When you're launching an all-new Lamborghini flagship supercar and there's no real mid-engine V-12 competition out there for you - Italian, European, or otherwise - it's easy to take a conservative approach to change. Which is what a quick glance at the shape of the 2011 Lamborghini Aventador may suggest to many people.
Whoa, since when does flashy Lamborghini do anything conservatively? Have the less-change-the-better Porsche designers that recently joined Lambo under the VW Group banner had a stern talking to their new Italian cousins? Are corporate types from northern Germany now dictating evolutionary style with an eye to squeezing out a few more points of residual value?
No, the all-new Aventador may have a familiar shape and engine size, but it does offer some radical advances, namely in the less flashy areas of lightweight carbon-fibre construction and its F1-style pushrod suspension design. All with an eye to sharpening the responses behind the wheel of an already extreme supercar predecessor - there wasn't much low-hanging performance fruit left by the Murciélago.
The $430,000 Aventador may not look as radically different from its Murciélago forerunner as other prior Lambo V-12 jumps into the far-out future, from the Miura to the wedge-like Countach, and then the more organic, rounded Diablo. The biggest difference is the jet-fighter-like air intake in front of the rear wheels that looks big enough to hoover up innocent bystanders standing too close to this raging bull.
But there is no doubt that the Aventador can still cause jaws to drop and necks to crane, judging from the crowds that gathered around various bright orange Aventadors strategically placed in the middle of Rome as part of its official driving launch. Lamborghini set up a partnership with the Eternal City to display a few Aventadors from just before Easter until just after the beatification of Pope John Paul II ceremony, perhaps looking to symbolically link Lambo's new flagship with a higher power.
Lamborghini decided that the extra few million tourists and pilgrims descending on the city would make those bright orange Aventadors rolling targets on Roman streets, not to mention extra challenging to navigate, with its limited view out the near-horizontal rear window. Our drives were therefore limited to the Vallelunga circuit just outside the city, and no venturing off into the surrounding unsuspecting neighbourhoods.
Just walking up to an awaiting Aventador is enough to bring shivers of anticipation. The roof's 1.14-metre height barely reaches crotch level for most drivers, never mind the waist. Those trademark scissor doors rise majestically up and forward when one finds the hidden door handle, unveiling a business-like black interior with a flat-bottom steering wheel and exterior-matching colour accents throughout. A red shield that must be flipped up covers the centre console mounted start button, like a jet fighter's missile launch button protected from accidental firing.
And hitting that button brings what must be a similar sound, the 6.5-litre V-12 launching to life with a 3,000-rpm burst that leaves no doubt this engine is meant for the business of speed.
Impressively, the Aventador blasts from a standstill to 100 km/h in 2.9 seconds, says Lamborghini. Top speed is listed at a wind-spanking 350 km/h.
Although Aventador's engine is the same size and cylinder count as the Murciélago's, it is an all-new unit designed to be more compact, lighter, and sit lower in the new model's lighter, lower body. Curiously, there's no direct injection to increase power and reduce fuel consumption, which Lamborghini officials insist would require extra emissions equipment changes that would add to backpressure and reduce engine power.
Lamborghini argues that the end justifies the older-tech means, and the Aventador reduces fuel consumption from its heavier forbearer by 20 per cent. Granted, you're still piloting one of the thirstiest cars available in North America, outside Bugatti's 16-cylinder Veyron.
The transmission is not the latest dual-clutch design that Ferrari and many performance vehicles are adopting. The single-clutch, twin-disc Aventador system allows for three distinct shift patterns: Road (Strada), Sport and Track (Corsa) mode, as well as an automatic mode for city driving. All but the automatic mode worked well on the track, with Sport cracking off firm shifts at its 8,200 rpm redline, and Corsa literally ramming you in the back with each shift. It's not as smooth as a DCT, but then, it's not meant to be.
It's a similar story with the new pushrod suspension. Adopted with all-out performance in mind, the double-wishbones are now connected to the body with struts and dampers lying horizontally across the car's structure, reducing unsprung weight, especially at those massive 335 mm wide, 20-inch 30 Series rear Pirelli tires. The Aventador features the latest Haldex IV all-wheel drive system that's unrelated to Audi's quattro system, continuously adjusting power front to rear, with at least 20 per cent going to the front, and never more than 65 per cent. Yet there's no torque vectoring of power side to side, the latest handling trick of recent AWD systems, again for packaging and weight reasons.
"It is better to be uncomplicated and lighter, and focus on the destination rather than the route," Lamborghini's director of research and development Maurizio Reggiani. "We reached our targets."
Boy, did they ever. The first burst of throttle on the front straight unleashes a ferocious thrust that momentarily blinds the senses, sending one's body into survival mode: you steel yourself more for every shift and throttle shift, and your eyes move further up the rapidly disappearing track. In corners, even with the stability system on, it turns in with a preciseness that makes the Aventador feel smaller than even its skimpy 1,575 kg dry weight suggests, with enough grip that I have to keep blinking to keep the G-forces from pulling my contacts out of place.
Reggiani admitted that further lightening and increased power levels are all part of the plan.
"There's a lot we can do with this new Aventador," he said cryptically, but with a knowing smile.
2011 Lamborghini Aventador LP 700-4
Type: Exotic mid-engine all wheel-drive super sports car
Base price: $430,000
Engine: 6.5-litre multi-port injection V12
Horsepower/torque: 700 hp/509 lb-ft
Transmission: Single-clutch, dual shaft seven-speed automatic with shift paddles
Drive: Full-time all-wheel drive
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 27.3 city/11.3 highway; premium fuel
Alternatives: Aston Martin One-77, Bentley Continental GT Super Sport, Lexus LFA, Ferrari 599 Fiorano, McLaren MP4-12C