Brotherly Shove - Audi RS6 vs Lambo Gallardo LP560 - 4

The big question: did anyone get out while the getting was good? Was there a single high flyer who saw the US sub-prime crisis looming like a financial tsunami, cashed in their bulging stock portfolio and made it out the door before the world was awash with toxic debt? Full marks if they did.

Now, cashed-up and ready to swoop on the wounded luxo car market, how would this prophetic money man fill two spaces in the gleaming garage of the architecturally designed mansion? Is there a single automotive group capable of being the one-stop shop for both a high-end exotic and a practical but hard-hauling family wagon?

We pondered this for about the time it takes for a US mortgage giant to go bust and came up with one - VW. Then, by the time we'd established both the Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4 and Audi RS6 Avant share a common V10 engine architecture, we'd stopped looking for a justification to bring them together.

This engine commonality only stretches so far, though. Two key differences set the V10s apart. The first is capacity - just under 5.0 litres for the Audi, just over 5.2 for the Lambo. More significant, though, is the issue of aspiration: natural for the Italian thoroughbred, forced, via twin-turbochargers, for the RS6. Both feature direct fuel injection, but the 5.2-litre in the Gallardo relies on soaring revs to achieve its 412kW, producing its torque peak of 540Nm at a lofty 6500rpm.

As well as around 200cc less capacity, the Audi also runs a reduced compression ratio, and was clearly designed for stomping mid-range torque rather than the pursuit of top-end power. The RS6's far meatier 650Nm arrives from around the time your seatbelt is fastened - just 1500rpm.

The logic is easy to follow, given one is a two-tonne-plus wagon, the other a relatively lightweight sports car. When the Gallardo was upgraded last year to become the LP560-4, virtually all aspects were modified over the car launched back in mid-2003 as a little brother to the V12-powered Murciélago. While the basic body dimensions and shape remain, the look has changed thanks to a Reventón-inspired front air dam, slimmer tail lamps and rows of LED daytime running lights. The Gallardo's shape has always had an uncomplicated, arrow-like purity to it; now, with even fewer curves, it has the sharp purposefulness of a barracuda.

Weight is down by 20kg to a lithe 1500kg to go with the extra 30kW of power that is transferred to all four wheels (split 30/70 front/rear under normal circumstances) via a viscous centre coupling. The E-gear sequential manual has been improved for faster shift times, while the instruments and centre console presentation are new.

Would a potential buyer of either car know or even care that they share fundamental engine architecture? Apart from the promise of bestial performance, their intended functions could hardly differ more. Then there are price tags to consider. The RS6 Avant commands $271,000 which includes just about every luxury and clever tech feature imaginable unless, for instance, you wanted to blow another $21,000 on ceramic brakes or $4500 on adaptive cruise control.

The LP560 makes the RS6 look relatively affordable. You can try $475,000 as a starting point, but then there's the options, most of which are fitted to the glossy black example you see here. The transparent engine cover is another $11,900, for example, while electric and heated seats cost $9900. Sat-nav is $7100 (ditto for a rear-view camera), metallic paint is five grand and gas struts to lift the front end over driveways and speed humps adds $8700. Then there are big-ticket items such as the E-gear transmission for $27,000 and ceramic brakes for $41,000. The $625,000 total spend might not be an issue for some high-rolling Lambo customers, but value for money is certainly questionable.

First stop on this intriguing get-together is the drag strip, where the big red Audi wagon sits pulsing in the pit lane, its engine grumbling at idle, while the LP560 hits its straps over 400 metres.
The result, after enjoying the wail of the V10 and surprisingly snappy 8400rpm upshifts, is 0-100km/h in 4.1 seconds and a standing 400 metre time of 12.1. Lamborghini claims 3.7sec to 100, a time probably achieved with a test driver you could carry in a suitcase.

The RS6 feels an entirely different beast, and not just because you are planted higher and more upright within its solid body. With a conventional six-speed auto and simply truckloads of torque once the turbos are spooled up, getting it off the line and away is as easy as loading up the torque converter on the brakes, releasing the left pedal and hanging on as the AWD handles the traction.

Instead of a Lambo-like howl there's a more muted rumble and whoosh, and if power is tailing off as the upshifts slur through at 6600rpm, it's not apparent. By the standards of any big, luxury sedan (think BMW M5, Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG or even HSV W427) the RS6's 0-100km/h and 0-400m times of 4.7 and 12.7 respectively are up with the best. If it wasn't for the much lighter and higher revving Gallardo it would look like a world-beater.

