Road Tests

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181

Lamborghini Aventador
In this era of Bugattis, Paganis, Koeniggseggs, Gumperts and so on, it is easy to forget that a few years ago the full-sized, mid-engined supercar very nearly died. When Ferrari went all sensible in the mid 90s and once more placed the horse ahead of the cart for its flagship 12-cylinder two-seater, Lamborghini alone stood behind the heroically impractical design. We thought it only a matter of time before it would be forced into frontengined sobriety.

We thought wrong. The new Aventador is a towering testament to Lamborghini’s commitment to the genre. Some 45 years ago it was the very first to put a 12-cylinder engine behind the driver of a road car, and though it has since made front-engined cars and cars with eight and 10 cylinders, it is the mid-engined V12 configuration that has endured — and that still defines Lamborghini.

Can it really be 45 years since we first saw the Miura? In that time it has produced just three generations of descendants — Countach, Diablo and Murcielago — and the last of these was not an entirely new car.

But the Aventador undoubtedly is new, and it is worth spending a few words better to allow you to bathe in its extraordinary specification before climbing aboard and finding out whether it really is, as Lamborghini’s boss Stephan Winkelmann told me, “two generations ahead of the Murcielago”.

So let’s start with that extraordinary body. In silhouette it looks quite like a Murcielago, but the detailing is entirely different: more complex, aggressive and compelling. But it’s what lies beneath that counts. There you’ll find a full carbon-fibre monocoque including a fully stressed carbon roof, which even the McLaren MP4-12C lacks. Lamborghini says it’s three times better at absorbing impact energies than the Murcielago, and 150 per cent stiffer than the old car’s metal spaceframe.

Sadly, the old engine which really can trace its roots back to the very first Lamborghini had to go too. Too heavy, thirsty and difficult to adapt to forthcoming emissions legislation. Lamborghini started again, and the result was an all-new engine unrelated to any other in the VW group, though still a 60-degree V12 breathing at atmospheric pressure. Lamborghini blows its nose at the increasing trend towards smaller, forced induction. “They are for people who are unable to get what they want from normal aspiration,” as one of its engineers put it. Surprisingly, it retains indirect injection because it’s lighter, easier to package and less complex than a direct system.

Its power is monstrous, a towering 690bhp at a shrieking 8250rpm, directed to the asphalt through a Haldex-controlled fourwheel-drive system via the medium of a Graziano-built seven-speed robotised manual paddle-shift transmission. It changes gear in 50 milliseconds, about where Formula 1 cars were a decade ago. A double-clutch system was considered but dismissed for reasons of packaging, and the 30 extra kilos it would have added to the car’s weight.

Its neatest touch is the pushrod suspension system, which looks like it could have been designed for a Le Mans prototype. It reduces suspension weight, unsprung mass and forces through the damper as well as teaming up with elegantly forged aluminium wishbones to present the most attractive suspension system I’ve seen on a road car. Free of all fluids, the Aventador weighs 1575kg, or some 90kg less than the Murcielago according to Lamborghini.

As ever, the doors tip forward to allow access across an uncomfortably wide sill to a lowslung driving position. There’s a bit too much Audi in the switchgear for my liking — at this money you should expect a genuinely bespoke driving environment — but the TFT display looks suitably space age and scrolls through various screens, providing clear, attractive information. I select a vast rev-counter, slam the door, tug a paddle and go.

So here’s what’s not going to surprise you. It’s fast, fast enough for its claimed 0-62mph time of just 2.9sec to be entirely plausible. It’ll do 0-124mph in under 9sec too. To recap, that means it possesses the ability to take you from standstill to a lengthy driving ban in the same sort of time it has just taken you to read this sentence. Nor will it trouble your eyebrows to learn that its colossal Pirelli tyres and that trick suspension generate massive grip, or that if you ask it for a gear change, the request has been registered, dispatched and executed before your hand has time to release the paddle.

But the Aventador does have an unexpected side to it. Having spent too much time gazing at it and its specification, I’d decided long before I climbed aboard that it would behave like an axe-murderer in a Brioni suit. On the contrary, and by the standards of what you might expect of a mid-engined car with nearly 700bhp, it is stunningly easy to drive very fast indeed. In fact, that’s all I’ve done in it because I was only allowed to drive it at Vallelunga while following a succession of Lamborghini test drivers, none of whom needed much encouragement to drive as fast as they possibly could.

