It is always going to be hard to be a superstar’s younger sibling, but that was the role the Lamborghini Diablo found itself born into. The Countach might have lived long enough to lose its elegant simplicity between Gandini’s original design and the wing-bedecked 25th Anniversary. But even as it retired in 1990 it was still an unarguable icon, the OG supercar. The Diablo was sleeker and smoother, having lost the Countach’s edges, but also - critics often said - its edginess.
Being launched in 1990 didn’t help. The Diablo reached the market just as the supercar boom busted, becoming a much greyer era than the get-it, flaunt-it eighties that had inspired its creation. Which is doubtless why, despite the fact it managed to outsell its predecessor by an impressive margin, the Diablo is often regarded as the intermediate evolutionary step between the Countach and the Murcielago, the latter being the point at which Audi’s investment started to become obvious. One unkind critic went so far as to describe the Diablo as being the 996-gen 911 of V12 Lamborghinis.
Which isn’t the case here. Strap yourself in for some attempted revisionism, because the Diablo is every bit as worthy of hero status as both its predecessor and its successor. Or, more accurately, the right Diablo is.
There are many different Diablos because the car evolved significantly during its 11-year lifespan. It was born from a company that was in flux, and sometimes internal warfare. Work began when Lambo was still under the control of the Mimran brothers, but the arguments really started when they sold out to Chrysler in 1987. The new US management decided they didn’t like the look of the Diablo as styled by Marcello Gandini - which is a bit like asking Michelangelo to have another run at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Il Maestro was so unimpressed by the toned-down version that emerged from Chrysler’s Detroit studio that he disowned it, recycled much of his original proposal into what became the Cizeta-Moroder V16.
Mechanically, the early Diablo was very much done on the cheap. Power came from a revised version of the Countach’s V12, with an increase to 5.7 litres of swept capacity and standard fuel injection bringing it to a claimed 485hp. As with the Countach, the whole effort was delivered to the rear wheels, and although the Diablo was bigger and heavier much else came straight from its predecessor, too. According to Loris Bicocchi, the company’s then test driver, suspension settings were taken directly from the Countach 25th Anniversary, despite the new car’s mass being differently distributed. As launched the Diablo also lacked power steering, widely regarded by supercar makers as being effete at the time, nor did it get ABS brakes.
The first Diablo was pretty much as hairy-chested as the Countach had been, but it was soon clear that potential buyers weren’t adverse to more comfort or dynamic security. The Diablo quickly gained power steering, with a bigger change being the arrival of all-wheel drive with the Diablo VT - ‘Viscous Traction’ - in 1993. But while there were plenty of variants throughout the nineties it took the takeover of Lamborghini by Audi to move the Diablo to its ultimate incarnation.
Knowing that there would be a wait for the next-gen Murcielago, the Diablo got a final, heavy facelift in 1998. This brought a new interior, ABS brakes and fixed headlights in place of the earlier pop-up items. A year later Lambo introduced a final mechanical evolution with a brawnier 6.0-litre engine, this also gaining a new front end created by a young designer called Luc Donckerwolke, on the start of his journey to become one of the world’s most famous automotive stylists. To mark the end of Diablo production Lambo created an even more limited run of 6.0 VT SE models, which is what brings us here.
Like the Countach 25th Anniversary I drove last year in company with the new LPI 800-4, this gloriously golden Diablo VT SE is part of Lamborghini’s own museum collection, more usually seen on display at Sant’ Agata than on the road. But thanks to an event celebrating the long life of the company’s V12 engine I got to experience it back-to-back with both the same Countach as last year and an even blingier Versace edition Murcielago. In terms of driving, this was definitely the highlight of that trio.
A brand-new 6.0-litre VT was also the first Lamborghini I encountered, which was definitely starting at the top for a junior road tester. Somebody more important had cried off the launch at late notice, so I was dispatched to Italy to drive my first supercar - including a stint on the tight track at Varano. I remember the experience as being thrilling and terrifying in equal measure, with the Diablo’s width and lack of visibility defining the experience as much as the enormous performance.
