Zonda Roadster v Lamborghini Murcielago Roadster: Duel In The Sun

We put the two most outrageous roadsters on the planet back to back on the roads of Tuscany in the ultimate test of open-topped supremacy

Moments like these don't come around very often and it's definitely one to savour. I'm in Lamborghini's knee-trembling Murciélago Roadster on an empty, tree-lined Italian road, the sun bursting through the sparse foliage is glinting off the rump of a deep red Pagani Zonda Roadster just ahead, and two V12s are ripping through the still air with such force that the huge trees seem to visibly wince as our fast-moving convoy spears back into the open rolling hills of Tuscany. It's one of those days you just want to relive over and over. You might imagine a broad grin etched across our faces, or even that the scenery would add to the magic of the moment. But despite the lack of a roof both Lamborghini and Zonda are like mobile eco-systems and you're so immersed in the sights, sounds and sensations of getting the best from them that anything beyond the edges of the sweeping tarmac just evaporates. The fresh air swirling around your head is thick with the stench of cooking brake pads and the engines generate such enormous heat that you can almost taste how hard they're working. The panoramic view through the broad, steeply raked windscreen jumps towards you in great leaps when you're using all 570bhp, only the Zonda staying in sharp focus because it matches the Lamborghini blow-for-blow and then some. And you're physically working, too - the Lambo demands unwavering commitment and brute force before it reveals all of its mighty potential to the driver. You need to finesse the open-gated gearshift but it's not a delicate flick-of-the-wrist shift, more a precision shove, and the steering is heavy and needs big inputs when you're chasing down the lighter, more nimble Zonda. When we come to a stop both cars melt into soft focus as a heat haze envelopes every last curve. Only now is there time to reflect on what these cars are all about and to laugh at the enormous thrills they deliver when you start to take a few risks. It's a strange feeling. You want to jump up and down and scream at the top of your voice but you're not quite sure why. One thing is certain; these are two of the maddest and most wonderful experiences on four wheels. If you thought simply decapitating Murciélago and Zonda would somehow make them softer, less intimidating, less exciting, then think again. This is hardcore. We knew the trip was going to be a bit special when photographer Andy Morgan and I landed at Pisa airport on a clear but cold Wednesday evening. Having cleared customs we amble outside and spot a small single car transporter. It looks big enough for a Ford Focus at best, but when the hydraulic arms gently tilt and lower the box to the ground and the roller door retracts, a fizzing yellow Lamborghini barks into life and is rolled onto the tarmac. Unsurprisingly a crowd quickly gathers, but the magic turns to farce when the Lamborghini employees show me how to disassemble the flimsy canvas roof. After a good 20 minutes (with a momentary interruption as a stunning Italian girl walks past and the two guys drop various bits of the roof mechanism and casually lean on the car as if it's their own) the roof is packed up in the front boot and they look pretty pleased with themselves. Until I tell them we've heard it's raining where we're headed and want the roof back on... So it's dark and drizzly as we trickle out of the airport car park and join the fast-moving early evening traffic. Depressingly, much of it is moving faster than us. The roof on the Roadster is only rated to 100mph and, to be honest, it feels like that's pushing it a bit. Think of it as a shower cap, and a badly fitted one at that. Even when it's correctly secured there are huge gaps between bodywork and canvas just behind the side windows. Hmmm. Presumably if you own one of these in Italy you're sufficiently well connected not to have to worry too much about security... The Autostrada route that leads to Harry's Tuscan hideaway reveals little about the Roadster except that it's much noisier than the coupe, like the engine is right there in the cabin with you, and that the driving position doesn't feel as good. Perhaps the strengthening of the chassis has canted the pedals off to the right, or perhaps it's our memories playing tricks, but neither myself, Harry nor road-test regular John Hayman (who'll be joining us later having missed his original flight) can get comfortable in the Roadster or remember having had this problem before. But the