Lamborghini Murcielago: tame it is not
The new Murcielago offers all the speed the super rich could possibly want. Sean O'Grady thinks it looks better just standing still

I've never found the time to learn Italian. Too busy with work. However, I can now speak two words fluently: "longitudinale posteriore". Or "in-line at the rear". Doesn't sound quite so much fun, does it?

How did we get on to this? Because of another, more famous Italian phrase; Lamborghini Murcielago (named after a famous fighting bull, by the way). A new version of the firm's supercar is out now, and its called the Lamborghini Murcielago LP640. LP stands for "in-line at the rear" (have you put that in your vocab book?), and the 640 bit, as you might have guessed, refers to the horsepower now available from that in-line at the rear engine (that is, at 8,000rpm). That's up from 580 bhp in the outgoing model, which most of us would have regarded as adequate for most purposes.

More horsepower, more capacity: your V12 unit now displaces 6.5 litres and, predictably enough, offers you 660Nm of torque at 6,000 rpm.

So how long do you think it'll take to cover 0 to 60mph? About three and a half seconds - almost as rapid as the laws of physics will allow (and about a second less than the crazed Bugatti Veyron), and it will reach a top speed of more than 200mph. This, I imagine, is why a privileged few were invited to drive the new car on the famous Mugello circuit in Italy. I was one of those few.

I was also one of the last. The day before my contingent of journalists arrived, someone managed to write off one of these £200,000 machines and I was duly chastened. There is very little upside in finishing first on any test route or track exercise, as no one ever remembers that.

However, there is plenty of downside if you manage to crash, because everyone will be telling that story against you for many years to come. The unlucky hack who managed to flip a Mercedes-Benz SLK in a car park knows who he is, and so do all his peers. The downside for pranging a Lamborghini is quite precipitate.

Besides, it wasn't really a race. We were following some of Lamborghini's test drivers and everything was quite civilised. But a car like the Murcielago does make me nervous. All incredibly powerful machinery does, because I know that its abilities far outstrip mine.

I'm much happier, say, with the Honda S2000 roadster. This relatively modest vehicle offers 90 per cent of the thrills you'll see in a Murcielago but without the anxiety. You can have 10 of those Hondas for one Lamborghini, if you see what I mean, and they rev nearly as happily.

If you want the looks, much the same goes for the Lamborghini Gallardo, a sort of scaled down Murcielago at only £100,000. Smaller and nimbler, it felt much more agile on Tuscany's magnificently narrow and twisting roads.

Back to the track. Despite the anxiety, the Murcielago felt quite safe and secure, especially thanks to its ceramic carbon brakes and permanent four-wheel drive, and the car is well planted on the road. The paddle gearshift was easy to use, with no pauses, and all controls and instruments were precise and easy to use.

I liked the Alcantara-trimmed steering wheel. The quilted leather interior might not be to all tastes, but it is snug. Shorties like me might find it a little bit of a strain to see over the bonnet, however, and you can't see much behind the car, even via those beautifully styled door mirrors.

But we all know, don't we, that Lamborghinis aren't about going fast? They're about going very slowly past people you'd like to impress, ie, the rest of humanity. In fact, the Murcielago looks best standing still with its dramatic scissor doors open.

The original Murcielago was, is, one of the most striking things on the road with enormous presence, and this new model has had a few tweaks to make it just that little bit more visually pleasing, such as the single hexagonal exhaust and the little propeller motif in the rear lights.

Lamborghini assembled a range of colours for us, from traditional reds and bright yellows through Seventies-retro lime greens and a muted military olive green. The most eye-catching Murcielago, however, was in a battleship-grey that looks like a solid finish rather than metallic, and which was set off by luscious black alloys. Very fanciable. If you wanted any more proof that this is a car to pose in, I need only tell you that, as with the Ferrari, the Lamborghini comes with the option of a transparent cover for your "longitudinale posteriore" engine compartment.

Sales seem healthy, but the larger question for Lamborghini is whether it follows the likes of Porsche into more lucrative and larger volume niches. Ugly it may be, but the SUV Porsche Cayenne saved Porker's bacon.

Is Lamborghini planning to reenter the SUV market, having exited it when it stopped making the odd LM model some years ago? Lamborghini's president, Stefan Winkelmann, told me it wasn't on. They just want to sell more of their existing cars, the only new product being the Spyder (convertible) version of the LP640.

Most Lamborghinis, including this new supercar, are sold out for 12 months. Like piloting a Murcielago LP640, that's a very nice place to be, provided that you don't get too complacent.

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