Audi’s purchase of Lamborghini on June 22 1998 sent ripples across the automotive industry.
Not everyone thought it was a good idea. Some legitimately worried the Volkswagen-owned brand would show a dramatic display of contempt for Lamborghini’s Italian heritage and jostle it in a more Teutonic direction. 20 years later, we know those fears were largely unfounded.
Lamborghini’s cars remain unmistakably Italian but they’re better to drive and more powerful than they’ve ever been. The firm is successful and, significantly, it’s profitable. Here are the models that have helped Lamborghini thrive in ways it could only dream of during most of its existence.
The tumultuous decades
Italian industrialist Ferruccio Lamborghini founded the company that bears his name in 1963 to compete against Ferrari. It got off to a stellar start. The Miura, one of its earliest models, remains a cornerstone of the supercar segment over five decades after its introduction.
By 1974, Lamborghini had sold his company to a pair of investors and retired in the countryside to hunt and make wine. The oil embargo hit hard; Lamborghini filed for bankruptcy in 1978 and fell under the control of an Italian court. Two Swiss entrepreneurs bought Lamborghini in 1984 and sold it to Chrysler in 1987 for a handsome profit.
Chrysler funnelled an immense of money in Lamborghini before deciding the game wasn’t worth the candle. Facing its own financial issues, it sold the firm in late 1993 to a Bermuda-registered holding company with ties to the Indonesian president.
Audi’s big purchase (1998)
Volkswagen’s Audi division agreed to purchase Lamborghini in June 1998. Though neither party made the terms of the deal public, sources familiar with the negotiations claimed Audi paid about US$100 million (US$153 million/£115 million today) for the storied Italian firm. The news of the acquisition broke about a week after Volkswagen announced plans to purchase Rolls-Royce and Bentley for £430 million.
Lamborghini first made contact with Audi during its search for a V8 engine to power its then-upcoming entry-level model. The car needed to sell for significantly less than the Diablo, its flagship, to lure more Americans into showrooms so keeping costs in check sat high on its list of priorities.
Audi had more important considerations. Lamborghini needed a new range-topper. Introduced in 2001, the Murcielago stood out as the brand’s first all-new car in 11 years. It wore a sharp, contemporary design penned by Luc Donckerwolke and offered a 6.2-litre V12 with 580hp. It also kept the scissor doors that characterized Lamborghini’s flagship models since the Countach.
The Murcielago immediately moved Lamborghini’s name up in the supercar pecking order. And, significantly, it confirmed that enthusiasts could trust Audi to preserve the company’s DNA.
Lamborghini began working on a V10-powered successor to the Jalpa in the late 1980s, shortly after it joined the Chrysler empire. It built a fully functional prototype named P140 that used the firm’s first-ever naturally-aspirated V10 engine. The company’s archives department suggests decision-makers were dead serious about launching the P140 but they reluctantly mothballed the project in the early 1990s for financial reasons.
The 1995 Cala concept, a stylish evolution of the P140, met the same fate. The Gallardo finally filled the void left by the Jalpa when it made its debut in 2003. It eschewed the V8 Lamborghini tried sourcing from Audi and instead used a naturally-aspirated V10, though the engine shared no parts with the 10-cylinder that powered the P140.
The Gallardo retired in 2013 as Lamborghini’s best-selling model. The firm built 14,022 examples of the car in its historic Sant’Agata Bolognese, Italy, factory. To add context, it made less than 10,000 cars between its inception in 1963 and the Gallardo’s release.
Concept S (2005)
The Concept S removed any lingering fears that Audi would make Lamborghini too German. ‘The Concept S represents everything that Lamborghini stands for. It is extreme, uncompromising and Italian’, explained then-president and CEO Stephen Winkelmann as he introduced the car.
Discernibly based on the Gallardo, it turned heads with individual saute-vent windscreens that divided the cabin into two compartments. Lamborghini surprisingly envisioned the Concept S as a production model. It then scaled back its plans and announced a 100-strong production run but the car proved too costly and overly complicated to make. It consequently remained a one-off model.
Lamborghini sold the one and only example to a private collector. It traded hands again last year for US$1.32 million (about £1 million) including the buyer’s fee. That’s a bargain for a one-of-a-kind, factory-built supercar with an interesting history.
Miura concept (2006)
The original Miura helped Lamborghini leap onto the world stage. Designers celebrated its 50th birthday by drawing a modern interpretation of it named, appropriately, Miura concept. It made its official debut in Los Angeles in early 2006.
Fans screamed for a production version of the Miura concept, and rumours scheduled its arrival for late 2007, but Lamborghini resisted what must have been an intense urge to surf the retro car wave. Design boss Mitja Borkert recently told Autocar it’s a decision he’s not interested in revisiting.
