2019 Lamborghini Aventador SVJ First Drive: Dancing With the New King of the Nurburgring
759 horses, brainiac handling, and patented aero tricks create the latest ruler in the Nurburgring's dizzying Game of Thrones.
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We’ve all seen those heartwarming movies—To Sir With Love, or Dangerous Minds—where a teacher inspires a classroom full of tough cookies and hopeless cases. I kept thinking about those movies while driving the Lamborghini Aventador SVJ this week in Portugal. In 2011, when the Aventador first took a seat in showrooms, it was a lot like those half-formed delinquents: angry, stubborn, and a bit intimidating. That was especially true on track, where the Aventador resisted commands like a sullen teenager :The Lamborghini flagship understeered badly, the chassis was frustratingly uncommunicative, and its single-clutch automated manual gearbox was a lurching, sloppy mess. You could see the Aventador was blessed with knockout looks and talent, including a 691-hp V12 and a voice like an avenging angel. All it needed was a patient, gifted teacher to help realize that massive potential.
Well, consider Maurizio Reggiani the Sidney Poitier of supercars. Lamborghini’s single-minded chief technical officer had already nurtured the V-10 Huracan to performance greatness, including the Performante model that aced that most in-vogue supercar test, the Nurburgring Nordschleife. Now he and his team have accomplished the same improbable feat with the Aventador SVJ: The former hard case has risen to become the latest King of the ‘Ring, posting a 6:44.97 lap that, not long ago, would have seemed laughably beyond its abilities. How far has the Aventador come in these last few years? That original 2011 model was nearly a full minute slower around the ‘Ring. Talk about a late bloomer.
In the interim, Lamborghini has also delivered the special-edition Aventador SV (for Super Veloce) and a new standard-model Aventador S. And the lineup’s remarkable transformation is on display when I guide the SVJ around the 4.1-kilometer Circuito do Estoril, the former home of F1’s Portuguese Grand Prix. Even a coating of fresh asphalt and fierce winds the night before that leave the Estoril surface greasy and shy on grip can’t dim the SVJ’s spectacularly bright talents. Lamborghini engineers and test drivers actually apologized for the less-than-ideal conditions, but they needn’t have; like every new Lamborghini of late, this Aventador SVJ brings its A-game.
That begins with the best weight-to-power ratio of any Lamborghini V12 since Ferruccio got out of the tractor business and began building exotic automobiles in 1963. Calculating from a claimed dry weight of 3,355 pounds—but closer to 3,900 at the curb—the Lamborghini’s 6.5-liter, 48-valve V12 carries 4.42 pounds with each of its 759 horses. Compared with its 740-hp predecessor, the Aventador SV, the SVJ gets a modified camshaft, titanium intake valves and a redesigned intake port to get more air into cylinders, boosting its all-natural aspiration.
(Speaking of ’63, that number decorates the flanks of the SVJ 63, an even-more-special special edition of which just 63 units will be built, versus 900 worldwide copies of the, ahem, “base model.”)
Reducing engine friction, and thus inertia, was a key part of the development, and the pursuit of such includes a much-lighter flywheel to ease the engine’s path to maximum rpm. And what a maximum: On Estoril’s long front straightaway, I keep the throttle pinned, not just to reach a satisfying 173-mph personal peak, but to revel in the V12’s own metallic march to an 8,500-rpm redline. A reworked exhaust system trims a touch of weight and backpressure, and further amplifies the raging-bull sound that makes an Aventador one of the world’s leading tunnel terrors. Forget the Empire State Building, SVJ: I’ll await our romantic reunion at the Holland Tunnel, at a date TBD.
Peak torque rises to 531 pound-feet at 6,750 rpm, versus the SV’s 519 pound-feet at 5,500 rpm. But laying the two models’ torque and horsepower curves over each other— as Lamborghini did, on an enormous tabletop video display that recalled a Michael Bay war movie—shows the SVJ’s edge in both metrics at virtually any point from idle to redline. Cold numbers include a wrenching 2.8-second dash to 62 mph, an 8.6-second run to 124 mph that seems highly conservative, and a top speed exceeding 217 mph.
A 10-percent gain in horsepower between model years 2011 and 2019 can’t fully explain how Lamborghini shaved off roughly 57 seconds of ‘Ring time. So addition to its dozen muscular, V-arranged rowers, Lamborghini has steadily made its flagship more slippery, stable, and agile. A vigorous aerodynamic massage adds fins on the front fascia to guide air around turbulent wheels and funnel it into yawning radiator scoops along the sides. The rear anti-roll bar is 50 percent stiffer, and the magnetic suspension’s damping force grows by 15 percent.
And please, don’t overlook the contribution of the tires, the most unsung, below-decks heroes of all. Pirelli P Zero rubber sits on staggered wheels—20-inch alloys in front, 21-inch in the rear. Options include the Lambo-exclusive Trofeo R tires that glued the record-setting Aventador to the ‘Ring’s jouncy pavement. But unless an owner is scheduling his own lap attempt in Germany, or intends to make the SVJ his club track car—yeah, right—he’ll be better served with standard P Zero Corsas that don’t melt away like shower soap, and don’t require massive g-force loads to build heat and work effectively.
Lamborghini plucks its own parts shelf for the SVJ’s biggest handling gains: Rear-wheel steering from the Aventador S; the aero-vectoring ALA system (for “Aerodinamica Lamborghini Attiva”) from the carmaker's previous ‘Ring champion, the Huracan Performante. The company claims a 30 percent gain in overall downforce versus the already potent SV model. Much of that is derived from ALA 2.0.
