Super tourer of decade
RARELY does a completely new super car come along, and even rarer is a high-speed, four-seat tourer. All right, it's more of a 2+2, but the new Ferrari 456GT is one of the most impressive machines invented in the lead up to the 21st century.
The beauty of the 456's engine - each cylinder is 456cc and there are 12 of them, making 5.4 litres in all - is that it is not a highly stressed, turbo-charged unit.
It is possible, though, to leave it in sixth gear and cruise around at low revs all day. At 70 kilometres per hour, the engine is turning over at just 1,200 rpm - little more than tick-over. But drop it down a couple of cogs, bring it 'on cam' and the dry-sump V12 unit unleashes all those 325kW of power, accompanied by a roaring howl from the four exhaust pipes, guaranteed to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, and giving the 456 an incredible top speed in excess of 300 km/h.
And if acceleration figures turn you on, try this: the Ferrari 456GT will take you from rest to 100 km/h in a fraction over five seconds. That's quick by any standards. But it takes an experienced driver to control this beast; keep it in the power band - between 4,000 rpm and 7,000 rpm - and you simply have to work at it, hanging on to the steering wheel and trying desperately to change gear fast enough to keep up. In short, the performance of the Ferrari 456GT is stunning.
In handling terms you could not get much better than the 456, bearing in mind it has its engine mounted up front. But thanks to the location of a rear-mounted trans-axle - six-speed gearbox and limited slip differential in one - the weight distribution is almost perfect.
Built by the famous Italian firm of Pininfarina, the 456 features an aluminium body over an alloy steel, tubular chassis, while the massive bonnet is made of carbon composite material with honeycomb inserts in the interest of a lighter vehicle.
Drawing on Ferrari's Grand Prix experience, the suspension is semi-active and the underbody aerodynamics are electronically controlled. Although there are three basic settings for the electronic suspension, it cunningly 'reads' the road and compensates if it feels the shock absorbers are too softly set, while the underbody diffuser adjusts according to speed.
As you would expect at this level, comfort and luxury have not been neglected. The leather-covered seats move electrically, even to the extent of repositioning themselves automatically after allowing access to the rear, while the steering column is also fully adjustable. Because of almost hermetic sealing to the doors, the driver's door window drops a fraction to permit the door to shut and then closes itself again. Almost eerie.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, they say, but I defy anyone not to be moved by the stunning - that word again - good looks of the 456. From its drop-away nose, through its hunched hind quarters and carefully thought out front and rear aerodynamics, all sitting on magnificent five-spoke alloy wheels, the 456 is a testimony to the genius of Sergio Pininfarina.
The tyres are massive, 285/40-17 at the back with slightly smaller versions at the front.
Each 456GT comes with a five-piece matching set of Schedoni luggage although, if in place, the back seats still offer ample space for a set of golf clubs and a briefcase.
Ferrari maintains that every new model should be significant improvement on its predecessor and should reflect the very latest automotive technology. The 456GT certainly fits the bill - it is without doubt one of the best super cars produced this decade. Everyone should have one, but at around $3 million it's just a shade over my current budget.