A Ferarri good enough to be called Daytona

The 550 Maranello is not only staggeringly fast, it's also very refined and surprisingly accessible. Report by Steve Sutcliffe

In creating the 550 Maranello, Ferrari chose to entertain a brief as long as it was wide. The talents of this car are extraordinary by any automotive standards, but unlike its predecessors Testarossa, 512TR and F512M anyone with a small amount of skill can climb into a 550 and, almost immediately, get a lot out of it. Which is precisely what Ferrari wanted: accessibility.

The key argument surrounding the factory's decision to replace the midengined TR models with a frontengined GT like the 550, is whether a car of such straightforward configuration can truly capture the thrill and spirit of its forebears. But then Ferrari would probably offer two answers. First, that the TR was burdened by a gearbox mounted beneath its flat12 engine, which therefore sat too high in the chassis. Second, the 365 GTB/4, more affectionately known as the Daytona.

The latter remains perhaps the most evocative and dynamically crushing road car Ferrari has ever produced. So given that the 550 leans so obviously on the Daytona for inspiration in layout, as well as design then maybe the doubters should pause for thought before dismissing it as an improper Ferrari.

If this is not sufficient to swing you in the 550's direction then I suggest you beg, borrow or steal the means to secure a test drive in one, after which you'll not remain unconvinced for long. Because the 550 Maranello is untouchable on the road.

You expect blistering acceleration and a mighty top speed from any car wearing a prancing horse on its quarters. You don't expect impeccable low speed engine manners, a beautifully slick gearchange, and crisp and powerful brakes. Nor do you expect a level of motorway refinement that falls some way short of that offered by a Ford Mondeo, but would be perfectly acceptable to drivers of most modern small hatchbacks. All of which means that, apart from the 456 GT, this is easily the most refined Ferrari in history.

Naturally, though, it's what happens when the 479bhp 5.4-litre V12 is given its head that makes the 550 so outstanding. The Maranello is savagely fast. Autocar clocked it at 4.6sec to 60mph, 10.1sec to the ton, and at 180mph it was still tugging at the horizon with enthusiasm.

And yet this is an engine that will carry the 1693kg 550 from 30-50mph in top gear (sixth) in exactly the same time as it takes a Golf GTi to do the same in third. That's what modern engine management (in this case a bespoke Bosch 5.2 Motronic system) can do for the manners and flexibility of a big V12.

For the 550's chassis, Ferrari shortened, stiffened and lightened the 456 GT. It also dispensed with the rear seats, partly to achieve a perfect 50/50 weight distribution, but also to accentuate the car's overtly sporting role over the more soothing two-plus-two 456.

No matter how classic the cocktail of double wishbones suspended by coil springs and controlled by anti-roll bars and electronically adjustable dampers sounds, nothing can prepare you for the way the 550 tackles corners. For anyone wary of the prospect of 479bhp being transferred to a wet road through nothing more than a pair of 295/35 18in Pirelli P-Zeros, Ferrari has designed an immaculate three-stage traction control system. This can be either fully engaged (no wheelspin), partly engaged (a little wheelspin) or completely switched off (watch those Pirellis fry). But it's only on the third setting in the dry that the 550 reveals its true character, allowing even mediocre hands to drift it around on the throttle accurately. In the rain, though, don't even think about turning it off.

Insiders claim Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo meddled with Pininfarina's simpler original design, which is why the basic proportions look so right but have been spoiled by fussy retro detailing, such as the clumsy body-kit sills, weird door handles and awkward 250 GTOinspired hump back rear wings. But the same insiders also don't dismiss that a cleaned up, facelifted 550 is already on the drawing board.

Either way, the 550 Maranello remains perhaps the finest driver's Ferrari since the 246 Dino. With models like the F355, 512TR and Mondial to contend with, praise comes little higher.