Lamborghini stays in constant contact with its customers. When it sensed a palpable demand for a car positioned above the Murcielago, it responded by introducing the limited-edition Reventon at the 2007 Frankfurt motor show.
Its design drew inspiration from the Eurofighter Typhoon and, in hindsight, it also served as an accurate preview of the Aventador. Lamborghini transferred the Murcielago’s running gear to the Reventon with almost no modifications, though it nudged the V12’s output to 650hp.
Limited to 20 examples, the Reventon cost £840,000 (about US$1.5 million) in 2007. It stood out as the most expensive road-going Lamborghini ever built. It lost that honour in 2009 when Lamborghini announced plans to make 15 examples of the roofless Reventon priced at close to £1 million each.
On the road
Autocar spent time driving the Reventon in 2007. Here’s what we wrote:
'While it’s no Porsche in its tactile feel, the Reventon is a jet in its own right. The raucous V12 is one of the most endearingly brutal powerplants in circulation today'.
Lamborghini teased us with the prospect of a family-friendly four-seater model when it showed the Estoque concept at the 2008 Paris auto show. The gorgeous saloon fell in line with the company’s then-current design language and received the Gallardo’s mighty 5.2-litre V10. Rumours of a production model immediately surfaced and Lamborghini did little to quell them.
The Estoque spent several years in limbo until Lamborghini finally put the project on the backburner. It revealed a strong interest in a modern-day four-door, four-passenger model that didn’t go unnoticed in Sant’Agata Bolognese. Looking back, the Urus traces its roots to the Estoque.
Sesto Elemento (2010)
Both variants of the Reventon sold out almost immediately; clearly, Lamborghini had found the right niche. It returned to the limited-edition, ultra-exclusive segment in 2010 when it released the Sesto Elemento. The track-only model borrowed its 562bhp, 5.2-litre V10 from the Gallardo Superleggera and stood out with a more aggressive-looking design that wouldn’t look out of place in a Batman movie. It also demonstrated the firm’s expertise in carbonfibre.
Buyers claimed the 20 available cars in record time. Lamborghini sold each one for over US$2 million.
Launched at the 2011 Geneva motor show, the Aventador built on the Murcielago’s strengths with more power and a more radical design that mapped the course future models followed. The Aventador went on sale as a coupe with 700hp from a 6.5-litre V12. Lamborghini later expanded the line-up with a roofless Roadster model, a SuperVeloce variant with 750hp and, more recently, an updated Aventador S (pictured) that received a 740hp evolution of the V12 and handling-enhancing four-wheel steering.
Aventador J (2012)
Everyone expected Lamborghini to chop off the Aventador’s top – and rightfully so. No one imagined the first topless model would resemble the feral-looking Aventador J, though. Originally announced as a strict one-off, the J lost its top, its windscreen and its side windows to epitomize the barchetta body style the Italians invented decades ago.
An anonymous collector paid US$2.8 million for the Aventador J just a few weeks after it broke cover at the 2012 Geneva motor show. Lamborghini later made a second example at the request of a buyer in the Middle East who paid an undisclosed sum of money for it.
The Egoista took Lamborghini’s newfound militarism to unprecedented heights. Built to commemorate the company’s 50th birthday, it unabashedly borrowed features like its one-seater cockpit and its removable canopy door from the world of fighter jets. Lamborghini went as far as applying an anti-radar coating on the rims. Designer Walter de Silva described it has ‘hedonism taken to the extreme’.
Fully functional, the Egoista started life as a Gallardo. It received a 600hp evolution of its street-legal sibling’s V10 engine. Today, the only Egoista built lives in Lamborghini’s official museum. It was a gift the company made to itself so officials aren’t giving anyone else the opportunity to own it.
Though Lamborghini held on to the Egoista, collectors wishing to buy a commemorative model built to celebrate the firm’s 50th weren’t entirely out of luck. The Aventador-based, V12-powered Veneno broke cover at the 2013 Geneva motor show as an ultra-exclusive (and ultra-expensive) limited-edition model with a radical design.
Lamborghini sold three examples of the Veneno to the public for the princely sum of US$4.5 million each. It unveiled a roadster variant limited to nine examples in October 2013.
The Gallardo finally retired after a 10-year long production run. Its successor, the Huracan, arrived at the 2014 Geneva motor show with a sharper design and more high-tech features inside. It kept its predecessor’s four-wheel drive configuration – at least initially – but followed the Aventador’s shift to an automatic-only line-up. Lamborghini employed aluminium and carbonfibre to reduce weight.
To date, the Huracan has spawned more variants than any Lamborghini before it. The line-up includes a four-wheel drive model, a rear-wheel drive variant and a Performante model with an intriguingly innovative active aerodynamic system. All three models come as a coupe or a convertible.
The Asterion concept represented Lamborghini’s response to looming emissions regulations. The stunning, near-production-ready body hid a V10-electric plug-in hybrid drivetrain capable of powering the car on battery power alone for up to 31 miles. Summoning both power sources delivered an output of 898hp.
