I've always had a different view of Lamborghinis than most people I know. While others saw them as some ultimate slice of Italian automotive exotica, I thought they were, in the main, dressed-up junk. The first Countach I drove still stands as one of the most disappointing moments of my career. My only encounter with an Espada is an experience I'd rather forget. The LM002 off-roader is a good candidate for the worst car I've ever driven. And almost all the Diablos to cross my path failed to live up to the promise of their appearance.

I did like the stripped-out, short-geared, cut-priced Diablo SV, which was the last Lambo I drove before Audi took over in 1998. Ingolstadt's first Sant'Agata offering was the Murci?go, the first car to wear the raging bull motif that I really loved. The next, the 2004 Gallardo, was too tame and too easy to be a real Lamborghini. Despite its 500-horsepower, V10 engine, the result seemed to me exactly the kind of well-built, reliable and characterless supercar you'd expect from Audi and not at all the fire-breathing hell-raiser you'd hope for from Lamborghini.

Which is why I approached this 2006 Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder with a healthy dose of skepticism. Convertibles may make you, the driver, look good but they can do terrible things to the coupes on which they're based -- namely ruining structural integrity and adding weight. A neutered Lamborghini designed for people more interested in looking cool than driving hard was a car I reckoned I could survive without.

Except, and as it turns out, the Gallardo Spyder is not like this, not like this at all. You see, Lamborghini spent the last year not only figuring out how to persuade a fabric roof to disappear under the engine cover in less than 18 seconds, but also addressing a whole host of other issues which it just now admits -- and then only in private -- made the original Gallardo not quite the car it should have been.

Lambo drops the top, without dropping the ball

The roof itself is simple, straightforward and need not delay us here. It operates with well-oiled Germanic efficiency and stows neatly and entirely out of sight, while the rear screen doubles as a wind deflector. Sadly, once the roof is in the trunk, it has to be protected from the engine by a plastic liner, so the magnificent V10 is all but invisible, even if you go looking for it. Rather better news concerns the engine cover which, unlike that of the Gallardo coupe, is made entirely from lightweight carbon fiber.

Even so, this cannot counter the amount of underbody bracing required to maintain the Gallardo's structural rigidity at a level where, says Lamborghini, it's "a lot stiffer than [its arch rival] the Ferrari F430 Spider," and the weight gain over the Gallardo coupe is a significant 264 pounds.

Which would be rather bad news were it not for some of the other tinkering that's taken place beneath the surface of the striking and, at around $200,000, strikingly expensive soft top.

Power and precision

The engine's output has been massaged up from 500 to 512 hp, and the six-speed manual transmission's gear ratios are now both shorter and closer than before. And let's not forget the steering which is fully 20-percent quicker than in any previous Gallardo, or the suspension which retains the same double-wishbone configuration, but has been entirely revised to sharpen its handling further.

Let's not be vague about this: Fabric roof or not, this is a car transformed. The new cogs in the gearbox lend an urgency to your progress anyone who bought a Gallardo before now simply wouldn't recognize, while that steering means it is a car you drive with your fingers and wrists, not your elbows and shoulders as before.

An inspired Spyder

And I'll tell you this: Whatever structural sacrifices have been made to realize the Spyder are barely, if ever, noticeable. Indeed, I had the pleasure of spending a day flinging it through the twisting road course of the Homestead Miami Speedway and found no trace of the shakes, shudders and shimmies that would define a lesser convertible's progress around such a place.

Instead, I found a convertible with speed to fill your heart with joy at the start of every straight, and brakes to knock the air from your lungs at the straightaway's end. There is no reluctance to turn into a curve, only an exact and immediate response to your command, issued through the delightful suede-rimmed steering wheel. You can corner it properly, on a balanced throttle, progressively feeding in the power from the apex and letting the gentle understeer tug you to the rumble-strip at the exit; or you can turn off the electronics, yank the wheel, boot the throttle and powerslide it from here to torched-tire heaven. All this from a car with all-wheel drive and an engine behind the driver? No, I didn't believe it either, not until I saw it with my own eyes and felt it through my fingers.

It is, of course, just a fraction slower than the coupe which also receives all the mechanical upgrades for 2006, but few will complain when it will still streak to 62 mph in 4.3 seconds and on to 196 mph — or just 192 mph if you're sufficiently unhinged to try it with the roof down. But where it trumps even the aluminum-roofed Gallardo is in its noise. Without a roof over your head, there is nothing to impede the V10's sound-path into your ears; and if its rich, offbeat howl was the last thing I ever heard, I'd die with a smile on my face. Aurally, it appears to be a closer relative of a race Viper engine than the effective-but-dull 4.2-liter V8 Audi engine that is its true parent.

The convertible converts the skeptic

I left the 2006 Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder feeling more excited than when I had greeted it. What I had thought would be another step in the dumbing-down of cars from a usually infuriating but sometimes great marque had turned out to contain the biggest promise of any, perhaps since the Miura. For however good this Gallardo is, it is nothing compared to what it may mean for the future of the marque. It seems to me that, between them, Audi and Lamborghini have finally figured out how to realize automotive nirvana: the seamless and harmonic fusion of German engineering integrity with Italian supercar style and flair. For the first time since I started driving Lamborghinis 20 years ago, I'm looking forward to the next one not just with hope, but real expectation, too.

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