A sports car maker departing from its established norms is guaranteed to provoke a reaction from enthusiasts. The most fervent response appears to arise when a brand announces that, for the first time, it’s going to make an SUV – despite the fact that the decision is often a sensible business move.
Case in point: when Porsche announced its Cayenne SUV in 2002, many automotive enthusiasts threw their hands up in disgust. The move, however, widened the brand’s appeal immensely and customers seeking upmarket SUVs began pouring in through the dealership doors; in the first year alone, Cayenne sales outstripped those of the significantly more affordable Boxster.
A year later, sales of the luxury SUV were triple that of the Boxster and closing on double that of the esteemed 911. In short, the company had a huge profit-making hit on its hands. It’s not one that’s ebbed away, either; in 2018, Porsche sold 71,458 Cayennes – some 20 per cent more than the total number of Boxsters, Caymans and 911s delivered combined.
While many dislike these SUVs, and their rising prominence, they’ve undoubtedly proved of tremendous benefit to the brand. For one thing, production of SUVs has allowed Porsche to go on developing, building and racing the high-performance coupes and supercars that everyone knows and loves.
Despite this, when Lamborghini unveiled its Urus SUV in 2018, many took umbrage at the brand’s new model and its perceived foray into uncharted territory. Its styling may not be to all tastes, admittedly, and its contribution to the proliferation of heavy, inefficient, overly aggressive and gaudy cars not to be overlooked, but there was no questioning the business sense in the move.
However, the Urus was not the company’s first luxury off-roader. In fact, Lamborghini launched such a machine 32 years prior – and that car itself was grounded in an even earlier project.
A CHEETAH THAT PROVED DISAPPROVINGLY SLOW
The 1970s was not a good decade for Lamborghini. Primarily, the oil crisis and financial crash of 1973 killed the market for high-performance, high-cost and inefficient cars. This caused the company significant financial distress and, in an effort to keep itself afloat, Lamborghini began seeking out potentially profitable engineering contracts.
One such contact it acquired was focused on assisting with the development of an all-terrain vehicle for the United States military. The result, revealed in 1977, was a rear-engined prototype called the Cheetah. Unfortunately, myriad legal issues, sluggish performance and lack of interest killed the concept dead.
Alas, Lamborghini slipped into bankruptcy in 1978; reorganisation and new ownership followed, which also brought along a stack of fresh investment for projects. This led Lamborghini engineer Giulio Alfieri to revive the defunct Cheetah programme. A new rear-engined prototype, called the LM001, was ready by 1981 – and a front-engined version, dubbed LMA002, followed not long after; this proved to have more favourable handling characteristics and, in 1986, a production version called the LM002 was revealed.
Under its aluminium and fibreglass body sat a 5.2-litre V12 from the Countach Quattrovalvovle, which initially thundered out 444bhp and 369lb ft of torque. This was coupled to a five-speed manual gearbox and a four-wheel-drive system and, wound out to the nines, the V12 could propel the 2.7-tonne leviathan from 0-60mph in around 8.0sec.
THE RIGHT PRODUCT AT THE RIGHT TIME
Lamborghini’s LM002 was a remarkable machine but it was also terrifically heavy, expensive and inefficient. Even though there was nothing else like it on the market, it would remain a niche choice. In the end, just 300 were built over the course of six years.
Today’s market is far better suited to SUVs, which is why Lamborghini returned to the ‘super SUV’ segment with its Urus in 2018. After all, other high-end brands were striving to capitalise on the burgeoning and lucrative segment – so the opportunity was not to be overlooked.
One saving grace for enthusiasts, if the Urus doesn’t appeal, is that it at least packs performance credentials befitting of a Lamborghini. It weighs an LM002-undercutting 2.2 tonnes, for starters, while its 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 puts out a whopping 641bhp and 626lb ft of torque.
The Urus is capable of 0-62mph in just 3.6sec, too, and also more efficient, better equipped and infinitely more dynamically capable than its heavyweight predecessor – to which its body contains a few stylistic nods, including its arches and side air outlets.
Unsurprisingly, Lamborghini is already reaping the benefits of rejoining the SUV race; it recorded a whopping 51 per cent increase in sales in 2018, from 3,815 cars to 5,750, which was almost solely the result of 1,761 customers buying a new Urus.
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