The homeless-looking guy on the bike can't help craning his neck, pumping a fist as he pedals past the gas station and nearly colliding with a curbside mailbox.
"Yeah, dude, Ferrari! Wooo-hoooo!"
I pretend to be deaf. You've got to give him a nod for enthusiasm, but he's dead wrong. It's funny, but most people actually get it right. Beyond a Police Interceptor, there's no car on the street with more arresting road presence than a Lamborghini. Particularly the latest model, the '07 Murcilago LP640 Roadster we're fueling. Crowds form. Women sigh. Grown men are reduced to gawky, snickering adolescents.
It's all part of the natural state, a law of physics maybe. Historically, Lamborghini is the embodiment of automotive hubris. The company builds more than just cars. It builds attitudes, frames of mind. Making the most conspicuous entrances and exits are included in the price of admission. Driving onlookers berserk is an added perk.
This is the real Lamborghini. Sure, the Gallardo wears a charging bull on its nose, but its doors swing outward and certain interior components leave little doubt as to its Audi-ness. Teutonic influence is not completely absent in the Murcilago, but more transparent, mostly evident in its meteor-proof build and reassurance of the engine firing up every time you turn the key.
The LP640 seems to be the direct result of a glut of supercars recently coming to market. In the face of new, ultra-exotic offerings from makes like Porsche and Mercedes-Benz, the mere 580-bhp Murcilago was beginning to look a little underpowered. The response is much more than just a facelift, though it does receive subtle (but effective) exterior treatments like a more aggressively shaped front airdam and that huge central exhaust outlet molded into the rear diffuser.
The Murcilago Roadster is perhaps the only car in existence that actually looks as good, if not better, without a roof. Minus the top, your eye falls inexorably into the car's core. The decklid becomes a microcosm, its vented, angular expanse an alien landscape. Pull the release and it pops skyward, hinged from the rear, to reveal the heart of the beast: a surprisingly compact, mid-mounted V12 bolted beneath a web of structural braces spanning the engine bay-reinforcement for the car's lack of roof. The standard Lamborghini V12 is now outfitted with continually variable valve timing at both intake and exhaust ports, and an extra 300cc of displacement has pushed the total to 6.5 liters. Peak power output has risen to 640 bhp at 8000 rpm.
By noon, we've coalesced in the Searles Valley, some 170 miles northeast of our origin-and it didn't take long. On the fossil shores of a vast semi-dry lake covering some two-thirds of the valley floor, Bidrawn indulges himself in shooting the car against piles of lime stacked near the road. They are not natural phenomena; for the last century and a half, the valley has hosted a prolific chemical-processing operation, wherein brine is extracted from sub-surface reservoirs then converted at on-site processing plants into other, more complex substances used in products like fertilizer and detergent. Against the crumbling white mounds, the Lambo never looked so otherworldly.
We soon spot a convoy of white pick-up trucks headed our way. Bidrawn shoots frantically, barking orders, certain we're about to be squashed. The convoy turns out to be a group of lake workers on break. They're not here to crush our groove. Like everyone else with a pulse, they just want a closer look. Even in the middle of nowhere, a hundred or more miles from what most would consider an urban center, the Lamborghini draws a crowd. I'm not surprised.
Fifty miles north lay the boundaries to Death Valley National Park and some of the most desolate country on Earth. It's here at last that we finally get to stretch the car's legs as Ferruccio Lamborghini would have wanted. I wish I could say it's my own secret driving spot, but the word's been out for quite a long time. Most major car manufacturers come here annually to test their new vehicles against some of the most brutal hot-weather conditions in the world.De-badged and fabric-shrouded automobiles of all sizes and shapes-not to mention spy photographers-are not an unusual sight in warmer weather, but in mid-December we've pretty much got the run of the place.
According to Lamborghini, the LP640 can reach 62 mph in just 3.4 seconds, four-tenths faster than the previous model. That feels just about right, and there aren't many cars that will get there quicker. Wind the V12 to 8000 rpm through all six forward gears and the car will attain a claimed top speed in the neighborhood of 205 mph. There are more expensive cars that claim to reach even loftier top ends, but for those of us who live in a happy place, 200 mph is all the fast we'll ever need.
The E-gear transmission is surprisingly docile at slow speeds, but becomes ever more urgent the further your right foot dips. At full throttle, upshifts are brutally deliberate and direct, each engagement hammering your back and sending a shockwave through your chest cavity, like piloting from the breach of a semi-automatic firearm. At full song, the Murcilago's mechanical snarl is more convincing than its little brother's comically raucous fanfare. It's the sound I reckon an ICBM reaching critical velocity might make.
Approaching triple digits, the hair-tousling breeze above the cockpit becomes a raging hurricane. With the V12 braying furiously, high-speed transit in the LP640 Roadster is not a tranquil event. But then neither is sitting in traffic, as the intakes behind your head constantly cycle to keep the high-strung powerplant cool. If needed, triangular scoops will actuate, pivoting upward to augment the breathing, depending on the engine's requirements.