How does ALA work? The whole shebang relies on "forged composite," Lamborghini’s patented carbon fiber whose shapeable nature is key to the wing’s hollowed channels. Electric motors activate flaps in the front splitter and rear engine decklid to either crank up downforce or minimize drag. (The active front flaps are new to the SVJ, versus the Performante.) When ALA is off, the front and rear flaps stay shut; the splitter guides air over the hood to boost front-axle downforce, and the wing also acts just like a traditional fixed wing. That’s the max-downforce attitude whenever I squeeze the brakes or slice through high-speed corners at Estoril. And the SVJ's stability under full braking, aided by magnetorheological dampers that instantly stiffen up front, is something to behold. There’s no brake dive, no rear-end twerking. (Though if any cars were born to twerk, an Aventador SVJ, with its “naked” exhaust outlets mounted high on its ass, would be among them.)
When ALA switches on, flaps on the rear decklid open; air blasts into the wing’s hollow, vertical center stanchion—now with 40 percent more volume than the Huracan’s—and is forced through narrow slits on the wing’s underside. That pressurized airflow stalls the wing and sharply reduces drag, for unimpeded acceleration or top-speed assaults. Those new front flaps open as well, reducing air pressure on the front spoiler and axle, and directing it instead through vortex generators below the car.
Aero vectoring is ALA’s final trick: Turn right, for example, at speeds above 44 mph—any slower, and there’s no meaningful air pressure— and the right-hand decklid flap closes while the left flap pivots open. That adds downforce on the inside rear wheel while reducing it on the outside wheel, quelling understeer and helping the Lambo pivot through the corner. Guided by the Lamborghini’s very big brain and inertial sensors—called “LDVA 2.0,” an acronym that you really don’t want me to spell out in Italian—the car can open or close individual ALA flaps in less than 500 milliseconds.
For the first time, the Aventador’s all-wheel-drive system can also decouple the front wheels entirely when you get off the throttle, onto the brakes, or steer toward the apex. That steering feels sweeter as a result, with front wheels often unburdened with propulsion duties and tasked only with turning the car. And when I point the Aventador to its corner exit, I can feel the center differential divert power to front wheels to help dig the car out again. The SVJ turns in so readily, and rotates so naturally, that it seems an entirely different beast from the Aventadors I once knew and wrestled with.
The selectable Corsa mode absolutely transforms on-track performance, to the point that I was sorry I wasted a single lap goofing with the mellower Strada setting. And while the handling is forgiving, nothing about the SVJ experience feels artificial or dumbed-down. The slippery track surface actually underlines the Aventador’s surprisingly accommodating nature. When I enter a turn too hot, the Lambo slithers a bit sideways, readjusts its attitude, and then it’s off to the races. And all this new gear and tech—including ALA and four-wheel-steering—carries zero weight penalty versus the SV, because it’s balanced by mass savings throughout the vehicle.
As for design, the scissor-doored Aventador remains everyone’s favorite Klingon warship, and looks equally improbable here on planet Earth. The SVJ's new "Verde Alceo" paint proves, again, that Lamborghinis are among the world's only cars that look great in shrieking green. But more-sober shades work, too. My test car for the day features handsome matte gray paint and optional Sport seats—a pair of orange-accented, carbon-fiber cocoons, with the company’s bullish logo stitched onto headrests.
Considering how well everything else works, the Lambo’s single-clutch, seven-speed automated gearbox becomes an even-more-yawning chink in its armor. With the driver-selectable Anima switch cranked up to Corsa mode, the transmission does deliver the visceral, back-slapping force that Reggiani claims customers prefer. But when you’re not pinning the throttle and spanking paddle shifters like a madman, the Aventador’s gearbox is either tentative or obtrusive. Even Reggiani, the proud papa who for years has defended the transmission, finally allowed that the single-clutch is nearing the end of its useful life. The Aventador's successor, he said, will see a new transmission "solution." And that solution sure sounds like "dual clutch gearbox" to us, unless Lambo and its picky customers can be content with a conventional unit like the ZF slushboxes that power models from Aston Martin, BMW and others.
Yet like those iconclastic Hollywood teachers, Reggiani and Co. continue to buck industry administrators who insist on the trendy curriculum of turbocharging, even as Ferrari, Porsche, et. al. adopt turbos to boost power and fuel efficiency. Lamborghini's engine makers may one day be brought to heel by regulations or competitive realities. But its dogged belief in naturally aspirated V-10s and V12s is inspiring.
“I will never give up,” Reggiani said with a mischievous twinkle, to chuckles and applause from us journalists. To that end, the Aventador’s eagerly awaited successor will continue to use a free-breathing V12, but one goosed by hybrid electric power.
For now, the SVJ's combo of old-school emotion and new-school performance brings the car to near-hypercar price territory. The roughly 300 Americans who will secure one know that the $517,770 base price is an opening gambit; a carapace of carbon fiber trim amongst other options can easily help shoot the SVJ to $600,000. Is the Aventador SVJ worth twice as much as a Huracan? If you’re thinking like a normal human, of course not. But there’s nothing normal about an Aventador buyer, and even less so for those getting an SVJ version that will see just 900 copies produced for worldwide consumption and satisfaction. Ask them if they’re getting their money’s worth from the SVJ, and I suspect you already know the answer.
Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence.firstname.lastname@example.org