It's more raised coupe than true SUV, so does this make the Ferrari Purosangue the market's best tall car to drive?

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I'm in Italy to drive the new Ferrari Purosangue SUV and the last time I came here to drive a Ferrari, the weather was fine, with temperatures into double figures, if a little overcast and dewy.

There’s a reason why I mention this (I’m not auditioning to be the next Wincey Willis). Had it been Britain and on Autocar’s own tab, we’d have headed merrily directly down the pit lane – but sorry, said Ferrari’s people, it’s too cold for the tyres to work properly around the company’s Fiorano test track, so we’d have to wait and sip coffee until the day warmed through.

So I talked to an engineer instead, and while I can’t guarantee he avoided using the phrase ‘SUV’, he told me the company had only committed to making a tall car when it was sure that it could be a true Ferrari (ditto the electric car that’s still two years away).

Ferrari maintains that only 20% of all its output will be allowed to be the Purosangue, so there's no way that like Porsche or Bentley or Lamborghini, SUVs will make up half or more of sales.

That high car, though – the Ferrari SUV, 4x4 or crossover, as you prefer (they don’t use the terms but pretend not to be offended if you do) – is here now. And there’s no question of waiting until the roads have warmed up to test it or I’d be here until April. It’s mid-January as I drive, although not as you read. In fact, today we’ll go in search of the worst conditions that roads between Italian ski resorts can throw at us.

Before driving the Purosangue I’m gently asked whether I’ve driven an Aston Martin DBX, a Lamborghini Urus or a Rolls-Royce Cullinan. But I’m assured – as each of those companies would also try to persuade me – that the model operates in a sphere of its own, with no direct rivals.

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They’re curious sorts of arguments, these. There may be a certain mechanical accuracy to the fact that each offering is unique, in the same way that a fish-and-chip supper isn’t strictly a direct rival to a curry. But the short of it is that when Friday evening comes around and you can’t be bothered to cook, it will be one or the other.

Whatever, the Purosangue (pronounced pure-oh-sang-way) is Ferrari’s first-ever car with four passenger doors. Unlike the Bentley Bentayga/Urus/Porsche Cayenne etc, it doesn’t share its architecture with another vehicle, utilising instead a largely aluminium monocoque. And it has a price and mechanical layout that really makes a statement, as £313,120 (and I’m told that dealers aren’t interested until you’re adding £60,000 of options to that) and naturally aspirated, 6.5-litre, 715bhp, 528lb ft, 16.5mpg V12 engines, sited behind the front axle line, tend to.

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The driveline is derived from the FF/GTC4 Lusso’s that came before the Purosangue in that there’s a twin-clutch transaxle gearbox (now eight-speed) at the rear, with a separate two-speed unit taking power from the front of the crankshaft, with a clutch for each halfshaft to provide part-time four-wheel drive.

Customers love their GTC4s (and FFs), but they’re still long, low shooting brakes, with bold, irresistibly scrapable noses and only two doors, so they’re not as usable as owners would like them to be. So voilà, a tall car with a 185mm ground clearance, four doors, a hatchback and even Isofix child-seat mounts. The Purosangue is big (4.97m long and 2.0m wide), but at 1.59m high, it’s still lower by 29mm than the Urus and 91mm than the DBX. That the back doors hinge rearwards means the B-pillar can be more compact and the 3018mm wheelbase is shorter than it would be if they opened forwards. It also leaves their hefty mechanisms sited near a point of high nodal stiffness.

The Purosangue’s transaxle helps distribute the 2033kg kerb weight 49:51 front to rear, and it ensures the car will only ever have four seats, given the gearbox sits between the two rear ones. A typical adult seated behind a typical adult will have a hand’s width of head and leg room, and those seats also fold electrically.

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The boot is 473 litres with the seats in place, compared with 600-plus litres for the various Volkswagen Group rivals, but while you can spec a hard carpeted bolster to lay across the seatbacks and save them from scratches, if you’re taking skis or bicycles, it’s more likely you will mount them to an optional gizmo for the bootlid.

That would cut quite a dash as you scrabbled to the edge of a muddy or icy car park on a set of winter tyres to begin your adventures. Not quite ‘skis on a Lotus Esprit’ but satisfyingly exotic.

We’re going to try the icy driving – if not the ski thing – today by hanging around in north Italy’s mountains. We’re rolling on winter rubber (235/35 R22 front and 315/30 R23 rear) and the local councils clear snow from the roads pretty diligently around here, but I plan to go off-piste too.

Nestled in its heated seats, there’s a pleasing feel to the Purosangue’s cockpit. It’s certainly laden with familial trappings. There’s a heavily sculpted dash with notable separation between driver and passenger. The driving position is sound and visibility reasonable; I can just see a front wing haunch but then the view of the bonnet slips away, while the rear window is small to make the car look more muscly at the bottom than the top, to good effect.

