Mellow Maranello

Let’s face it, the chances of snow in Modena in February are as about as probable as Ferrari building blood-red cars. Inspired or insane, Modena in February is where Ferrari first exposed the 540bhp, rear-drive 612 Scaglietti for the first time. I collect the Autocar test Scaglietti from Scaglietti, which nestles on Modena’s ancient Via Emilia Est and is the home of Ferrari’s body plant these days, now given over entirely to the construction of 17 aluminium spaceframe bodies per day for the 612 and the 360. Immediately it’s clear that the 612 doesn’t just represent a transformation in packaging over the outgoing, near 12-year-old 456 GT, but also in personality. No Ferrari has ever been this easy-going, or this comfortable just to jump into and drive. In the default ‘normal’ mode, the double wishbone suspension’s adaptive damping is absorbing potholes and ironing out rough edges better than any previous car to wear the prancing horse. The supple-riding 612 feels soft, pliable, soothing – yet at the same time controlled. Ferrari’s evidently worked hard at finding the optimum ride comfort/body control compromise. The rear-mounted gearbox shifts fluently, without fussy jerkiness. In auto mode, shift quality almost matches Audi’s new DSG gearbox, the standard-setter in robotised manuals. There’s still the annoyingly slow pick-up into and out of reverse, but I doubt even owners of the 456 GTA who trade up will miss the smoothness of their torque-convertor automatic. Add the 612’s gentle speed-sensitive steering that’s light (maybe too light and lacking in self-centring for Ferrari traditionalists) and it’s immediately obvious the new Ferrari is a naturally graceful car to drive slowly. Threading through heavy traffic, the biggest Ferrari ever (a whopping 4902mm long) quickly shrinks around the driver. And fear not, because it’s also quick. Very quick. If, in auto mode, the transmission’s a tad too slow to downshift, one pat on the left paddle instantly picks up a lower ratio, always to the accompaniment of a mid-shift blip of the throttle. Tapping into the V12’s performance is easy: it’s responsive and eager, effortlessly building a long, linear power delivery. There is so much low-end grunt that you’re never aware that the peak torque figure of 434lb ft arrives at a high 5250rpm. Maximum power of 540bhp is developed at a smooth 7200rpm, shortly before the gearbox slides into the next ratio, just shy of the 7400rpm red line. This, the last development of Ferrari’s Tipo 133 V12 before the Enzo’s engine is tweaked for the 575 M successor, is surely the best. Positioning the engine behind the front axle line and suspension opens up space to allow longer, more direct induction, plus reduced exhaust back-pressure. Add a higher compression ratio and the 612 makes an extra 98bhp over the 5.5-litre 456 GT and is 25bhp above the 575 M. With a combined fuel figure of 13.6mpg, it’s no wonder the thing needs a monster 108-litre fuel tank. Gun it away from the lights and the real advantage of the new rearward weight bias is obvious. Loss of traction is never an issue, even on these treacherously wet roads. Feather the throttle momentarily and there is no wheelspin, no squat: the 612 just goes. It’s also massively capable unleashed on the track. At Fiorano, the 612 belts out of the pits, with me attached. In four seconds flat it hits 60mph and, paddles-a-blur all the way down to the first corner, we nudge 120mph before pounding down on the discs for the second-gear turn. Pitch is minimal, the vented and drilled steel four-pot caliper brakes strong and progressive in their action. In Sport mode (the button’s on the steering wheel) the threshold of interference from the CST is high enough to allow a touch of oversteer on the exit. Nice. The steering’s sharper and more sensitive than on the road and feels quicker than its three turns suggests. Yet it also stays light and manageable to promote a feeling of terrific agility. The body, now more firmly tied down, limits the onset of roll, though if you generate track-induced lateral forces, it certainly exists. Operating at higher rpm, I’m more aware of the engine’s vocal energy and of the 612’s huge thrust. Last lap, CST intrusion eliminated. Traction and grip remain impressive, but there’s also enough grunt to hold a power-slide out of the first-gear hairpin. Try this in a 456 – or a 575M – and driving becomes an exercise in wheelspin control, with pirouettes inevitable. And, unlike the SLR, you never feel as if you’re sitting above the rear axle, with the nose pivoting awkwardly around the axis of the back wheels. To drive hard, to really lean on, the 612 feels like a real natural, as if it’s been designed to be used like this. Hands off at 120mph, the 612 tracks arrow-straight. 150mph and it feels fabulously planted. This car is one magnificently comfortable pan-continental form of transport. Top speed? Hmm, this is going to be the subject of much debate, I predict. Ferrari now talks about a speed of ‘196mph plus’, but the engineers admit that Bentley’s 198mph Continental GT sent them back to their drawing boards to improve the aerodynamics. Having lowered the drag co-efficient from the original car’s 0.34 to 0.33, while retaining 115kg downforce at 186mph, they found another 2.5mph, which probably accounts for the ‘plus’ claim which now follows the figure of 196mph. Ferrari now says it builds the fastest four-seater in the world, despite Bentley’s apparently higher claimed v-max. For the record, the cabin is roomy, the dashboard simple in the extreme yet tasteful and beautifully finished. A prominent alloy band separates the dark upper dash from the lighter lower area and incorporates large circular air vents. The instruments are an incongruous mix of analogue and digital displays. Under the same hooded cover are a central circular rev counter and offset speedo, and a small monitor that houses horizontal digital gauges and a trip computer. Small buttons on the back of the steering wheel allow the driver to scroll through the various functions. Ferrari well understands how to create a sense of drama inside its cars; the rev counter reads from one at the bottom to seven at the top in white numbers, before the 7400rpm red line, with eight, nine and 10 in red. Low down on the dash a small plaque lists Ferrari’s five recent F1 world constructor championship titles. The seats are firm, supportive and electrically adjustable, like the steering wheel. Provided you’re prepared to splay your knees there’s enough room for a six-footer to sit behind a six-foot driver in the heavily sculpted, but relatively narrow twin rear seats. So it’s a genuine four-seater and a truly sumptuous one at that. Forget hard-core Ferrari sports cars, the Scaglietti’s dynamic refinement sets it apart from other Maranello machines – and the Mercedes SLR – to position it against rivals like the Bentley Continental GT and Mercedes CL 65 as a near four-seat luxury Grand Tourer. It doesn’t have the raw explosive performance of the Mercedes SLR, the only other mid-front-engined exotic. No matter, the 612 is hardly leisurely, and as a useable road car in terms of ride, refinement, roominess, and dynamics, I reckon the Ferrari’s got the measure of the Mercedes-McLaren. And by no small margin in terms of cabin appeal. By any assessment it represents a significant departure for Maranello. Some will struggle for a label for it, possibly settling for ‘Ferrari’s four-seater sports car’. Regardless, the 612’s a car of immense ability.

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