bruising Roadster does feel special. The 6.2-litre, 48-valve V12 is phenomenal, not perfectly linear or creamily smooth but loaded with character. Hook third gear from crawling pace and then pin the long-travel throttle and the V12's power swells through tens of distinct stages, growing in intensity and changing in pitch and resonance until it kicks into its final phase at about 5500rpm and thunders up to nearly 8000rpm. And then there's the tangible, hunkered-down stance - you can almost feel the tyres clawing into the tarmac. The Lamborghini feels impregnable and awesome and you love it within just a few miles. You want it to hang together when you stop simply enjoying the thrust and noise and start to tap into the grip and agility, when you start to get brave. That'll have to wait until tomorrow. It's a grey, foggy morning. The roads are damp and the yellow Lamborghini is streaked with grime. After some serious Italian strength coffee and breakfast paninis, Morgan, Hayman, Harry (who's brought along a Mercedes SL65 AMG, more of which later) and I are slowly waking up and the tiny town of Sarteano simultaneously murmurs into life. Fiat 500s jostle for position next to the Roadster, countless locals interrupt their daily routine (quite what this consists of none of us can work out) to press their noses up against the Lambo's cut-down windows. In fact, we're the only ones not paying the Murciélago any attention. There's a Zonda around here somewhere with our name on it... After giving up hope and wondering where a seven-foot wide supercar can hide in a town this small we head towards the local garage hoping that the jet wash is up and running. Within 300 yards a shimmering deep red Pagani punches a hole in the fog and after a friendly wave it's piercing xenon headlights are burning brightly into the deep recesses of the Lamborghini's engine bay. Pagani's 23-year-old test driver, Davide Testi, left Modena at 5am to make this rendezvous and, seeing the two cars parked up together, even he has to admit it was worth the early alarm call. I stick in the momentarily gleaming Lambo as Harry leads us out to the roads that lured us here, many of which made up part of the daunting Mille Milgia route. These are fast roads. Of course, most roads are fast in two 550bhp-plus supercars, but I'm talking about big speeds now. Drive them as you feel compelled in cars like these and you'll see 150mph every few minutes, and some of the big straights allow much more. I'm glad of the Lambo's four-wheel-drive security and tendency to push rather than get loose if you're a bit over-enthusiastic. It's easy to hustle at a reasonable pace right from the off, and soon you feel that you can really exploit all that power and the masses of available grip. Harry, who has probably travelled more miles in a Zonda than any other person who isn't either a test driver for the company or an actual owner (despite much persuasion from the evo team), throws me the keys once we've arrived at our first photography location. It's worth a quick squirt, he reckons. Davide has already taken off the light, tight-fitting carbon roof panel and unclipped the canvas section - a process which, in contrast to the Lambo, is a simple one-man job. Twist the key; thumb the red starter button that sits atop the gearlever and the AMG-sourced 7.3-litre V12 erupts with a mellow howl, influenced by the fact that this customer car is fitted with the optional Tubi-Style sports exhaust. The driving position is wonderful, the soft leather flat-bottomed steering wheel beautiful to hold, the floor-hinged pedals exquisitely forged and perfectly placed, and the view out through the signature canopy-style windscreen is utterly unique. You sit surprisingly upright but very low and feel like you're right in between the front wheels, with all 7.3 litres of engine and 15-feet or so of bodywork slung behind you. I'm sure it's meant to engender images of fighter pilots in razor-sharp modern jets, and that's exactly how the Zonda feels after the deliberate Murciélago. The steering is much lighter and the front end seems hard-wired to your inputs, snapping to your commands instantly. The throttle response is mind-blowing too, every millimetre of travel giving a measured but immediate response. It's better than I remembered which, when you consider the last time I drove a coupe was in our greatest drivers' cars feature (evo 066) and then I placed it second in a group bursting with talent, tells you all you need to know. Pagani has polished the gearshift so that now it's smooth and precise instead of stringy and vague, the engine seems even creamier, the brakes more