Lamborghini Gallardo. The Monumental Feature

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There’s much to like about the Lamborghini Gallardo. With its mid-mounted V10 providing entertainment to all the senses – it tastes like chicken, naturally – and outrageous styling, it’s the pin up star of the supercar brigade.

I’ve driven every iteration of the car since its mid-life refresh back in 2007 and found them all to be pretty spectacular in the own right. However, I’ve only ever driven a Gallardo in isolation – never directly up against a competitor, and certainly not against one of its own kind. Therefore when my contact at the Lamborghini dealer in Dubai casually mentioned that he had a test car of every Gallardo currently on sale sat in the car park, my mind got thinking. Wouldn’t it be great to take all of the cars out at the same time to finally decide which Gallardo is the ultimate?

Now the progression between a half-baked idea and reality took some work. Calls were put in to Lamborghini’s PR handlers in the UK and a lukewarm response was received. After some lengthy discussions, plus a face-to-face chat with Lamborghini CEO Stephan Winkelmann at the Paris Motor Show – the green light was finally given. We’d bagged all four – now came the fun part.

Naturally, as much as I’d try – I can’t drive all four Lamborghinis myself; therefore we called on a few crankandpiston friends to come along for the ride. Therefore step forward Jon Simmonds – the 2009/2010 UAE Touring Car Champion, Dubai 24hr Champion and owner of MSW. Paul Denby – the 2009/2010 UAE GT Champion in GTB class and a certain Bassam Kronfli who alongside his duties as head honcho at EVO Middle East magazine is also the European Radical Masters Champion, Middle East Radical Champion and Dubai 24hrs Champion.

These three certainly know what they’re doing behind the wheel of a car on a racetrack, therefore should be more than up to the job of driving them on the road. The only slight chink in the armour is yours truly – my only claim to racing fame was that I once competed in a 24-hour kart race, but rather ominously was never asked back to the team after my efforts on track saw us go backwards down the field.

Still, this whole test was my idea and somehow this meant that I was the one singing the indemnity forms for just shy of a million dollars-worth of Sant’Agata’s finest. So with all the cars collected from the dealer’s underground car park in deepest darkest Deira on a Sunday afternoon, everyone disappeared off in their own direction with instructions to meet up at Evo ME towers at the crack of down the next day.

Crack of dawn never actually transcribes to be very much like dawn once everyone drags themselves out of bed – even with the premise of a day’s hard-driving of a quartet of Lambos, certain members of the team (mentioning no names) still find it tricky to get up in the morning… But eventually we were all together and set off from Dubai Media City with the Hajjar mountains out near Hatta being our end goal.

Unsurprisingly, we caused a certain buzz down Sheikh Zayed Road as our Lamborghini convoy battled through the morning traffic. The Gallardo might be now in its eighth year of production, but it still causes young boys to gape and point and the finer sex to send flirtatious glances your way.

With the last Murcielago rolling off the production line in late 2010, the Gallardo is currently the sole model on offer from Lamborghini. The big bad Murci’s replacement is due to be shown in Geneva in a couple of months’ time, but it’ll still be a while before production gets underway. Therefore, it’s up to the Gallardo to fly the flag solo for a while yet.

It’s proved to be Lamborghini’s biggest volume seller since the company moved from tractors to cars back in the 1960s with the best part of 10,500 Gallardos sold so far. That’s rather a remarkable figure for a car that to an un-nerdy onlooker has remained largely the same throughout its life. Supercar buyers are a fickle bunch, always wanting the latest spangly model to be unleashed by their manufacturer of choice.

However, Lamborghini hasn’t left the Gallardo entirely to its own devices. The biggest change took place in 2008 when the LP series was introduced with sharper styling and a direct injection 5.2-litre V10 replacing the old 5.0-litre unit.

Though officially offered with a choice of a six-speed manual or six-speed semi-auto robotised manual – e-gear in Lambo-speak – ‘boxes, the vast majority of Gallardo buyers worldwide – around 98% according to sources – chose the latter two-pedal option. As much as journalists like myself might like to crow about manual cars being the ideal choice, the proof is in the sales figures – the clutch pedal’s future is looking increasingly bleak.

And whilst I will concur that anyone buying the Gallardo’s cousin – the Audi R8 – without the manual gearbox needs a stern talking to, in the Lamborghini it’s not the case. Though the R8 uses the same hardware as the Gallardo, where it differs is in the software – and it’s here that the Lambo boys have cracked it. Because the R8 wears those four rings on its bonnet it can’t be an all-guns-blazing sports car, there must still be some Audi luxury and comfort to go with the immense speed.

No such problem in a Lamborghini – in fact, buyers want it to be as hardcore and intense as possible. Therefore where Audi has to try and smooth out the gear changes which results in pure frustration, Lamborghini has the opposite approach – firing through the ratios in Corse mode in any Gallardo is painful, but utterly enjoyable.

But that’s enough of the background; let’s get back to the matter in hand. A breakdown in communications and the requirement of the camera car needing a full tank of petrol has meant that instead of cruising out of town on the faster, quieter stretches of tarmac, we’re battling past sewage tankers and smoky pickups through the less than desirable industrial area. Still, even with just half and hour of driving under our belts, differences between the Gallardos are already becoming noticeable.

In case you’re completely au fait with the Gallardo range, here’s a run-down of what we’ve got our hands on.
Firstly, there’s the ‘base’ Gallardo – the LP560-4 Coupe, here finished in black with Apollo twin five-spoke alloy wheels. The 5.2-litre V10 here has a 552bhp tune that endows the 560-4 with a 0-100kph time of 3.7secs.

Moving onto the 560-4 Spyder with the same engine performance, but naturally being a Spyder doesn’t have a fixed roof. The extra strengthening required to counteract the big gaping hole above your head adds 50kg to the kerbweight; therefore the performance is hampered a little taking an extra 0.3sec to reach 100kph. It has to be said though that the combination of pure white paintwork, a blue fabric roof and the complex Cordella forged wheels gives the Spyder a stunning look.

The LP550-2 Valentino Balboni stands out from the other Gallardos as it is rear-wheel drive – Lamborghini’s legendary test driver was a proper old-school gent and preferred his cars to be driven from the back rather than having the power spread between all four wheels. It’s a limited-run car, so the overlords at Lamborghini allowed it break the company’s mantra of every model being four-wheel drive. Power is wound back a little to 542bhp, which knocks the 0-100kph time to 3.9secs.

The Balboni has a hairy-chested 70s vibe to it with a white and gold stripe running the length of the Gallardo’s exterior – and interior. Without the driven front axle, the Balboni is a significant 120kg lighter than the LP560-4 Coupe.

But if it’s lightness you’re after, then the final model in our four is the one to keep an eye on – the LP570-4 Superleggera. By the generous use of carbon fibre and thin plastics in the place of glass at the rear, weight has been stripped back to 1340kg. The net result of this and a 10bhp tune up on the engine means the 0-100kph drops to just 3.4secs.

The Superleggera stands out from the rest of the Gallardo line-up with its sharp carbon fibre bumpers, massive fixed rear wing and yet more carbon across the entire cabin. If you’re a carbon freak, you’ll love it. If you had a modicum of taste, you might find it a little extreme.

My thinking was to drive the standard LP560-4 Coupe first to act as a benchmark to judge the others on. In reality, that was my only option as the others quickly bagged their rides of choice before I had the chance to get a look in. Paul elected to take the Balboni first as he’s a rear-drive fan with Jon enjoying the delights of the hardcore Superleggera. Bassam decided a bit of top-down cruising was in order in the Spyder, so I found myself in the Coupe.

Compared to the other cars, the Coupe does look a little unassuming with its black paint and subdued interior, but that thought soon disappears when I turned the key. The V10 starts with a very grumbly idle, taking a few seconds to settle itself down, but a quick probe of the throttle soon wakes it up. I pull back on the right paddle to engage first, select Sport and steer the nose Hatta bound.

