How do you follow a legend? As the 1990s were about to bloom Automobili Lamborghini faced that question on two fronts. It was forced to confront the problem of replacing both a legendary leader and a legendary car. Either issue would be difficult enough, but both at one time? Some might call the task impossible.
Its founder and spiritual leader, Ferruccio Lamborghini, had long since sold his brainchild and moved on to less stressful ventures, including his death (eventually). Absent from the company for more than a decade, Lamborghini's long shadow still stretched over the company that bore his name. The final car that he inspired, the Countach, was not only in production nearly twenty years after Lamborghini had signed the final sales contract, it was still regarded by many as the epitome of "supercardom." The company contemplated: How to follow a cover girl crowd-pleaser like the Countach?
Gazing into this void, the faceless Swiss investors who had taken control of Automobili Lamborghini from its founder in the Seventies decided to cash in and look for new investments. After all, it is one thing to maintain the production of an established car; it is quite another to find the inspiration for a completely new car. The Swiss found a willing taker in the unlikely form of the Chrysler Corporation.
By the mid-Eighties Chrysler had rebounded from a brush with bankruptcy, invented the minivan and suddenly become, against all odds, flush with success. In those heady days Chrysler thought it finally had the keys to the kingdom. And such success breeds a natural inclination to buy some expensive toys. For Chrysler Corporation, one of its expensive toys was American Motors and its Jeep brand; others were Maserati and Automobili Lamborghini. So it came to pass that American corporate managers and an Italian-led contingent of designers and engineers were given the great task to produce a vehicle that would succeed the Countach. In the absence of one single guiding force, the committee that created the Diablo made it so it would do and be everything the Countach did and was, but more so. And though Chrysler Corporation has long since been out of the picture (in 1994 it peddled its stake in the legendary firm to somewhat unlikely suitors from Indonesia), the car is one of the most formidable Italian-American combinations. The car's Italian-American heritage has survived the relatively recent acquisition of Automobili Lamborghini by yet another big, flush car company, Volkswagen-Audi. Time will tell if VW will prosper where Chrysler ultimately had to bail.
So much for the mixed parentage of the car, what about the Diablo itself? Well, though it might lack the staying power of its predecessor, which reigned at the top of the exoticar heap for a period of nearly two decades, the at-first-dismissed Diablo has demonstrated remarkable staying power of its own. Further, it seems to be the last of its breed of "styling first, function last" exotic GT cars. After all, Ferrari (Ferrari!) has decided to make its cars easier to drive, easier to live with and even easier to get in and out of. While that might be laudable to those of us who are having a more and more difficult time bending at various joints, wouldn't you rather see a sinuous supermodel emerge from an exotic foreign car than a creaky octogenarian?
Since it barely comes up to the average person's waist, the Diablo is (to its credit) a challenge to get into. With its radical swing-up doors and let-it-all-hang-out styling, it is also the contemporary car that has the biggest presence, kind of a Madonna for the road.
In most ways, just like the singer-actress, the Diablo revels in being outrageous and uses that as its key marketing tool. Just peer at the 6-liter all-alloy V-12 engine. With titanium connecting rods and 32-bit computerized engine controls (hey, those VW guys are good for something), a representative late-model Diablo has 543 horsepower on tap (at a busy 7100 rpm.) The peak torque figure is a stupendous 457 pound-feet at 5800 rpm.
With all this power perched very close to your right ear, the Diablo is automotivedom's grandest thrill ride. If it were to be offered to Disneyland patrons, even the SpeedPass line would be hours long.
To deal with the horrific amount of power (and the potentially ham-handed drivers who get to use it), Lamborghini decided to equip the Diablo with all-wheel-drive. While big and bigger tires used to be the answer, Pirelli simply can't build tires that are wide enough to cope with all the torque. Instead, like an oversize quattro, the Diablo employs a viscous coupling-governed drive system that slides some of the torque to the front wheels if the rears begin to slip. Don't plan any off-road expeditions when you buy your Diablo, though. Not only is ground clearance a minimal 5 1/2 inches (as it should be), the four-wheel-drive system also channels a maximum of 28 percent of torque to the front wheels, no matter what. This means the Diablo still feels like a rear-drive car, while being able to launch like a Saturn rocket.
Speaking of launch, a current Diablo in a decent state of tune can flash from zero to 60 miles per hour in 3.5 seconds or so, making it the quickest production car you can buy for your 300-large. Top speed, according to those very precise folks at Automobili Lamborghini, is reported to be 208 mph.
And that is the point. These days even Lamborghini is marketing its creature comforts, stereo system and automatic climate control. But if that's what you want, just stay in your La-Z-Boy and take a nap. We would rather blow some mental carbon out on a long-fast drive. And the Lamborghini Diablo is certainly the right tool for that job.