By Thane Peterson
The Good Sharp handling, Formula-1-style speed and styling
The Bad High price, long waiting list to buy one
The Bottom Line If you've got the money, go for it!
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The Ferrari F430 is definitely a guy thing. It's a ground-hugging, immensely powerful rear-engine two-seater heavily influenced by Formula 1 racing, which Ferrari has dominated over the last five years. Ferrari figures 98% of the buyers are men -- and not just any men, either. The typical Ferrari buyer earns more than $1 million annually, which is not surprising as the car sells for $180,785. Most owners have at least one other Ferrari out in their multicar garages, and many hit the racetrack on weekends so they can really experience the Ferrari's handling and speed.
Even at a quick glance, this car -- which is all new for the 2005 model year -- has speed written all over it. The front end is reminiscent of the famous snout-nosed 1961 Ferrari Formula 1 race car. There are big black-grilled air-intake vents on each side of the front end to cool the engine, and a third air intake in the center channels air under the chassis and helps keep the car from flying off the ground during rapid acceleration. Similarly styled air intakes on the car's flanks just behind the windows also mimic 1960s-era Formula 1 racers.
PADDLE-SHIFTING LIKE A PRO. Then, there's the enormous, 483 horsepower engine, which is clearly visible through the long, sloping rear window. The rear window is also framed by air intakes, so it's almost as if the engine, which is topped by two huge, red air-intake manifolds, were being shown off in a department-store display case. (The engine sits in front of the rear axle, directly behind the seats, to get it as near as possible to the center of gravity and give the car stability). From the rear, the F430's look is dominated by four gigantic exhaust pipes all in a row, mirrored by the four bullet-style tail-lights above them.
This car will jump from zero to 60 in less than four seconds -- fast enough to rattle an average driver -- and tops out at nearly 200 mph. The steering is very sharp, and the model has the classic low-down, road-hugging feel of a race car. Handling is exceptional, even by supercar standards. Indeed, in their August issue, the editors of Car and Driver magazine faced off the F430 against rival speedsters, including a Lamborghini Gallardo, Ford GT, Porsche 911 Turbo, Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG, and the Aston Martin DB9 -- and the Ferrari came out No. 1.
And as I discovered when I drove the F430 in and around Connecticut's Lime Rock Park racetrack on July 7, you can master the Ferrari's paddle-shifting system in a few minutes. To put the car in reverse, you push a button on the center console. Otherwise, you shift gears by manipulating paddle-shaped levers on either side of the steering wheel -- squeezing the one on the right to upshift and the one on the left to downshift.
There's no clutch, so even relative duffers used to automatic transmissions can quickly learn to shift like a pro. You don't even have to take your foot off the gas when shifting to a higher gear. You simply squeeze the paddle, and the system moves to the next gear in a microsecond.
SURPRISINGLY COMFORTABLE. One of the great pleasures of driving the F430 is that when you downshift using the left paddle, the car often emits a satisfying backfire that makes it sound to passersby like it's being driven by a Formula 1 driver.
To really take advantage of the F430's capabilities, you have to get it out on a racetrack. You also probably need to take a class in race-track-style driving. I took the F 430 out for three laps around Lime Rock with a professional driver as an escort. It's an amazing experience to go low into the curves out on the track and easily top 100 mph in the straightaways. But when a more experienced driver told me over lunch he had gotten the car up to 132 mph on the longest straightaway (maybe 20 mph faster than I did), I knew I had a lot to learn.
Obviously, a low-slung race car isn't built for comfort -- designed, as it is, to relay the nuances of the road surface to the driver. But the F430's interior is surprisingly comfortable and pleasing-to-the-eye. The striking, Ferrari-red test model I drove had a beautiful, tan glove-leather interior. The deep bucket seats encase driver and passenger but also have the same sort of multiple electric adjustments you find on a luxury car. The passenger compartment also has a larger-than-expected amount of room for stashing purses, maps, reading material, and such -- the car has pouches in the doors, a fairly big glove compartment with a wonderful damped opening and closing mechanism, and a fair amount of space behind the seats.
LONG WAITING LIST. The instruments are almost all analog, and there's a great oval clock in the middle of the dash that looks like a pocket watch. Ferrari's famous logo -- the bucking black stallion against a yellow background -- is prominently featured in the center of the steering wheel (as well as on the wheel covers, front grill and the car's flanks just before the front doors). On the test model I drove, the tachometer was done in the same, striking shade of yellow. After all, if you're paying this much for a car, you don't want anyone to forget it's a Ferrari.
It's hard to find much to criticize in the F430. Obviously, it's not exactly cheap to maintain, and I'd guess you're going to get about 12 mpg -- using expensive, premium gasoline that's going for $2.50 per gallon or more these days. The exterior fit and finish isn't up to the standards of German and Japanese carmakers, either, though the Ferrari is supposed to have a hand-assembled look to it. And from a practical point of view, this car is almost too speedy for everyday driving. If your attention wanders, you can easily find yourself doing 65 mph in a 40 mph zone without even realizing you're going so fast.
However, the main problem with the F430 at this point is finding one to buy. Ferrari only plans to produce about 800 of the cars annually, and it's in such high demand that there's a two-year waiting list to get one.
Given the price, this is a car most of us can only dream about owning. But I can tell you from personal experience, if you ever do get a chance to drive one, you won't be disappointed.
Peterson is a contributing correspondent for BusinessWeek Online