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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Italian Poison Frog

The designation LP560-4 harkens back through Lamborghini's 46-year history to a naming scheme that has come and gone through the years. The most notorious of models, the Countach, was an LP400 or 500, depending on which piece of history you remember. The Italian initials LP translate to longitudinal mid-engine. In the past, the number following LP was displacement; the current number is roughly the engine's power output — while the "4" represents all-wheel drive. From now on, the LP560-4 will simply be known as the 2009 Gallardo.

The vibrant color screams, as does its updated V-10. At a peak speed of 168 mph while lapping the Auto Club Speedway oval in Southern California, the Gallardo's song reverberated like the calling of a king's entrance. Our test car was built to German specification; however, the 552-bhp output is said to remain nearly identical.

Power is delivered from a revised 90-degree naturally aspirated V-10. It does, however, share technology that is in the parent company's newest Audi RS 6. The changes include enlarging the bore by 2 mm, resulting in an extra 0.2 liter of capacity over the previous 5.0-liter. But rather than adding forced induction as on the RS 6, the engineers stuck with a high-revving naturally aspirated design that relies on direct injection, a 12.5:1 compression ratio and an attention-getting 8500-rpm redline. Half the fun of driving the new Gallardo is unleashing the violence of full-redline throttle blips. The dual exhaust tips emit a bark that demands attention, and one looks for every opportunity to squeeze the downshift paddle of the e.gear system.

Revised e.gear internals include a mechanical shift drum that replaces linear actuators — à la motorcycle transmissions. It speeds the shift process, but also removes weight and complexity. While lapping the Willow Springs road course, the paddles worked their magic with only brief pauses in the power delivery. The spindly levers extend from the steering column, so they don't rotate with the wheel, a nice feature when flicking the car around tight corners which require the suede-covered steering wheel to be twisted past 180 degrees. Their quick reaction feels almost telepathic. Of course, the superb rev-matching skill of the e.gear's microchip brain is impeccable.

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2009 Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4
2009 Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4

Road Tests:

2009 Aston Martin DBS
2009 Aston Martin DBS

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Slideshow: 2009 Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4 >>

There are five drive modes in an e.gear-equipped Gallardo: Automatic, Normal, Sport, Corsa and stability-control off. Only on rare occasion did I bother with the Automatic mode, for it's as unpleasant as all the other single-clutch manu-matics I've ever driven. In Normal mode, the shifting can be smooth if the driver pays attention and does not dabble with the throttle mid-shift. In Sport, the gear changes are more aggressive, but not to the whiplash level of the Corsa mode. Corsa not only slams gears 40 percent quicker than the last-generation e.gear, but also decreases the stability-control restrictions. This allows a 1–2 shift to kick the tail out — oh, what fun!

Of course, e.gear has launch control, and with all-wheel drive it's very effective. The system is enabled by invoking the Corsa mode, disabling ESP, mashing the brake, flooring the throttle until it peaks at about 5000 rpm, selecting 1st gear and releasing the brake. When the foot comes off the left pedal, the clutch engages at a rate that minimizes wheelspin. There's a thunk as slack in the driveline is taken up and the car lurches out of the hole like Michael Phelps off the blocks. If you're sitting at a stoplight and decide you want to smoke the lesser automobile next to you, be warned the driver will hear you coming as there is an audible exhaust note change when switching into the Corsa setting — pleasant hum to ferocious growl. I found myself enjoying Corsa, and when not confined by traffic would automatically select that mode, even when commuting on the freeway. There's something about being swaddled in exotic-car beauty and leaning back against 552 horsepower that makes any rush hour pleasant.

Swing open the conventionally hinged doors and a quilted leather interior with deep bucket seats seduces the driver into a classically low-slung position with the steering wheel extending far from the dash for a positively race-carlike feel. Audi-sourced navigation, climate control and audio are well integrated into the broad center console that's topped with a classic hooded-gauge cluster. From the driver's perspective, all the elements of the interior slant forward. It's as if the car had been stretched like taffy, taut over its aluminum skeleton.

Physically, the new car is much like the old car; however, the devil is in the details. Suspension pick-up points are new, as are rubber-metal bushings, forged aluminum control arms and a newly added rear track-rod. The result is better ride quality and a more predictable chassis that is stiffer and lighter by 44 lb. Can't ask for more than that. Shod with some serious Pirelli rubber, the optional $5200 Cordelia basket-weave wheels really put the power down at all four corners. The fixed 70-percent rear bias of the viscous center differential keeps the handling similar to that of a rear-drive machine, but allows earlier power application mid-corner. The addition of a mechanical limited-slip rear differential induces some stability, as does a brake-modulated front differential. Where the last Gallardo tended to push in most cornering conditions, the LP560-4 can be rotated easily with throttle modulation, although invoking any sideways action is difficult. The stable and balanced driving dynamics never feel out of sorts. There is great joy in pushing the new Gallardo around a track because it doesn't feel abused, but rather hungry for more.

All doubt of the Lamborghini's performance is erased with a glance at the data panel. The numbers best those of the Ferrari F430 and 599! But what about a Scuderia, you say? We'll have to wait and see. For now we are content to celebrate Lamborghini's decision to build a truly hard-core exotic and give Ferrari something to worry about, aside from the pretty lime-green paint.