Ferrari may be experiencing patchy form on the track at the moment, but you have to look back to the early 1970s and the era of the 365GTB/4 and Dino 246GT to find an age when its road products were more assured than they are now. The 458 is outstanding and the 599 destined to be remembered as one of Ferrari’s finest from any era.
By all objective measurements, Ferrari has excelled itself once again with its new FF or Ferrari Four, the number denoting both the number of adults it will comfortably carry and that — uniquely among its brethren — it directs its immense power to all four wheels.
Ferrari has always been less sure of itself building 2+2s than their purer, simpler, easier two-seat companions. There have been good ones — the gorgeous and still criminally underrated 365GTC/4 being one, the now cheap 456GT another. But so too have many failed to live up to Ferrari’s usually supersonic standards: the whole 365GT series up to and including the 412i was dull and the 308GT/4 was comically cramped, while the most recent, the 612 Scaglietti, lacked both visual and dynamic charm.
The FF, however, sets out a step ahead of all its stablemates by offering the kind of genuine technical innovation you rarely see on a Ferrari. By taking advantage of the fact that all of the FF’s motor lies behind the front wheel line, an all-wheel-drive system has been designed with no direct mechanical connection between the front and rear axles, nor any between the left and right front wheels. That means no centre or front differentials, nor any shaft taking drive from the transaxle gearbox at the back to the front. Instead a second, two-speed gearbox is mounted at the front of the engine with two clutches, taking up to 30 per cent of the drive to the front wheels in whatever proportion is required. The system is not only more efficient, it’s 45kg lighter than a standard arrangement.
So while the FF remains rear-drive most of the time, the moment sensors detect an imminent loss of traction, the transmission at the front is engaged. It uses the lower of its two ratios while the car is in first or second, the higher for third and fourth, and carefully controlled slipping of the clutches (designed to last the lifetime of the car) to equalise the speed between the front and rear axles. In fifth gear or above the FF is rear-drive only.
Ferrari probably didn’t need to helicopter a couple of FF’s 7500ft up a Dolomite and hack an ice-track out of the snow to prove how well this system works, but I’m glad it did. On standard winter tyres the FF offered such outstanding traction you had constantly to remind yourself that it provided no such advantage in the braking department.
Back on firmer terra, I howled off around the mountains to find out more. The FF is almost exactly the same size and weight as a 612 but does a better job of disguising it because it’s far more precise. Almost certainly this is a function of Ferrari’s multi-link rear suspension, eschewing the beloved double wishbones that have featured on all its genuinely independent rear ends save the California. Because the new system offers greater control and a greater breadth of tuning possibilities, Ferrari has been able to be much more aggressive with spring and damper rates as well as tyre sidewall stiffness without compromising ride quality. All clever stuff.
But it pales somewhat next to its engine and transmission. Anyone who suggested Ferrari no longer makes the best motors in the world would emerge from the FF begging forgiveness. Although based on the unit used by the Enzo and 599GTB, its direct injection, all-new internals and even a new block mean this V12 can be considered an effectively new unit. It displaces 6.3 litres and, says Ferrari, develops 660 horsepower — or, put another way, exactly double the output of the 5-litre flat-12 used by the Boxer at the time of its death in 1984. And even if you’re mean enough to quote in brake horsepower, 651bhp at 8000rpm is an epic output by almost any standard.
It runs through a seven-speed double-clutch Getrag gearbox and while I will always lament Ferrari’s decision to abandon three-pedal transmissions, if I have to have paddles, this is what I would choose.
The combined effect is mesmerising. If that noise were the last you ever heard, you’d arrive at the gates with your ears ringing, mouth stretched into an insane grin. In and out of the tunnels that pepper this part of the world, it’s a dangerously addictive drug. As peak torque is developed right up at 6000rpm and because this is a normally aspirated engine producing well over 100bhp per litre, you might imagine it needs to be worked hard before it will give its best. In fact it’s one of the most flexible supercar engines ever built, responsive from as little as 2000rpm, properly getting down to business at 3000rpm and at apparently maximum attack at 4000rpm, less than half its 8300rpm capability.
This is a car I could praise endlessly. The engine is loud only when you want it to be, otherwise it fits the FF’s Grand Touring brief to perfection. It rides well enough and it really does have more room in the back than either a Bentley Continental GT or Aston Rapide, despite the latter’s extra doors.
So you might think it a paragon of virtue. But it’s not. Indeed the FF is flawed, and more so than you’d hope or expect of an all-purpose GT costing £227,000.
For all its capability, the chassis lacks the charm of the powertrain. The steering has been made too quick in an attempt to artificially induce a sense of agility into a car weighing 1880kg. As for the four-wheel-drive system, it’s great at providing traction in extremis, less impressive at maintaining the same chassis balance from corner entry to exit. It’s beautifully neutral on a trailing throttle, but inclined to understeer under power even if you turn off all the electronics.
In addition I found the TFT instruments unbecoming to a car most customers will option up to over £250,000. And Ferrari’s insistence on cramming as many functions as possible onto the steering wheel just makes its customers look like sad, wannabe racing drivers. The reason Formula 1 cars have such crowded wheels is because they don’t have dashboards and there’s nowhere else for these controls to be sited. In a massive GT with vast expanses of facia, this could hardly be further from the case. Letting form rule function in an area as critical as this does nothing to dispel the impression that the car is aimed at those who care more about how they look than how it drives.