Leaving the test track for the open road, there's still an amount of suburban driving, fuel tanks to fill and coffee to be drunk. Although driven in convoy, the Audi might as well be invisible. It is the theme of the next couple of days that bystanders, other drivers and even motorcyclists want to gawk and talk about the dramatic black arrowhead that is the Gallardo LP560-4.

For those who drive it, the big surprise is how the LP560 actually manages reasonably high levels of refinement and useability. The driving position may be low but it's well sorted in relation to the major controls, and visibility from the driver's seat is remarkably good, while the optional rear camera makes parking much easier. It also rides well at low speed; remarkably, it's actually more comfortable than the RS6 with its lumpy, chunky ride, and manages this feat without fancy adjustable dampers. The Audi has three settings, ranging from soft but a bit floaty, through to rock hard and untenably stiff.

Maybe that's the difference between a purpose-built supercar and a wagon that's had horsepower shovelled under the bonnet and some serious chassis tweaks. The RS6 has all sorts of systems to help it handle and ride, including the adjustable dampers that work diagonally across the car to reduce pitch, but they don't quite add up.

On really tight and lumpy roads there's appreciable understeer (not surprising given all the V10's mass hangs ahead of its front wheels) and enough float and bounce on the suspension's softest settings - necessary for even a modicum of comfort - to make accurate cornering a challenging task. The power and torque are immense and corners arrive quickly, but the RS6 is slow to turn in, and reapplying throttle has the traction control working overtime despite the fall-back of all-wheel drive to aid forward progress. It's a big, heavy car (the wheelbase is some 300mm longer than the Lambo's, and need we repeat it weighs 500kg more) and you feel every bit of it.

The LP560 is much better balanced, and requires no fancy electronics apart from stability control. Yes, it understeers a little more than previous Gallardos and while that might be unappreciated on a race track, it's not such a bad thing on the road. There is very little sense that the high-revving engine lacks bottom-end grunt because it pulls hard and sounds magnificent as each cylinder takes on more fuel and starts its upward crescendo of perfect noise. It's just that there's so much more power about to come on stream as the tacho nudges past 6000rpm.

Then there's massive grip, heaps of adjustability on the throttle and very quick steering to keep the driver busy and thoroughly entertained. It feels twitchy at higher speeds even in a straight line, with pronounced tram-lining on bumpy surfaces. But the trade-off is lightning turn-in, a surprising ability to handle mid-corner bumps, and all the sticking power and sledgehammer exit speed that could be wished for.

Downsides? There are a few. The optional carbon ceramic brakes stop hard and don't seem to fade, but they are so difficult to modulated in traffic that it becomes a lottery whether the driver can come to a smooth stop, abruptly jerk to a halt or, showing caution, apply too little pressure and then panic as another stationary car looms.

The E-gear automated gearbox is much sweeter than before, shifting with only the briefest of pauses and offering three levels of shift-speed via a dashboard switch. Yet in auto mode it can't hope to offer the smoothness of a good dual-clutch set-up, and when it comes to parking, the change from forward to reverse directions is slow and engages imprecisely. At best, you could say the system is now adequate.

The most impressive car of the two is undoubtedly the LP560-4, and not just for its massive on-road presence. That it manages to combine the kind of Ferrari-stomping performance and noise for which Lamborghini is renowned with a degree of civility in terms of ride, almost delicate handling and useful cabin ergonomics is a great achievement. If it wasn't for the psychotic brakes and the difficulties of using the E-gear transmission really smoothly, it would be a truly polished, accomplished supercar. And for perspective, don't forget this is Lamborghini's cheapest model - the 471kW Murciélago LP640 offers even more stunning performance, like 0-100km/h in 3.4 seconds and a 340km/h top speed.

Then there's the value-for-money equation which, by any rational standard, makes the RS6's combination of sledgehammer acceleration and usefulness of day-to-day driving ease, together with an ability to carry a number of adults and their luggage, very enticing indeed. It could well be argued the sheer grunt and the set-and-forget auto transmission make the RS6's performance far more applicable to Australian driving conditions than the Lambo's top-end, autobahn-eating speed.

But to the original question: does the VW Group offer the prime candidates to fill the utopian two-car garage? In short, no. The RS6 Avant is wickedly quick, beautifully built and wonderfully practical, but lacks the dynamic poise to be a truly satisfying drive. Merc's E63 AMG is less expensive and fills the super-sports load-lugger brief more completely.

Space should certainly be reserved for the Lambo, however. Supercars as visually arresting, intoxicating to thrash yet as eminently liveable as this are rare indeed. For the VW Group on this occasion, it's a case of one out of two ain't bad, it's borderline brilliant.

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