The front-engined V12 Ferrari is back, and how . . . Pierre Dieudonné was amongst the first journalists to try it
The traffic on the autostrada from Modena towards Abetone had made us a few minutes late for our rendezvous. We didn't think it mattered a great deal. After all, it's always been something of a tradition to have to loiter in Ferrari's waiting-room.
This time, however, the customarily warm welcome was accompanied by a hitherto unknown degree of efficiency: test driver Dario Borsari was already waiting for us in Dottore Perfetti's office, the car was ready in the courtyard and, even though it was a pre-production model, it had been officially registered, thus removing some of the restrictions of usage imposed by the charismatic 'Prova' plates. We could conduct our test in complete freedom, until late in the evening, wheresoever and howsoever we wished. With the blessing of Luca di Montezemolo, all corporate facilities were at our disposal. All it would take was a 'phone call. The circuit at Mugello having already been requisitioned by a famous racing team that day, we chose to head instead for Fiorano, where Giorgio Pianta himself was busily fettling some of Alfa Corse's racing saloons. Thereafter, we continued our test on the public roads around Emilia. Within the Apennine mountains that dwarf the region lurk some particularly challenging roads . . .
Most true enthusiasts are already familiar with the stunning lines of the 456 GT, for the latest Ferrari/Pininfarina collaboration was unveiled last autumn. Now that it has reached the final stages of development, the important thing was actually to drive it.
Our designated test car, silver with blue trim, was the fourth of six pre-production examples that have been built. Prior to that, there were seven prototypes, and in total the 456 GT has clocked up more than half a million kilometres during its development.
The style of Ferrari's new two-plus-two is strongly redolent of the Daytona, and there are other retro touches inside: the chrome dial surrounds and metal gear lever knob remind one of the 250 GTO, but such touches blend well in an environment that is otherwise modern in terms of both design and equipment.
The electric front seats and steering column can be adjusted to virtually any position, so it's easy to make yourself perfectly comfortable. The safety belts are located within the front seats, which facilitates access to the rear when you tip the latter forward. But even though the 456 GT is the most capacious Ferrari two-plus-two to date, it only really offers four-up accommodation to a family with two young kids, and even then only if the parents are of sufficiently modest height not to require the rearmost setting for either front seat.
To make optimum use of the luggage space, a beautiful four-piece set of suitcases is available from Modenese couturier Schedoni, supplier of Ferrari's Fl seats. Every cliché in the book has been used to describe the alluring wail of a Ferrari V12, though a little of the aural sensuality has been absorbed by the need to meet modern environmental requirements. Even so, it remains stronger and more appealing than any of the modern generation of German V12s, which are, shall we say, slightly more agricultural. To understand why, you only have to glance at the engine's architecture. This V12 is unusually compact, and visibly takes a few of its styling cues from modern F1 practice: a hybrid vee-angle (65 deg), narrow valve angle (21 deg), individually tuned manifold branches, dry sump and so forth. At almost 5.5 litres, it slots, in terms of power and torque, somewhere in-between the 512 TR and the F40.
With the gearbox assembly at the rear, weight distribution is pretty much equal. This, and particular attention to handling on the part of Maranello's technicians (adjustable shock absorbers, aerodynamic boot lip, limited slip diff whose locking properties vary under accelerative and decelerative forces), endows the 456 with astonishing agility for a tourer weighing 3975 lb.
In the present economic climate, when questions are being asked, with increasing frequency, about the viability of such highperformance cars, the 456 appears to be a statement of faith, one which gives cause for optimism about the durability of the Ferrari legend: with its depth of technical support and a devoted workforce, Ferrari continues to cross new performance frontiers. With each new launch, that is always an absolute priority. The marque's beauty is never only skin-deep. One of the greatest surprises about the
456 is its gearbox. Usually, one's muscles tense up at the very sight of a Ferrari gear lever, but in this case first is selected with an unaccustomed, and gentle, flick. The other five gears can be found with equal deft precision.
The variable rate Servotronic steering allows you to place the car on your chosen line with ease. Switch the dampers to the 'sport' setting and any sudden weight transfer is easily absorbed. You simply don't need brute force to drive the 456 GT quickly, though a degree of vigour is required if you want top tap its full potential.
