Sound and vision

Ferrari recorded a 19 per cent rise in sales last year. The cabriolet version of the F355 is unlikely to discourage growing interest in the marque

Let's look at that tachometer again, lust to make absolutely sure that you aren't imagining things. You really are stroking along at 1200 rpm. In sixth gear. And when you put your foot down, the Ferrari F355 Spider simply ups and goes. It's not terribly urgent, of course, and pulling away from little more than idle in top gear was hardly what Enzo originally had in mind all those years ago. But the fact remains that the F355 is capable of such tricks. It is that docile, that flexible, and you can be that lazy when the mood takes you.

Time was when the 'supercar' epithet could be something of a paradox. Some of the world's fastest cars could be amongst the world's worst when it came to town traffic. A nightmare on Bond Street. Lamborghini Countach, anyone?

But no more. Ferrari has built the F355 as a racer with the street manners of the Fiat Cinquecento. It's a car that anybody can jump in and drive.

And enjoy.

Is there anything else quite like it?

Probably not. The Porsche 911 cabriolet is the only other thing which comes vaguely close, but Ferrari prefers to think that potential F355 Spider buyers are more likely to consider a modest yacht or a helicopter as alternative purchases. They certainly wouldn't want a Mercedes-Benz SL, for instance. Impressive technological calling card? Yes. Sports car?

Palpably not.

The F355, however, is a more versatile proposition.

The choice of Monaco as a launch-pad for the Spider was hardly likely to cause much of a fuss. The crowds gathered in Casino Square were there to catch a glimpse of temporary residents U2 and Stevie Wonder. A passing alfresco Ferrari barely merits a glance. Even though it is arguably more tuneful.

For all its capacity to pull away smoothly in any gear from a fistful of revs, the F355 is rather more engaging when you edge it closer to its 8500 rpm limit. The open top accentuates the aural sensation, of course, as do Alpine tunnels. Flick on the lights, drop down a gear or two and... the English language simply doesn't possess adjectives enough to do justice to the consequence, a remarkable phalanx of sound which consumes you completely. In this context, light at the end of the tunnel is bad news: your exhilarating echo chamber is coming to an end.

Adding icing to the soundscape, the F355 is endowed with a glorious bass-note rumble on the over-run. Going up or down the range, it is indescribably addictive.

This appealing wall of sound is orchestrated by a mid-mounted 3.5-litre, 40-valve (three intake and two exhaust per cylinder), 90 deg V8 with four overhead camshafts. It propels the F355 to an estimated top speed of 183 mph, and hurls it from rest to 60 mph in 4.6s. The V8 thumps out 268 lb ft of torque at 6000 rpm and 375 bhp at 8500. That's 109 bhp per litre, which Ferrari estimates to be the highest specific output for a naturally aspirated engine. The whole caboodle is electronically managed by Bosch Motronics. Long gone are the days when Ferrari compromised reliability by preferring its own 'expertise' to outside assistance. Its modus operandum has changed.

"We would prefer to do it all in-house, of course, but we accept that a more practical approach is nowadays necessary," says public relations chief Antonio Gini. "You can see that tradition has gone out of the window a little bit. I mean, we are building a V10 engine for Formula One, so… “

Ferrari claims that the 355 has 26 per cent more torsional stiffness than the 348 Spider it supersedes, and body strengthening materials make it 20 kg heavier than its berlinetta sister. As with any cabriolet, you can feel the effects of rough surfaces as they pulse through the chassis, but in the 355 the intrusion is minimal. It does not have the tissue-paper feel of certain sawnoff hatchbacks. Just occasionally, a pot hole will send a minor tremor through the floor, but it is not an irritation. Furthermore, the 355 is equipped with cockpit-adjustable electronic suspension: flick the switch from 'sport' to 'comfort' and you are immediately aware of the difference. The former mode is really designed for motorway use, but such is the damping control that the ride is perfectly acceptable on French D-roads, which have the approximate surface quality of most British A-roads. Adopting the 'comfort' programme gets rid of a few bumps and jolts, and might have more noticeable benefits in rutted Britain.

For a powered system, the steering provides plenty of feel, although it is a little inert around the straight-ahead. This, says Ferrari, was a deliberate policy. "We didn't want the steering to be too direct for our less experienced cutomers, when they are doing 200 kph on the autostrada," explains an engineer, matter-of-factly. "We prefer a small safety margin. In testing at Fiorano, the likes of Nicola Larini, Niki Lauda and Jean Alesi all stated a preference for powered steering, rather than the unassisted system. But we have to accept that not all our customers drive like they do..." All UK cars (about 40 are due to arrive between September and the end of the year, to commence fulfilment of a two-year waiting list) will have power assistance.

The gearchange is simply wonderful. There is a certain beauty in the naked aluminium selector gate; you feel more involved in the whole process than you do when everything is tucked away beneath rubber and plastic. The lever moves with firm precision. From cold, second can be a bit sticky a traditional Ferrari bugbear but a heat exchanger has been fitted at the top of the engine, to warm the oil and make second easier to engage.

The six forward ratios are well chosen, though it's not so much that which makes the car restful to drive as the aforementioned, and awesome, flexibility.

Down in the footwell lie three drilled metal pedals, the middle of which provides smooth, progressive and incredibly powerful braking via a quartet of ventilated discs.

There is no intrusion from the ABS; the car simply decelerates every bit as impressively as it accelerates.

The throttle pedal action was not so smooth, and produced the only flaw which attracted consistent adverse comment. It was just a momentary hesitation which occurred as you pressed the pedal; Ferrari accepts that the problem is there, but insists that it is easily remedied, and that dealers will be checking closely at the pre-delivery inspection stage, to ensure that the relevant modification has been made.

In the dry, the F355 has a high grip threshold, as you might expect from something equipped with virtually half a rubber plantation at each corner: Pirelli P-Zeros are employed, 225/40 at the front, 265/40 at the rear. Under hard acceleration from slow to medium speed corners, you can feel the rear end working, feel it starting to edge, progressively, across the road. In the wet, the engineers assure you, arms waving in big, semi-circular gestures, eyes bright, you can have a lot of fun.

Always assuming you're at Fiorano, of course.

Ferrari admits that it makes no pretence about roll protection. The 355 Spider has passed all the US safety criteria, not exactly the work of a moment, and that's it. The front screen is strong enough to support the car should it be parked upside down, and will offer greater resistance than that of the 348, but it is not a roll-hoop as such.

One thing the 355 does have, and which no Ferrari has ever had before, strangely, is an electrically powered hood. The superior technology which has seen a reduction in both the size and weight of electric motors has finally persuaded the Prancing Horse that certain luxury items can be incorporated without sacrificing performance. The whole procedure is very neat: unclip a brace of retaining handles, press a button and seats and windows will move automatically to allow the hood frame to rise or fall, the seats regaining their original position once the manoeuvre is completed.

Generally, the cabin is frill-free. Electric windows and mirrors, a fistful of relevant gauges, twin airbags and a couple of supportive seats trimmed, by Connolly, in recycled cow. Comfort without excess.

Verdict

The best part of £90,000 is an obscene amount to spend on a motor car.

Discuss.

Within moments of driving away in an F355 Spider, you will have thrown away your prejudices. You may envy those who can afford to pay the price of a three-bedroomed semi in leafy Surrey for a car with two seats and no spare wheel (a space saver is optional; a canister of get-you-home foam comes as standard), but you won't begrudge them their extravagance.

The F355 Spider is hardly the complete car. It is, however, a complete driving experience.