May 17, early morning. I thumb the power-up button on my PDA and tap the ‘to do’ icon – the moment it’s been moving towards all its short life. ‘Breakfast: Monaco. Dinner: Maranello. Lunch: stuff lunch.’Lunchtime, approximately 1.30pm, somewhere between Monaco’s Hotel de Paris and Maranello’s Montana restaurant, doing 120mph. I’m driving a 2005 Ferrari Superamerica. The roof’s down, we’re in the outside lane and a 360’s nose has just zoomed to close-up in the rear-view mirror. I pull over and let it rip past. That’s how good I feel – only slightly peckish but benignly omnipotent. What with the Superamerica being hailed by Ferrari as the fastest production convertible in the world (top speed 199mph) and me having 540bhp under my right foot (25bhp more than in the 575 Maranello on which it’s based), I simply wouldn’t dream of spoiling the 360 driver’s day. Well, maybe.
Sitting next to me, photographer Stan Papior has just phoned the office to find out exactly what kind of photography the day ahead holds. ‘Plenty of lavish driving shots’ is the answer. The phrase strikes me as apt. Lavish driving: that’s precisely how it feels. The effortless speed, the sensual richness, the races you don’t have to have, the sheer transcendent dimension of the experience. It has the ring of the halcyon ’60s about it. And that’s apt, too.
The last Superamerica Ferrari made was in 1960. It concluded an era that ran from the beginning of the ’50s when the factory embarked on a series of limited-edition V12 coupés and convertibles effectively dedicated to the American market. From ’51 to ’54, these were simply called ‘America’. The Superamericas – ‘Super’ to denote a more powerful engine than the preceding series’ – began in 1956 with the 410 coupé and ended four years later with the 400 cabriolet, of which just 10 were made. Forty-five years later, ‘limited edition’ means 549 of, but the sentiment remains the same – a souped-up special for what Ferrari calls its ‘largest group of clients’ and the endless, sun-baked roads of their playground: North America.
Rich folk with a limited grasp of Ferrari history have a rather different take on the name ‘Superamerica’ now, though. ‘That what George Bush drives?’ chuckled one youthful and far from feckless Yank on the aeroplane to Nice the day before, when he asked what my business in Monaco was. His was in Cannes, the film festival. I didn’t want to pry, but I could tell from the twangy cut of his impressively distended navy blue sports shirt, his diamond brooch, the two chromium-plated mobile phones he produced from his leather shoulder bag and a wrist watch so loose and so heavy it could have gone flying across the cabin like an Olympic hammer at any moment, that the £200,000 Ferrari asks for the Superamerica wouldn’t have been a problem. I use the past tense because all 549, although not yet produced, have been sold, 160 to my new friend’s more clued-up countrymen.
Nevertheless, the encounter with a young American for whom price, brand, exclusivity and weight were more important than the safety of his fellow passengers, had made me wonder if a Ferrari that specifically celebrates its association with the deepest pockets on the planet might have what it takes to join the purist ‘greats’. After all, the factory could have made a straightforward 575 Spider without the Superamerica spin and charged rather less for it. Wasn’t this just a cynical exercise to massage that famous Hollywood hubris? Hadn’t the world moved on?Funny how the doubts seem so distant now. Rather like the tail lights of the 360. Close the gap? What the hell. Apart from the breathtaking £42k premium, there are three elements that distinguish the Superamerica from the regular 575 Maranello. One is a rotating roof panel with a carbon frame and electrochromic glass technology, another rear-end styling expertly re-worked by Pininfarina to accommodate it. The third I’m about to exercise now.
In a moment, from our position behind the long, mono-nostrilled bonnet of the Superamerica, the pale-blue 360 will look as if it’s being dragged backwards by a giant winch, however hard its driver tries to make it seem otherwise. Thanks to the adoption of new intake tracts, better fluid dynamics for each cylinder head and a new exhaust system that reduces back-pressure, the Ferrari’s dry-sumped 5.7-litre V12 hurls 540bhp at 7250rpm and 434lb ft of torque at the business of moving forwards. The Superamerica hits 62mph from rest in a fraction over four seconds and 100mph in the low nines. Only then, however, does it hit its stride.
Performance isn’t as extreme as it would be in a Lamborghini Murciélago Roadster (at £190,000, the only real rival) but it is deliciously wild nonetheless, delivered in a succession of superheated surges. The noise is muted, yes – blame ever-tougher drive-by noise regulations – but also tinged with heavy-duty malevolence. As the 360 is spectacularly dispatched at full chat, the powerplant sounds special, efficiently mechanical with an underlying hint of a stereophonic howl. It’s hard to resist the urge to yell ‘yeehah’ when you’re closing in on dinner at such a devastating lick in a Superamerica, but the wind roar from the gaping aperture above our heads would drown it out and the exit is rushing towards us. Besides, greater challenges await in the hills above Maranello before we get to eat.