I think Ferrari felt stung by criticism of the ergonomics of the 296 and Roma, so there are new features too. There’s only one scrollable screen rather than two on the digital instrument cluster, while the steering-wheel controls are now textured so you can feel for them rather than having to peer at them.

Behind the wheel’s rim are big, fixed gearshift paddles that are, as usual, the best in the business. Ferrari doesn’t like column stalks, because they obstruct the paddles, which is why so many buttons make it onto the steering wheel. Presumably, this is a more complicated conversation than before: normally in a Ferrari, engineers say, the ultimate winner in an argument will be whatever improves a car’s performance – hence big paddles win over simple indicator stalks. But for the first time, the development process hasn’t been all about performance but functionality and usability, too. Aston Martin’s boffins said similar things about the DBX.

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On the centre of dash is a rotary dial for the temperature that, if you push it and swipe it, adjusts the seat bolsters, heating outlets and more. It’s more fiddly than a bunch of separate buttons but not dreadfully complex, while phone mirroring is the only way to have sat-nav. The steering wheel’s rotary ‘manettino’ drive control dial has Ice, Wet, Comfort, Sport and Stability Off modes, and if you want to change the damper settings (we’ll come to those), you give it a push. Ultimately, it’s a pretty easy environment from which to focus on driving

And as you would hope, that’s a pleasure. This is a four-door, four-seat coupé, not too lifted and, well, it has that V12 in it.

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That fires to a (relatively) muted idle in the car’s gentler driving modes, although it still sounds rich and expensive. At low speeds, the ride mooches gently, and while the steering is quick, with a 14:1 ratio similar to the GTC4’s, it doesn’t feel as nervous as that, nor any other recent front-engined V12 Ferrari.

They’re always pointy and direct, and this is similarly accurate, with two turns between locks, but its initial response feels more measured. The cabin feels further forwards than those coupés/breadvans too, even though the engine is set well aft. And as a result, I feel like I’m located in the middle of the car, rather than over the back axle holding onto the reins of a flighty front end. There’s a natural feel to it all, even though active rear steer is one of a raft of standard technologies.

There are more of those, most notable among them being the new Multimatic spool-valve dampers whose workings – and how they replace anti-roll bars. Lordy, they’re complicated, but they’re brilliant – able to resist the car’s pitch and roll as confidently as they do.

They have three settings: soft, medium and (surprise) hard, and for my money, in all of them bump absorption is better than any car with 23in wheels and 30-section tyres has any right to be. This is largely a quiet, confident, mature car, more solid-feeling than any Ferrari I can remember. A sound cruiser, I’d think – although we’ll have to spend motorway time with it later.

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With that, though, body control is also tight. If the Purosangue were sufficiently light, the 48V suspension system would put enough force into itself to pitch into corners, rather than just roll less than expected.
How much less than expected? The Purosangue isn’t that tall (at one point I follow a Citroën Berlingo and figure its driver and I are at about the same level), but the Ferrari’s body movements are tied down like I wouldn’t expect from even this modest elevation.

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It’s taut, controlled and agile for a car with an engine this size out the front, and with this kerb weight and this ground clearance. And boy, it’s fast. It has a very honest big-coupé vibe.

I try to think of the car it reminds me of most and ultimately settle not on its 4x4 competitors from the Volkswagen Group or Rolls-Royce but an Aston Martin, although not the obvious one either. Instead, I imagine what an Aston Martin Rapide would have been like if it had been jacked up, not to full SUV levels but to those of cars that get Dakar, Allroad, Cross Country or Scout monikers.

The similarities are there: aluminium chassis, front-mounted V12, transaxle, four seats, modest hatchback. The Ferrari bods are right: this isn’t an SUV, it’s a Rapide Allroad. It’s a GTC4 Cross Country or an FF Dakar

Ultimately, its handling balance has that presence. There’s enough power here to overwhelm sticky rubber on a warm day (where it would do 0-62mph in 3.3sec and 193mph), so with winter tyres on glassy, frosty or truly snowy gravel tracks, it has a surplus of hoon.

The Purosangue slides and skips and yumps with supreme ease and balance and then settles again with the deftness of a stage-ready rally car. It’s not an off-roader, and it’s not a 4x4, really. It can’t even tow anything. But as a way to have the V12 Ferrari experience in a relaxed setting without having to worry that you will crack four-grand’s worth of carbonfibre on a driveway ramp, look no further.

Anow, no snow, it doesn’t matter: this car is a laugh. The DBX 707 is perhaps more flamboyantly keen to shout. The Cayenne Turbo GT is perhaps the only road-pummelling SUV that would equal the Purosangue for seriousness. And I still think this car will never be quite as cool as a GTC4. But this is a car Ferrari had to make, and while you excuse some car makers their SUVs because they let them make enough money to produce the sports cars we love, the Purosangue does for its maker what a lot of SUVs can’t for theirs: it actually feels like a Ferrari. 

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Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes.