As Sant’Agata prepares to join the world of electrification, is the 566kW Aventador SVJ Lamborghini’s best ever attempt at purely petrol-powered perfection? We take it to Scotland to find out.
Pullovers. Jumpers. sweaters. Whatever you want to call them, the appeal of the most powerful, most advanced and most spectacular purely petrol-powered Lamborghini ever made, and ever likely to be made given we’re almost certain the Aventador’s replacement will be a hybrid, hinges on bringing along some knitwear. Not because the big old brute’s heating and ventilation system conforms to any stereotype of Italian supercar electrical inadequacy. No, it’s because of those seats – those infamous bucket seats, the long-standing nemesis of the evo road tester.
Roll up said garment and place it at the back of the cushion. Now free fall, gracelessly, contorting and awkward, down into the seat. Next, wriggle one’s backside forward so it’s resting halfway up the squab. Markedly supine, but it works, because the big Lambo’s wheel can be pulled right out, and splayed knees aren’t an issue with the pedal location. Headroom is also increased, but most of all the backrest now clamps usefully across the shoulders, and doesn’t try to ram you forwards in abject agony. The pullover becomes an oversized lumbar support and driver endurance can now be measured in hours, not minutes.
So it begins, sweater in place and behind schedule, one December afternoon, cold and grey. Edging out of the side road where Lamborghini’s north London service centre is located, the car’s nose jutting upwards and shuddering with non-existent damper travel due to the deployment of the essential nose lift, the world turns inward. It’s a massive purple Lamborghini with gold wheels and a towering rear spoiler, so yeah, it’s what was I expecting, but… eyeballs swivel, workers cease working, drivers swerve distractedly, mobile phones are held aloft in reverence like priests with crucifixes. It’s a strange experience – a begrudging, envious, oppressive kind of interest that will contrast starkly with the reception in other areas of the country.
I need to reach our remote hotel in the Scottish Borders while the front door is still unlocked, so it’s going to have to be done in one hit, and initially this seems a formidable task. Stop-start traffic makes for painfully slow progress, the Lambo wedged in on all sides, its driver feeling pathetically self-conscious. The old single-clutch automated ’box clunks and clonks out of first gear, but I’ve already given up with Auto mode, the shifts just so clumsy and slow it’s annoying, and I’d much rather control the car myself. In fact, I soon give up on the everyday Strada mode altogether, because while it’s virtually impossible to hear its cylinder deactivation working, the slight hesitancy and then pulse of power of it switching in and out soon grates.
It’s not until an hour’s past that driver and car can get into a rhythm, but there’s one overwhelming snag. Bar the Series 2 supercharged Lotus Exige, I can’t think of a car I’ve driven with less rearward visibility (and remember the Lotus had none, to the point where the rear-view mirror was left in the factory). You don’t expect a panoramic vista in a car such as the Aventador, but just as a wartime RAF pilot’s failure to spot a yellow-nosed Messerschmitt on their ‘six’ could have fatal consequences, the SVJ driver’s licence is always in mortal danger through their inability to spot Her Majesty’s traffic constabulary behind.
The SVJ’s active aerodynamics system – the trickery that stalls the front and rear wings on the straights to cut drag and aids corner turn-in by stalling one half of the rear wing as and when required – is to blame. As you may recall from our initial, on-track SVJ drive, when conditions favour the rear wing to be stalled, flaps in a central bifurcated duct at the base of the rear wing open, and because the middle wing support and the wing itself are hollow, air rushes up into the void and then jets out of tiny holes on the underside of the wing, detaching the airflow.
However, on a practical level the hungry gape of the Aerodinamica Lamborghini Attiva intake and the thick stem of the central support mean that there’s merely a triangulated sliver of clear Perspex either side of the stem to see through, and a distorting, quivering sliver at that. In daylight, visibility is almost zero; at night, it’s a disorientating mess of scrambled light beams, and however much you crane your neck like a hysterical chicken, there’s no angle that allows you to confirm whether there’s a car directly behind you, or much farther back in an adjoining lane. Neither do the side mirrors assist, for those sassy Sant’Agata hips are just too wide for them to show much more than chiselled purple flank. If only you could toggle the SVJ’s reversing camera, or even better, the mirror was replaced by a permanent rear-view screen.
Naturally, a ’70s supercar hero would simply grin from behind his oversized Aviators, drop a cog and rinse the V12 for all it’s worth (David Vivian, is that you?), but this is the M6 in 2018 and the era of the so-called smart motorway. So I don’t. Which is all the more galling because every subtle but high-definition channel of communication the SVJ relays – and it is a car of constant, animated conversation, even at a steady cruise – suggests it would like to be gently cantering along at about 250km/h.
That’s not to say I’m not a little more liberal with the throttle as we penetrate the deserted darkness farther north; even at little effort the V12 still sounds staggeringly good, and as I’ve discovered, the stereo is equally staggeringly bad. But it’s just all so gloriously exciting: that noise, that view out, that sensation of raw speed. Sitting so low, the LED headlamps of other vehicles are blinding, their beams fracturing until single lines of brilliant light rake the expensively trimmed roof lining of the Aventador like the lasers of a Jean-Michel Jarre cityscape concert.
After nearly 650km, one comfort break and the discovery that the SVJ offers the lowest vehicle size to cabin storage ratio of any car on sale, the last 15 minutes of the journey takes place on one of the UK’s finest driving roads, but I’m too mentally drained to capitalise on the opportunity – or even to recognise the road until the following morning. Nevertheless, I still pedal the Aventador as hard as I dare – as you would – glimpsing the aghast stares of innocent rabbits on verges caught in the glare of the headlamps. What it must sound like from the outside, carving through the freezing darkness with those fat Jota exhausts jutting out high, I can only imagine…
Early the next morning it’s bitingly cold, with the forecast suggesting we’ll just miss out on the imminent snow. I feel guilty waking the slumbering SVJ, to encourage all 15 litres of oil and 25 litres of coolant into percolating around that giant beast of an engine. It cranks over with the shrill, fast-paced whirring signature of a proper Italian supercar, before catching with window-rattling force, soon expelling voluminous clouds of condensation and heaven knows what else.
The seat is cold and hard, and I strain to reach up and drag down that vast scissor door, for so long a motif of the Raging Bull’s pinnacle product. It’s painful reversing with this single-clutch ’box, let alone when trying to traverse a gravel incline, and I wince at the surges, hesitancy and general mechanical carnage from underneath my left elbow. An already thick crusty layer of mud and salt cakes what had been, upon collection yesterday, an immaculate 300km-old SVJ.
Two things make the prospect of today slightly less intimidating. One, like all other Aventadors, the SVJ is all-wheel drive, and two, the delicate spokes of those enormous 20/21-inch wheels are shod with Pirelli Sottozero winter tyres, which should find decent purchase on the road, albeit capping the SVJ’s ultimate dynamic potential a long way short of a set of Trofeo Rs on a scorching-hot day. Still, this is a story about just going for a drive; about leaving behind the claustrophobia of London and the flashy cult of the supercar; about judging the SVJ’s real substance.
We’re working our way west, and the roads that cut across this southern-central belt of Scotland are kind to the SVJ, the broken white centre line a visual reassurance that we won’t suddenly have to squeeze through an all-too-narrow gap. The dramatic reach and distinct echelons of the V12’s performance bring to mind a particularly large musical instrument, perhaps like the pipe organ from a cathedral. There’s immense power (and volume) on tap, but you’re unlikely to turn it up to 11 initially. While this latest revision pulls readily from very low revs, it’s between 3000 and 4000rpm that it really gets going. There’s a marked band of accessible torque here, accompanied by a grating, gristly, beautifully mechanical growl that sounds like a pair of E46 M3 CSLs in perfect stereo. Tap in and out of this band and the SVJ covers ground with effortless and imperial ease, yet it’s like playing the aforementioned organ with over half the stops still pushed in: there is still nearly 5000rpm remaining to conduct in this orchestra.