Even though it’s a highly strung supercar, the LP560-4 Coupe is quite happy to cruise along at a fair lick between the numerous speed cameras that line the highway as it cuts its way through the ever-reddening desert. The leather seat is easy to adjust into a comfortable position and though the ride is firm, it’s certainly not uncomfortable. And while there’s a pretty decent stereo and sat-nav system onboard – thanks to mother company Audi – I have to admit I didn’t switch it on once.  A Lamborghini makes its own music from the four exhaust pipes hanging out of the back.

Soon enough we arrive at the UAE-Oman border control post. Now, from past experience, the border guards – complete with their automatic weapons – can be a little bit snotty about letting you through to the other side unless you have your passport, car registration card and copies of your insurance on you. As we are rocking up in a convoy of borrowed Lamborghinis, I’m fully expecting we’ll be asked to park up and spent a lot of time arguing with a variety of unhelpful officials. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

We’re quickly waved through with cries of ‘Atta Wheel!’ from the guards. We all duly follow our instructions and roar off into the distance with the sound of four V10s banging off their limiters in 1st. The local shopkeepers dozing at the roadside aren’t quite of what’s going on as the sheer intensity of the noise generated wakes them rather swiftly from their slumbers. Would-be border runners take note – to get away with crossing borders without the right documents, drive the most over-the-top car you can get your hands on.

After a quick stop to fill up on Shell’s finest and to endure the delights of the only public convenience around, we head back on the road to Hatta, but soon take an un-marked turning off to the right. There’s a little-known road out here that cuts its way through the barren countryside – it’s wide and straight in some places, tight and unsighted in others – and thankfully for us, completely devoid of traffic.

To fully exploit the delights I know the road delivers, I quickly engage Corsa and push the LP560-4 hard along the roads. The others are quick to do the same, and soon we’re running in an extremely rapid and noisy convoy up into the hills. It’s great to be able to push a Lamborghini hard on roads like this – even better when the only other cars on the road at the same time are a trio of Lambos doing exactly the same thing.

The Coupe proves to be a great benchmark – it remains remarkably planted and solid through the curves and the engine delights in using the full extent of the 8000rpm on offer. A quick stop for some glamour shots taken care of and I shoehorn myself into the cabin of the Superleggera.

Where the Coupe was resoundably unfussed on this road, the Superleggera feels absolutely manic.

The stiffer suspension and extra grunt from the engine – thanks the big cut in weight, it feels like it has an extra 100bhp, not 10. Around town, I’ve found the Superleggera to be a little too hardcore – but out on roads like this, I really appreciate all the stiffening and sharpening that Lamborghini has done. However, the Superleggera bucks and dives under full-bore gearchanges, which is rather unnerving to start with, but you soon learn to trust it.

Bassam is short on time so flags me down to bag the Superleggera and leaves me with the Spyder. Blimey – these two couldn’t be more different. Where the Superleggera just digs deep into a corner, the Spyder feels wallowy by comparison. The extra weight of the Spyder really makes itself known – tackle a quick left-right-left that would leave you beaming in the Superleggera and you find the Spyder feels as if it’s two corners behind itself as the chassis struggles to keep up. I find I have to adopt a completely different driving style else I might find myself picking bits of interior and shrubbery out of my teeth as I drive past its abilities.

So far the Superleggera has proved itself to sit way above the standard coupe and the Spyder some way below – last, but not least, is the Balboni.  Now, I’ve never really gelled with the Balboni special rear-drive edition of the Gallardo. Surely if a car has been developed from the ground up to be all-wheel drive, lopping off the front driven axle is going to raise some issues. I know Porsche offers the 911 in both rear and all-wheel drive, but the engineers have been working to that brief from the outset, rather than working around an established platform.

As a result I find the lack of purchase through the front wheels unnerving – it just doesn’t feel like a Gallardo should. The steering feels eerily light even though it’s not hampered by a driven axle and I still can’t reprogram my mind enough to counteract the fact that there’s not going to be any power going the wheels to help pull me through a corner. I can imagine that it would take an owner a good few months to be entirely comfortable with this car – especially if they’d owned a Gallardo before. I don’t have the same issues with other rear-drive supercars from the likes of Ferrari – I can get into the groove with them very quickly, whereas the Balboni still perplexes me.

