The entire point of a V-12 Lamborghini is to broadcast to the world the person behind the wheel of the car is in fact driving a V-12 Lamborghini—at least in the past. Bestowing a stylized "S" on the nomenclature of the latest Aventador, along with suspension, powertrain, and aerodynamic refinements has finally resulted in a Lamborghini that is as much a car as it is a proclamation of too much wealth and a mootable sense of style.
Starting with the Gallardo, the smaller Lamborghinis have been the driver's choice when it comes to the modern Italians. Almost a decade ago, I drove the Murcielago and Gallardo back to back on the street; I came away thinking that the Gallardo was very nearly as good as the Audi R8 it was based on while the Murcielago was the size of a city bus, had all the refinement of your average kit car, and possessed the daily driving practicality of a Zamboni. The Gallardo replacement, the Huracan, is even better—now feeling like the R8's exotic Italian equal rather than a step down in refinement in sacrifice of exoticness. The problem with the Huracan, as it's been explained to me by owners who inhabit that world, is it has become the go-to choice for every "social media celebrity" to park in the carport under their 550-square-foot studio apartment just a block off of Sunset in WeHo. The Huracan outsells the Aventador greater than 2:1, and the fact you see Huracans regularly parked outside neighborhood Starbucks and World Gyms every day of the week takes the luster off its exotic credentials, which let's face it, is still why you buy a Lamborghini.
When Lamborghini invited me to Autoclub Speedway in Fontana, California, to try out the new Aventador S, I was actually a bit hesitant. The Aventadors I had driven in the past didn't seem well suited to a track that doesn't have the friendliest run-off areas and high-speed banked corners that could result in embarrassing 150-mph spins that quickly ended in half-million-dollar wall murals. But I suffer for my art, so it was off to the track in 90-degree heat to drive Italian exotics.
The Aventador S is as you might guess an evolution of the previous car. It still uses the same carbon-fiber monocoque with aluminum subframes, mid-mounted 6.5L naturally aspirated V-12, single-clutch automated manual transmission, computer-controlled, all-wheel-drive system, and pushrod-actuated suspension of the previous car.
The monocoque has remained unchanged, but just about every other system has been reworked. The V-12 now produces 730 hp (it's rated at 740 hp by European Standards) thanks to changes in the variable valve timing system and intake manifold, but mostly from adding 150 rpm to the redline, now spinning the engine up 8,400 rpm. The addition of rear-wheel steering has allowed Lamborghini to retune the all-wheel-drive system to send more torque rearward to generate more rotation. The suspension is now equipped with magnetorheological dampers with two smaller energizing coils instead of one large unit to increase reaction times as well as new rear suspension geometry, again to optimize the rear-wheel steering performance. The new front fascia provides 130 percent more downforce, while the active rear wing is anywhere from 50 to 400 percent more efficient, depending on angle of attack. Sadly, the single clutch gearbox is basically unchanged; more on that later.
I started the day flicking an Aventador S through two different slaloms. Maybe a poor choice of words as a 2-ton supercar, almost half a foot wider than a Mercedes S-Classe, is more akin to heaving a tree trunk than tossing a toothpick. The exercise was to demonstrate the advantages of the rear-wheel steering. I never slalomed the previous car. The faster drive through the cones was meaningless to me, however, I do remember the previous car having the maneuverability of an RV, so the lower speed section definitely showed an improvement weaving around imaginary shopping carts and minivans backing out of parking spots.
Hot laps on the track is where the improvements are finally apparent. The AutoClub Speedway Roval uses the entire front straight, Turns 1 and 2 of the oval, and most of the back straight before diving into the technical infield road course. While not the prettiest of facilities, the variety is a good test for anything claiming to be a sports car.
You are presented with three choices of preprogrammed driving modes: Strada, Sport, and Corsa, which control everything from damping to throttle, transmission maps, stability, and traction control. New to the S is the addition of EGO mode, which allows the driver to custom-tailor the different variables—think Individual Mode in most cars. I began lapping in Sport Mode, thinking that I could get a feel for the car, before taking a further step down in stability and traction intervention. Even in this mode, the car will move around a little bit, but the intervention seems abrupt and almost constant. The biggest shock was seeing the stability control light flashing almost constantly around the high-speed banked turns, a little disconcerting when deciding to switch to Corsa.
To get the obvious out of the way, the car is fast. I will say, however, after becoming accustomed to the huge midrange torque of modern turbo cars, it doesn't feel fast until the engine spins upward of 7,000 rpm. The sound is pure evil and makes you forget about the lack of low-end torque. Unfortunately, no matter how good the V-12 sounds, it can't make you forget the antiquated transmission connected to it. It hesitates between shifts and then bangs into the next gear. Downshifts cause a lurch on engagement, and it is hard to drive smoothly. For me, this is a huge problem in a car stickering at a cool half-million, nicely equipped of course. I appreciate irony as much as anyone, but legend has it that Lamborghini exists because Ferruccio Lamborghini was so irritated with the clutch in his Ferrari that he started his own company. Lamborghini claims there just isn't enough space between the two seats for anything larger. Yes, you read that correctly; this is a mid-engine car with the transmission ahead of the engine. But I digress.
What I remember from previous drives in Aventadors was understeer, a lot of it. You could try to get the car to rotate off-throttle and then with a quick stab, but that's ill advised in a car with this much weight swinging around in back. This version, however, has been transformed; the S feels looser in both the oversteering sense and the basic ability to change directions sense.
Instead of trying to swing the nose around to aim it like the barrel of cannon, the car moves as more of a unit. Turn-in at the front is now complemented by the rear end helping out by turning opposite of the front end at speeds less than roughly 80 mph. At higher speeds, the rear wheel steers the same way as the front to stabilize the car. Everything from the rear steer to the all-wheel drive works to make this car far better than the previous. There is a giant difference in the personality of this car compared to its competition, however—if half-million-dollar cars have competition.
On paper, you might think the Aventador S and the 911 Turbo S would be similar. Both cars are employing similar technologies, power to weight is similar as well, even weight distribution is similar. But there isn't anything similar in the experience. Porsche uses all the technology at its disposal to make an insanely fast car saner to drive. The rear-wheel steering, all-wheel drive, torque vectoring, and super-slick shifting transmission all make the Turbo S as refined as a luxury car, even on the track. All the extra security can trick you into thinking you are in a car with far more downforce or far more mechanical grip than what it actually has.
Lamborghini, on the other hand, has done the opposite. The Aventador S is not for the timid. The rear-wheel steering makes the car feel like it's rotating faster than it might be. The all-wheel drive will push a little more power to the rear than what might be optimum, but it makes the rear kick around and fight for grip coming out of corners. The rear end squirms around under hard braking, and every once in a while, you find yourself fighting the car, something you'll never do in a 911 Turbo. While I don't think anyone could ever cross-shop the two cars, not because of price but because they are so different, it is still refreshing to finally be talking about a V-12 Lamborghini as a real car rather than a lifestyle accessory.
This isn't a car for everyone at the price; it isn't a car for hardly anyone. If you're over 6-feet tall, you have to remember that this car might have the footprint of a large SUV, but it has the interior capacity of a Porsche 914. Visibility is horrendous. Entry and exit out of the "Lambo-doors" might be a challenge for those more inclined to pounds of pasta than hours of yoga. Again, the transmission was outdated seven years ago when the car launched; it hasn't grown better with age. But there is something about the car, something you won't get anywhere else. If you're like me and had a Countach on your wall as a kid, the Aventador S will fill that special place in your heart. Unlike the Countach, this one is decent to drive.