Nearly a quarter of a century later the Diablo still feels huge, but the chance to experience it alongside even the most evolved Countach proves that it was an ergonomic masterpiece compared to the earlier car. It is much easier to get in through the bigger aperture of the gullwing door, and although the driving position is offset and the knee room is still limited there is much more space in the footwell - enough for a rest next to the clutch pedal. The SE’s carbon fibre trimmed interior feels special too, and it is possible to see all of the widely spread array of analogue dials from the driver’s seat.
The V12 fires into life with a softer voice than I was expecting. Modern Lamborghinis start with a ‘look at me’ snarl, but the Diablo settles into a bass-heavy, muscular idle - it takes a blipped throttle to increase both noise and pitch. Moving through slow urban traffic also proves that it is much easier to drive slowly than the Countach; the clutch is heavy but progressive, and the open gate of the five-speed dogleg gearbox is a real pleasure to use. Visibility doesn’t get any better once rolling, with the pillars and XL mirrors hiding an alarming amount of frontal view, especially heading into roundabouts. But that’s nothing compared to the near-total lack of sight to the rear. The steering still has a manly level of weight to it, despite power assistance, but is accurate and is already delivering plenty of feedback at gentle speeds.
Don’t worry, despite the Diablo being a literal museum piece, I get the opportunity to push it harder too. The engine is quick to turn snarly, and pulls with increasing vigour as the revs increase. There’s so much mid-range muscle that getting close to the marked 7,500rpm redline on the road is a serious achievement, especially given stratospheric gearing. Online sources reckon the SE had shorter ratios than the regular VT, but I can’t see that being true for this example given that first runs past an indicated 60mph and second is good for more than 90mph. The combination of having only five ratios and a 200mph top speed has dictated the chasmic gaps between gears, but the engine has more than enough brawn to mean this isn’t an issue - with the breadth of second gear meaning there is rarely any need to change out of it in twisty stuff. But one thing is crystal clear - the VT still feels properly quick even by 2023 standards.
But the rest of the dynamic experience possesses a surprising subtlety, too - one that completely passed me by in the sensory overload of driving the VT for the first time. The steering is much lower geared than in a modern supercar; it doesn’t take an especially sharp corner to get beyond that point of crossing wrists and having to adjust hold. But the low-speed communication stays good as loadings increase and slight slip angles start to build. The Diablo is too big and heavy to ever be considered wieldy on tight, twisty road. But it keeps its driver in a tight loop and, once attuned to how far out its outer extremities lie, it is entirely happy to be pushed towards well-flagged limits.
Or even taken a little beyond them, which is definitely not something I was expecting to happen before I got into the car. The VT’s traction is predictably good, with grip to match the power, but the Diablo is also happy to explore the margins beyond that - something I definitely wasn’t brave enough to try the first time I drove one. There’s enough encouragement in the well-nailed front end and high levels of adhesion to have me experimenting with the front-to-rear handling balance in longer corners, and even to push hard enough to discover some progressive oversteer in tighter ones.
I returned to the Diablo expecting to find a Countach plus - something which probably did hold true for the earlier examples. But this late 6.0-litre VT SE feels much closer to Lamborghini’s future at the point it was created, a dynamic preview of much of what would feature in the Murcielago - yet still keeping much of the character of the earlier cars. It is a truly spectacular thing, and unarguably worthy of PH Hero status. I can honestly say that if a fairy godmother gave me free choice of any V12 Lamborghini, to drive rather than invest in, the VT would be right at the top of the list.
Specification | Lamborghini Diablo 6.0 VT SE
Engine: 5992cc V12
Transmission: Five-speed manual, all-wheel drive
Power: 550hp @ 7,100rpm
Torque: 458 lb ft @ 5,500rpm
0-60mph: 3.9 secs
Top speed: 201mph
Price: £158,000 (2000)
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