Rumours of a production model made headlines across the globe but, like the Estoque, the Asterion remained at the concept stage. Lamborghini preferred allocating the bulk of its available resources to developing the Urus it introduced in late 2017. While we don’t expect to see a toned-down version of the Asterion reach showrooms, reading the tea leaves tells us decision-makers haven’t given up on the idea of releasing a four-seater supercar in the medium-term future.
The team in charge of the Centenario boldly set out to make the most powerful street-legal Lamborghini ever. Using the Aventador as a foundation, stylists penned a function-over-form design that places a clear priority on downforce. That philosophy explains the low nose, the self-raising wing and the immense air diffuser out back.
For power, the Centenario relied on an evolution of the Aventador’s 6.5-litre V12 dialled up to 759bhp. It performed the 0-62mph sprint in 2.8sec and continued until it hit nearly 220mph.
Lamborghini presented the Centenario as a coupe in March 2016 and unveiled a convertible model several months later. It made 20 examples of each body style and, somewhat predictably, had zero trouble finding buyers for the 40-strong production run in spite of a base price that lurked in the vicinity of £1.7 million (about $2 million in 2016).
Huracan Performante (2017)
In 2014, Lamborghini pledged to turn the Huracan into a full family of models. It kept its promise by introducing the rear-wheel drive, 580-badged model in 2015 and adding the Performante last year.
The Huracan Performante picked up where the Superleggera and Performante variants of the Gallardo left off. The track-bred model inaugurates a suite of trick active aero aerodynamic add-ons and it weighs less thanks to the comprehensive use of a new type of carbonfibre called Forged Composites. It turned every head in the industry by lapping Germany’s gruelling Nurburgring track in six minutes and 52.1 seconds, a time normally attributed to hypercars.
The Performante impressed our editors so much that we gave it our Innovation Award in 2017.
On the track
The Huracan Performante lapped Autocar’s test track quicker than hybrid hypercars worth a million pounds and even hardcore track specials. Here’s what we concluded at the end of our test:
‘The Performante never disappoints. It has strong suits and eye-poppingly strong suits – and in the few areas where it comes up short, it mostly does so in understandable, even embraceable fashion’.
Terzo Millennio concept (2017)
Lamborghini teamed up with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to develop the supercar of tomorrow. It’s called Terzo Millennio, a name that means ‘third millennium’ in Italian. It’s a concept that illustrates some of the technological solutions Lamborghini could one day incorporate into its cars.
Researchers made the Terzo Millennio’s structural parts with an innovative type of carbonfibre capable of storing electricity, which eliminates the need for a bulky battery pack. Energy flows through a supercapacitor before reaching the pavement through four in-wheel electric motors. The compact drivetrain made the futuristic, almost Hot Wheels-like design possible.
Lamborghini explores both ends of the concept car spectrum. On one hand, it shows outlandish machines that probe the outer limits of design, technology and performance. On the other hand, it also makes tamer concepts that preview production models. The 2012 Urus fell in the latter category.
It took a while for Lamborghini to figure out how to make a modern-day SUV without completely diluting its brand image. The winning formula, according to the firm, rides on Volkswagen’s MLB Evo platform and relies on a twin-turbocharged V8 engine – Lamborghini's first – with 641bhp on tap. It’s a contentious model but it’s also expected to quickly become the firm’s best-seller by a long shot.
On – and off – the road
Autocar’s Matt Prior drove the Urus on the street, on the track and on an off-road course. Here’s what he wrote:
‘It is, and I really do mean this, remarkable, in that it is so competent on a circuit, so amenable on the road, and yet still capable of shrugging off-road lumps aside. I’m genuinely impressed. I don’t think there are many cars, if any, that can do all of those things better’.
Rising star (2017)
Audi’s investment and hands-off approach have paid off. In 2017, Lamborghini set a new sales record by delivering 3815 cars to customers around the world. This figure represents a 10 percent increase over 2016 and the brand’s 10th consecutive year of growth. The Urus will certainly push it above the 4000-car mark in 2018.
In comparison, Lamborghini sold 216 examples of the Diablo – its only model at the time – in 1997, the year before it joined the Audi family.
Lamborghini, like most of its rivals, is coming to terms with electrification. It’s becoming an ineluctable part of building a car. The Urus will become the firm’s first-ever hybrid and its next-generation super-sports cars will get plug-in power. R&D boss Maurizio Reggiani stresses pure electric technology isn’t currently compatible with a car like the Aventador due to weight and packaging reasons, though that could change over the next decade.
The naturally-aspirated V12 isn’t going anywhere, however. Reggiani wants to build 12-cylinder engines for as long as possible and, while the Urus uses two turbos, he remains committed to keeping forced induction at bay when it comes to super-sports cars.