feelsome, and with nothing but air between you and that sonic exhaust note the Pagani is utterly unforgettable. And despite giving up 15bhp to the Lambo it sits in an altogether more serious performance league. Of course it needs to - the Lamborghini is a comparatively cheap £223,250 to the Pagani's frightening £393,000. It literally jumps into action when you let the AMG V12 sing through to its redline and the performance never seems to fade. My initial feeling is that it blows the Lamborghini clean into the Tuscan weeds. Fortunately we're going to be able to delve a bit deeper into these cars over the next couple of days and learn them inside out. Hopefully the Lambo will emerge from the Zonda's immense shadow as the miles disappear under its extraordinary wheels. And if it doesn't we can always just sit and stare at the thing... have you ever seen such an outrageous shape in your life? I've got a taste for the Zonda now and, with Davide beside me, we leave the Lamborghini and the others behind in search of some twistier and hopefully slightly slower sections of road. The sun has burnt off the early morning fog and moisture but under the tree-covered sections it's perilously slippery. Davide is under strict instructions from Mr Pagani to bring this customer car back in one piece (the owner kindly delayed its shipping to New York so this test could happen) and I'm under strict instructions from Harry and our twitching insurance team to not so much as scratch it. Even so, it's impossible to resist a road like this in a car like this... On the dry sweeping sections the Zonda feels fabulous: alert, stable and blessed with exceptional brakes. Only an over-eager traction control system that cuts power for whole seconds if you crest a big undulation under full load spoils the party. I expect I'll be grateful of it on the shadier, twistier sections, though. Charging into the tunnel of trees the noise is so sweet and powerful you just want to keep the engine singing at every opportunity, and the fierce wwaaapppp! when you blip the throttle to smooth down changes reminds you that one false move and the Pagani will chew you up and spit you out. When conditions are unpredictable the Zonda does start to intimidate a little. The steering offers the most delicate changes of weighting when grip starts to run out, but it takes a while to tune in to the subtlety of the message and there's not much textural feedback which can make it feel a little glassy. This particular car has been set-up to be more compliant than the usual press demonstrators, which means there's a degree of body roll. In tricky conditions this should be a boon but surprisingly it seems keener to understeer than the more stiffly suspended C12S coupe I last drove and it takes patience to get the nose back under control. That's okay, in fact a bit of understeer is pretty desirable in a car with so much performance and grip, but the lightning throttle response means that if you try to shift the balance with the throttle the transition from gentle understeer to power oversteer is almost instantaneous. Too fast for that traction control that had been frustrating on the straights, and on more than one occasion it needs a good and quickly applied dose of opposite lock to keep it pointing in the right direction. The differences between the Lambo and Pagani are stark. The latter is a car you drive with your fingertips - small movements have a big effect on every control and you need to be measured and alert to the messages from the steering. Get it right and the Zonda is incredibly rewarding and so potent you wonder where the supercar can go from here. Does any car need to be this fast? The answer is no, of course. But the Murciélago proves that 570bhp and probably a lot more can be channelled to the road with no fuss and hardly a scrap of wheelspin. Its four-wheel-drive system is rarely fazed and the huge Murciélago feels predictable even when you're trying to neutralise its natural tendency to understeer with a hefty prod of throttle. In the damp it can eventually be persuaded to tighten its line and then gracefully arc its tail wide in a controlled slide. You need to stay committed to the throttle - back off and there's a lot of weight going sideways with no forward motion pulling it under control - but it's not as scary or as unnatural as you might expect. It's a car to impose yourself on, the Lamborghini. Positive, almost violent inputs reap the greatest rewards and it has fearsome ground-covering abilities when you're hooked-up and bossing it. In wet conditions only a highly skilled Zonda driver would get close, and although it