It resembles a stealth fighter jet, but there would be no hiding in the Aventador on the street. Neil Vorano drives Lamborghini's successor to the Murcielago.
The Lamborghini Aventador is the new gladiator
"Don't a-worry, sir, it will be a-just another two minutes more."
From the back seat of the Audi A5, I nod to the young Roman driver in the mirror. "Buono," I reply in my rudimentary and pathetic Italian, as he navigates the twisted, cobblestoned streets with an obvious inside knowledge of the city. But I wouldn't mind an even longer ride from airport to hotel, despite the 10 hours of airline transit to Italy's capital of Rome. Even with an overcast pall that threatens rain and mutes colours into greys and taupes, the city's mix of stylish, bustling inhabitants and jaw-dropping historical sites has a way of both exciting and humbling visitors at the same time.
We turn a corner, and I don't even need to hear the driver tell me that we've arrived. Because set amid the dreary, almost whitewashed backdrop, in front of the Westin hotel right in the middle of Rome, sits the reason for my visit; something so wild and exotic that it momentarily overshadows the aged splendour of the city, in a colour of orange so vibrant you could be forgiven for thinking it must be plugged into a wall socket. It is so striking that it draws the attention of the normally blasé passers-by in hordes, camera phones out amid quiet murmurs and finger pointing.
It is the new Lamborghini Aventador LP 700-4, and from a company that considers itself the "bad boy" of the supercar set, it can't possibly have any more of a reaction without being an unmitigated failure.
It's the replacement for the nine-year-old Murcielago, and Stephan Winkelmann, Lamborghini's ever-so-stylish CEO, considers its latest supercar as being "two generations ahead" of the previous model. And it certainly looks the part.
Winkelmann's comment refers to the fact that every single major component on the Aventador is completely new and different from the Murcielago; the 700hp, 6.5L, normally aspirated V12 engine gets better fuel economy and has more power than the one in the Merci; the unique carbon fibre monocoque passenger cell (a first in production cars) utilises three different carbon fibre processes melded together; the pushrod suspension is the same design used in race cars; the single-clutch Independent Shifting Rod (ISR) gearbox employs separate actuators for each synchroniser for faster shifting; and a revised Haldex all-wheel-drive system has three different setups for dynamic driving. Yup, that about sums up "everything".
I can't help myself. I walk up to the show car in front of the hotel after getting out of the Audi; this new Lamborghini is absolutely stunning. The sharp lines, the low silhouette, the bevel-cut trailing edges; all give the impression of a menacing stealth fighter plane. And there is no deferring politely to anyone's individual tastes in this case. If you don't think the Aventador is a magnificent looking car, you should ask for a refund on your eyeballs.
Lamborghini's checklist manifesto of the Aventador goes as follows, and in order: 1. handling, 2. acceleration, and 3. top speed. The congested and cobbled streets of Rome wouldn't give the Aventador enough room to stretch its legs, but the nearby racetrack of Vallelunga will suffice nicely.
Vallelunga is the antithesis of the gleaming new Yas Marina; under the constant, grey cloud cover, its main-straight grandstands sit dilapidated, with calcium water deposits running down the walls and grass growing through cracks in the concrete. But the track itself offers a mix of higher-speed sweeping curves and tight, second-gear hairpins, and I have an opportunity to see if the Aventador's power and handling can possibly match its sinister looks. On paper, at least, the car checks the last two boxes of its manifesto: zero-to-100kph in a frightening 2.9 seconds with a limited top speed of 350kph.
Open the scissor door and crouch down to get in; there's actually quite a bit of room inside for two people. The windscreen is huge but tilted so sharply that you look out a thin sliver of glass. The interior carries the stealth fighter theme, beginning with the start button hidden under a red flip cover; above that is the navigation, climate and stereo controls, all very reminiscent of those found in any Audi (which, like Lamborghini, is owned by the Volkswagen Group, so there is a bit of parts sharing). But the main gauge in front of the steering wheel is very much Lambo - it's a TFT (thin-film transistor) screen, with bold and informative graphics. It can be switched to either have the speedometer as the sweeping hand or, in more aggressive moments, the tachometer. Really, it's a wonderful instrument.
Pushing the start button in pit lane brings the V12 to life, with a short roar up to around 4,000rpm before settling back down to idle, as if to proclaim its presence. I flick the paddle shifter into the first, then second of seven gears following the lead car out onto the track.
As it roars away, I sink my foot onto the throttle - and I'm pressed into my seat with a cacophony of noise from the engine behind my head. I reach two fingers for a quick pull on the right shift paddle and flick it up to third.
Before I describe this next shift, let me just say that the Aventador comes with three driving modes: Strada (street in Italian), which employs full electronic stability control (ESP) and has slower but smoother shifts; Sport, which quickens the shifts, engine mapping and steering and has the ESP allow a bit of squirm for some fun; and Corsa (race in Italian), which increases the fun from Sport even more and allows a lot more slip and slide with the car, while still keeping the ESP under watch in case things get out of hand, as well as shortening the shifts to about 50 milliseconds. I have it in Corsa for most of the day, including this very moment.
Now, imagine standing on a tall cliff, and someone slams you in the back with a sledgehammer, sending you flying off the edge and accelerating at a terrifying rate towards terminal velocity. That's kind of what shifting the Aventador in fury is like; the car instantly surges forward with a sharp jolt, and the wheels lose traction for just a moment before finding their grip again, pulling the body along with it. According to Winkelmann, that feeling is exactly what the company was looking for, and it's why it stuck with a single-clutch gearbox as opposed to a dual-clutch model.
The throttle is steady in third gear into the wide first turn we come to, then the car snaps to the left where you can hammer it out around in fourth gear. Or, you can do it in fourth and fifth - the engine's torque curve spreads the 690Nm around pretty evenly, especially in the middle of the range. And, with all-wheel-drive, a new pushrod suspension and gargantuan Pirelli P-Zero tyres, it sticks to the road and will have your neck feeling the g forces in no time.
The engine sits midship under three plates of jagged-cut glass for display. During and after higher-speed runs, the amount of heat coming out of the open areas is so much that you don't just feel it when standing beside the car; at one point, after a left corner and setting up for a right-hander, the car in front of me passes from side to side and I can see a blurry heat signature rising out from its rear end, making me feel like I'm chasing down a fighter jet in a dogfight. I can't help but laugh out loud with glee.
In the afternoon session, the grey skies finally open up to release a light but steady rain for the rest of the day; something that will surely ruin the test, no? On the contrary, the slick track shows just how good the big Lambo's traction is. Yes, the more wet it becomes, the more the Aventador understeers into the tighter corners. But slow in, fast out, as they say, and if you stick to that adage, the AWD lets you put the power down earlier as you exit the corners. In the faster curves, the level of understeer is predictable and controllable, and you can feel the limit of adhesion and, err, stick to it.
The Aventador isn't just a fantastic car for a driver; it's wild and exotic, exactly what fits the mould for Lamborghini. The Italian company has always been known to stand out from the crowd, and the Aventador does just that - when it's not drawing one, that is.
The Aventador LP 700-4 will sell here for Dh1,439,796, but don't bother heading down to the showroom to pick one up just yet; the first 18 months of production have already been sold.