Snow is not something you really want to see while blasting down the back straight of the Fiorano test track at 125 miles an hour. But then again, when you've flown to Italy for a few hours behind the wheel of the latest Ferrari supercar, you just grit your teeth and keep your foot firmly pressed to the floor.
The Blizzard of Bologna was an unwelcome intrusion into our recent foray to Ferrari headquarters. The factory, actually located just outside the ancient town of Modena, is getting ready to launch the new 612 Scaglietti. This sleek 2+2 coupe is named in honor of Sergio Scaglietti, one of the company's first coachbuilders. He was a master at sculpting aluminum forms, appropriately enough, for the new four-seater takes the lightweight metal to new levels of automotive refinement.
Designed, or if you prefer, sculpted, by Pininfarina, the 612 is the long-awaited successor to the smaller 456M. The new coupe is not just an update of the old car. It's a new vehicle entirely.
The Scaglietti is larger - though also about 132 pounds lighter, thanks to its aluminum spaceframe and body. It's also a good deal stiffer, with its structural rigidity increased about 60 percent, the effects of which were borne out during a day of driving.
The car's road manners have been further enhanced by the subtle shift in layout. Like the old 456, Scaglietti's 2+2 layout requires a mid-front engine position, but the powertrain has been shifted back a bit, and lowered. That enhances both the center of gravity, as well as weight distribution, which is 46/54 percent front/rear.
The 612 is the largest road car the Italian automaker has ever built. Actually, Ferraris are, in general, a lot bigger than you'd expect, though most of the space is normally devoted to the mechanical bits that make Ferraris a force to be reckoned with. The Scaglietti actually offers some concessions to the comfort side of the equation, providing some much needed additional cabin space - which will be especially well received by anyone riding in the back seat. You wouldn't want to sit back there all day, but one of the automaker's larger executives took the back seat for a few laps around Fiorano with us, never once wincing in agony. Trunk space, incidentally, is up a full 25 percent.
The engine is a new, all-aluminum, 48-valve, 5.75-liter V-12. This drive-by-wire system punches out 532 horsepower, 98 hp more than the 456GT; torque is rated at 434 lb-ft. With snow falling rather heavily, we weren't able to confirm Ferrari's numbers, but it's claimed the Scaglietti will deliver 0-60 times of 4.1 seconds, about a tenth of a second faster than the 2+2 it replaces. Top speed is a claimed 196 mph.
Buyers can opt for either a conventional six-speed manual gearbox or the latest generation of Ferrari's electro-hydraulic semi-automatic, now renamed the F1A. Dumbo-style paddle shifters are located within easy finger's reach on either side of the steering wheel, or the set-up can be shifted into automatic mode.
A new era
The 612 ushers in a new era for Ferrari. The automaker bought its long-time rival, the failing Maserati, a few years back. While plans call for overall Ferrari sales to remain limited to 4000 annually, the goal is to put Maserati on a fast-growth curve. To support that, Ferrari has built several new production facilities and updated its other plants.
The new paint shop, for one thing, rivals the best you can find. There are now a number of robots used where necessary to improve quality and reliability. Asserts Ferrari manager Paolo Damiani, "Our first target for production is not to have big volumes, but to have big quality."
One of the more interesting applications is a system designed to dunk valves into liquid nitrogen. Shrunk down, they can be more accurately seated in the engine. Most assembly work, though, is still done by hand - a single technician is responsible for each 612 engine, for one thing. It's a laborious process. It takes about 42 working days from the time molten aluminum is poured into a sand mold until the finished powertrain is stuffed into a Scaglietti body.
New technology has also made its way into the vehicle.
The Scaglietti features a performance handling system featuring active damping and the CST stability and traction control system, the very first use of this technology on any Ferrari, even the Enzo supercar.
Ferrari engineers have set a high threshold before these systems kick into action. During our time on the Fiorano test track, we only felt stability control step in once, when we seriously misjudged the corner and caught a bit of snow with one of the wheels. Most of the time, we were able to let the tail slide out just a bit to help push through a corner without any digital second-guessing.
That was quite surprising, actually, for the 612 proved a lot more stable than we'd originally expected on wet pavement, both on track and the street. The car encouraged us to step a little deeper into the throttle on each lap. It also helped to have a pair of 345-mm brakes up front, with 330s in the rear. That's the sort of combination that can keep you out of harm's way.
Another first is the use of speed-sensitive power steering. It's not a bad idea, but we found a little too much boost until you approached autostrade speeds. It wasn't objectionable, but would take a bit of time getting used to for those familiar with muscling other Ferraris around.
As the numbers suggest, the new V-12 is impressively quick and responsive. Even a slight pip of the throttle will bury you in the seat. Ferrari expects 80 to 90 percent of all buyers to opt for the F1A gearbox, so that's what we focused our attention on.
The little T-bar on the center console is odd to look at and a bit ungainly to use, especially when you want to go into reverse. (And Ferrari, do we really need the same beep-beep warnings you hear when your neighborhood garbage truck backs up?) Under moderate driving in auto mode, shifts are reasonably clean and smooth, though crisper than a true automatic. Drive hard, either in auto or manual mode and you'll feel each shift like a slap.
The big V-12 has a wonderful rasp that's unique to Ferrari, and part of the thrill of owning one of these cars. So we were surprised a bit by the low level of engine noise penetrating into the cockpit. That seemed to fit the fact that, dare we say it, the new Scaglietti seems almost a bit Lexus-like. There's a level of overall refinement that we're simply not used to with a Ferrari, and it starts with the unexpectedly quiet cockpit.
The layout is also more sophisticated than we're used to, and far more refined, a factor for which we can thank Ferrari's new design chief, Frank Stephenson. He put a lot of energy into the choice of materials, as well as little details like the armrests carved out for rear seat passengers.
We found a few nits to pick, such as the cheesy passenger airbag cover, and the decision to locate the CD changer in the trunk. But overall, this is arguably the nicest interior Ferrari has ever done.
We'll have to see if the new quality control systems really deliver the long-term reliability one expects from Lexus, but we were a bit disappointed by the - false - warnings flashed on the large video screen that sits to the left of the speedo and tach. We were first advised of a complete engine computer control system failure; then as we started down a steep and curvy mountain road, we were repeatedly warned of low brake fluid. We chose to ignore both messages, ultimately the right decision, but in the process, we also rediscovered the value of prayer.
In fact, that might help us win the lottery, usually the only way an auto scribe can ever hope to afford a brand new Ferrari. While final pricing has yet to be released, expect to pay somewhere between eight and ten percent more than what you'd have plunked down in 2003, the final year of production for the 456 line. That should put the number in the range of $250,000 - more if you opt for all the possible custom paints, fabrics, and other features.
The 612 will go on sale in most of the world this month, though American exotic collectors will have to hang tight until July. And that's if they're already on the waiting list. There's currently an 18-month order bank. Maybe that gives us enough time, if we can just get the Powerball numbers right.
2005 Ferrari 612 Scaglietti
Base price: $250,000 (U.S. est.)
Engine: 5.75-liter V-12, 532-hp/434 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual or (as tested) six-speed F1A electro-hydraulic, automatically-shifting manual, rear-wheel drive
Length by width x height: 192.9 x 77.0 x 52.9 in
Wheelbase: 116.1 in
Curb weight: 4057 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): N/A
Safety equipment: Anti-lock brakes, CST traction and stability control system, dual front airbags, three-point seat belts
Major standard equipment: Dual-zone digital climate control, power seats, windows and doors, rain-sensing wipers, Bose premium audio system with trunk-mounted CD changer