lacks the delicate feedback and racecar response of the Zonda it's an alluring and addictive car. It never crumbles and only the slightly weak brakes and the clearly compromised structure (despite the intricate lattice of carbon fibre that criss-crosses the engine bay) dent the Lamborghini's composure. A coupe would cope better on these roads but the Roadster is a seriously competent and wholly exploitable supercar despite quite noticeable body flex and occasional kickback through the steering. On the drive back to Sarteano the big Lambo feels awesome. The day is now dark and wet and I don't know the road at all but I'm feeling confident and I'm glad Davide is nursing the Zonda back to our base so I can enjoy plundering the Roadster's enormous reserves of performance. Even the electronic wunderbarge Mercedes SL65 that has tagged along is having all sorts of problems living with the Murciélago's killer pace. I'm back under the Lamborghini's spell. It's no good, though. The next day is glorious supercar weather and both Zonda and Murciélago feel like they were born for these deserted roads. But it's the Pagani that feels like it will rule them for the foreseeable future. An impromptu drag race proves that it's decisively quicker once it gains full traction in second and its sheer pace on these fabulously varied roads is too much for the Lamborghini. It's not just the quantity of the performance either. The quality of its delivery is sublime. The Zonda is a precision tool, sharp yet usable, instantly responsive but not twitchy; and the noise is surely one of the greatest of any road car ever produced. It's a brave showing by the old warrior and it's never anything less than a privilege to sink behind the Lamborghini's wheel and let that V12 do what it's been doing for 40 years now, but the Zonda is the more rewarding, more involving and more electrifying experience. Such is the pace of supercar development, this or any other road test is just a freeze-frame in a world that seems to be forever locked on fast-forward. Pagani is readying its new Zonda F, a car that will be lighter, more powerful and more aerodynamically efficient and that will benefit from ceramic brakes and a host of more sophisticated electronics to refine the package further. The new car is Pagani's response to the Enzo and Carrera GT, cars which were influenced by the Zonda C12S, even if those great marques would never admit it. And Lamborghini is getting more extreme, too. A 700bhp rear-wheel-drive Murciélago is likely for 2006, but you sense that Lamborghini needs a new and more modern platform to compete with the likes of Pagani. Paring weight is just as crucial as adding power and until Lamborghini has a carbonfibre chassis, or borrows some of Audi's aluminium spaceframe know-how, it'll always struggle to match the featherweight Zonda. Whatever, there's little doubt that these two cars will meet again in the near future, fitter and faster than ever before. Until then we should all just savour the most prolific chapter in the spectacular history of the supercar. Moments like these can't last forever.

Comparison

 Zonda RoadsterLamborghini Murci�lago Roadster
EngineV12V12
LocationMid, longitudinalMid, longitudinal
Displacement7291cc6192cc
Cylinder BlockAluminium alloyAluminium alloy
Cylinder HeadAluminium alloy, dohc per bank four valves per cylinderAluminium alloy, dohc per bank, four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing
Fuel and IgnitionElectronic engine management, sequential fuel injectionLamborghini LIE electronic ignition and fuel injection, variable intake geometry
Max Power555bhp @ 5900rpm570bhp @ 7500rpm
Max Torque553lb ft @ 4050rpm479lb ft @ 5400rpm
TransmissionSix-speed manual, rear drive, limited slip differential, traction controlSix-speed manual, four-wheel drive, traction control
Front SuspensionDouble wishbones, coil springs, gas dampers, anti-roll barDouble wishbones, coil springs, gas dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear SuspensionDouble wishbones, coil springs, gas dampers, anti-roll barDouble wishbones, coil springs, gas dampers, anti-roll bar
BrakesVentilated discs front and rear, 355mm front, 335mm rear; ABSVentilated discs front and rear, 380mm front, 355mm rear; ABS
Wheels8.5 x 18in front, 13 x 18in rear9 x 18in front, 13 x 18in rear
Tyres245/35 ZR18 fr, 335/30 ZR18 rr255/40 ZR18 fr, 345/45 ZR18 rr
Weight Kerb1280kg1715kg
Power to Weight440bhp per ton338bhp per ton
Max Speed200mph (est)200mph+ (claimed)
Basic Price£393,000£223,250
On SaleNowNow
Rating55
0 to 60 MPHsub 4.0sec (claimed)3.8sec (claimed)
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