How special is the Gallardo Superleggera? Special enough to grab a key and go for a night-time drive immediately after a ten-and-a-half-hour flight from Heathrow to Phoenix. Special enough for Gus Gregory to want to take pictures of it in the dark. Special enough for the good people of Scottsdale to be drawn from their homes like zombie nightwalkers to cup their hands at the side windows.
Hot on the heels of the gob-smacking Murciélago LP640, the Gallardo Superleggera isn’t just special, it’s spectacular. It’s also continued proof that Lamborghini is a genuine force to be reckoned with. Not just as a maker of supercar pin-ups – Sant’Agata has been doing that since 1963 – but as a manufacturer fit to stand alongside Ferrari and Porsche, both for the standard of its engineering and the robust state of its business.
With sales up 30 per cent, turnover up 43 per cent and pre-tax profits up by a staggering 311 per cent (thanks in part to a burgeoning clothing and accessories range), Lamborghini is well on course to achieve its goal of being the most profitable supercar manufacturer in the world. Total production for 2006 was just 2087 cars (compared with 5000-plus for both Ferrari and Aston Martin), yet even this figure represents a massive change of fortunes for the marque – for its first four decades it produced an average of just 250 cars per year…
That production total is set to increase during 2007, but the Superleggera isn’t going to contribute more than 350 units to the number, for Lamborghini wants to keep it rare and exclusive. So exclusive, in fact, that all of this year’s allocation is already spoken for, despite a 20 per cent increase in price over the regular Gallardo to a very serious-sounding £150,000.
Diehard enthusiasts may feel uneasy at the hard-hearted thread of Teutonic steel that runs through the formerly chaotic but undeniably endearing Italian institution, but there’s no arguing with the quality of the end product. Audi’s involvement also bodes well for the future direction of Lamborghini, for although the perceived threat from the R8 shouldn’t be underestimated, it’s clear that the plan is to steer the mid-engined Audi towards Porsche’s mainstream 911s and push Lamborghini towards producing harder, faster and more extreme cars to tackle Stuttgart’s track-bred GT3 and GT2 models and Modena’s rumoured F430 Challenge Stradale. The Superleggera is the car to take Lamborghini back where it belongs.
Our launch schedule is so tight it squeaks. On arrival at Phoenix, Gus and I calculate that we’ll be on US soil for just 25 hours before jumping back on the Heathrow-bound BA 747, which partly explains why we feel the need to maximise our time with the car, despite the almost total jet-lag-induced befuddlement of our brains. Lamborghini’s PR team generously obliges, handing me the key to a juicy Arancio Borealis (orange to you) Superleggera.
This vibrant shot of orange bull is more effective than a gallon of the red variety. Even in the dark it looks magnificent. Squat, square-jawed and glowering with purpose and aggression, it exudes the kind of hardcore attitude you expect from a stripped and ripped version of what was already one of the most no-nonsense supercars around.
Time restrictions or not, we can’t help but pause to enjoy what will clearly be a big part of the Superleggera ownership experience: standing and staring. Everything you look at and everything you touch reveals the fanatical lengths to which Lambo head of R&D Maurizio Reggiani and his team have gone to in shaving weight from the Gallardo. Plip the key, open the door and you’re confronted by gloriously glossy one-piece carbon door panels, carbon-shelled sports seats and Alcantara upholstery.
The engine cover is also made from carbon, as is the fixed rear wing, which can be had in discreet low-line spec or more obviously racerish high-rise design, complete with reversing camera. The engine cover’s glass window has been replaced with transparent polycarbonate, while the rear window is made from similarly lightweight Macrolon. Pop the engine cover release and raise it aloft and you can feel the difference, the flimsy lid flying up with minimal effort.
The engine itself develops slightly more power – 9bhp to be precise – thanks to a new ECU, the mapping of which has extracted the extra bhp at higher revs without hurting the torque output. New intake and exhaust manifolds have been developed, along with a new, reduced-back-pressure exhaust system, all of which save weight but also boost performance. Judging by the stubby tailpipes jutting from the car’s rear, the happy by-product will be a blood-curdling war cry.