So the Coupe is a good all-rounder, the Spyder a little too soft, the Balboni frustrating and the Superleggera ballsy and brilliant. An easy win for the Superleggera then? Hmm… maybe not.

In the final reckoning I have to discount the Balboni first. Whilst I fully agree that some drivers will enjoy learning its unique driving characteristics over time, in the company of the four-wheel drive versions, it just doesn’t have that innate ability to be driven hard out of the box from the get go. It’s an acquired taste is the Balboni, but not one that tickles my fancy.

Jon Simmonds agrees, although bizarrely, he’s most enamored by it. “If I had to choose one of them, because it is such an extreme car, I would go with the Balboni. I’d enjoy being afraid of it and needing to respect and get used to it over a long period of time.” Paul Denby isn’t a fan either. “The Balboni doesn’t have enough feel to the steering – you can’t tell if you’re on the edge, close to the edge or miles away from it. And on that basis alone, it just inspires zero confidence when you drive it.” Bassam, however, is a big fan. “It’s the most challenging and most rewarding car of the bunch to drive. The mobile rear end keeps you on your toes, which I enjoy as the car always feels alive and reactive.”

The Superleggera couldn’t be more different – it delivers confidence in spades, especially in maximum attack Corsa mode and a driver wired with caffeine behind the wheel. Denby finds himself very much at home in it. ” As soon as I got in it I knew where its limits are, and I had a lot of fun exploring. The seats are more comfortable for me, even though I’m short. I could live with that car on the day to day, there’s nothing about that car that would bother me.”

At one point during the day I find myself riding shotgun with Bassam as he drives the Superleggera – where I find myself gripping onto the Alcantara steering wheel extremely hard, Bassam goes for the complete opposite approach as he lightly grips the wheel with his fingertips. After he extracts himself from the fixed-back seat, he’s grinning ear-to-ear. “I was initially shocked at how fidgety the car is. Once you get over that, you learn to enjoy in much the same way as you do an older 911. It moves around a lot but you can still trust it.”

The Superleggera is undoubtedly the best driving Gallardo of the bunch, but I’m not entirely convinced about it. The seats prove to be painful after a lot of time behind the wheel – my 6’2″ frame just doesn’t fit as well as someone of Denby’s stature does – and I reckon that the crashy nature of the suspension and setup would begin to annoy after a long time with the car. Maybe I’m getting old before my time, but I find myself hankering after the standard LP560-4 much more. But is in the plain Jane Coupe or the Mr Softy Spyder that sits on top of the Gallardo tree?

Whilst the Coupe might lack the visual drama of the carbon-fetish Superleggera, as a package it makes a lot of sense. Simmo isn’t entirely convinced by the car, “It’s a nice, good competent car but it’s not special enough to warrant buying, but if you did particularly like that I do believe you could use it everyday.” Not special enough??? Really? It’s an Italian supercar with 552bhp from one of the few V10 engines still to be in production – maybe Jon spent a little too much time in the Spyder and the sun got to him. I still maintain that the Coupe is a great all-round car; I just think it got overlooked by the others in this company.

However… and bear with me here, I’m going to put my head above the parapet and say that the ultimate Gallardo is the Spyder. Yes, on a hard charge, it might be a little bit lacking compared to the Coupe, but the added benefit of losing of the roof provides it with an extra dimension. The sound of that V10 on full chat is one to be savoured and you certainly get the full benefit of it with the Spyder.

If anything, I only wish the Spyder had a little more visual drama and maybe a chunk taken out of the kerbweight – then, I think there would be no question about it being the Gallardo to end all Gallardos…

Stop Press – Since we put this piece together, proud with ourselves that we had landed a world exclusive of having all four Gallardos together in one shoot, Lamborghini went and dropped a fifth car.  Happily it might just be the car we have been looking for.  Stand by for the feature..

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  1. i had the chance to drive two of those magnificent cars when they were available for test drive in Bahrain intl circuit…what an experience

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