Which is how I learned that you can plunge the Aventador into a quick third-gear corner on a trailing throttle to kill any incipient understeer, and then go as sideways as you could reasonably want at the exit. All very amusing and helped by brilliantly lucid and unfashionably slow steering. It’s a lot less good at tighter turns, where I found more understeer than I liked or expected.

The other disappointment is the gearbox. It’s fine if a little sluggish if you leave the car in Sport mode, but the moment you select ‘Corsa’ for track work, the shifts become harsh to the point of violence. Lamborghini calls this ’emotional’ shifting. I call it pointless.

I wish I could tell what it was like on the wide-open road for I suspect strongly the Aventador will shine there even better than it did on the track. The V12, for instance, is quieter than I expected — which is both good and bad — while the ride in Street mode seemed very good from what I could tell on the track.

Lamborghini is very pleased with the Aventador, and so it should be. Some 1100 people have placed orders without driving it, accounting for the next 18 months of production. It’s hard to see them being disappointed. It’s far more civilised than the Murcielago, yet substantially more savage too. What more could you want from a modern Lamborghini?

And let’s not dwell for long on the probability that the new McLaren would put the Aventador to the sword around the track. That’s not what a Lamborghini is about. It is not and was never intended to be the world’s quickest car in that environment: instead it’s a sound-and-vision celebration of supercar excess, a piece of pure automotive sculpture and theatre. It’s all about the sense of occasion, and if you don’t like that, you won’t like this. If you do, you will. And I do. Very much.

FACTFILE
Engine: 6.5-litre petrol, V12
Top Speed: 217mph
Price: £247,000
Power: 691bhp at 8250rpm
Fuel/co2: 16.4mpg, 398g/km
www.lamborghini.co.uk

*

Land Rover Evoque SD4
For over three years, ever since it first dropped the jaw of every person at the 2008 Detroit Motor Show, one question has hung like the sword of Damocles over the head of the Range Rover Evoque. Could it possibly be as good as it looked? Now, after a brief but illuminating drive around Land Rover’s test track, it seems the answer is probably not.

Then again, to deliver fully on the promise of those looks it would need to be a landmark; in fact, it is merely outstanding. It will be available with either petrol or diesel power, three or five doors, twoor four-wheel drive, and with prices starting a little under £28,000, almost £4000 more than the entrylevel BMW X1.

Equipped with four-wheel drive and the electronically controlled damping option, the manual diesel Evoque offers a compelling blend of comfort and fun. The handling in general and the steering in particular set new standards for both the class and Land Rover. It is poised and precise even under provocation, yet when you ease off the gas it rides better than a full-sized Range Rover. But powerful though the 2.2-litre engine is, its audible diesel clatter will surprise anyone expecting Range Rover levels of sophistication, even if its performance and economy are broadly competitive.

Nor is the petrol engine entirely convincing, despite boasting an additional 50bhp. Though performance is strong, the engine itself is rather characterless and not helped by being only available with a six-speed automatic gearbox which is less quick and slick than you’d like. It is likely this transmission will soon be replaced by a state-of-the-art eight-speed item that should be well worth waiting for.

But despite appearances, the Evoque should not be mistaken for an impractical fashion accessory. The interior is sufficiently spacious for young families, yet because the car is actually shorter than a Ford Focus, the exterior is compact enough to make sense for those living on crowded city streets. And while the cabin lacks the ultimate opulence of larger Range Rovers, it’s still a higher quality environment than you’ll find in any rival, and offers a dazzling array of options from an 825 watt 17-speaker Meridian stereo to an exterior camera system that provides an effective bird’s eye view around the car as well as self parking. These latter options should be seriously considered by potential Evoque purchasers, as visibility through the rear screen is extremely limited.

By any standards, let alone those of the perpetually underachieving soft-roader class, the Evoque is a fine car. True, its power units are no more than adequate, but neither this nor its ambitious price seem likely to prevent it transforming Land Rover’s sales around the world.