Quickly the implications of accessing the full 566kW begin to crystallise in the mind. It’s obviously going to be a fleeting moment of obscene physical sensations, mechanical urgency and intimidating volume, followed almost immediately by drastic self-censure. As I suspect, you can’t really prepare yourself for the sensation of speed and force that a wrung-out SVJ provides on a country road. Back at Estoril last summer it felt biblically quick, but this is 100 per cent more visceral. I won’t lie, the winter tyres at each corner are put immediately onto the defensive. On one hand they provide surprisingly dependable traction, and that breeds genuine confidence – no glassy, heart-rate-spiking sliding across the surface here, the SVJ digs in and always wants to move forwards, clawing frantically into the asphalt. But subject them to the manic ascent of revs and the SVJ fights itself into a worrying lather of squidge and squirm, even in a straight line. That engine, though: the efforts to remove reciprocating mass have given it the spiky, intimate viciousness of a demented two-stroke.
We howl through valleys; spit, bang, snuffle and crackle on the overrun past lochs, shriek up hillsides and charge through a landscape that formed the backdrop of our recent eCoty (evo Australia 067). The SVJ landed a fraction too late to make the cut for that test, but I reckon it would have easily crept into the top half of the leaderboard. It’s gloriously irrelevant, and more important in so many ways than ever. eCoty is defined by cars that make us feel the emotion, the enjoyment of driving, at all speeds, not just at large numbers, and that would have played to the SVJ’s strengths regardless of its power figure, top speed and price tag.
The road to Wanlockhead is a classic, with slower corners to contend with. I’m amazed once again by how nimble and precise this very large car feels. Crucially, there’s such a natural response and weight to the steering – without it the car would be a nightmare of approximation and intimidation; with it there’s one input into a corner, and the faith that you can place something so wide exactly where it needs to be on the road. I’ve long since settled on my preferred driver settings: Corsa for engine and ’box, but either Strada or Sport for the damping depending on the surface beneath. The flexibility of Strada is continuously impressive, the SVJ wonderfully fluid over the road as long as the speed exceeds 40km/h. Conversely, it’s Sport I engage when the road deteriorates, because it prevents the car’s nose from kissing the ground when provoked by a heavily undulating section.
The brakes are Herculean, but work them really hard and you sense the shadow of that extraordinary lump of mass behind you, the car shimmying slightly, just a tacit reminder of the physics in play. Corners are in two parts: a definite sense of rotation on the way in as the four-wheel steer does its work, then another delicate jink as torque is shuffled rearwards on the exit. You’re soon into a rhythm, conscious of the winter tyres’ limitations, amazed at their dependability, the sheer grip on offer, the sensation of icy hard tarmac wrenching the chunky tread blocks like a carpet of sandpaper.
The sun is beginning to set as we head towards the Galloway Forest Park, our ultimate destination. Driving the SVJ has now become instinctive; I’ve even made peace with the gearbox, refining the subtle lift that smooths out the changes at middling revs and throttle applications – it’s a human-mechanical interaction after all, and I almost feel nostalgic that it’ll soon be replaced by another seamlessly proficient twin-clutcher. The winter sun is like a docile yellow ball lingering on the horizon, exposing the limitations of the sun visors, and the road is hopelessly narrow and tortuous in gradient in places. Still the SVJ hangs in there, still keen, poised, exhausts (so I’m told later) flamboyantly spitting blue flames, me a little tipsy on the sheer immersive activity of driving.
Darkness is absolute as we enter the forest, so much so that it seems to envelop the SVJ whole, swallowing it into its vast expanses of silence where even the savage exhaust note can be absorbed amongst kilometre after kilometre of dank, towering woodland. The headlights are predictably weak, but I drive on and on until I can go no farther, then kill the V12 and listen to the amusingly loud fans attempt to dissipate some of the readily apparent heat. I’m exhausted but it feels right: it’s the last and ultimate purely internal combustion-powered Lamborghini, and I want to savour every last damn mile I can.
It’s a car rife with contradictions of course, and chief among them is that its flaws conversely make it what it is. It’s huge, ergonomically bizarre and in some ways hopelessly outdated, but view the proposition as a whole, then to strip away those inadequacies, frustrations and challenges would somehow cheapen the experience; they’d normalise it, dilute it.
How can Lamborghini distil all those perverse and wonderful things about the Aventador into a future, antiseptic, electrified world? For the sake of everyone who truly loves cars, I’m counting on Sant’Agata having a mightily good plan. by Adam Towler