Lamborghini has created so many Gallardo models over the past eight years that it appears to be peddling more flavors than Baskin-Robbins. The Italian automaker has mixed and matched engines, powertrains, paint colors and upholsteries to fabricate such variants as the SE, Super Trofeo, Nera, Bicolore, Tricolore, Valentino Balboni, Blancpain Edition, Superleggera, Spyder Performante, Super Trofeo Stradale, along with limited editions for Malaysia and Singapore, not to mention the Noctis, a variant developed exclusively for Chinese markets.
But only one is my favorite.
The Gallardo LP 550-2 Spyder is the quintessential enthusiast's Lamborghini, the perfect choice for public roads. Beneath its crisp exterior is a 550-horsepower V10 mated to an aggressive single-clutch automated gearbox set low in the middle of an aluminum space-frame chassis. What matters to most, however, is that the package has been blessed with traditional rear-wheel drive.
Despite an abundance of exotics claiming to be driver-oriented sports cars, it is rare to find a vehicle that is not only gorgeous to look at, but overdelivers in all measured performance categories. Machines this entertaining – this passionate – should be registered contraband.
The Lamborghini Gallardo was launched way back at the 2003 Geneva Motor Show, but the first customers didn't drop behind the wheel for another year. It didn't take long for the two-seater to prove itself, and as of today, more than 12,000 examples have been sold, making it a runaway success for an exotic car.
As mentioned, Lamborghini has introduced nearly a dozen different Gallardo variants since its launch. Thankfully, some logical nomenclature eases the difficulty when trying to figure out what is hidden inside each vehicle's aluminum skin. First of all, the "LP" designates the "Longitudinale Posteriore" (longitudinally mid-mounted) engine orientation. The second number generally refers to a rounded metric horsepower figure, and after the dash is a single digit reflecting the number of driven wheels. The remaining verbiage describes the bodystyle (closed-roof Coupé or drop-top Spyder) and special designations.
More than 12,000 Gallardos have been sold, making it a runaway success for an exotic car.
Today's sled is the Gallardo LP 550-2 Spyder. Deciphering its genetic code generates an ear-to-ear smile – it's one of the purest Lamborghini models in recent memory. Think of it as a drop-top version of the rare 2009 LP 550-2 Valentino Balboni, an exclusive rear-wheel-drive model built as a tribute to – you guessed it – Valentino Balboni, Lamborghini's legendary chief test driver. (For you trivia buffs, the 2012 LP 550-2 Spyder represents Lamborghini's first rear-drive convertible since the 1998 Diablo SV Roadster.)
Hidden beneath its lightweight aluminum bodywork is an aluminum chassis with double-wishbone suspension, also crafted in the same lightweight alloy (the front is fitted with hydraulic lift system that eliminates scraping the low nose on driveway aprons – a godsend). Standard models arrive with beefy iron rotors and aluminum calipers, but the one parked in these photographs arrived fitted with the optional carbon-fiber ceramic brake package boasting lightweight 15-inch discs and six-piston calipers at the front, and four-piston units at the rear. Also upgraded are the wheels, forged-alloy Cordelias wearing Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires sized 235/35ZR19 in the front and 295/30ZR19 at the rear.
Mid-mounted and hung low in the chassis to preserve the car's center of gravity is a naturally aspirated dry-sump 5.2-liter V10. The all-aluminum 40-valve powerplant is rated at 550 horsepower and 398 pound-feet of torque (it carries an EPA fuel economy rating of 13 mpg city and 20 mpg highway). Power is sent to the rear wheels through a 45 percent limited-slip differential, reinforced to handle the increased power of the two-wheel-drive model.
This Gallardo, like nearly all in the hands of customers today, is fitted with the automaker's six-speed single-clutch electro-hydraulic e-gear automatic transmission with paddle shifters mounted on the steering column (the automaker is rumored to be dropping the manual gearbox completely in the next-generation model). For those who don't like to pull a paddle, the company's engineers have pre-programmed Sport and Automatic modes, but the most hardcore setting is the relatively new Corsa mode – its race logic actuation with 40 percent quicker shifts allows larger drift angles and a wider performance envelope.
Put the Gallardo LP 550-2 Spyder on a scale and it will register about 3,351 pounds with a front-to-rear weight distribution of 47 percent/53 percent (the loss of the front driveline saves about 80 pounds overall). Bury the accelerator into the carpet, and the little Lamborghini will bust 60 mph in 3.9 seconds and howl on to a top speed of 198 mph. It is very quick and very fast.
The roof takes about 25 seconds to open or close, as the entire rear decklid must be raised out of the way.
While the Coupe models arrive with a lightweight fixed roof, all Spyder models feature a power-operated soft convertible top with a rear heated window that drops vertically into the firewall immediately behind the occupant's backs. The window can be lowered or raised to serve as a wind blocker when the top is retracted. Operated via a console-mounted switch, the roof takes about 25 seconds to open or close, as the entire rear decklid must be raised out of the way for the collapsed roof to drop into its storage compartment (interestingly enough, service technicians also access the engine through same method).
