Pros: Viscerally involving driving dynamics; inspiring engine note; Audi underpinnings promise reliable creature comforts; all-wheel drive enhances roadholding
Cons: Relative commonness may not please connoisseurs of exotica; current generation nearing end of its life cycle; influx of enticing competitors emphasizes Gallardo's high price
Audi's acquisition of Automobili Lamborghini in 1998 was fraught with peril-remember Chrysler's failed attempt to resuscitate the Italian brand - but the German company's investment, the equivalent of more than $400 million in today's economy, proved to be a brilliant business and branding move.
The Lamborghini Gallardo met the world in 2003. It featured an Audi-sourced aluminum spaceframe chassis as well as multimedia and climate control interfaces sourced from the German manufacturer. Power came from a hearty V10 coupled with a clutchless automated manual dubbed "e-gear," or a manual transmission complete with a Ferrari-like gated shifter. An exotic was born, and by 2010, a rather un-exotic 10,000 Gallardos had been produced.
Lamborghini's entry-level supercar currently offers a spread of no fewer than six variants. Two rear-wheel-drive offerings occupy the bottom rungs of the ladder: the LP550-2 Valentino Balboni Edition ($193,895) and the LP550-2 Spyder ($196,995). Step up to the all-wheel-drive LP560-4, and the privilege will cost you $207,995 for starters. Then there's the LP560-4 Bicolore ($231,395) and the LP570-4 Spyder Performante ($254,695), which is a droptop version of the track-focused LP570-4 Superleggera, which runs $243,595.
Gallardos took a leap forward when the lineup was updated for 2009; while their bump in engine output figures are reflected in their model names (using metric horsepower numbers), the Baby Lambo has also grown incrementally more sporting and refined in later editions. The model is expected to see another update soon.
Comfort & Utility
The Lamborghini Gallardo's cabin is a snug space, and its storage compartment ahead of the cockpit won't hold much more than a small overnight bag; its mid-mounted V10 engine and gearbox comprise a vast swath of this two-seater's footprint, and its sloping roofline doesn't exactly maximize interior volume.
That said, the Gallardo is considerably more functional than Lamborghinis of yore. Thanks to Audi's shared MMI interface, everything from the navigation and multimedia system to HVAC and switchgear controls have an efficient and utilitarian feel to them, which is a far cry from the days of shoddy construction and kit-car-like details Lamborghini was known for before the German manufacturer took control.
But still, if utility and comfort are high on your priority list, you may want to shop elsewhere-that is, at least until Lamborghini releases its Urus SUV, which made its debut at the 2012 Beijing Auto Show in April.
Audi's multimedia interface serves as the gateway for a fairly typical array of technological tidbits in the Gallardo cabin; everything from streaming Bluetooth to GPS and a backup camera is centralized through the navigation screen with a dial flanked by four buttons, and the familiar controls extend to twin dials for the climate control system. Adding a more traditional touch is a row of knurled toggle switches to control everything from window lifts to foglamps.
There's plenty of technology unique to the brand, such as a cockpit operated front-end hydraulic lifter to help you avoid spoiler scrapes. But most of the Gallardo's high-tech features can be found within the drivetrain and chassis. Thanks to Lamborghini's in-house Advanced Composites Research Center, lightweight carbon fiber and carbon-reinforced polymer components have been introduced into the Superleggera and Spyder Performante versions, helping shed pounds and increase maneuverability and acceleration.
The Gallardo's V10 ekes out considerable power from every cubic centimeter of its displacement. The most potent models, the Superleggera and Performante, produce 570 metric horsepower from the 5.2-liter engine, or an astounding 109.6 horsepower per liter. Lessons learned from the Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo racing series have been applied to everything from suspension and brakes to aerodynamics.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The Gallardo was first introduced in all-wheel-drive coupe form, but various spinoffs have added a variety of performance characteristics to the expanding lineup. For instance, although the LP550-2 Valentino Balboni Edition and LP550-2 Bicolore models are at the lower end of the Gallardo's price spectrum, their two-wheel-drive layout and 57 percent rear weight bias makes them more dynamically lively than all-wheel-drive models, which are differentiated by the -4 designation. Expect 0-to-62-mph runs in just under four seconds for both models.
