The Urus Isn't Your Grandad's Lamborghini, For Better or Worse
It'll likely be a sales success for the VW Group's supercar brand...but what does that mean for its soul?
The new Lamborghini Urus SUV emerged this week. From its razor-sharp creases to its byzantine flurry of furrows and facets, there’s no doubt it originated from a design bench at Centro Stile in Sant’Agata. The release wasn’t a surprise; we’ve known the truckish Lambo was on deck since 2012, and yet, getting an eyeful of it in full production spec seemed more shocking to me than Bill Skarsgård without his Pennywise makeup.
To those of us who spent study hall obsessing over the Countach and Diablo (or even the Jalpa), a modern Lamborghini off-roader still feels implausible. The original LM002 “Rambo Lambo” off-roader of the 1980s—arguably Lamborghini’s first production SUV—was born from a military prototype. It was part V12 supercar, part troop hauler, a desert-blasting beast with room for a gun turret. Useful only for dune-surfing between Saudi oil wells, the LM002’s true impact on my car enthusiast’s psyche stemmed from its swift kick to the groin of real-world practicality.
The Urus is not that.
In contrast to the LM002, the Urus is a vehicle made for a life chock-full of people, traffic, soccer games, and high-end shopping malls filled with stores featuring odd accents in their names. In other words, a reasonable luxury product. Growth in the SUV market has been epic; IHS Automotive predicts SUVs will sell to the tune of 34 million vehicles in 2020. That’s a 400 percent growth spurt since 2006. The financial force-multiplier known as the SUV business must have been irresistible for Lamborghini, which must compete within the notoriously rivalrous Volkswagen Group stable; hence, the utterly-usable Urus. Still, regardless of the why, the Urus—fueled by the Lambo brand ethos—will likely find a place with wealthy buyers not only in the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East, but also in China, Russia, and emerging markets. It’s about as much of a slam dunk as any business has ever whipped up.
Indeed, Lamborghini has traveled far since Papa Ferruccio the tractor-maker flipped Enzo Ferrari the bird and started his own competing sports car company. It’s easy to romanticize Lamborghini’s first three decades. Between 1963 and 1998, the company turned out icon after icon: the 400GT, the Miura, the Espada, the Countach, the LM002, the Diablo. There was no factory racing program like rival Ferrari had to deal with, either to underpin performance or get in the way of designers’ whimsy. As a result, even if they weren’t the ultimate track performers, Lambos were the sum total of all teenage dreams: showy and loud and fast and cavalier in tossing reason to the wind.
You might say it was its corporate instability that created, or at least fostered, the Lambo mystique. During the same period, Lamborghini churned through seven owners, three of which lasted less than five years. As a Chrysler Corporation unit from 1987 to 1992, arguably its most stable pre-Audi period, the company sold fewer than 700 cars in 1991. In 2016, Lamborghini sold 3,457 cars. With the Urus in full production, the company stands to double that number in volume.
Enthusiasts have spent the past decade reconciling the modern, Audi-owned Lamborghini with the batshit, bullish brand that raged in our childhoods. To be sure, today’s Lamborghini has very little in common with the provocative, unpredictable, unstable and—by comparison—low-volume automaker of the mid-'80s. These days, as part of Volkswagen Group, Lamborghini likely has more Six Sigma Black Belts watching over production efficiency at its factory than it had employees in total back in 1985.
The car business in 2017 is a massive, mature, global, tech-focused consumer industry. Strategic consolidations and smart, systemic reengineering have created efficient, profitable, and forward-thinking businesses that are really good at making cars and money. Car companies have never been more efficient, having mastered the art of using common toolkits across brands. At Volkswagen, for example, a single large-car architecture spans the Volkswagen Touareg, Porsche Cayenne, Audi Q7, Bentley Bentayga, and now, the Lamborghini Urus.
Yet for me, even with ample warning, it was a shock to see a Lambo design stretched around a familiar platform. (Indeed, the Lamborghini Húracan and Audi R8 share an engine and architecture, but Lambo’s been successful at carving out a separate sports car personality by applying unique parts and tech.) But why? As a business, all the elements that make up Lamborghini’s distinct personality—its DNA, if you will—have been corporately defined and quantified, like logos in a brand book. That shouldn’t be surprising, since all car companies follow similar marketing-design strategies.
No, my shock comes from this: Despite the protestations of my rational mind, I’ve somehow lived under the delusion that Lamborghini was still that untamed company of my youth. The Sant’Agata team, including achingly dapper former CEO Stephan Winkelmann and brilliant lead engineer Maurizio Reggiani, upheld the facade so well over the years that I almost didn’t notice the change had taken place. Sure, the cars were better, the old craziness was still in there somewhere, and yet...
The Urus shocked me back to reality. The cutlines bisecting the body and the surface language designers used to make the Urus a “real” Lamborghini look spot-on. But look deeper and the distinctive dimensions of the Volkswagen Group PL7x platform show through like eyes through Green Lantern's mask. The designers spent countless hours trying to resolve the tension between the Urus-as-SUV and also the Urus-as-Lamborghini, but the design still looks like a put-on. It’s not their fault: the SUV is now so far from its original intent that it can’t help but resemble a simulation.
But that’s just my cynical opinion. Lamborghini will sell every Urus they build, and then spend the profits on their sports cars, making them faster and better, building out a customer racing program, and growing the line, just like Porsche does. I just have to face it: Lamborghini is all grown up, and so am I.