Jim Kenzie

Pros

  • Well, just look at it
  • 500 horsepower is what your daily commute really needs
  • All that and great dynamics too

Cons

  • Kyoto? Where's that?
  • Gives new meaning to the term 'lorider'
  • Pricey, even considering what it is

Summary

Overall Rating is 9.5

The latest, rakish, aluminium-bodied, 500-horsepower, V10-powered, all-wheel drive Lamborghini is an Italian supercar with some German DNA and blood in its veins.

You'd think a tractor manufacturer would be careful about making statements like, "I could build a better car than a Ferrari!"

But that's what Italian industrialist Ferruccio Lamborghini said back in the early 1960s when he became disenchanted with his Ferrari and the service he received on it.

His claim has been hotly debated ever since.

Two things are indisputable:

1. The company Lamborghini founded has, despite several owners and a stint in bankruptcy, survived; several others who tried to follow the same path have not (Iso Rivolta, anyone?...)

2. The company's historical roster includes some of the most outrageous mobile sculptures ever to grace our roads (Miura, Countach, Diablo, anyone?)

The company is now owned by Volkswagen's Audi division. Could they combine the passion and excitement of Italian supercars in general and Lambos in particular, with the efficiency, engineering, assembly quality and production processes of a modern big-time German car maker?

What better way to find out that to try the first product developed entirely under the new regime, the Gallardo.

A First Lamborghini

Like all Lamborghinis, Gallardo is named after a breed of fighting bull - the company's symbol is a raging bull, pace Jake La Motta / Robert De Niro fans.

'Gallardo' also means 'elegant', 'graceful' or 'striking' in Spanish, depending on which online translation service you use.

Gallardo is the, um, 'entry-level' Lamborghini, its base list of $255,000 slotting in well under the range-topping Murciélago.

Consistent with Lamborghini's history, it is aimed directly at the comparable Ferrari, previously the F360 Modena, and now, the new F430.

The absolutely stunning lines are from the pen (more likely, the computer terminal) of Lambo's head of design, Luc van Donckerwolke, a Peru-born Belgian citizen formerly in Audi's employ. His rolling doorstop wedge shape for the Gallardo continues the drama of earlier Lamborghinis, most of which were the handiwork of Marcello Gandini, while making the car somewhat more practical to build.

No scissor doors on this one, I'm afraid.

Fitting In

The two-seat coupe isn't terribly hard to get into, provided you're not much taller than five-foot ten. Taller people actually can fit, but it'll be a squeeze.

Likewise for your luggage. There's a small bin up front, with a lateral divider which, inexplicably, cannot be removed. So instead of one fairly sizeable sports bag, you're limited to two very thin ones.

You can stuff small cases behind the seats on a padded shelf; regardless, you'll be packing light.

Audi does the best interiors in the business, and its influence is obvious here. Not only in the outstanding trim materials and finish, but the tilt and telescope steering column, power mirror switch, switchblade-style ignition key, radio and HVAC systems all appear to come straight from the Audi parts bin.

It is perhaps a trifle sombre in the optional two-tone medium grey leather of my test car; the Ferrari F430 offers more of a sense of occasion inside, albeit in a somewhat flashy, ostentatious way.

The bright yellow stitching on the Gallardo seats and dash picks up the exterior colour of the car and brightens things up a little.

Unless you're the type who loves little details, in which case you'll spend hours just staring, touching and flicking the row of gorgeous toggle switches (power windows, gas cap release, Directional Stability Control disabler, etc.) across the centre console. Works of art, these are.

The seats are snug and thinly padded, but even after a couple of hours at a time in them, my back did not complain.

Visibility is always an issue with a low-slung car like this. It's fine to the front and sides, and the big and perfectly-positioned side-view mirrors mean that once you're on the road, you have no trouble keeping track of what's around you.

Reversing is a bit of an adventure, and the flying buttresses that extend rearwards from the roof pillars behind your head reflect in the inside rear view mirror; sometimes they would catch my eye, as if something were gaining on me.

As if...

Forward Thrust

Gallardo is powered by a 5.0-litre V10 engine mounted longitudinally behind the cabin. Twin camshafts per bank, four valves per cylinder, variable-length intake manifolds and variable valve timing result in a lusty 500 horsepower at 7800 rpm, and a peak of 376 lb-ft of torque at 4500 rpm, with 80 per cent of that value being available from 1500 rpm on up.

Compare those numbers to the 4.3-litre V8 in the Ferrari F430: 490 horsepower at 8500 rpm, and 343 lb-ft at 5250 rpm.

So the Lambo engine is slightly more powerful, a bit lower-revving, but considerably torquier - exactly what you'd expect from the larger displacement.

The Gallardo's all-aluminium structure and body panels keep the weight down to just 1430 kg. The F430 tips in at 1350 kg, but the Lambo has an excuse, as we shall see...

(Incidentally, before Audi took control in 1988, Lamborghini was planning a carbon fibre car to compete in this class; a shame they didn't follow through, but Audi has bet on aluminium as their body material of the future, so the flagship must follow suit.)

Check a box on the metaphorical order form and the conventional six-speed manual transmission is replaced by e-drive, a paddle-shifted six-speed.

Some buyers still prefer the regular manual, but if performance is what a car like this is supposed to be about, you simply have no justification for not going the e-drive route - it is impossible to drive a car like this as quickly without it. Choose the regular manual and you identify yourself as a poseur.