This particular test car, a 2012 Lamborghini Gallardo 550-2 Spyder, arrived with Blu Caelum paint over Nero Perseus upholstery. The model starts at $209,500, but someone at headquarters went heavy on the options, including the upgraded blue paint ($1,815), navigation system ($3,510), carbon-ceramic brakes ($15,600), full interior leather package ($4,110) plus upgraded hides ($5,530), HomeLink ($360), rearview camera ($2,600), alarm ($665), upgraded wheels ($5,200) and gas guzzler tax ($2,100). Add in the mandatory destination charge ($2,995) and the bottom line reads a tidy $253,985.
The cabin hasn't changed much over the years, meaning only an expert will be able to distinguish between a 2004 and a 2012 model. Nevertheless, it still looks fresh and interesting, especially with its late-model navigation system (thanks Audi). There isn't a drop of fashionable carbon fiber in the 550-2, instead every inch is swathed in supple (and very aromatic) black or ivory leather. It smells fabulous, but it won't be fun to keep clean.
Add in the mandatory destination charges and the bottom line reads a tidy $253,985.
Most enthusiasts, myself included, prefer coupes over convertibles, as they are traditionally lighter and more rigid. In the case of the Gallardo, I make an exception, as my six-foot, two-inch frame finds the cockpit of this particular Italian more than a bit too cozily (Alan Shepard had only a bit less room riding inside Freedom 7). On a racing circuit, my helmeted head doesn't even fit inside the fixed-head coupe without uncomfortably tilting my noggin to one side. The Spyder, lacking the confining roof, solves the problem in an artfully airy manner. Many would argue that the Spyder's near-perfect wedge proportions and lines are sexier that the Coupe's, too.
Fortunately, my Los Angeles driveway is just minutes from some of the world's greatest roads. Mid-week and high noon when the canyons are free of human-powered two-wheeling locals and most tourists in rental cars is the best time to take the brilliant blue Lambo for a long spin along the famed Mulholland Highway, and I was only too happy to oblige.
Driving the 550-2 Spyder on a warm day, top down, through Southern California's canyon roads makes for emotional overload – there really is no other way to describe it.
First, there's the sound. At idle, the V10 has a quick, burbling growl which turns heads for a hundred feet in all directions. Mid-way around the tachometer, at about 4,000 rpm, the note becomes higher and more frenzied, like a fast boil. At just under redline (a stratospheric 8,500 rpm) the engine's ten cylinders are belting out their characteristic high-pitched Italian wail. The scream is so intimidating that wild animals stop bolting across the road, flying insects part a clear path and terrified motorists pull to the side.
Then there's the power. The naturally aspirated engine responds to throttle input instantly. There is no forced induction lag or delay, just a V10 beckoning to spin the crankshaft right off its bearings. With 550 horsepower sent to the rear tires, wheelspin is but a half-inch of accelerator pedal away, always ready to raise the pulse of the driver. Keep a light foot on the gas and the fat Pirellis will bond with the pavement. Drive with a heavy foot and asphalt-ripping, gravel-spitting oversteer – easily controlled with some steering input – is the rule. No all-wheel-drive vehicle could ever offer this much fun.
Finally, there's the handling. Dumping the front driveshafts and associated hardware lightens the nose noticeably while delivering improved steering feedback. Meanwhile, the Gallardo's quick steering ratio, short wheelbase, wide track and razor-sharp response mean hands stay firmly planted on the three-spoke wheel, even in the tightest of turns. A low center of gravity and firm suspension damping seem to eliminate all traces of body roll. In a tight canyon, the low-slung Gallardo transitions like a shifter kart, dancing from corner to corner as both driver and exhaust cackle in delight.
After trying all of the combinations, I chose to leave the transmission in Sport mode and shift manually with the paddles (they are still too small for truly aggressive driving). The e-gear's Automatic mode wasn't quick enough, and it was jerky, while Corsa mode felt too harsh for public roads. Sport mode with manual control allowed me to hold the gears longer and then crack off jarring sequential upshifts on the straights. Downshifting was just a paddle pull away, accompanied by the engine rev-matching and a glorious backfiring rumble from the exhaust. The brakes, pounded heavily in each corner, never gave up an inch, while the seats held my 190-pound frame firmly in place. The Lamborghini drank gallons and gallons of fuel, expectedly, but its heart hardly skipped a beat.
I'd gladly relinquish whole seconds per lap in exchange for this LP 550-2 Spyder.
I've been fortunate enough to drive the Lamborghini Gallardo LP 570-4 Spyder, LP 550-2 Bicolore Coupé and LP 570-4 Superleggera Coupé on a track at speed. All are unquestionably quicker around a racing circuit, whether through less weight or all-wheel-drive grip. But if offered the choice, I'd gladly relinquish whole seconds per lap in exchange for the warm sun on my face, screaming wail of the engine and tail-happy playfulness of this LP 550-2 Spyder.