Considering the impressive breadth and footprint-those are 335s wrapped around the rear wheels-grip is suitably tremendous. Permanent all-wheel drive splits power 30/70 front-to-rear by default. It will direct up to 100 percent drive to either axle in extreme situations. Beyond that, you're on your own-there are no electronic stability aids. Steering is precise and responsive, but with a wheelbase of 105 inches, the Murcilago is hardly a canyon carver; you're forever aware of its size, heft-and, of course, cost.
The Roadster has a folding soft top you must procure from the cramped front boot and assemble by hand. We couldn't figure the damn thing out, so we braved the 45-degree desert nightfall topless. You're not really supposed to use it anyway.
Parked in the middle of the road at the end of the day, the Lambo smolders in the sunset like the tip of a branding iron. We park it smack in the middle of the road for our parting beauty shots, and the road meanders, utterly devoid of traffic as far as the eye can see. Tonight, the car owns this stretch of pavement.
Interview: Stephan Winkelmann
The Smart Suit Behind LamborghiniAfter four decades, the tiny sports car maker from Sant'Agata, Bologna, has become a major player in the exotic car segment, stealing coveted market share from the likes of Ferrari in the process. During the international launch of the Lamborghini Murcilago LP640 Roadster at the Los Angeles International Auto Show, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Automobili Lamborghini President and CEO, Stephan Winkelmann. The charismatic exec talks of the company's recent success and how he intends to maintain steady growth without losing the prestige and exclusivity that customers expect.
Ec: Lamborghini is on a roll. We're told projected sales could easily double within the next few years. A good time for the company, but how do you intend to satisfy customer demand without diluting the brand image?
SW: It's true we have experienced phenomenal growth. To meet these demands and maintain our delivery times-no more than 12 months for the Murcilago and eight months for the Gallardo-we have invested heavily in additional tooling to satisfy the increase in production. In the past 40 years, we sold an average of 250 cars a year. Within the last three years, we exceeded 1000 units annually, and this year we will surpass 2000. It is important to remember we are still a niche within a niche, and we remain an exclusive builder of extreme sports cars.
Ec: Most praise parent company Audi AG for Lamborghini's overall success.
SW: There's not one leading super sports car maker without a strong parent. If I could choose a good mother for the brand, there is no better example than Audi. Like a good parent, Audi has nourished Lamborghini and we've grown strong and healthy in the process. It's important to note that, at the same time, Audi has benefited greatly from Lamborghini. It goes both ways. We are a good match.
Ec: Proper sales and service is obviously a huge priority. How do you intend to fulfill the needs of all of your new and existing customers?
SW: We have increased our dealer network from 65 worldwide in 2005 to close to 100 today. Twenty-nine of these are here in the States, with three or four more in development. So we've made a major step in maintaining the best possible service through these additional locations, which also include emerging markets such as Russia, China and India.
Ec: You chose to officially launch the drop-top version of the LP640 in Los Angeles during the International Auto Show. Any special reason?
SW: The LP640 Roadster is the follow-up for the coupe. It's the most extreme car we've ever built and LA was an ideal place for its unveiling. The United States is our most important market, and will receive more than half of the 100 Roadsters scheduled for 2007 production, many naturally going to the warmer climates of California, Texas and Florida.
Ec: Regarding new models, is there a possible 2+2 GT in the works?
SW: We are planning to offer more variants of the Gallardo, like the Nera. The platform lends itself to other special-edition-type models, such as lightweight and rear-wheel-drive versions. There's also our individualization program, which offers varied degrees of personalization. We made 185 units last year with various color combinations, custom interiors and so on. The Gallardo has sold over 5000 units to date, surpassing the highest volume sales record of 3000 units set by the Diablo.
Ec: The Gallardo and Audi's R8. Is the new Audi coupe Germany's version of a Lamborghini?
SW: The R8 is a completely different car. There is no overlapping with the Gallardo. Many of our customers own more than one car. In many cases they will own multiple sports cars.
Ec: So what's your daily driver?
SW: I split time between an Audi A8 and a Gallardo.
Ec: Lamborghinis have become more reliable. There are some people who drive a Gallardo daily. Is this something new in Lamborghini ownership?
SW: Well, we invested a lot in the product and it shows. We have more than 40 people employed in quality control alone. We have great suppliers, the best engineers. All these things together make for fabulous cars.
Ec: Whatever Happened To The Miura Concept?
SW: We have a reputation as innovators, not as a company known for its revivals. We always look forward, never back.
Ec: Lamborghini's rich history has spawned some amazing cars. What's been your favorite?
SW: The next one [long pause]. Though I'd have to say the Miura has a special place in my heart.
2007 Lamborghini Lp640 Roadster
Longitudinal mid-engine, all-wheel drive
6.5-liter V12, dohc, four valves per cylinder
Six-speed E-gear sequential manual
Four-wheel independent articulated quadrilateral system, hydraulic shocks and coaxial coil springs
Four-wheel ventilated carbon-ceramic rotors, eight-piston front/four-piston rear calipers, ABS, electronic braking management
Peak Power: 640 bhp @ 8000 rpm
Peak Torque: 487 lb-ft @ 6000 rpm
0-62 mph: 3.4 sec
Top Speed: 205 mph
The Price Tag: $400,000