Rumble on the runway

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 September, 2005, 12:00am

THE FIRST THING that strikes me about the Ferrari 612 Scaglietti is how different it looks up close. I've been half-expecting a bulbous, over-weight two-plus-two coupe. But this is a goddess with a slender figure accentuated by scalloped sides and an all-aluminium body stretched taut over a long wheelbase.

Named after the marque's designer, Sergio Scaglietti, the 612 is Ferrari's latest interpretation of the devastatingly beautiful 375MM, which was designed as a one-off for Ingrid Bergman in 1954. The silhouette of the 612 is a classic. Quadruple exhaust pipes silently smoke in the drizzle, and the engine ticks over with a smooth, low rumble. Ferrari's signature rear lights flank the boot-lid with its subtle, aerodynamic spoiler.

Flicking the bullet-shaped door handle and climbing into the cockpit, I find that every surface is covered in the softest leather. The aroma and decor are overwhelmingly expensive. Passengers can enjoy cutting-edge Bluetooth telecoms, but Ferrari hasn't departed from its quirky ergonomics, with the glovebox release button behind the handbrake. Compared with the 456, its 10-year-old predecessor, the 612 is much more of a four-seater. The roofline is so generous in the rear that I don't have to curl up to be comfortable. The extended wheelbase helps. There's ample shoulder room, despite the bulging side supports - for high speed cornering - and the Bose speakers offer surround sound. The only complaint would be that cats' eyes and potholes jar rear occupants' shoulders.

The brochure claims the 612 has 50 litres more luggage space than the 456, but the boot is still woefully small. Tailor-made baggage is available, but you'll most likely have to send your Louis Vuittons ahead. Despite the parking sensors, reversing is still an insurable event. Best to just pull up next to your Learjet on the runway and allow a valet to do the dirty work.

As with all modern Ferraris, the tachometer remains the centre of focus on the dash, sweeping around without inertia as I prod the drilled aluminium accelerator. The dashboard features a brand-new adaptive LCD panel that displays all the vital statistics in clear graphics, the tyre pressure monitoring system updating the state of the Pirelli P-Zero Rossos in real time.

All this information is called up via buttons on the steering wheel that also control the level of computer intervention as you learn the ropes. Sport mode gives tauter suspension, quicker gear changes and steps up the throttle response, sharpening the driver's input. The stability and traction control (CST) can be completely turned off with the CST button, and you're left entirely to your own devices - not recommended in the absence of gravel traps and run-off areas.

With a foot on the brake, a flick on the Up paddle behind the steering wheel engages first gear. Easing out of the parking lot, the 612's civility belies the 540 horses in the engine's 5,748cc. Completely tractable from idle, the front-mounted V12 packs tectonic levels of torque, never bogging down, even when crawling through Kowloon City's afternoon traffic in third or even fourth. The Scaglietti's presence parts traffic.

Gathering momentum on Lung Cheung Road, the 612 transforms into a hot-hatch as I thread the Ferrari between container trucks and gun it to the apexes, making easy progress on an undulating ribbon of uneven tarmac, floodlit by the bi-xenon headlamps. Despite its hi-tech, weight-saving, all-aluminium construction, the coupe weighs 1,890kg. The chassis and suspension synergise to display absolute body control. With the rear-biased weight distribution contained well within the wheelbase, turn-in is crisp and precise without any understeer. The rain again threatens to stop play, but the CST is so competent that the car thunders towards the next corner on heaps of torque.

On Highway 3, the 612 finally gets into its stride ... with a mere 2,500rpms in sixth gear, it lunges forward with every flex of my right toe. There's no need to downshift, such is the instantaneous acceleration at my call. Echoing off the tunnel walls, the V12's soundtrack is pure bliss. Envious drivers give us the thumbs-up as they're left in our sonic boom. Cruising on the open road, only a slight whisper from the strong crosswind detracts from the serene silence. Surprisingly, tyre noise isn't an issue, despite the huge footprints - the speed-sensitive power steering weighs up nicely as the car creeps into three figures. Nearing the airport, the sky clears and the road dries as we turn into a private section of the runway.

Accelerating with turbine smoothness up to the redline, the soundtrack gradually rises from a throaty rumble to a lion's roar - deeper than the F430's manic scream by an octave or two. The Scaglietti is in its element on long straight roads. Nearing its claimed top speed, the car feels even more planted as the aerodynamics take over and it's sucked to the ground with more than 115kg of finely honed downforce.

Having recently reviewed Ferrari's latest fighter-jet in the F430, the Scaglietti would have to be the four-wheeled equivalent of Concorde.