The LP560-4 model's 560 (metric) horsepower work with its permanent all-wheel-drive system to launch it to 62 mph in 3.7 seconds, with a terminal velocity of 202 mph. Thanks to its weight savings and higher state of tune, the 570-hp Superleggera model hauls to 62 mph in 3.4 seconds, while the open-air Spyder Performante variant does the deed in 3.9 seconds. Top speeds for those models are 202 and 201 mph, respectively.
While it's easy to write off the Gallardo for mpg numbers that range from the low teens to the very low 20s, the introduction of direct injection technology and an updated variable valve timing system in 2009 helped improve fuel economy and CO2 emissions by 18 percent.
Neither the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety nor the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have released crash test results for the Lamborghini Gallardo, but the model lineup incorporates all-wheel drive, a limited-slip differential, front dual-stage driver and passenger airbags and side-impact-absorbing doors. Head and thorax airbags are equipped on optional "comfort" seats. Convertible Gallardo models utilize sensors that detect impending rollover situations and deploy a pyrotechnically actuated roll bar to protect occupants.
Climb into the Gallardo's low-slung cabin, and you're surrounded by a functional and somewhat opulent space, depending on what optional leather and Alcantara trim pieces have been ordered.
The V10 fires up with a roaring snarl, and clicking the paddle shifter into gear allows the car to creep forward with a slight but perceptible tug as the automated clutch engages and disengages in its friction zone.
In standard automatic mode, the gearbox runs through each cog swap with some perceptible firmness, but things get quite a bit rougher in Corsa ("race") mode. When the powerplant slings the Gallardo ahead on heavy throttle, gearshifts can get downright violent at high rpm as the transmission slams into the next gear. These nearly 600 horses do a valiant job of hustling this sports car forward with thrilling alacrity.
The Superleggera and Spyder Performante models feel sportier even at a standstill: thanks to thin shell seats and generous usage of Alcantara and weight-saving carbon fiber trim, there's a starkness to their cabin that makes these roadgoing cars considerably closer to their race-prepped cousins.
Gallardos tend to handle with an odd combination of benign initial feel and a more extreme dynamic towards the limit. There's an almost imperceptible sensation of understeer at turn-in, but once committed to a corner, the Gallardo grips with tenacity. Rear-wheel-drive models are a bit more eager to change direction, with less perceptible initial resistance, but Superleggera and Spyder Performante versions offer more reassuring steering feedback and road feel, thanks to their stiffer bushings, grippier Pirelli rubber, and more aggressive geometry. All Gallardos are equipped with exceptional brakes, though the optional eight-piston carbon ceramic units offer track-ready stopping power for a heart-stopping $16,450 premium. There's a bit of pedal lag with the ceramic brakes, but nothing that a driver of moderate skill level can't acclimate to.
Other Cars to Consider
Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG- This top-tier Mercedes-Benz starts at $189,600, undercutting the most affordable Gallardo. The Benz nameplate doesn't quite carry the same exotic cachet as the Lamborghini crest, but it does call on its iconic gullwing heritage. The SLS AMG is a potent and slightly more discreet way to carry speed in contrast its flashy Italian competitor, with a crackling 6.2-liter V8 producing a healthy 563 hp. A rumored upcoming SLS AMG Black Series model with more extreme performance will likely serve as a more direct competitor to the Gallardo.
Ferrari 458 Italia- The $230,675 Ferrari 458 Italia materialized well into the Gallardo's life span, serving up menacing competition with its sonorous 4.5-liter V8 that revs to 9,000 rpm as well as gorgeous curves that make the Lambo seem industrial in comparison. Although it's easy to order up an Italia with a price approaching $300,000, that doesn't seem to bother the 1 percent who have the means to call themselves Ferrari owners.
McLaren MP4-12C- Britain's McLaren has a storied history of Formula 1 victories but considerably less of a track record with roadgoing sports cars. Regardless, when this firm does bother with civilian vehicles, it does a bloody good job. Witness the last solo effort, the F1, examples of which are now trading hands for several million dollars. The MP4-12C is the first in a new lineup of street-worthy sports cars. It starts at $231,400. Though a bit more clinical in driver feedback, when its engine and suspension are dialed in to their most aggressive settings, the MP4-12C proves a more precise weapon for at-the-limit track attacks.
We'd get the "base" four-wheel-drive LP560-4 at about $208,000 and load ours up with maximum leather and Alcantara, along with the "comfort" seats. But, really, we'd take any of the lineup.