Carbonfibre features on the sills and the rear diffuser too, but the exterior highlights, at least for me, are the thin-spoke ‘Skorpious’ rims, which are forged from magnesium for minimal unsprung weight. Proof of the fixation with weight-loss can also be found in the titanium wheel nuts, which clamp the lightweight alloy wheels to lighter but stronger wheel hubs.
The optional carbon-ceramic brakes fitted to our test car are no lighter than the standard cast iron set-up thanks to the increased size of the rotors and callipers, but they do promise to address the Gallardo’s propensity to suffer brake fade in extreme use. Behind the front wheels lurk thinner driveshafts, which are lighter (of course) but have been made from stronger material to compensate for their more spindly design. The propshaft is also lighter.
The result is a hefty 100kg weight reduction, sucking the Gallardo’s mass down to 1420kg. According to Reggiani, ditching four-wheel drive for rear-wheel drive would shed another 50kg. The very fact that he knew this figure off the top of his head suggests Lamborghini thought long and hard about the pros and cons of a two-wheel-drive Superleggera, before sticking with the brand’s all-wheel-drive message.
We’re not intending to drive far, just into downtown Scottsdale to find some street lights in which to bathe the Gallardo for the benefit of Gregory’s Hasselblad. Short hop or long haul, the Superleggera ritual is the same: slide into the heavily bolstered seat, fiddle with the straps and buckle of the four-point harness, pull them down tight then curse as you realise you’re so tightly clamped in position you can’t close the door!
Twist the key, smile as the starter makes its distinctive helium chuckle, then flinch as ten cylinders pound into life, a wall of noise thundering through a free-breathing exhaust system. As the revs drop, the bypass valves slowly constrict the fanfare, and the Superleggera settles into a menacing double-time tickover. Dab the brake pedal, pull back on the right-hand paddle and we’re away, chuntering slightly as the e-gear software shuffles the clutch and engine revs, and the V10’s torque fights against the all-wheel-drive viscous differentials as we peel away from our parking space.
The Gallardo has always felt and sounded tough and mechanical, with plenty of clonks and whizzes and whirrs to accompany your progress. With minimal sound-deadening, the Superleggera is even more vocal, and while the noises seem a little agricultural they’re no different to the metallic rasp and chattering diff of a 911 RS. Both cars place you at the centre of it all, like you’re part of the machine. However, if you’re expecting the slick polish of a Ferrari 599’s F1-Superfast paddleshift you’re in for a disappointment (an H-pattern manual is available as a no-cost option if you don’t crave paddles).
We just bimble into Scottsdale, the nuggety ride pattering across the bumps, engine barely able to clear its throat, save a furtive and raucous getaway from a set of traffic lights. Hardly the definitive test, admittedly, but confirmation that while the Superleggera is far too special to use as everyday transport, it can do humdrum stop-start urban stuff without throwing a hissy fit if needs be.
Gus sniffs out a quiet spot to work, but it’s not long before the first of many visitors cruise by, stop, turn around and come back for a closer look. Most admire it from a distance, a few summon the courage to take a closer look, but none dares to touch it, while the expression of excitement, awe even, that spreads across their faces is further proof of the Gallardo Superleggera’s power.
We head back to our hotel before tiredness robs us of sufficient hand-eye co-ordination to find our way, but once in my room I can’t sleep. Whether it’s the jet-lag or the promise of a proper drive in the Superleggera I can’t decide. Whatever, morning can’t come soon enough.
Whether the middle of Arizona is the best place to launch the Superleggera is debatable. Even by American standards, speed limits in this blistering desert state are policed with rare zeal, and with news still filtering through the rumour- mill about Audi’s repeated run-ins with the law in neighbouring Nevada during the R8 launch, it’s clear the spotlight, or should that be searchlight, will be focused on Lamborghini’s launch event.
Fortunately we have the Phoenix International Raceway at our disposal, which means we can cut loose without fear of a starring role in the next series of World’s Wildest Police Videos. Sadly it also means behaving ourselves on the 40-minute drive from our hotel in the foothills of Camelback Mountain to the isolated site of the PIR.
