2002 Maserati Coupe by TCC Team (3/25/2002)
Two hundred thirty-eight. It’s not a number I’m used to seeing on my speedometer. Even in metric form, and certainly not on a narrow, two-lane blacktop weaving its way through the quiet farm villages outside of Modena, Italy.
Okay, a quick conversion and it’s a nudge short of 150 mph. Still impossibly fast, especially when you consider I’ve just shifted into fifth and the big V-12 sitting behind me has a lot of breathing room and another gear left.
“It’s a race car, but it’s street legal,” was the sage advice offered up by Lamborghini’s global marketing chief, Bernd Hayden, as I prepared for my first turn behind the wheel in the new Murcielago. Ready for the street perhaps, but even in tolerant Italy, I’m not quite sure about the legal part.
The $300,000 Murcielago is the latest in a series of astounding performance machines to emerge from the medieval town of Modena. The ancient community has been called “speed central,” by some, and “the Silicon Valley of Speed” by others. Either term is justified for Modena houses more high-performance automotive nameplates than anywhere else in the world, including Ferrari, Maserati and their smaller rival, Lamborghini.
2002 Lamborghini Murcielago
2002 Lamborghini Murcielago
In the 38 years since Ferruccio Lamborghini rolled out his first production car, the 350GT, the automaker has produced barely 2000 vehicles. It’s best known for the legendary Countach, an angular, spacecraft-like vehicle that adorned more posters than any Italian since Sophia Loren. It was replaced in 1990 by the Diablo and now the Murcielago, the tenth “volume” car in Lamborghini’s brief history.
The name translates as “bat” in Spanish, and it’s pronounced “mercy-AY-lah-go.” Unless you’re Castillian, that is, where you add a lisp, and it becomes “mirthy-AY-lah-go.” And indeed, the new two-seater actually honors the bull of that name which 122 years ago defied the best matador of Barcelona, surviving a score of sword strikes and living to a ripe old age making other brave bulls. Either interpretation is appropriate. A raging bull is the symbol of the Lamborghini brand, but the Murcielago moves like a bat out of hell.
Compared to the cars that preceded it, the Murcielago is fairly subtle in appearance, far less angular than the Countach, and not nearly as ostentatious as the Diablo. Even so, it virtually shouts “I’m different.” And simply standing still, the latest in the Lamborghini line has raw visual power. Park it and you’ll quickly draw a large crowd. Even while crawling through traffic, heads turn when the Murcielago goes by. At speed, passersby aren’t likely to see very much.
Indeed, the car’s most distinctive visual feature is normally only apparent when you’re running got flat out. The Variable Airflow Cooling System, or VACs, is a two-stage air intake system mounted at the rear of the Murcielago’s greenhouse. In normal driving conditions, when the engine is running cool, they remain flush with the rest of the body, reducing aerodynamic drag. When coolant temperatures rise—or the driver decides to impress observers and touches a button on the instrument panel—the menacing side scoops pop open.
The engine certainly generates the heat. Mounted at rear-midship, the Murcielago is powered by an aluminum 6.2-liter V-12 that features variable intake and exhaust cam phasing, a variable-geometry intake manifold and four separate drive-by-wire throttles. The package produces 571 horsepower at peak, though most of its 479 pound-feet of torque comes on low. Even in fifth, it’s got enough to lumber along at a crawl without bucking or stalling out.
2002 Lamborghini Murcielago
Compared to the old Diablo, that’s an extra 0.2 liters, 29 horsepower and 22 pound-feet of torque. The Murcielago’s engine also sits two inches lower, thanks to a new dry sump lubrication system. And that means a notably lower center of gravity.
The short-throw manual gearbox has been markedly improved since Diablo; for one thing, it now has six speeds and a linkage system less likely to result in missed gears.
The body makes extensive use of carbon fiber wrapped around a steel tube chassis. The reduction in weight is critical.
Just how fast does all this translate into? Lamborghini claims the new car will shoot from 0-100 kmh (0-62.5 mph) in 3.8 seconds. It has a rated top speed of 205 mph and earlier this year, a Murcielago maintained just short of that number for a full 100 miles, capturing the international record for a production vehicle. (To accomplish the feat, a car was randomly pulled off the assembly line and no modifications could be made before the run.)
Anyone who has driven one of Lamborghini’s previous production cars well knows that it drove like a race car. They were harsh, demanding and in some ways, downright crude. The Murcielago isn’t the type of vehicle you’d call a daily driver, but it’s definitely easier to manage on the street than even a latter-generation Diablo.
During a long morning behind the wheel, we put the Murcielago through just about everything it might experience on the road, from pedal-to-the-metal take-offs to high-speed turns. The car stayed glued to the road. More importantly, it provided a clear signal when ever it began to approach its limits. That’s one reason why we felt invigorated and still surprisingly fresh when we pulled back into the parking lot at the Lamborghini assembly plant. A similar tour in a Diablo would leave you sitting in a pool of sweat in need of a helping hand to climb out from behind the wheel.
2002 Lamborghini Murcielago
Part of the difference comes from the new electronic suspension system that all-but-instantaneously adapts to road and driving conditions. There’s a manual override, if you prefer. To plant the Murcielago even more firmly on the ground, the car features another electronic pop-out, a three-inch spoiler that tilts to a 50-degree angle at 130 kmh (about 81 mph), and then extends to 70 degrees at 220 kmh (137 mph).
With a car like thus, braking performance is as important as acceleration, and the Murcielago features the requisite Brembos, with huge, 14.0-inch rotors up front, and 13.2-inch in the rear. The brakes are coupled with an anti-lock system and traction control. Stability is further enhanced by Murcielago’s full-time all-wheel-drive. (The Diablo offered buyers a choice of 2WD or AWD.)
Another big difference between Lamborghini past and present is the surprising refinement of the Murcielago interior. Gauges are far more visible than in the Diablo, controls are situated more within reach. Fits and finishes are world class. And things actually work. The last time we took a Diablo out for a few days, the electronics proved exceedingly unreliable, often leaving windows stuck in half-down position. The only problem we experienced was a bit of bucking in idle after the hardest portion of our drive. Turning the ignition off and on again solved the problem, which never returned.
There’s been an emphasis on quality and reliability ever since Lamborghini was acquired by the German automaker, Audi, in 1998, explains the Italian company’s chief executive, Dr. Giuseppe Greco. There’s also been an effort to fix the company’s bottom line, which has tended to run in the red since the days of Ferruccio Lamborghini.
The plan is to slowly expand production of the Murcielago. But there’s also more to come from the company, Dr. Greco hints. He’s not saying much, but sources suggest it’s likely to move the company a fair bit down-market, more in line with Ferrari’s 360 Modena.
Don’t expect Lamborghini to become a mass-market manufacturer. The company’s stock in trade is speed, exclusivity and visually outrageous design. The look of the Murcielago may be a bit toned down from models like the Countach, but the car more than makes up for that with its added performance, speed and drivability. After a brief stint behind the wheel, there are likely to be few who will leave disappointed.
Base Price: $273,000 to $280,000
Engine: 6.2 liter V-12, 575 hp
Transmission: Six-speed manual with permanent all-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 104.9 in
Length: 180.3 in
Width: 80.5 in
Height: 44.7 in
Curb Weight: 3638 lbs
EPA (city/hwy): 9 city/ 13 hwy
Safety Features: Anti-lock brakes with two independent circuits for the front and rear axles, dual front airbags with dual speed inflator for passenger
Major Standard Features: heated exterior rearview mirrors, axle lifting system for low speed travel, CD player, steel gear selector, trip computer, automatic defroster