The trick with the FF is not to think what else that money could buy, such as a long-wheelbase Mercedes S-class limousine, a Porsche 911 GT3 and a Range Rover. Those who can afford an FF will probably have these cars or their equivalents already. Instead they will buy it because they want not only a Ferrari, but one they can use in all conditions. And they won’t be disappointed. The FF is an outstanding GT with a landmark engine and a very clever means of putting its power on the Tarmac, snow or whatever surface you’re on.
That it lacks the charm of the 599 or the thrill of the 458 is to be expected: this is a Grand Tourer, after all. And one I liked very much. Who knows, with slower steering, better balance and a sensible steering wheel, I might even have loved it.
Engine: 6.3-litre petrol, V12
Top Speed: 208mph
Power: 651bhp at 8000rpm
Fuel/CO2: 18.3mpg, 360g/km
I always love the idea of the Vauxhall VXR8 (or Monaro as it was called in two-door form). Of course neither was a Vauxhall at all, but a rebadged Holden, although this in no way compromised the promise of a large V8 powering a substantial yet simple saloon. There was something old school and honest about the proposition, not to mention the prospect of an adventure at every roundabout.
But the cars themselves disappointed. While others in the media found fun and thrills aplenty, the couple I drove felt slow, flabby and imprecise. At around £35,000 they were cheap, but deservedly so.
So I didn’t get too excited by this new VXR8 despite its exterior styling changes and enhanced leather interior, nor even by the 425bhp of its fourth-generation 6.2-litre L53 Chevrolet V8 power plant. This engine, despite its piston configuration and pushrod valve actuation, is merely inspired by the original and much-famed small block in engineering terms they are unrelated. But at least the drive would be good: Geneva to Wales in a day.
But Vauxhall or should I say Holden has worked hard on the chassis side too, fitting magnetic dampers which respond to electronic impulses to change their response up to 1000 times a second. And it was a more taut yet better riding VXR8 that nosed its way from Switzerland into France.
I am a poor shadow of my once fearless self when it comes to cop-dodging on French autoroutes, at least during daylight hours. I lost big the last three times I played, so now I was content to park the VXR’s cruise control at something within sight of legality and sit back to watch the world go by. And very nice it was too: the cabin remains an ergonomic joke, but if all you’re going to do is sit there and watch several hundred miles flow under your wheels, it offers a remarkably quiet, civilised and comfortable vantage point. I was impressed.
But not half as impressed as when I got it over the Severn Bridge a mere 11 hours after leaving Geneva, including tunnel time. The V8 sounds as good as ever but now the once horrid six-speed gearbox has had much of its mushiness removed, and the same is true of the chassis. Where once cracks appeared in its composure if you drove much beyond six-tenths, now you could drive as fast as seemed sensible in public and it would stay poised, progressive and incisive all the way. My delight at gaffing home was actually tinged with slight sadness that the journey was over.
Does this make it a car I can at last recommend? Sadly not. Because the biggest change to this VXR8 has nothing to do with mechanics or cosmetics, but the price. What was £35,000 two years ago is now £49,500 and in their entirety the upgrades do not come close to warranting the extra. Another five grand and you’re into BMW M3 and Mercedes C63 AMG territory and far out of Holden’s depth. A shame to have finally fixed the car after so long, only to provide the customer with an even bigger reason not to buy it.
Engine: 6.2-litre V8
Top Speed: 155mph (limited)
Power: 425bhp at 4600rpm
Fuel/CO2: 20.9mpg, 320g/km
Jaguar XF 2.2D
It’s always good fun to head out in a car covered in camouflage, if a little dangerous. In the usually mistaken belief that there’s big money in scoop photography, people resort to all sorts of suicidal manoeuvres to get a better look at your car. So congratulations to the woman in the yellow Fiesta who managed to drive, photograph, smoke and talk into a telephone while killing neither herself nor the cyclists she had to swerve around to catch up with me.
Visually, and sadly for her, the focus of her undivided attention was the 2012 Jaguar XF which is so mildly updated from the back, most would struggle to spot the difference. She would have needed to spot the fact that, unlike any other XF, it has a single tailpipe to grasp its true significance.
It means that what she’s looking at is a Jaguar with not only a four-cylinder engine the first to be fitted to any Jaguar of this size but also a new eight-speed gearbox. The 2.2-litre diesel comes from Ford, the transmission from ZF and together they make this the most fuel-efficient Jaguar in history, at some 52.3mpg to be precise. It’s an indication of how far this technology has come in recent years to note that it uses less fuel even than the 2-litre diesel Jaguar X-type of 2003 despite offering almost 50 per cent more power and carrying 200 extra kilos.
In adapting the engine to a longitudinal installation and improving its refinement, Jaguar has replaced over 70 per cent of its components, but you’re still never going to mistake it for a six-cylinder motor. While performance is competitive, at maximum extension it is acceptably refined but no more than that. Happily, and thanks to both its seventh and eighth ratios being genuinely overdriven, it cruises capably and quietly at more everyday speeds, sufficient to perform the role of relaxed Jaguar tourer with confidence if not quite absolute conviction.
And despite its modest power output, this XF is fun to drive. Indeed, if you care more about the way a car goes around a corner than along a straight, its light weight relative to its stablemates makes it the pick of the bunch.
Deliveries of the new XF begin in September though in theory the order book is open now. Prices will start at just over £30,000 or slightly less than the Mercedes and BMW alternatives. That sounds about right to me.
Engine: 2.2-litre diesel, four cylinders
Top Speed: 140mph
Price: £30,500 approx
Power: 188bhp at 3500rpm
Fuel/CO2: 52.3mpg, 149g/km