Sunday, April 1, 2007

Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano... Only in .M.H.O.

5,999 reasons to fall in love, and just two freckles to ignore

Vehicle Tested:

2007 Ferrari 599 2dr Coupe

First Impressions:
The 599 is the exotic Gran Turismo you expect from Ferrari, but it also succeeds in exceeding our expectations as a sports car.

Featured Specs:

  • Brilliant 612-horsepower V12
  • Lightning-quick paddle-shifted six-speed
  • Electromagnetic suspension dampers
  • Traditionally impeccable Ferrari interior

It's difficult to discuss a Ferrari without a twinge of reverent nostalgia. In some cases, blind praise for all things red and Italian has been misplaced, but in other ones, the superlatives and hyperbole are well-deserved. That said, the 2007 Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano will go down in history as one of the greatest Ferrari road cars ever. There, we said it.

Rated at 612 horsepower, the 3,722-pound 599 GTB rivals many barely legal, slightly disguised racecars with its 6.1-pound/hp weight-to-power ratio. Launched properly and shifted via the improved F1-Superfast six-speed transmission, Ferrari claims a 3.7-second 0-to-62 mph (100 km/h) time. The wind-tunnel-tested Pininfarina-sculpted body and undercarriage produce more than 400 pounds of downforce at 186 mph on the way to a claimed top speed in excess of 200 mph. The optional carbon-ceramic brake discs look like they came directly from a Le Mans racer. The semiactive suspension works miracles on nearly any surface. Yet the two-seat coupe can be driven comfortably, safely and with confidence all day, every day while it carries 11.3 cubic feet of luggage — custom-tailored, if you wish.

While the car hides a wealth of trickle-down racing technology, it also pampers like a luxury Grand Tourer. Latent fury, dormant volatility, elegant violence all sum up the newest creation from the dedicated marque that's about to enter its 60th year. For between $250,000 and $260,000 and after a two-year wait, you, too, could enjoy one of the world's most advanced and coveted cars.

In the Ferrari tradition
In the richest Ferrari tradition, the "Cheen-quay, no-vay, no-vay, Gran Turismo Berlinetta Fiorano" (599 GTB Fiorano) showcases the classic front-engine V12 rear-drive configuration that began with the very first production car to bear the founder's name in 1947. While that formula has more or less remained, Enzo himself may never have been able to fathom to what extreme it would one day be exploited in the 599 GTB.

Or maybe he did. Writ large below a smiling portrait of Enzo Ferrari on a poster in one of the trackside briefing rooms deep within the company's Maranello, Italy testing facility called Pista di Fiorano (track of Fiorano) is a quote that reads, "…if I had to say that when I started, I thought of making more than just one car, I would be lying." It is with this dedicated stance that each Ferrari seems to be conceived, designed and built; as if each creation is to be the first and last car to ever bear the name Ferrari. Each car represents the absolute best the legendary maker can produce at that time (cost no object), but at the same time, leaves the door open for yet unimagined improvements. Such is the case with the 599 GTB Fiorano.

Lofty goal
The challenge put to the engineering team on the 599 GTB was to surpass the brutal performance of the twin-turbocharged midengine F40 supercar (1987-1992), never mind the 575M Maranello, which the 599 GTB technically replaces. Once the undisputed supercar of record, the F40 remains on many (published and personal) lists as one of the best performance cars of all time. Does the 599 eclipse the F40? We have to take Ferrari's word for it because the carmaker didn't provide us a side-by-side comparison drive, but it appears so.

The power of Enzo
Contrary to an earlier Inside Line prediction, the 5,999cc/612-hp V12 that sits deep under the hood of the aluminum space-framed 599 GTB is not an evolution of the 5,748cc/508-hp V12 found in the nose of a 575M. Under the guidance of Ferrari powertrain director Jean-Jacque His (former Formula 1 engine guru), the "6.0-liter" 65-degree V12 from the million-dollar Enzo supercar has been evolved, refined and tamed for everyday road-car use. The Enzo's engine produces 650 hp at 7,800 rpm, whereas the one in the 599 GTB makes 612 hp at 7,600 rpm (with an 8,400-rpm redline). That's hardly tame, and according to Ferrari, it's the most powerful naturally aspirated two-seat production road car in the world (the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren has a 617-hp supercharged V8).

