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Under the skin of the Lambo Asterion

  1. “This”, says Lamborghini’s design director Filippo Perini, thrusting a pencil towards me, “is the universal tool for explaining ideas. I can tell you exactly what I want to do using this in seconds.”

    That same slim cylinder of graphite is instantly a blur across a sheet of paper, and with just half a dozen strokes a shape that’s reliably outrageous has been conjured. Imagine designing Lambos for a living. Does it get any better? Isn’t it, in fact, actually something of a doddle?

    Hardly. TopGear has been admitted to the company’s Centro Stile, Lamborghini’s creative hub, and home to a tightly knit team of just a dozen designers - Italian, Lithuanian, Colombian and Argentinian. The atmosphere is studiedly febrile. As is the modern way, mastery of computer software is as important as original design vision, but, as per Perini’s comments, well-used pencil-sharpeners sit on every workstation. There are mood-boards on the walls; shelves of glossy car, design and fashion magazines; and maquettes on tables. The office sits above the company’s photographic studio, and an espresso machine hums in a small kitchen at the back.

    Pictures: Joe Windsor-Williams

    This feature originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. Although TG has been in many design offices over the years, usually we’re only admitted into specially vetted areas, once all the sexy secret-squirrel stuff has been sequestered. This time, it’s different. Very different. It’s early July, and Centro Stile is up to its eyeballs in a new Lamborghini concept car, due to be unleashed at the Paris auto salon in October. Rather than being stashed out of view, various elements of an unfamiliar shape beam out from every monitor. “So, what do you think?” says Perini, as we sharpen our pencils. “Wow” is what we think.

    There are a few bleary eyes. Even at this remove, it’s clear that Perini and his team are engaged in a frantic race against time. The overarching concept may have been approved, but the details are still far from finalised. One of the team comprehensively reworks the headlights’ LEDs. He’s clearly a software savant, such is his speed across the keyboard. The colour of the car has yet to be decided, though a cobalt blue is currently favourite. And though it has a name, that name might well change. Knowing the Italians and their love of eleventh-hour operatics, probably at the last possible moment…

  3. The Lamborghini Asterion is coming together. The official line is that it’s a ‘technology demonstrator’, although any student of Lamborghini or Italian cars in general will recognise it as a vehicle inspired by the classic gran turismo cars. The form language is more subtle; the overall effect, vastly less egotistical than the likes of its Egoista, Sesto Elemento or Veneno predecessors. Yet the Asterion is arguably the most significant concept in the company’s 51-year history. Why? Because it’s a plug-in hybrid - ibrido - and, we would suggest, almost certain to make full production.

    We know what you’re thinking. Lamborghini is the self-styled bad boy of the automotive world, the last bastion of internally combusting multi-cylinder madness. If Asgard had a company-car scheme, Odin would surely drive a Lamborghini. Is nothing sacred?

  4. On the other hand, the Asterion touts a seismic set of figures. You’ve got to admit that a total power output of 910bhp is pretty compelling. It’ll do 185mph and accelerate to 62mph in three seconds, while emitting just 98g/km CO2, defying road tax and the London Congestion Charge. Imagine cocking a snook at London mayor Boris Johnson (who once squeezed two of his children into the passenger seat of a Gallardo while he thundered up the M6), as you louched your way silently round Mayfair. Nor is a real-world range of 30 miles on pure electric power alone to be sniffed at. Finally, a claimed overall combined average of 282mpg suggests that someone has been visiting the espresso machine too often. Has Lambo basically done a Porsche 918, then?

    Nope. Sant’Agata may be an outpost of the VW Group empire, but it proudly goes its own way. The Asterion is all its own work and posits a new paradigm for the company, one that’s actually more radical than yet another piece of eye candy with exploding doors and carbon-fibre aero excrescences. The Asterion is a big, sexy transcontinental cruiser, much roomier inside than Huracán or Aventador (most things are), less theatrical to look at, more comfortable and easier to drive. When Ferruccio Lamborghini decided to stick one on Enzo Ferrari, the first car he built - 1964’s 350 GT - had almost exactly the same remit. Add in 21st-century conventions like corporate and social responsibility, and the result is the Asterion: the first Lamborghini that can wrestle and cuddle Polar bears at the same time.

  5. “For every project, you must create boundary conditions,” research and development director Maurizio Reggiani tells us, “otherwise you’d always have six wheels and 32 pistons. Reducing CO2 emissions was a major task. Creating a realistic electric range was another. Delivering real power was a third.”

    “You also have to put some price limits on the project, otherwise you make a rocket. This car should cost about the same as our current range, not million-euro money. And, of course, there are weight targets to meet. Otherwise, you end up building a tank. It sounds complicated, and it is. But if you take all of these targets together, the engineering parameters are more or less defined.”

    The Asterion proves just how far Lamborghini has travelled. It’s effectively a mid-engined two-seater coupe. It uses an adapted Aventador carbon-fibre monocoque, mostly in the lower section, with a different roof structure, and it’s been elongated to create more interior space. The ICE is the 610bhp 5.2-litre V10 from the Huracán, hooked up to a blistering double-clutch seven-speed rear-transaxle automatic gearbox. These days, there is no shortage of tasty stuff for Lamborghini to repurpose.

  6. But the Asterion moves the game on in a way that only the most myopic purist could possibly decry. It’s a parallel hybrid, with an electric motor bolted onto the transaxle that incorporates a starter motor and generator. Two other electric motors are located on the front axle. Between them, they serve up an additional wodge of energy worth 220kW, equivalent to almost 300bhp. Rather like the Porsche 918, the Asterion uses the motors on the front axle to deliver four-wheel drive and provide a torque vectoring effect. There’s no mechanical connection between the front and rear axles. The batteries live in the central tunnel where you’d normally find a propshaft. This benefits both safety and the car’s centre of gravity, claims Lamborghini. Electric power can also be used to fill in gaps in the engine’s torque curve.

