Gunning the Lamborghini Aventador Roadster down a straightaway at Homestead Miami Speedway, I manage a quick glance at the speedometer: 147 mph, just in time to bend into the NASCAR oval that forms a section of the winding infield road course.
This convertible version of Lamborghini’s latest 12-cylinder flagship could go much, much faster. But the Italian pace driver ahead checks my speed along the steep 20-degree banking, making sure the day isn’t spoiled by anyone introducing their $445,300 baby to the unforgiving track walls. Fair enough: The Lamborghini’s 691-hp howl and skull-snapping acceleration – including 3 seconds flat from 0-60 mph, and a quarter-mile in just 10.7 seconds at 136 mph – are entertainment enough.
The FAA-approved stunt, along with a 50th anniversary parade of 50 new and historic Lamborghinis along South Beach’s Collins Avenue, perfectly fit the gonzo mentality of a company that’s been blowing minds since 1964. And from the 350 GT V-12 of 1964, through the ‘70s Countach and the more-recent Gallardo and Murciélago, the mind blowing begins with styling. Like its sensational closed-roof cousin, the Roadster doesn’t disappoint: Aggressive and geometric yet fluid, the Aventador looks like a sexed-up Klingon warship by way of Sant’Agata Bolognese, Lamborghini’s northern Italian home.
Bragging points begin with a chassis and passenger tub made entirely of lightweight carbon fiber. And when it came to the carbon fiber convertible roof, Lamborghini freely admits sacrificing some ease-of-use for beauty: “We told the designer, you can do whatever you want – it just has to look the best,” says Stephan Winkelmann, Automobili Lamborghini’s elegant chief executive.
The result? No bulky folding hardtop or shapeless cloth pup tent to break up those suggestive body lines. Instead, two glossy, ridge-backed panels of carbon fiber, weighing just 13.2 pounds each, pop into the roof -- and take up nearly the entire under-hood cargo space when not in use. Storing or fitting the roof takes some practice and steady hands. Owners will want to keep a sharp eye out for sudden thundershowers.
Locked into place, the top actually forms a structural element that boosts chassis stiffness to 24,000 Newton-meters. And including some additional carbon fiber to beef up door sill areas, the Aventador Roadster weighs just 110 pounds more than its closed-roof cousin.
Viewed from above, the black, pointy-eared roof panels look remarkably like Batman’s mask, creating a two-tone effect with Lambo’s wide selection of body colors. Those include Bianco Canopus, a matte white that’s paired here with an edible-looking, chocolate-leather interior. Or, Verde Ithaca, a shade that proves that Lamborghinis are among the only cars that look good in bright green (Aside from a ‘60s Hemi ‘Cuda, perhaps).
The 691 horses and 509 pound-feet of torque are unchanged from the hardtop version. But the Roadster’s V-12 does have new tricks up its aluminum sleeve: Half the twelve cylinders shut down under steady cruising, trimming fuel consumption by up to 20 percent, and 7 percent overall. An engine stop-start system uses a fast-charging supercapacitor to restart the big V-12 at stop lights with remarkable smoothness, and in just 50 milliseconds. The roughly 15 mpg average will still cost American buyers a $3,700 gas-guzzler tax, though that’s not likely to dissuade people who have a line on one of the world’s most exclusive sports cars.
How exclusive? Consider that just 582 Americans landed a Lamborghini last year. Even that number represented a 50 percent jump from 2011, when Lamborghini found 387 American buyers.
Like many other sports car purveyors, from Porsche to Aston Martin, Lamborghini is clawing back from a recession that cut sales virtually in half. Here in America, 12,000 wealthy buyers treated themselves to a “super sports car” in 2007, Winkelmann says, in a market that moved more than 16 million cars overall. But those 12,000 sales tumbled to 6,100 just two years later.
The Aventador is leading the comeback, with 922 buyers worldwide in 2012, more than double the Murciélago’s best-ever year.
Those buyers are getting a car that’s hotter, faster and more approachable than the departed Murcielago. The seating position is more natural, steering feel is improved and ergonomics are unexpectedly good for an Italian supercar – including a slick Audi navigation system and climate controls, courtesy of Lamborghini’s position within the VW/Audi empire. Even the view out the back is more generous than in V-12 Lambos of old. On the track or on winding roads, the fast windshield and bulky front roof pillar do make it hard to get a good, long-distance look around curves.
Still, there are a few unexpected compromises for a car that can easily sneak past the half-million dollar mark. Lamborghini’s dual clutch ISR transmission is steadily improving, but the car’s three performance modes – which also adjust throttle, stability control and other parameters — have a Goldilocks issue: In the street-oriented Strada mode, shifts are slow, syrupy and distressingly vague. Bump it up to Corsa mode, and shifts are crushingly hard for most situations outside the track. The middle Sport mode proves best for street operation, whether we’re stuck in Miami traffic or romping it wherever possible.
Giorgio Sanna, Lamborghini’s chief test driver and sports-car racer, insists that the seamless shift feel of, say, Porsche’s PDK transmission isn’t right for Lamborghini drivers – who still, apparently, like a buck in the back to remind them they’re driving one of Lamborghini’s famed fighting bulls.
“We want our customers to perceive an emotion,” Sanna says.
No such problem with the brakes: The Aventador’s massive Italian meats, including 20-inch alloy wheels in front and 21-inch beauties out back, are gripped by standard carbon composite brakes with good pedal feel.
While the Aventador comes alive on open roads, our return to South Beach brings us rudely back to reality: As the Aventador crawls down dull, congested Florida roads – a caged, impatient fighting bull – other drivers seem to have more fun than I do, rolling down windows to flash thumbs-up and cell phone cameras alike.
And that’s the odd thing about owning such a spectacularly over-the-top machine in a place like this. Winkelmann affirms that outside of the Los Angeles area, South Florida and Texas are the American hot beds for Lambo buyers.
South Beach owners, apparently, don’t need to go 217 mph to have fun in a Lamborghini. In fact, trolling Collins Avenue at 21.7 mph works much better for see-and-be-seen status – an impression that’s only aided by the open-roofed version of the Aventador.