From the March 1999 issue of Car and Driver.
My right foot stomps the accelerator hard against the narrow floorboard three times in rapid succession as I clang the long-throw shifter up through its heavy-toothed gate. Behind us, 5.7 liters’ worth of V-12 roars like the angry hooves and snorts of a hundred bulls bouncing off the walls of Pamplona. As we pass through 160 mph, an approaching blind curve prompts us to switch pedals. At that moment, a tiny dip in the pavement jounces the front tires into contact with the fender liners, and a whiff of rubber wafts into the cabin. Four of the five senses confirm that we’re not dreaming.
What we are doing is storming the twisty byways of the Italian island of Sardinia as guests of Automobili Lamborghini. The fact that this tiny dream-car builder once again has the wherewithal to throw such a party can only mean one thing—that a big, mainstream car company with cavernously deep pockets has once again taken the reins of the raging bull from Sant’Agata.
Yes, indeed, this once-faltering manufacturer of ultra-exotic cars and offshore-racing boat engines is again standing on solid financial ground. The last time Lamborghini bought us a round of nocella (a regional walnut liqueur) on its home turf, the company was thriving under Chrysler’s corporate wing (1987–94). Then a company in Indonesia took over, and fortunes sagged as capital investment waned and precious resources were diverted to help engineer a Third World econocar. Cost cutting and restructuring in 1997 restored a trickle of black ink, but the challenges of developing new products proved too much for Lambo’s nonautomotive parent, so last July the company was purchased by Audi.
Ah, wind tunnels. Supercomputers. Finite-element analysis. The Lamborghini toolbox now includes world-class equipment. We can expect impressive new products in Lamborghini’s future, the first of which should be a 600-horse super-Diablo (perhaps named Canto), which will be built alongside the Diablo starting in late 2000. Next up, in the 2001–02 time frame, a V-8 Lamborghini is planned for the Ferrari F355 class, and then a super-sport-ute LM002 successor may follow.
But the much-revised 1999 Diablo was the inspiration for this outing. The sleeping devil awakens for 1999 with exposed headlamps (lifted from the late, great Nissan 300ZX) that impart a sly sneer to the Diablo’s visage. They also light up the road better, weigh less, and produce less drag than the old pop-up lights. New 18-inch composite O-Z Racing wheels are the only other exterior modification. Numerous tweaks to the structure boost rigidity by a useful 10 to 15 percent.
The interior is far more attractive and hospitable for 1999 thanks to a completely new dash that has electronically controlled analog gauges. The fussy, buttony Alpine stereo is out of reach, but the other controls are arrayed in a less ergonomically obtuse fashion compared with those in previous Diablos. Lightweight one-piece bucket seats don’t have a lot of moves—adjustments are limited to fore and aft and a tilt of the entire seat—yet they provide superb support and reasonable long-haul comfort.
Major improvements have also been made beneath the skin since we last tested a Diablo. Last year, the naughty 5.7-liter V-12 got a new Lamborghini-designed variable-valve-timing system that shifts the intake-cam timing by 20 degrees in a single step. The transition takes place at different engine speeds depending on driving conditions and is imperceptible. Valve lift was also increased, and the intake and exhaust valve were enlarged (by 1.0 mm and 1.5 mm, respectively). To make the most of these breathing enhancements, the fuel-injection system was upgraded, as was the Lamborghini LIE engine controller.
The net result? A fatter torque curve and a boost in output to 530 horsepower at 7100 rpm and 448 pound-feet of torque at 5600 rpm (up from 492 and 428). Can you feel an eight-percent power boost? Is Isabella Rossellini prettier when she’s smiling? Lamborghini claims the new Diablo SV (the rear-drive model) will hit 62 mph in 3.9 seconds. That seems reasonable, considering that our fastest rear-drive Diablo (a taller-geared, 485-hp 1991 model) did 0 to 60 in 4.2. But the company’s claim of 4.0 seconds to 62 mph for the all-wheel-drive targa-top VT seems optimistic. That car weighs 200 pounds more, is harder to launch, and is geared five percent taller than the SV. Our computers suggest the difference in performance should be a half-second or more.
Top speed has always been the Diablo’s trump card—our 204-mph test car in 1991 remains the fastest U.S.-legal production car we’ve ever tested. Lamborghini claims a 208-mph top end for VT models without the optional rear wing, and 199 mph for shorter-geared (wingless) SV coupes. Those figures are mathematically plausible, but the string-backed-glove set should be cautioned not to try that kind of speed in Montana. Top-speed running is best left for high-banked circle tracks such as Nardo in Italy, where a bit of centrifugal force can help to counteract the slight aerodynamic lift that causes the Diablo to become light and darty at speed. The car is highly susceptible to crosswinds, too, as we discovered when we passed from a protected valley onto a wind-swept bridge at 140 mph.
The formidable task of “whoa-ing” all that go power is handled by Lamborghini’s first anti-lock brake system, developed with LucasVarity/Kelsey-Hayes. The brake booster, the master cylinder, the calipers, and the rotors were all upgraded for ’98. They slow the car as if it were caught in a tractor beam, and they felt indefatigable during a morning of flogging.
Top speed may be the Diablo’s big claim to fame, but this bull is most at home stampeding the twisties. There’s plenty of torque on tap to pull smoothly in any gear from any speed above the engine’s 1200-rpm idle. Immense all-wheel-drive grip in the VT precludes the fun of sliding the car out to nine-tenths on public roads, but it inspires immense confidence at seven- or eight-tenths. The power steering is appropriately weighted and feels linear and direct, but it’s less communicative than we expected—as if Mercedes had helped with the calibration. Still, the Diablo feels quite chuckable—as 80-inch-wide cars go.
The engine note is uniquely Lamborghini. It’s much more guttural than any Ferrari’s—think of a Viper with two more cylinders. The noise is hard to talk over at full wail, but the sounds are comfortable at cruising speeds. The ride is firm, but it’s never bone jarring with the adjustable shock set to “automatic.” A welcome feature of those shocks is a “lift” position that helps the chin spoiler clear driveway ramps at low speed .
For U.S. buyers who dream of owning Lamborghini’s ultimate exotic car, the price should be about $250,000 for the SV coupe and $295,000 for the VT targa. Sound expensive? To paraphrase the word of former company boss Lee Iacocca, If you can find a better 208-plus-mph factory-built car, buy it!
1999 Lamborghini Diablo
Vehicle Type: mid-engine, rear- or 4-wheel-drive, 2-passenger, 2-door coupe
PRICE AS TESTED (EST.)
SV coupe, $245,000; VT targa, $295,000
DOHC 48-valve V-12, aluminum block and heads, port fuel injection
Displacement: 348 in3, 5707 cm3
Power: 530 hp @ 7100 rpm
Torque: 448 lb-ft @ 5600 rpm
Wheelbase: 104.3 in
Length: 176.0 in
Width: 80.3 in
Height: 43.9 in
Passenger Volume: 45 ft3
Trunk Volume: 5 ft3
Curb Weight (C/D est): 3500–3750 lb
MANUFACTURER’S PERFORMANCE RATINGS
62 mph: SV: 3.9 sec; VT: 4.0 sec
Top Speed (drag ltd): SV: 199 mph; VT: 208 mph
EPA FUEL ECONOMY
City/Highway: 10/13 mpg