    In all, the electrification system weighs 250kg, which Reggiani admits was the biggest hurdle for the development team. That’s a lot of battery cells, cooling gubbins and control electronics - pretty much the antithesis of the ultra-lightweight ethos espoused by 2011’s Sesto Elemento.

    “You can imagine the discussions we had - ‘But we are Lamborghini, we must be the best in terms of performance and handling…’ [pause] We decided this concept was the right solution for a Lamborghini technological demonstrator. This is a car you can drive in cities in pure-electric mode, but also a car whose thermodynamic engine delivers the same emotion as a pure Lamborghini.”

  7. “Weight is the enemy of anything dynamic. The electric elements may be good for the environment but they are… dirty for us in terms of the car’s basic dynamism. We are at the upper end of the range of what we feel is acceptable. But we have worked, and are continuing to work, very hard to create a true Lamborghini feeling. Believe me, this car does not feel like a Prius.”

    Lamborghini’s powertrain boss Stefano Mazzetti confirms that, as well as trying to peg the weight back, integrating the different energy sources has been very demanding. “When we started, there were 12 possible architectures,” he says. “We evaluated them all as we worked on the project. Using simulations, we got to three, and then one solution. Marrying the torque from the three electric sources and the thermodynamic engine, and putting it under the feet of the driver, has been difficult. But we have 240 people in the R&D department and lots of software engineers. It’s all being done in-house, and we have a very hard-working prototype out there.”

    Back in Centro Stile, one of the design guys is keen to show us a film he’s edited together. A visual project manifesto, with nods to rare-groove Lambos like the wonderful Islero, it tracks the evolution of the Asterion, beginning with six high-quality 3D renderings, before whittling them down. “We are a democracy when we start,” Perini whispers, “then we focus in on one idea.” The famous opening sequence of The Italian Job - Miura, Matt Monro singing, the roads on the Colle del Nivolet north of Turin, minus the crunching Mafia dispatch - sets the tone. Then it shifts gear dramatically. Christian Bale’s Dark Knight-era Murciélago and Daft Punk’s soaring Tron: Legacy soundtrack position the brand in a powerfully cinematic milieu. These are heady times for Lamborghini.

  8. “The best suit for this car was one of tailored elegance. It’s not all about power,” Perini says. More Bruce Wayne than Batman, then. “I don’t like creating concepts that aren’t ready for production. The Asterion proposes a real future Lamborghini, not a fake one. A meaningless concept is also a way of wasting money, and I hate wasting money. We are too small a team to be able to squander our time or effort. We’re not telling lies with this car.”

    It looks it. After the borderline ludicrous Veneno, it’s actually refreshing to see a Lamborghini that could land in the showroom tomorrow intact. There are lots of clever flat planes, surfaces and volumes, and Perini’s obsession with hexagons (“esagonità”, insiders call it) reappears. But the Asterion really does join the dots between its Sixties antecedents and contemporary automotive legislative and social mores, softening the company’s aesthetic appreciably as it seeks wider acceptance.

    “Historically, Lamborghinis don’t have a ‘face’,” Perini muses. “There are no obvious influences, so I prefer to talk about it more in terms of a ‘flavour’. Otherwise, it could end up being retro. What I can say is that the design language is completely different to the Aventador’s and Huracán’s.”

  9. “The roof and greenhouse have been agreed for two months. I’d say 95 per cent of the exterior has been frozen, and 85 per cent of the interior. But, as you can see, some of the details are still being worked on. And on this car, we want everything - all the graphics, every little detail - to be absolutely perfect. Honestly, 10 days ago, we changed the front end completely. There’s something about the corner of the headlamp unit that’s still irritating me.”

    A 3D printer is on hand for rapid prototyping. Perini hands me a piece of headlight surround. “This was very beautiful in the computer,” he says, “but weak in reality. So we changed it.” The Asterion’s roof has a dramatic air intake, and the car uses what Lamborghini calls Active Air Cooling - a double-layered metal and titanium grid meshed together. There’s also a transparent engine cover, consisting of three hexagonal glass panels that switch according to power source: electric, hybrid or ICE. Lamborghini can’t resist some theatre.

  10. Alessandro Salvagnin, whom Perini credits with the Aventador’s remarkable silhouette, is working on the Asterion’s interior. He had a Transformer robot when he was a kid that turned into a Countach. “I didn’t transform it back very often, because I liked the car too much,” he laughs. The Asterion features ivory leather, as well as aluminium, forged carbon and titanium. There’s also more storage space, a prosaic but necessary commodity in a car for longer journeys. Three drive modes - zero (for full electric), I (for hybrid ‘ibrido’), and T (for sport ‘termico’/thermal) - are available via buttons on the steering wheel. The main dash binnacle has little leather straps on the side. “We’re using materials in a transgressive way. It’s a more human car, more usable,” Salvagnin says. A detachable tablet handles the Asterion’s infotainment, climate control and GPS functions. Perini frets that the supporting elements are currently too weak. “We need to improve the structure,” he says.

    Lots of midnight oil was burnt at Centro Stile between midsummer and early autumn. Italy tends to go on holiday for the whole of August, but Perini and his guys didn’t have that luxury. The finished, full-size Lamborghini Asterion only just made its Paris show deadline, and it looks sublime. Now the hard work can really begin.

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