Imagine my surprise (and excitement) when I was presented with an invitation to sample some of Italy's finest hardware. I'm talking about cars that stir the soul of any auto enthusiast: Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradale, 575M Maranello and Maserati's Coupe' Cambiocorsa. Needless to say, I accepted the invitation posthaste.
2004 marks 50 years for Ferrari in the US and this milestone is being celebrated during the 360 Challenge season. As part of the weekend activities surrounding the Road Atlanta event (which took place May 14-16, 2004) Gruppo Ferrari Maserati invited members of the local automotive media to spend the better part of the day getting to know their products.
This might seem a bit far fetched, but after learning more about Ferrari and the way they operate, it could be said that Ferrari and Honda hold quite a few similarities in philosophy - in particular the intense focus on racing. Of course Honda's been building mass market vehicles to fund their racing habits, but much like Ferrari, Honda is driven by the passion to win, and develops products which reflect this passion. Obviously Honda's vehicles make concessions to affordability and mass appeal, but driving enjoyment has always been a part of the equation for Honda, regardless of price point. Thanks to its positioning and exclusivity, Ferrari doesn't need to make such concessions, but every one of its vehicles must exude Ferrari's passion for driving pleasure and performance. Ferrari has always been a relatively small operation (current annual production is limited to 4000 units worldwide), but they have a long and storied history of competing in and winning races, in the face of heavily-funded competitors. While Honda is many times larger than Ferrari, they too have taken on a sort of "giant slayer" role in many ways as well. Admittedly the differences probably far outstrip the similarities, but it's still interesting to view the two companies in this light. In any case, there is a great deal of respect and admiration for the Ferrari brand from auto enthusiasts of all makes.
While I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to drive these cars, my time in each car was quite limited, so my commentary will be kept brief.
Since we were testing these cars in a race track setting, it was no surprise that the Challenge Stradale was my favorite. It's really a purpose built racer that's been fitted with the minimum hardware to make it streetworthy - not the other way around. That's not to say that it's stripped bare and punishing to drive. It seemed fairly civilized - roughly on par with the NSX Type R. I would have loved to have been able to jump into an NSX-R to more directly compare the two cars.
I'd heard from a number of people that the 360's motor sounds similar to an S2000 motor at full song, and now I know exactly what they're talking about. From behind the wheel (and to some extent even outside the car) the 3.6L V8 really does sound a lot like a pair of F20Cs singing in perfect unison, thanks to the flat-plane crankshaft. That's another reason why I liked the Stradale so much - it had a bit of a feeling of familiarity. With a curb weight of barely over 2800 lbs, it's virtually identical in weight to an S2000, but outmuscles the mighty-mite by 185 hp and over 100lb-ft of extra twist. Then there's the adjustable suspension, carbon ceramic brakes, and seemingly endless grip. I wasn't really allowed to probe the limits of the car very much, but from what I could gather it was a very forgiving, intuitive car to drive. The sequential gearbox operated flawlessly on the track, executing very smooth and quick upshifts and downshifts, provided you performed upshifts while keeping the throttle open or downshifts while braking. A couple of times I instinctively lifted the throttle while upshifting and the result was a slightly jerky engagement. It really wasn't a big deal, however. Below is a video which I shot from the passenger seat of the Stradale. Prior to taking the wheel of each vehicle, a Ferrari or Maserati "chaperone" drove for the first lap in order to familiarize us with each car.
Windows Media V9 2 min, 30 sec (6.95MB)
DivX 2 min, 30 sec (8.79MB)
The Maserati and 575M were designed more as proper GT cars. That's not to say that they are deficient in the performance department by any means, but these are very comfortable and sophisticated cars, with finely crafted and exquisitely detailed interiors. Thanks to a friendly chaperone (we always had a Ferrari or Maserati representative with us in the passenger seat of the cars while on the track), I was actually able to run the fastest in the Maserati Coupe' Cambiocorsa, clearing 120mph on the long stretch between turns 7 and 10. Considering a mass of nearly 2 tons, and the lowest pony count of the group, the Maserati was quite impressive, with great grip, balance, and impressive body control. The 4.2L V8 has a more traditional V8 sound and a usefully wide powerband - plenty of torque and power. The 575M Maranello's 5.75L V-12 has a unique sound as well, not quite as deep as the Maserati's V8, but throatier than the Stradale's 3.6.
Overall, the day was another once-in-a-lifetime type of experience and I'm very grateful to Gruppo Ferrari Maserati for providing the opportunity to learn about and enjoy their products on a fine road course. I hope you enjoy the photos and video.