As well as the 575’s dual-mode active damping (the Sport setting tweaks the traction control and the ever-improving F1 paddle-shift gearbox programme, too) our car is fitted with the optional GTC handling pack which increases stiffness by 35 per cent at the front, 15 per cent at the rear and integrates with a rear anti-roll bar that is itself 73 per cent stiffer. The £14,455 package also includes a sports exhaust, red brake calipers with Ferrari logos and CCM (Carbon Composite Material) brake discs developed in collaboration with Brembo – 398mm front, 360mm rear. They squeak in traffic, otherwise they are phenomenal.
The nagging question is what cutting a hole in the top of a 575M has done to its dynamic integrity on the bucking, swirling Tarmac Ferrari’s test drivers pound so vigorously every day. Ferrari has undoubtedly put in the work. In addition to the stiffening effect of the rear buttresses, there are stronger sill members and reinforced chassis tubes around the central tunnel and windscreen pillars. The rear firewall has been strengthened and additional bracing added around the transaxle.
The roof itself, dubbed Revocromico, is about a metre square and made of laminated electrochromic glass manufactured in conjunction with Saint Gobain. Its tint level, and therefore the amount of light and heat it lets in, can be adjusted incrementally by a five- position switch on the centre console. On the lightest setting it lets in about the same amount of light as a conventional glass sunroof; on the darkest it’s claimed that only one per cent of solar rays get through. It takes just under 60 seconds for the glass to go from darkest to lightest and, with the engine turned off, it defaults to the darkest setting to keep the cabin cool.
Keeping your cool in the cabin, on the other hand, isn’t always a given. The 575M’s reputation for being comparatively easy to drive is carried over to the Superamerica: visibility, driving position, seat comfort, pedal spacing and general ergonomics are all almost unprecedentedly good by supercar standards. Even the once over-zealous F1 transmission’s up-shifts (so brutal on early 575s they precipitated a slew of wheelspin from first to second and another screech and twitch from second to third) have been honed and finessed into something you can enjoy.
But the impressive alacrity with which the powered roof flips back into the gently hollowed panel behind the front seats is somewhat stymied by the fact that you have to be stationary, with the awkward fly-off handbrake applied, before it will do anything. Moreover, applying the handbrake now traps your hand between the door and the (presumably fatter) seat cushion. And there’s no auto latching: you have to secure the roof manually by twisting a handle just behind the leading edge of the roof panel. Fine in a Porsche Boxster, maybe, but something of a chore in a £200k Ferrari. One final niggle: if there’s a cheaper ashtray action in any supermini to come out of South Korea I’d be extremely surprised. It’s academic – I don’t smoke anymore – and if Ferrari wasn’t Ferrari, it might be a bigger deal.
But, with the fading sun fringing the clouds pink and the evening air heady with the scent of jasmine, olive leaves and thyme rolling down from the hills, the Superamerica experience is starting to seduce. And it isn’t just the heightened access to nature. This is the 575 truly evolved. With Sport mode activated and the ASR traction electronics switched off, the Ferrari feels lithe, low, eager to turn in and beautifully balanced. The long front overhang that previously had a tendency to brush the deck with the suspension under compression now resolutely keeps its chin up on the bumpiest roads. It’s a more relaxing car to travel in because of it: you’re not constantly clenching your buttocks in anticipation of the next metal-meets-Tarmac graunch.
Instead, you can drift the Superamerica round bends as if it were no bulkier than a Porsche 911. And with rather more confidence. That’s how good the chassis is: fabulously stable and secure at three-figure speeds on autostrada sweepers, agile and biddable on the twisty stuff. Hugely grippy, too, thanks in no small measure to the custom gumball Bridgestone Potenza RE050A tyres. Truth is, I want a Superamerica badly. And the truth that hurts is that rich people really do have the best fun.
In the end, it doesn’t matter that the Superamerica isn’t bargain material. It doesn’t matter that its ashtray is rubbish or that painted brake calipers will set you back an extra £585. Neither is it possible to draw any comfort from the fact that a mainstream hatchback is at least a sensible form of transport – the Superamerica is as sensible as an umbrella in a downpour. A state-of-the-art umbrella at that. Drive it and you will quite possibly never be satisfied behind the wheel of another car. And if you’re thinking ‘what about a Mercedes SL65 AMG?’ don’t bother, it’s no substitute. Note to PDA: breakfast in Maidstone. Sorry.