Another goal His set was to tune the intake and exhaust for resonant effect, but to reduce unwanted mechanical noise at the same time. Mission accomplished. The unmistakable 12-cylinder shriek of the V12 under hard acceleration changes to a guttural hum at part throttle and nearly disappears at cruising speeds where wind noise is the only indication of pace. With 11 airflow paths through and around the car helping to create the discernable downforce, it seems only natural to hear the wind rushing over the car when traveling over 100 mph.

Italian roads
Next to the smooth, well-maintained autostrade, Italian roads are notoriously inconsistent. Our drive route took us up the historic 2,400-foot hill climb from Fornovo di Taro to Berceto. It was here, in 1919, that Enzo Ferrari entered his first race, the "Parma Poggio di Berceto Hill Climb," and earned 12th place overall and 3rd in class — years before he built his own car. Tight, bumpy unguarded switchbacks are set apart by several long sweepers where the 599 GTB could exploit its engine and semiactive suspension, a Ferrari production car first. Co-developed with Delphi, the magnetorheological dampers are similar to those used on some Corvettes; however, the software that controls them is unique to Ferrari, which owns the specific programming for two years.

In lay terms, the dampers contain a fluid which can change viscosity (from more watery to more syrupy) in the presence of an electric current, rather than relying on the single viscosity of oil. Four sensors mounted to each suspension control arm report individual wheel movements, which are processed in one millisecond (0.001 second). In turn, the processor sends an electronic charge to the dampers, which react in 10 milliseconds, or about four times quicker than a traditional oil-filled shock absorber. Compared to the traditional suspension in the 575M, Ferrari says the average variation in vertical wheel movements on undulating roads (or caused by hitting a pothole) is decreased by 30 percent, while the vertical acceleration felt by the driver through the steering wheel or seat bottom is reduced by 10 percent.

In other words, the car reads the road and reacts with an appropriate amount of damping to reduce harshness. And it works. We've driven this same stretch of road in both a 575M and an F430 and we would've guessed (incorrectly) that the route had been repaved.

Track suited
Of course, there are other benefits from the new suspension that can be observed on the racetrack. The Fiorano circuit is a demanding 1.9-mile, 15-turn course used by Ferrari to test both racecars and production cars alike. Yes, one M. Schumacher holds the lap record. Each section of track has a purpose. For example, one area checks the drivability of the engine out of a corner, while another measures the ability of a car to turn while under braking; yet another shows how well a car soaks up undulations while at maximum lateral G-forces.

The new suspension on the 599 GTB Fiorano is almost too good in this dynamic laboratory. The car remains so flat while cornering and so connected to the surface that all the usual indicators (body roll, tire squeal, sliding) of a car "being out of shape" are virtually erased. We found the only method to determine the traction envelope was by gauging neck muscle strain under braking and cornering.

Excessive wheelspin out of corners is quashed by Ferrari's new "F1-Trac" traction control system, which limits the engine's torque output by first cutting spark, then throttle. With the 599's steering-wheel-mounted "manettino" vehicle controller switch set to "RACE" mode, we found the traction control system useful, but ultimately not as pleasurable as regulating wheelspin with one's own organic gray-matter traction control when the system is shut off.

With 90 percent of the engine's total 448 lb-ft of torque available at a mere 3,500 rpm, the 599's ability to light the specially designed Pirelli P Zero tires (305/35ZR20) ablaze is expected. However, with the engine's low reciprocating mass and high compression ratio, it's relatively easy to breathe off the throttle just enough to keep an exact amount of spin or grip. Who knew a 600-plus-horsepower V12 would be so tractable and responsive to pedal modulation?

