Feature: Beauty & Beast

There is no mystery to the mystique of Ferrari. The marque’s provenance is the Roman genius for designing pure, radical yet beautiful mechanical devices—from Leonardo da Vinci’s helicopter to Luca Trazzi’s espresso machines. However, it could be argued that Ferrari is not just a product of Italy’s culture, but that it has become the culture—that it is more responsible for the notion of Italian hip than hand-sewn loafers or balsamic vinegar.

Above all, Ferrari is red. Red cars. Red shirts. Red jackets. Red hats. Red camshaft covers. Red model cars available at the front desk of the Hotel Real Fini. Grandstands of red wherever Ferraris race. Red everything—from duffles to teddies—at Galleria Ferrari in Maranello, just a step from the factory gates. Cops paste Ferrari decals on their Fiat police cars. Rosso di Maranello is a local wine (red, of course) with what looks like a Tipo 135 on the label. And there likely are more Ferrari-themed restaurants in Italy than there are Starbucks coffee shops in Seattle.

It follows that Ferrari chose Maranello—about 45 minutes from Bologna, only 20 minutes in any Ferrari—to introduce its new 575M Maranello to the American media. The surprise was that the day wasn’t declared a national holiday. As it was, road crews waved shovels in adulation and demanded downshifts; a wrong turn into a school yard produced a four-minute siege by eighth-graders; seniors in crosswalks looked nostalgic for their youth; young men looked envious; young ladies fell in love. Such is passion stirred.

The Maranello has been with us since 1996, a front-engined berlinetta that is Ferrari’s challenge within the exclusive category of V-12 supercoupes that includes only two others: the Aston Martin Vanquish and Lamborghini Murciélago. As with the 550 before it, the 575M Maranello for 2003 is an excessive performer with a soft beauty concealing brute force. Its price has ballooned to $250,000 moderately optioned, which means the addition of an F/1 gearbox with paddle shifting, the first semiautomatic transmission in the history of Ferrari’s high-horsepower V-12s. Fitted luggage is extra.

The 575M (the number denotes a new displacement of 5.75 liters, the initial stands for modificati, or changes) represents a faithful transfer of racing technology to a road machine. The electrohydraulic gearbox and shifting system has evolved from Ferrari’s F/1 cars, as have the brakes, the smoke-free launch control, a smooth nose-to-tail pan beneath the fuselage, and braking and driving by wire.  In fact, this overlap of road and track is what Ferrari has always done well, and what Aston Martin and Lamborghini simply cannot do because they are not involved with racing.

Externally, only a gimlet-eyed enthusiast would notice any structural differences between the 550 and the 575: The front air intake yawns broader for better breathing by the bigger engine; the hood intake has been enlarged slightly; the front air dam now extends fully across the nose to impart additional downforce; the headlight clusters have been lightly rearranged; and the previously unfussy alloy wheels have been made a little busier by grooves in their five spokes. Beyond that, the Pininfarina styling studio that has guided so many Ferraris to greatness has wisely refrained from mucking about too much with a 6-year-old form that was deemed an instant classic when fresh from the stable.

Mechanically, improvements such as a bigger bore and longer stroke for an improved compression ratio, plus a snappier Bosch management system and retimed exhaust and intake valves, have sent horsepower soaring from 485 to 515. Despite this impressive addition, it will require an ultrasensitive derriere and a very expensive stopwatch to notice perfor-mance improvements. Acceleration from zero to 60 mph is reduced by only one-tenth of a second to 4.3 seconds, while the quarter-mile time has been dropped by just two-tenths to 12.3 seconds. So we’re really talking about bragging rights here, plus the psychological selling point of a car that breaks the 200-mph barrier and no longer has to settle for dawdling at a piddling 199 mph.

Internally, the changes are equally subtle and center on an instrument panel that used to be a sprawl. Now everything is in front of the driver and dominated by a huge, silver-ringed tachometer (redlined at 7,600) staring from the center of the cluster, where God and Enzo always intended it to be. The 340-kilometer-per-hour speedometer, in fact, is considerably smaller and relegated to the right of the tach.

Enough of trim and tweaks. Ferraris have always been about pace, handling, grip, acceleration, steering quick as a thought, and that impeccable sound of a four-cam V-12 that could have given Caruso singing lessons. The 575M Maranello, of course, is a perfect product of the pedigree.

Unfortunately, even criminally, the road portion of our test-drive was on thoroughly congested secondary roads, an exasperating wriggle through scores of villages clotting the 30 kilometers between Maranello and Montecchio Emilia. The ride did demonstrate the civility of the 575 and its ability to growl along in lower gears without hurting the engine or fraying the driver.

Our day with the Maranello, however, also included sharing the factory test track at Fiorano with two Ferrari F/1 cars and pit crews being prepped for a weekend of qualifying and racing at nearby San Remo (where, of course, Michael Schumacher won again). We booted the Maranello hard on a circuit contrived to feed a car all manner of difficulties: hairpins, fast and blind right sweepers, an enormous straight, decreasing radius and off-camber turns with absolutely no room for inattentive twits.

The car was better than us, sticking magnificently with traction and damping controls on, and not misbehaving at the same high speeds with the electronics switched off.  Although acceleration that pushes a driver into the upholstery is largely a myth woven by automotive writers short on superlatives, let it be known that the quickness of the Maranello will shove you into the trunk. Well, you’ll certainly feel positive g forces on your chest.

The steering is quick and quite faithful. And those brakes. Take the car deep into a corner while still at triple-digit speed, stomp on the brakes, take the pedal to where the pads must surely fry, and you will still have 50 percent of total braking power left.

Oh, and you’ll love the huge caliper covers. They’re painted, of course, red. 

Penske Luxury

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