Restrained pace or not, it takes all of a mile to appreciate how different the Superleggera feels from the full-fat Gallardo, and it comes through the rim of the steering wheel. The standard car has always felt chunky and grippy and weighty, but has lacked that last few per cent of fast-twitch response. In the Superleggera you get the muscular feel but with a new sense of urgency and responsiveness. Turn the wheel, even just a little bit, and the Gallardo responds directly. Not in a jumpy, artificial manner, but with precision and without hesitation. It certainly bodes well for our session on track.
Even by Lamborghini standards the sight that greets us at Phoenix International Raceway takes our breath away. There, arranged before us in the pit lane, are three Murciélago LP640s – one silver, one yellow and one a retina-singeing shade of Kermit green – which we’re instructed to line up behind. These are to be our pace cars for the day, showing us the line around the combination of banked oval and infield squiggles.
The drivers’ briefing seems to hinge around one key point: do not, under any circumstances, switch off the ESP. A fair enough request given we are the first wave of a two-week world press and dealer launch, but a rule I vow to break once I’ve got my eye in.
For the first few sessions we go at a brisk though hardly on-limit pace, but as the 40-degree heat sends some of the press contingent in for refreshment we stick at it, gradually goading the Lamborghini instructors into quicker and quicker laps until, with a bit of judicious sandbagging, we drop off the back of the pace car, then get a clear run through the challenging second-, third- and fourth-gear left-right-left infield complex.
It’s hard to judge the gains without a standard Gallardo for back-to-back comparison, but the Superleggera feels more than convincing on track. The Pirelli P Zero Corsa tyres generate plenty of grip but also relinquish their hold in a progressive manner. Turning in to the quick third-gear right-hander under power still provokes a little understeer, though the ESP nudges us neatly back on line without killing too much forward motion, but with the system switched off the Superleggera feels far more alive and responsive to throttle play.
Tackling the same corner with a slight lift on turn-in to get the weight transfer working gets the Gallardo up on tiptoes in a way the standard model couldn’t manage. Settled into a perfectly balanced neutral- to- oversteer stance, the Superleggera cuts through the corner in terrific style, changing direction with zero inertia and exiting hard on the power, all four sticky Pirellis biting into the track surface.
A tighter, opening-radius second-gear corner is made for powerslides, and once again the Superleggera delivers. A sharp lift of the throttle gets the tail moving enough to allow you to pick it up on the throttle, the all-wheel-drive system shuffling the torque around with sufficient subtlety to feel the tail settle into a more rear-wheel-drive stance before pulling itself straight as the corner opens out. You can slide the standard Gallardo too, but not with such precision.
Shame, then, that the optional carbon ceramic brakes don’t have the same degree of precision. There’s no arguing with their emphatic stopping power, but on the circuit, as on the road, there’s not much subtlety to the way they work. Delivering insufficient bite when you just want to gently cover the pedal, they then bite too hard when you get a little further into the pedal travel. It’s a trait that’s more annoying on the road than on track, but even on the circuit you sometimes want the shades of grey rather than black or white stopping power. Compared with the pedal feel you get from a Porsche or Ferrari equipped with similar brakes, the Superleggera feels clumsy.
I’d be lying if I said you can detect the additional nine horses at the command of your right foot, but what you do notice is the added ferocity with which the Gallardo’s V10 locks on to the red line. The top-end of each gear is savage, the last 1500rpm or so devoured in an explosive rush and with an exhaust note that sounds like the end of the world.
At first glance the claimed performance improvements are useful if hardly jaw-dropping, but then achieving a 0.2sec reduction in the 0-62mph time, to 3.8sec, and a 0.3sec advantage in the standing kilometre sprint largely by weight-loss alone is some feat. Stopping distances have also been reduced, the 62mph-0 taking a whole metre less than the standard Gallardo.
Ultimately, much like an RS Porsche, CSL BMW or CS Ferrari, the Superleggera experience is much greater than the sum of its vital statistics. More about the things you can feel than those you can measure, the Superleggera is objectively impressive and subjectively intoxicating. Meticulously constructed, magnificently aggressive and mouth-wateringly desirable, this lighter, faster Lamborghini is a compelling drivers’ car in the finest Sant’Agata tradition.