Travel | ON THE ROAD

Lamborghini's Gallardo: Italian flair meets German engineering

Restyled for a more aggressive look, Audi influence shines through

by Peter Lyon

You could say that I am extremely sensitive to certain types of sound, especially those that fill you with awe and cause goose bumps. Every time I hear tenor sensation Luciano Pavarotti sing the last climactic note in “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s opera “Turandot,” the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, and then, as fast as electricity, a wave of goose bumps engulfs my whole body.

For some strange reason, the roar of the V10 engine in a Lamborghini Gallardo LP560/4 has the same effect on me. Floor the throttle on this Italian supercar and a crescendo of metallic music fills the cabin like a tsunami. And before I know it, my skin is buzzing with goose bumps all over again.

This is a special car that tickles the five senses like few others. But it’s actually not technically Italian. Around a decade ago, Germany’s Audi AG took over the struggling carmaker, effectively saving it from ruin. For many Lamborghini- loving Italians, it was a mind-numbing shock. They worried that the essence of their beloved company would be watered down, lost in translation.

You see, up until that time, no Italian-German coproduction had ever really succeeded.

So when Audi, which actually operates under the Volkswagen Group, bought out Lamborghini in 1998, the automotive world held its breath in anticipation. It was kind of like trying to blend German sauerkraut with Italian gelato. They both taste good, but they don’t quite go together. The end result, however, was a resounding success.

Working alongside their Lamborghini colleagues, Audi designers artfully merged a large helping of Italian passion and design flair with a strong dose of German engineering precision and reliability.

Debuting in 2001, the Murcielago was a revelation. It employed Audi’s latest technology but still retained the raw Lamborghini design eccentricities and machismo. Fitted with a huge V12 engine, the Murcielago still had the telltale gull-wing doors and huge scalloped-out air scoops. Drivers still had to be contortionists to get in and out, and finding a comfortable driving position was a chore. It was quick, for sure, but the handling was numb, the ride was rough and not quite what Lamborghini — with Audi — had envisaged.

Then in 2003, the Gallardo burst onto the world stage. As if a sign of the times, the V12 had been transformed into a smaller V10 engine, the gull-wing doors replaced by the standard, horizontally opening type and the overall exterior styling was safe at best, tame at worst. But my word, did it drive well. The coupe’s handling and ride qualities were by far the best that Lamborghini had ever produced. And compared to the outgoing Murcielago, the Gallardo was more comfortable behind the wheel. You could actually reverse this car without having to strain every muscle in your back and neck twisting and turning to see behind you.

Audi’s influence over Lamborghini had however, created arguably the most understated-looking supercar to venture forth from the company’s design studio in three decades.

So designers tweaked that car’s styling to create the more aggressive-looking Gallardo LP560/4, with larger frontal air scoops and a slimmer taillight design.

Those upgrades make this car look far better and are merely a sign of things to come. Having just taken over the reigns of Lamborghini design, well-known Italian stylist and industry heavyweight Walter de Silva has credentials hard to beat in today’s car world. Responsible for such masterpieces as the Alfa Romeo 156 and Audi A6, after stints at both carmakers, de Silva is a magician when it comes to capturing the essence of a particular brand in the sheet metal.

Whatever comes forth from Lamborghini’s stables in the near future is guaranteed to possess sleeker lines and more sensuality than the current Gallardo, or even the earlier Murcielago. And that’s how it should be. Lamborghini is a maker of supercars. Their shapes should be gorgeous, if not outrageous. And while the rest of the automotive world is talking about how to reduce carbon dioxide levels and improve fuel efficiency, the Italian company is content to stay honest to the desires of its founder Ferruccio Lamborghini, who started the company back in 1962.

“We can’t worry about (carbon dioxide). We build supercars,” said one company engineer who wished to remain anonymous.

He has a point. For Lambo to worry about such issues would go against its founding principles. It would be like trying to economize by using half the amount of cheese you would normally use to make a traditional plate of gorgonzola pasta. It might be healthier, but it certainly would not taste or smell as good.

And that is what is so exquisite about Lamborghini and their new Gallardo LP560/4. The excesses. That’s what makes it a Lambo. Extending your right boot, opening that operatic engine sound and unleashing every one of those 560 horses is like Han Solo switching to hyperdrive in “Star Wars.” You feel as though the car will just keep accelerating until it eventually breaks clear of Earth’s gravity and take to the skies.

Even puttering around town at more modest speeds, you can enjoy the versatility of this engine. Simply by flicking the paddle-shift gear lever, located just behind the steering wheel, and changing up from third to second gear, you may be startled by the loud bark from the engine bay. It’s as if you have a large, angry German shepherd seated just behind your right ear.

Eccentricities like this are what make the car worth around ¥23 million. The look, the sound, the speed, even the smell of the interior leather all add to its mystique. And whereas the economic downturn is forcing most carmakers to downsize and produce more economical models, Lamborghini is still selling every one of the 3,000 odd cars it makes each year.

Nearing the end of my test drive, I briefly stopped at a set of lights in Tokyo’s downtown Ginza district just long enough to overhear two teenage boys point at the Gallardo and say, “Look, a supercar!” That’s the effect these cars have on people. Pedestrians don’t say, “Look, a minivan,” or, “Hey, a sedan!” Supercars are like the royalty of the car world.

I wonder if those two teenagers got goose bumps, too.

Peter Lyon is a 20-year motor journalist who covers Japan’s auto industry for more than a dozen publications worldwide.