Shifty business
As the track opens up to its longest 0.48-mile straight, we could sample the improved F1-SuperFast paddle shifter (a traditional six-speed manual transmission is also available). As with other F1-equipped Ferraris (almost 90 percent), the car has a true "manual" transmission but there's no clutch pedal. In simple terms, the paddles (right shifts up, left shifts down) actuate the clutch electronically and the gears shift hydraulically. Depending on throttle position and vehicle mode, the system automatically adjusts clutching smoothness and shift speed.

At its most aggressive, the 599 GTB's F1-SuperFast transmission is able to shift gears in 100 milliseconds (0.1 second), compared to the 575M's 250 ms, or even the F430's 150 ms. To put this in perspective, current Formula 1 racecars shift in about 50 ms. The biggest complaints we've had with so-called "auto-clutch manual" gearboxes (as in BMW's SMG or Lamborghini's e-gear) is that the faster the shifts occur, the harsher the resulting whiplash from the dip in the acceleration curve. Now, Ferrari has not only the quickest shifter, but the smoothest as well. They've figured out a way to overlap the clutching and shifting tasks to reduce harshness and shift time simultaneously. From the pit wall, the 599 sounds like an F1 racecar as it pops off upshifts in a tenth of a second. From inside the car, the only indication that an upshift has occurred is the drop in engine rpm because your neck muscles don't have enough time to relax between shifts. The only transmission that rivals the F1-SuperFast in terms of seamlessness is VW/Audi's DSG double-clutcher.

Those two freckles
OK, so what's not to love about the otherwise stunning 599 GTB Fiorano? They're small complaints, but they may mean something to those few fortunate people (250 per year after November 2006) who will ever drive one.

First, the steering weight is out of whack with the rest of the car. At 160 mph on the autostrada, the steering wasn't nailed down tight like it would be in, say, a Porsche on the autobahn. If I'm going transcontinental, I don't want to be steering down a straightaway at triple digits with feather-light steering. There should be an exponential increase in the amount of resistance to errant input at that speed. Despite the 599 GTB's rather quick steering ratio (13.5:1), we found an unexpected amount of steering input was required to drive through tighter turns at Fiorano (turns 9 and 13); almost needing to un-hand the wheel and grab again. This understeering effect might be a result of the car's long-ish wheelbase, front axle weight, and relatively narrow-width of its 245mm front tires, compared to a similarly endowed car that comes to mind — the Corvette Z06. A possible solution to both idiosyncrasies would be to reduce the diameter of the steering wheel, making it physically harder to turn and more "flickable" in either direction.

The second blemish, and we blush to even call it that, is that the "RACE" mode on the manettino summons too much nannying, or control over the car through stability control and traction control. We had expected the F1-Trac and RACE-spec stability to be far more lenient than it was. Instead of coming on like a dimmer switch making minute adjustments/corrections, both the traction and stability controls behaved more like an on/off light switch. Sure, the RACE mode allows some oversteer out of a corner and even recognizes corrective countersteering input, but the safety systems intervene just at the point where a skilled driver could manage to pilot the car even quicker and more adeptly. Once we had moved the selector to CST (control of stability and traction) off, the car came to life as if it just had its lungs filled with oxygen. "Ah-ha!" I exclaimed to myself on the last lap of the day. The car was alive and managing to do exactly as I conducted it to do, and with confidence and authority.

If the "SPORT" settings were replaced with those from the "RACE" mode, and a decidedly more permissive set of parameters were written for "RACE," the top of the 599's performance envelope still would be secure while offering track-day participants room to play in relative safety. For the rest of the millionaires, the settings are appropriate to protect the quarter-million-dollar investment. There, that's it: light/slow steering and a somewhat conservative "RACE" mode. Hardly the kind of criticism the best Ferrari road car of all time deserves.


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