Ayad Shammas, president of Lamborghini Canada, said the Lambo e-drive was better than that of Ferrari.

"Faster and smoother," he said.

I hope I don't get anybody fired, but one of his technicians told me, "It's exactly the same Magneti Marelli hardware Ferrari uses."

Sales guys versus techie guys, eh?

All Lamborghinis now have full-time four-wheel drive - another nice tie-in with Audi, although it's not a quattro system here. Rather, it's Lambo's own viscous coupling design, with a built-in rearward torque split of 30 / 70 per cent. Under hard acceleration, this changes to 20 / 80, to aid rear-wheel grip.

If the rears start to spin, the coupling locks up and both axles get equal power.

The four-wheel drive system also accounts for the Gallardo's heavier weight; the 80 kg hit seems a small price to pay.

The rear limited-slip differential has 45 per cent lock-up; the front diff is governed by the ABD (automatic brake differential) function within the DSC (Directional Stability Control) program. You'd have to work awfully hard to spin the wheels in this car...

The suspension is race-bred double wishbones all around, with a full panoply of electronic aids, including ABS, emergency brake force distribution, and the aforementioned DSC.

The tires are massive Pirelli P-Zeros, 235/35ZR19 front, 290/30 ZR19 rear.

Taking Off

Firing up this engine is the automotive equivalent of aural sex. I spent much of my week looking for underpasses, so I could roll down the windows, drop the thing into second gear and stand on it. Lovely, just lovely.

The car is stupidly fast: 100 km/h comes up in a tick over four seconds from a standing start, with a theoretical (trust me...) top speed of 309 km/h.

Yet the engine is not the least bit high-strung. OK, it requires a few Kyoto-killing throttle blips to clear its throat when started from cold, but it idles calmly, and even has enough torque to pull smoothly from as low as 2000 rpm.

Not that you'd want to.

The e-drive is quite easy to get used to, although like any technology, the better you are at using it, the more rewarding it is. Leave your right foot planted when you pull on the right paddle, and the shifts are fast and pretty harsh. Learn to lift just a trifle as the gears change, and it smoothes out considerably.

Downshift by pulling on the left paddle; the drive-by-wire engine controller even blips the throttle for you to match the revs perfectly.

Everyone can shift like Schumacher...

Like the Ferrari, there is an automatic mode, activated by a button on the centre console.

And like the Ferrari, the automatic mode isn't terribly slick. But if you just want to putter along - and even in a Lambo, you might - it'll do.

Inexplicably, the push button to activate reverse is NOT on the centre console, but on the dash to the left of the steering wheel. Must be an ex-Honda interior designer working at Lamborghini; they're always putting things over there where they don't belong...

Hanging On

The four-wheel drive is felt only when trying to make very tight low-speed corners, for example, in a parking lot - there's just a bit of scrubbing of the front tires.

The ride is very firm - the ultra-low profile tires extract a big penalty in vertical compliance in return for their lateral grip.

You forgive it when you start to thread the car through the corners. The car is insanely sure-footed, with very high levels of grip.

Again, as it usually does, four-wheel drive dulls the reactions just a tad, and here's why: When driving fast in a two-wheel drive car, you can sense the momentary and temporary losses of grip through the steering wheel as the front tires gradually approach their tractive limits. This feedback tells you that you're getting close, both to the limit and maybe to the weeds...

In a four-wheel drive car, the available torque is divided by four, rather than two. So the tires are less likely to approach their grip limit, and there's less immediate tactile feedback through the steering.

You ARE going faster - you just might not realise it. Until, of course, it may be too late...

The huge Brembo brakes are perhaps the best I have ever tried - not that I do instrumented brake tests, but subjectively, these are simply sensational.

Sitting Low

The biggest dynamic problem with the Gallardo is its ultra-low stance. A small chin spoiler under the nose had already been fiended when the Lamborghini Canada technician took me on a familiarization run - just about any driveway or gas station entrance is going to result in a loud, expensive-sounding crunch.

Even on paved but less-than-perfect roads, you have to be extremely careful that the smallish-looking bump up ahead is going to pass under the car without being shaved off.

The larger Lambo, the Murciélago, has a front suspension lift kit that raises the car a few centimetres during low-speed (sub-30 km/h) manoeuvres. 2005 model-year Gallardos get this too, but my test car - a 2004-spec car, despite being brand-new - did not have it.

This is about the only aspect of the Gallardo that prevents it from being a genuine all-season car - not that I'd expect you'd want to drive it in winter. But the aluminium body, four-wheel drive and available winter tires in the same sizes as the summer rubber mean it is at least possible to consider doing so. So - Ferrari F430 or Lamborghini Gallardo?

To me, the Gallardo is better-looking outside, not quite as exciting inside. The Ferrari offers a slightly more sensation-filled drive, with its rear-wheel drive and peakier engine; the Gallardo is very slightly more relaxed, with the security of four-wheel drive and torquier engine.

I never thought I'd say this, but I think the Lamborghini engine sounds even better than the Ferrari's. The F430 offers a cabriolet; the Gallardo does not - yet (it will...).

Conclusion

With all the options on my tester, plus various taxes and fuel economy penalties, you'll end up writing a cheque for about $300,000 for a Gallardo, which I think puts it quite a chunk more expensive than the Ferrari.

Either the Italian stallion or the Italian bull would make you the absolute star of your high school reunion. I guess if I could afford one, I could afford both.