IT didn’t happen on 43 previous visits to Japan over more than 30 years but finally I am driving on the streets of Tokyo.
The clock is ticking towards midnight yet the cityscape is brightly lit and filled with the final surge of commuters on the way to home-bound trains to end their working day in the capital. It’s so familiar and yet so very, very different.
I have just driven up the same hill where my virtual Nissan GT-R winds past 240km/h in the digital reality of Gran Turismo. This time I’m managing barely 40km/h as I pass the front door of the Sony headquarters where the GT gamers do their best work.
Soon I’ll be doing a lap of the Imperial Palace, on roads that I know from the Fast and Furious franchise, and later there will be a stop at Shinjuku train station, where an astounding four million people transit every day.
It’s a dream drive from the virtual world that’s made all the more real because it’s happening at night, when Tokyo is at its brightest best and also closest to the scenes on my PlayStation. Since it’s Japan, you might expect me to be driving a real-world GT-R in Tokyo. Or perhaps the radical new Honda NSX. Or perhaps settling for a humble Mazda or Nissan or Toyota.
No. Not a chance. Not one of the homegrown makers is keen on letting foreign journalists loose on Tokyo’s roads. They are polite yet firm and the answer is always no.
So, instead, I’m strapped into a Lamborghini Huracan LP580-2 and the Italian exotic is making my 44th visit to Japan a landmark one as well as crossing off a bucket-list item.
The Lamborghini is even more outrageous in Japan than it is in Sydney or Melbourne, rolling in front of a bumper-tobumper backdrop of Japanese taxis that look as if they have just driven from the pages of the Toyota catalogue from 1979.
It’s almost Blade Runner other-worldly, an impression that’s emphasised by the rambunctious soundtrack pumping hard from behind me as the highly tuned V10 runs on the maximum-attack Corsa drive mode.
There is almost no chance to unleash its full 427kW, apart from a couple of brief bursts in first and second gears, but it’s still giant fun.
The Tokyo speed limit is mostly pegged at just 50km/h so I shouldn’t tell you the car’s data logger records 108 a couple of times on an elevated freeway. The average speed over 90 minutes is less than 20km/h.
Even so slow, it’s a full-scale immersion in a driving culture that is so different from our own, even when I’m driving a Huracan — priced at $331,000 in Japan, not far from the $378,000 in Australia — that I know well from a Phillip Island track attack earlier this year.
The first impression is obvious: the Huracan is hi-tech and high-end, looking fabulous in the prime valet spot outside a swanky new Tokyo hotel. I love the engine start, which looks more like the “Fire” button in a jet fighter, the grippy twin seats, the digital dash and the theatre of the engine start-up.
But things are different this time, as I’m sitting in a left-hand drive car and Japan drives on the right like Australia. The satnav is incomprehensible but I have a good friend in the codriver’s seat.
Peter Lyon has lived in Japan for 26 years and knows his way around Tokyo, can read the AUSTRALIA is a bright spot for Lamborghini. New boss Stefano Domenicali, formerly the head of Ferrari F1, wants to check the company’s local success in doubling sales over the past two years.
“We are in an incredible moment. In Australia, the market is fine,” Domenicali says. “I want to go there soon. To understand this success. And to keep it up.”
Domenicali could make it as early as next month, with a visit to include the fast-growing Motorclassica event in Melbourne.
“For me, every market has a different characteristic. But when the light is switching on suddenly, reaching more than 100 (annual sales), this is a light that I need to understand. “We need to make sure we are in the right dimension for Urus (the coming super SUV) in Australia. My feeling is that car will be fantastic for Australia. That is why I want to be there.”
The Urus will have serious off-road ability thanks to an oldschool automatic to send twin-turbo V8 power to each wheel. Drivetrain testing is under way in the deep sand of the Middle East and Domenicali says the conventional transmission is better for off-road conditions than the twinclutch job used on a wide range of vehicles in the Volkswagen Group, which owns Lamborghini.
“(It is) what is needed for off-road performance. No doubleclutch automatic can manage this level of torque,” he says.
“We will have a turbo for only one reason ... torque at low rpm. We will have a V8 with bi-turbo. This is the first time that Lamborghini will use a turbo but not in a supersports car.”
The super SUV has the potential to more than double Lamborghini’s annual sales from the 2500 currently achieved by its super sports Huracan and Aventador. road signs and speaks Japanese like a native (handy when we pull up for the photo-op outside Shinjuku station).
As feisty as I remember from the track time and a road test on home roads, the Lambo seems much bigger in the maelstrom of Tokyo traffic. I’m worried every second about bumping a kerb or a car, of just doing the wrong thing in a (very) foreign country.
But the Japanese are polite drivers, Lyon-san is spot-on with his corner calls and I begin to relax and enjoy myself.
After 30 minutes I feel confident enough to rush up to the redline in first gear from one of the endless red lights. It’s fast and loud but the Japanese drivers ignore me and catch up quickly as I stop for the next red.
I can report that the Huracan is comfortable, the lights are good, the outward vision is not as bad as I had feared and that it turns even more heads in Tokyo — out of polite admiration, not envy or aggression — than anywhere in Australia. Then it’s time to turn back to the hotel, with one last blast on the V10 trumpet, before shutting down for the night.
The job is done, the dream is achieved. Car and driver alike have survived.