The first new Lamborghini in 11 years had a rough ride before it even turned
a wheel in public, writes Angus MacKenzie.

The launch of the new Murcielago – like previous Lamborghini names, it’s
derived from Spanish bullfighting lore; in this case a bull spared in a famous
fight in Cordoba in 1879 – has been twice delayed, reportedly at the personal
insistence of VW Group chairman Ferdinand Piech, who acquired Lamborghini in
1998 and put it under the direct control of Audi management.

Lamborghini’s long-awaited replacement for the outrageous Diablo bears
the same codename – L147 – as the car Lamborghini was developing when
taken over by VW. But the production Murcielago has completely different styling
and a host of new technical features. And while insiders won’t confirm
that Piech effectively sent L147 back to the drawing board, suppliers hint that
the Murcielago has been a rush programme.

The Murcielago’s low, swooping profile is the work of VW Group designer
Luc Donckerwolke, whose previous credits include the Audi A4 Avant and the Skoda
Fabia. It’s a clean, professional piece of design that pays subtle homage
to past Lamborghinis – there’s just a hint of Marcello Gandini’s
signature asymmetric rear wheel arch, for example – but somehow lacks the
sheer theatre of the Diablo, the Countach and the Miura.

A lack of jewellery in the detailing – particularly around the head and
tail lights, and in the interior – gives the Murcielago a curiously downmarket
feel up close. On the move, though, speed sensitive active air intakes that
automatically pivot through 20 degrees to increase cooling capacity, and a three
position active rear spoiler provide a touch of visual drama.

Most of the Murcielago’s body is carbon-fibre – only the scissor
doors and roof are steel – and the chassis is made of high-strength steel
tube bonded to carbon fibre/honeycomb structural elements using adhesives and
rivets. The wheelbase has been extended 15mm compared with the Diablo, all of
it forward of the driver’s H-point to improve room around the pedals.

Suspension is double wishbone all round, with coil-over electronically controlled
dampers front and rear. The giant vented and cross drilled disc brakes feature
anti-lock modulation, and the 18 inch diameter alloy wheels are shod with Pirelli
P Zero tyres – 245/35 up front and 335/30 at the rear.

The Murcielago’s 6.2 litre V12 is a development of the Diablo engine.
It now has a dry sump, which allows it to be mounted 50mm lower in the car,
plus variable valve timing and a variable geometry intake system. Peak power
is 580bhp at 7,500rpm, while the maximum 480lb/ft of torque is produced at 5,400rpm.

Lamborghini engineering director Massimo Ceccarani claims the variable induction
systems enable the V12 to produce more than 368lb.ft. of torque from just 2,000rpm.

The engine drives all four wheels through an upgraded version of Lamborghini’s
viscous coupled four wheel drive system and a new Lamborghini-designed six speed
manual transmission. Although slightly heavier than the Diablo VT, Ceccarani
says the Murcielago will sprint from zero to 62mph (100km/h) in just 3.8 seconds,
and top 206mph (330km/h).

Lamborghini plans to build just 300 Murcielagos a year – the V12 engine
is hand assembled at the rate of just 2.5 units a day. But the managing director
of Lamborghini Holdings, Giuseppe Greco, has revealed VW is investing 250 billion
lire in the company over five years.

About six percent of that has already been spent on upgrading the Lamborghini
factory at Sant’Agata; the rest has been committed to developing a new,
smaller, less expensive Lamborghini designed to compete directly with Ferrari‘s
F360 and Porsche’s 911. This car, due in 2003, will increase Lamborghini’s
total output to about 1,800 cars a year.