The electric car Lamborghini had to make

Muted and hobbled: The hybrid Lamborghini Asterion.
Muted and hobbled: The hybrid Lamborghini Asterion. 

The hottest car at the recent Paris motor show was an electric Lamborghini.

It wasn't surprising. Basically every supercar company has made an electric or hybrid-electric car: Porsche, Ferrari, McLaren. Even Rolls-Royce. And they've done as well on winners' stands (24 Hours of Le Mans) as they have on car sites and culture blogs. Fan boys and design freaks can't get enough.

The styling is conservative - for a Lamborghini - with a firm nod to the past.
The styling is conservative - for a Lamborghini - with a firm nod to the past. 

What is surprising about Lambo's offering, the Asterion, is that it waited so long to offer one - and then, after the lag, that it decided to do so at all.

Much like another iconic brand, Harley-Davidson, Lambo derives much of its status from the swagger drivers glean off a roaring engine and domineering performance. Both of which, traditionally at least, require a lot of fuel. So the prospect of building a machine that is virtually silent and that sacrifices horsepower and torque (quelle horreur!) on the altar of efficiency is riddled with questions regarding not only the how of doing it, but the why.

Can a fighting bull remain a champion when it's mute and hobbled?

A modernised riff

At first glance, the Asterion seems a modernised riff on the Lamborghini Miura (1966-1973). I say this as a compliment. Over the course of its tenure, the Miura started a spate of two- seat mid-engine sports cars with long, narrow front lines and sharply cut rear ends. You could even argue that the back half of the Countach (1974-1990) bears some resemblance to both the Miura and Asterion. (A Miura concept Lambo built in 2006 had CEO Stephan Winkelmann saying that the company "doesn't do retro" and would never put it to production, though it was received well at the time.)

The Asterion is thin from top to bottom, wide at the sides, and rectangular in design. Its lines are pure and modern, refreshingly minimal. It's not as aggressive looking as the Gallardo or even the Aventador, but it's more dignified and even slightly curvy. Cantilevered doors add a whiff of fantasy (always a good thing). In Paris, Winkelmann told me he intended it to look "singular" compared to any other Lamborghini in the lineup. He wanted it to look fast, but also palpable for daily driving. It does.

Inside the Bull

The accoutrements inside beg for regular use, as well. Supple cow hide covers the seats. Trendy "forged" carbon fibre (instead of being woven together in a cross-hatch, it's been melted together to form a molten marbled swirled look) makes it feel posh. Add the titanium trim and uncluttered dashboard to the slightly elevated, ergonomic two seats, and it wouldn't take much to convince me that you could take a short road trip in this Lambo, something to which the others aren't well-suited.

Underneath the hood it has a 455-kilowatt, 10-cylinder 5.2-litre engine and three plug-in electric motors powered by lithium-ion batteries. The seven-speed dual clutch transmission sits at the rear axle of the carbon fibre monocoque body (the engine sits in the middle). Three drive modes aid efficiency and performance, depending on which you want to emphasise.

Total fuel efficiency equals 4.1L/100km. Total output is 678.5kW. It goes from 0-100km/h in 3.0 seconds, 0.2 seconds faster than the brand-new Huracan and the faintest breath behind the Aventador. Anyone will tell you those numbers are worthy of a supercar distinction.

But ask about top speed and range, and that's where the mood changes. This car almost subverts classic Lamborghini ideology. Under pure electric power, the Asterion can go only 125km/h.

Plugged in to the 110V standard electrical outlet used in the US, and a full charge takes six hours. That's too long for any practical use. People tend to get antsy waiting around after their third or fourth cup of coffee.

Step on the gas

A saving grace: Under gasoline power, the car will hit 320km/h, which is more than enough to satisfy. But then we have to talk about driving range. The Lamborghini can go 50 kilometres in pure electric mode. When I posted that number on Instagram the other day, commenters laughed. That's the same range as the $US6000 ($6830) ICON Electric Flyer bicycle I saw last night up on Madison Avenue. And you don't even need a license to drive that.

Which brings me to a side note. It's fitting this car is named after the half-man, half-bull minotaur of Greek mythology. The fictional Asterion, of labyrinth fame, came from dubious patrimony as well; he lived a dual life between the world of men and the animal kingdom. Likewise, rather than assuming the persona of a famous Spanish fighting bull, like every other Lamborghini made, this Asterion gets the name of a half-bull creature. It must, like its namesake, balance between two worlds. It's way more aggressive than other hybrids from, say, Prius or Lexus, and deserves recognition as such. But it's not actually even fully electric, like Tesla's Model S, so it can't claim that eco-elite status.

Of course, the gentlemen who run Lamborghini know all of this. Winkelmann and his operatives have stated time and again that this Asterion is a "technology demonstrator" meant to explore how electric options might work in future Lambo models. It will never see the light of the production floor.

Give it time

It's unfair, or at least unrealistic, to expect the first, one-off, conceptual car from a vaunted brand to be on par with its long-produced conventional brethren. (Design-wise, it's already there.) After all, Porsche's 918 Spyder hybrid gets only 19 kilometres on pure-electric range. But as I write those words I find myself thinking it would have been cool - and a much stronger look - to pull that off. Why not come fresh out of the gate, as it were, with something astoundingly strong regardless of cost? Something more than a 50km cursory nod to electric power. The Tesla Model S gets 10 times that.

Word on the street is that Winkelmann only begrudgingly accepted the fact that Lambo "had" to make this car in order to pacify (superficially or otherwise) eco-conscious consumers and regulators. The marque needs to show a good-faith effort at delving into alternative fuel. In the land of luxury cars, public perception matters - even if a wealthy buyer can afford to buy a $240,000 Huracan, if he feels his employees and neighbours will hate him for it, he may hold off. These days, backlash against gas-guzzlers is swift and severe (witness Hummer and Maybach).

But if Winkelmann is frustrated, he's putting a good face on it. I spoke with him at length in Pebble Beach and Paris about this car, and he professed optimism about the new work, despite its admittedly limited range.

Anyway, my point is this: The Asterion is cool. It's not an incredible step in electric technology, but at least it looks good. And just because the range numbers are low doesn't mean Lambo doesn't deserve brownie points for putting forth something electric. Not to mention the technology it gleans from this exercise that will find its way into a production-level car at some point.

If Harley can make an electric hog, Lambo can do the same. It had to. Now let's get back to our regularly scheduled programming. Bring out the bulls.

BLOOMBERG

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