the company competitive. They compounded the crisis through a series of questionable moves, including one that resulted in what may be among the oddest automobiles ever created. The LM 002 was a high-performance off-road vehicle meant to traverse sand dunes nearly as fast as it could run on the road.

Even a joint venture with BMW failed to turn things around, and Lamborghini was forced into receivership. It remained a ward of the court until 1980, when the company was sold to the Mimran Brothers, tycoons in the European food industry. Under their control, the automaker flourished and, ironically, it was this success that ultimately forced the brothers to sell Lamborghini to someone with the resources to fund its growth.

In April 1987, ownership changed hands yet again, with the newly resurgent Chrysler Corp. taking command. An influx of new capital helped Lamborghini finish the delayed development of the Diablo, which finally replaced the long-in-the-tooth Countach. The new car proved an immediate hit and, in a rare occurrence, Lamborghini posted a profit in 1991. But the good times wouldn't last long. Chrysler's own problems were compounded by the recession that came on the heels of the Gulf War, and in a desperate bid for cash, the automaker dumped Lamborghini.

This time, the buyer was a shadowy Indonesian firm, Megatech, which counted among its shareholders Tommy Suharto, son of the country's embattled president-for-life. Automobili Lamborghini fared unexpectedly well, though, reversing a string of heavy losses and attracting the attention of Audi. The latest deal was completed on July 24, 1998, and a year later, Lamborghini was completely restructured, as much as anything to signal the big plans the German automaker had for its new subsidiary.


The Baby Lambo

The Gallardo, long known by the code name the LB-140 and then named for a breed of fighting bull, is Lamborghini's long-rumored second product line, a downsized version of the Murc that will, if successful, ensure the viability of the oft-troubled supercar marque. "We're putting all our bets on this car," stresses the Italian company's vice chairman and managing director, Dr. Giuseppe Greco. Despite the astronomical price tag of the Murcielago, there's no way Lamborghini can survive selling fewer than 400 of them a year, he says.

But there was clearly also no way Lamborghini could have come up with a car like the Gallardo on its own, so it has had to depend heavily on the help of its German parent, which has pumped millions into the Italian operation. Development efforts on the new supercar involved some 700 Audi designers and engineers -- more personnel than the entire Lamborghini workforce, notes Dr. Hans-Peter Rottlander, a former Audi executive who recently signed on as Lambo's new administrative director.

Audi's influence will be obvious when the Gallardo comes to market, probably in the second half of 2003. The two-seater will be built around a so-called space-frame chassis and will make extensive use of high-tech materials, especially aluminum. That's the material of choice for Audi's updated flagship sedan, the A-8. Audi also played a significant role in developing the sports car's power train, a V-10 that is expected to deliver in excess of 500 horsepower. The parent company will provide a variety of components, including the electronic control module. But final assembly will take place at Sant'Agata.

Described by some as a "baby Murcielago," the Gallardo will be true to Lamborghini heritage and be "extreme in design," boasts Greco. "Spy shots" making the rounds suggest the new car will bear a strong familial resemblance to the bigger Lambo.

Reflecting the shift in buyers that the carmaker expects, the Gallardo will be a little less extreme than the Murcielago when it comes down to comfort, however. It should be a bit less bone jarring when pushed to the limits, though it's not likely to become your everyday drive. "We have to strike a balance, give buyers enough creature comforts to meet their expectations," says Greco, "but we won't give them so much comfort we seem soft. You don't expect riding a bull to be soft."

The new car is scheduled to debut at the Geneva Motor Show this March. When it hits showrooms, look for a price tag that Greco says will be "10 percent to 15 percent above the Ferrari 360 Modena." That would work out to somewhere around $150,000, or little more than half the cost of a Murcielago.

Once the line hits full speed, Lamborghini hopes to sell up to 1,300 Gallardos a year. That could be a stretch, according to some observers. That stratospheric segment of the market is crowding. Bentley, for example, will soon introduce its Continental GT, and Ferrari hints it will launch a replacement for the 360 late in 2003. Aston Martin's AMV8 Vantage will be priced a little lower.

"Let them come," declares Greco. "I'm not worried." He insists that Lamborghini has "the credentials" to take on all comers.

With the launch of the Gallardo, Lamborghini and Audi will effectively complete their first five-year turnaround plan. Looking ahead, the Italian automaker hopes to expand its lineup even more, Greco hints, by adding open-top versions of the Murc and Gallardo. But talk of a completely different, third model line is way, way off in the future, he concludes.

Don't expect Lamborghini to become a mass-market manufacturer, though. The company's stock in trade is speed, exclusivity and visually outrageous design. Even with the addition of the Gallardo, Lambo isn't about to upset that formula.


Paul A. Eisenstein publishes