Take the bull by the horns
AT A COST of more than $3 million, it's hardly surprising that Lamborghini's Gallardo Spyder is a great car. Or is it? In the two decades after Ferruccio Lamborghini retired to his vineyard in 1973, the cars bearing his name were associated less with sporting prowess than with entrepreneurs of the red-light district.
In the 1980s the cars from Sant'Agata Bolognese were resale suicide. That all changed in 1998, when Audi took over. In one sense, the German company is the antithesis of a super sports-car brand: vehicles mass-produced with laser-guided technology rather than by the passionate hand of an artisan. But for the 21st century - or to compete with Ferrari and Porsche - the Audi style makes perfect sense.
Let's also not forget that Audi has recently achieved extraordinary success in motor sport. The marque has won five of the past six Le Mans 24 Hours, for example. The interloper (in 2003) was Bentley - another Volkswagen-Audi adopted child.
The success of the Teutonic influence is clear. After four decades of selling about 250 cars a year, Lamborghini expects to sell 1,800 this year. With this has come profitability - something rarely experienced before at Sant'Agata.
But chief executive Stephan Winkelmann wants Lamborghini to remain a niche player. 'We need to control the growth,' says the 41-year-old German who was raised in Italy. 'The brand is our most valuable asset.'
Lamborghini's charging bull is still out-pranced by Ferrari. For instance, about 170 of Ferrari's new 430 have already been ordered in Hong Kong, meaning a wait of up to three years. Where Lamborghini might score is in its exclusivity: only 10 Gallardo Spyders will come here this year, so you're unlikely to park next to another at the IFC Mall on Saturday afternoon.
On the road, the 430 and Gallardo are evenly matched. The Ferrari is a little larger in every dimension than the Lambo, but weighs in a little less. Ferrari says its 490-horsepower, 4.3-litre V8 will push the 430 to 100km/h in about 4.1 seconds. The Lamborghini needs another couple of tenths of a second, despite having another 30 horsepower from its larger V10 engine. So in either car, you can earn five penalty points in about as many seconds.
The Gallardo is four-wheel drive; the Lambo two-wheel. It would be interesting to see how the acceleration figures change in wet and slippery conditions, where the Lamborghini, presumably, would leave its Italian cousin in the puddles.
On a dry road, and with the traction control turned off, it's almost impossible to generate wheel spin in a straight line. With the manual gearbox model, it's possible to replicate a racing start by using higher revs at take-off than would be possible with the paddle shift, e-gear model.
Even then there's only a hint of spin from the front. The car just leaps forward. This isn't to suggest that the e-gear is a slouch. About 80 per cent of the V10's impressive 510 Newton metres of torque is delivered at 1,500 rpm - in other words, immediately. And the 2006 Coupe and Spyder Gallardos benefit from lowered gear ratios (first gear by 27 per cent), which make acceleration even crisper.
The manual's traditional metal H-pattern gate can initially be awkward to use. It responds well to a firm hand. Engine revs die quickly when the right foot is lifted for gear changes, so the faster the shifting, the smoother the journey. Once the driver adjusts, the manual becomes a joy to drive. Like anything that requires skill, it will ultimately be more rewarding.
The e-gear variant is better suited to the everyday environment in Hong Kong. It's easy to trickle along at low speeds with the gear changes barely felt. The automatic clutch copes well with the stop-start of traffic. The e-gear continues to perform well when the speed grows. It changes cogs swiftly and keeps up with the driver. On the downshifts, the auto-throttle-blip can be a bit alarming. Subtle it is not.
'It's what the customers want,' says Lamborghini chief engineer Gabrielle Gabrielli. Thankfully, the Spyder's V10 is aurally satisfying and benefits from the enhanced exhaust of last year's SE model.
On Miami's Homestead Speedway track, I explore the outer edges of the Gallardo's dynamic abilities. It displays no ugly character traits that would sap the driver's confidence and be tedious at speed. As with the manual gear change, there's the impression that the car's handling is to be explored over time. The four-wheel-drive system contributes to this: it rewards commitment, which comes, in turn, from confidence and experience.
If we're going to be precise (and this comes with the health warning that it's entirely irrelevant to street driving), the Gallardo exhibits the general understeer characteristic that any sensible car manufacturer builds into its vehicles. It helps owners avoid going backwards into oncoming traffic or buildings.
The rearward weight bias (where the motor is) starts to overcome the understeer. The four-wheel drive remains in control so long as power is being applied. Should the nose have run wide and panic induces a lift of the throttle pedal, the car can happily demonstrate oversteer. Getting on the loud pedal again moves the weight of the car back onto the rear wheels and settles the pulse. A flick of opposite lock gets the car pointed in the correct direction.
The steering is 20 per cent more direct than on last year's Coupe and communicates well. Similarly, there's good feedback through the brake pedal and the car feels sure-footed under heavy deceleration. Back on the street, it will be difficult, not to say unwise, to experience the handling advantages offered by Gabrielli's engineering efforts. But, as with modern Ferraris and Porsches, we can expect the Gallardo to be reliable and easy to live with. The soft-top mechanism does its work in about 20 seconds, so you won't get wet in a sudden rainstorm.
Such cars aren't for the discreet. Even without the engine running, the Gallardo attracts attention. Its dramatic shape is complemented by colours such as orange and a gorgeous powder blue available only on the Spyder. The car looks fabulous in gunmetal grey (Grigio Proteus) with matching titanium coloured wheels. A range of roof colours will be available.
The Gallardo Spyder will arrive here next month: 90 years after the birth of the Taurean car enthusiast Lamborghini.
Matthew Marsh drives for Noble Group-GruppeM Racing, Hong Kong's Le Mans team
AT A GLANCE
What drives it? A 513-brake-horsepowered, 4,961cc, Lamborghini Type V10 engine with a six-speed manual or e-gear paddle gearbox; four-wheel drive on 19-inch Pirelli P Zero tyres.
How fast is it? Fast enough for Hong Kong, with 0-100km/h reached in 4.3 seconds, and a ridiculously quick top speed of 314km/h.
How safe is it? Depends on the driver.
How thirsty is it? www.carfolio.com says it drinks 24.8 litres per 100km in town, and belches 400g/km of CO2.
Available: $3.18 million (e-gear); $3.03 million (manual). The dealer says the cars will be launched in Hong Kong in early March.