FACTFILE
Engine: 2.2 litres, four cylinders
Top Speed: 124mph
Price: £29,700 (SD4 model)
Power: 188bhp at 4000rpm
Fuel/co2: 50.2mpg, 149g/km
www.landrover.co.uk

*

BMW 6501 CABRIOLET
With this new 6-series, BMW is redefining what is possible within the genre of the large touring convertible. Compared to the Maserati GranCabrio I reviewed on this page a couple of months back, it seems not years ahead, but decades.

All the things you expect a convertible sifting on a long wheelbase to get wrong, the BMW gets right. Its structure feels liffle different to a coupe and if you put the roof up you might as well be sifting in a coupe. It doesn’t wobble when you drop one of its vast wheels into one of our many potholes, nor does it shudder over coarse surfaces. It rides beautifully yet is effortlessly controlled and able over difficult roads.

That’s not all: its powertrain offers you vast performance, yet slips through its gears like the Rolls-Royce Ghost whose transmission it shares. Moreover the interior is fluently designed, lavishly appointed and even acceptably roomy by class standards.

This then is a car to respect from bumper to bumper. What it is not is a car to fall in love with. It’s almost as if it’s aware how good it is, and has decided it’s more than capable of going about its business with no more than a fleeting reference to the person behind the wheel. There’s no human involvement here, and therefore no excitement. It is a car to admire and maybe even like, but from a two-door BMW costing £73,430, I think it fair to hope for more than that.

FACTFILE
Engine: 4.4 litres, eight cylinders
Top Speed: 155mph
Price: £73,430
Power: 407bhp at 5500rpm
Fuel/co2: 26.4mpg, 249g/km
www.bmw.co.uk

*

Mini Cooper SD
It’s taken 10 years and some wrong turns the Countryman seems ever more hideous every time I see one but Mini has finally produced the best car to wear the badge since the launch of the original Cooper S.

The concept could hardly be simpler: put a powerful diesel engine in the chassis of the current Cooper S and, bingo, you have a highperformance, low-emission hatchback. By using a 143bhp 2-litre BMW engine for this purpose, Mini has struck an excellent balance where performance is more Cooper S than Cooper D, and fuel consumption the other way around. No wonder they call it the Cooper SD. Best of all, because the mot adds a mere 10kg to the car’s weight, the Cooper S chassis seffings have carried over unchanged. So you can still steer it on the throThe in a way you’re not meant to be able to do in cars made today.

The problem is the price. Mini wants a further £740 on top of the price of an already-pricey Cooper S and cites superior residuals as justification. It’s probably got a point too: the Cooper SD is undoubtedly expensive, but so too is it undeniably worth it.

FACTFILE
Engine: 2 litres, four cylinders
Top Speed: 134mph
Price: £18,750
Power: 143bhp at 4000rpm
Fuel/co2: 65.7mpg, 114g/km
www.mini.co.uk

*

And that reminds me…
Skating on thin ice in a new Lancia Delta was a sign of bad things to come

By 1992 Lancia was really struggling, especially in the UK. Unable to shake a by then undeserved reputation for building cars that turned to dust the moment your back was turned, much rested on a successful launch to the thirdgeneration, four-wheel-drive Delta, the Integrale Evoluzione. Happily it fell to me to test the first car into the country.

Fortunately my time with the car coincided with a bitterly cold spell, my route from the M1 to the test track resembling a stage from the Monte. Conveniently forgetting that if the roads were buried in snow the test track was likely to be the same, I set off crosscountry convinced I was Kankkunen. The car was brilliant, and because no one else was so stupid to venture out in such conditions, I had the place to myself.

My memory of what happened next is patchy. Indeed I must have travelled several miles of which no record remains in my brain. But I do remember the bridge, which on a dry road you’d take at a slight angle and very quickly. I guess I tried the same on snow and ice because I remember clearly seeing my own tyre tracks in the snow appear in front of me. The rest I pieced together after the event.

The car left the road on the right-hand side travelling backwards. It fell into a ditch, which stove in the left-hand side of the car in which, thanks to Integrales all being left-hand-drive, I was sitting. It then appears to have rotated along the ditch knocking off various corners before finding the energy to spit itself back onto the road where it finally came to rest, the roof its only unbent panel.

I emerged with mild concussion and a couple of broken ribs thanks to the B-pillar smacking my head and the door hitting my body. It was no more than I deserved. Lancia ceased selling cars in the UK two years later. I don’t know for sure that I contributed to its downfall, but I do know I didn’t do much to help.

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