Despite its vocation as a comfortable GT and an ample Oft 3in girth, it remains possible to scamper cross-country extremely swiftly, no matter how tortuous the route. It's a little easier to drive than the mid-engined 512 TR, and you really get the impression that the new two-plus-two would be quite capable of giving the Testarossa's successor a hard time in a straight fight. At Ferrari, of course, there has never been any question of artificially governing speed in the same way as German manufacturers have settled for a I 55 mph limit. The 456 GT's quoted maximum is 302 km/h (188 mph). "And that's four-up," insists Maranello which, to be fair, has acquired a reputation for honesty when it comes to supplying data to the press. Furthermore, we were given an official test slip by engi
neer Cimatti, head of the 456 GT research and development team, which contained figures recorded by the factory at Nardo last February; the test mule in question weighed 3905 lb, but yielded 'only' 426 bhp, slightly less than the 442 quoted at the launch. Two-up, this particular car sprinted from rest to 100 km/h (62 mph) in 5.6s and covered the standing kilometre in 23.62s. Average top speed was 312.4 km/h (194.1 mph), with a one-way best of 316. I (196.4).
Italian magazine Quattroruote was the first independent assessor to put a 456 through its paces, and comfortably beat the acceleration times set by Ferrari's own test team. . .
For a two-plus-two, the results are astonishing. Any further comment is superfluous.
The six-speed 'box is a slightly unnecessary extravagance, but it does allow you to have a bit of fun while, at the same time, making full use of the available performance, no matter what the conditions.
At Fiorano, most corners are taken in second or third, fourth only being used for the two quickest sweeps. On the straights, fifth suffices. Such is the note of the V12 that's it's difficult to resist the temptation to keep it fizzing between 4500-7000 rpm; it's positively operatic. That's when you get the full effect, when you appreciate that Ferrari builds engines like no one else. And you don't even have to go all the way to the limiter, which cuts in at 7300.
However, you can just as easily use fourth between 1000-1500 rpm: it will pull away effortlessly, without the slightest stammer, and with no hint that such idleness on the driver's part is causing the slightest mechanical strain.
Unlike certain other, similar systems, the positive effects of the adjustable damping, developed in conjunction with Bilstein, can genuinely be felt. At Fiorano, you could actually feel the edge of the car's handling ebbing away if you switched, via a convenient cockpit switch, from 'sport' to 'normal' or 'soft'. The system responds more suitably, and more quickly, to cornering conditions than that on the Mondial T, thanks to more sophisticated electronics and a greater number of sensors. The effect is a far better ride/handling compromise, no matter how many occupants you are carrying.
The 456 GT's excellent traction is another source of astonishment. The fact that the rear end is reluctant to break free, despite the colossal torque, isn't only down to the rear tyres (the factory fits 285/40 Bridgestones on I Ox17 wheels, though Pirelli makes an alternative), nor has Ferrari seen fit to do away with elements of pure engineering and fit a traction control system. Without trying the car On a wet road, it is not possible to make a definitive assessment. Suffice it to say that, in the dry, you have to do no more than hold your line to allow all the power to be transmitted effectively.
Every Ferrari should be subjected to 10 laps of Fiorano at full chat, and the 456 GT's brakes (it uses the 512 TR's discs and calipers, with a particularly well sorted cooling system), were well up to the task. On the public road, you need to push really hard almost too much so for a machine of this calibre to awaken the ABS sensor.
Aesthetically, Ferrari has got the balance about right with the 456 GT. After a few years of comparative automotive madness, this is altogether more appropriate for the modem day.
Technically, the Prancing Horse remains as startling as ever. Nobody could claim, with any justification, that its products are anything other than mechanical pearls. The return of the V I 2 is an event which will gladden marque enthusiasts everywhere.
In Italy, the new two-plus-two is expected to go on sale for 320 million lire (around £150,000), though there minor imperfections still require attention at Maranello before it is available to the public. Some potential purchasers, used to German attention to detail, may be particularly wary of this. First deliveries are promised for September, and production will not exceed 400 units per annum. After passing through Pininfarina's caring hands, the 456 GT's drivetrain will be assembled on the assembly line left vacant by the F40. P D
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