I JUMPED at the opportunity to drive the latest 348 Challenge limited edition, having driven the standard 348ts (targa top) last year. Ferraris have always had a special place among high performance cars, but the chance to drive one that had been tweaked and improved with better wheels, and performance-enhancing devices, rarely comes along. The famous Italian car manufacturer has only allocated three of these cars for sale in Hong Kong, through Italian Motors. The 348 Challenge will be available here towards the end of the year and is a limited edition version of the 348tb, the hardtop version of the new 348 introduced in 1990. This special Ferrari features various sports options taken directly from the competition version of the 348, which has been raced with tremendous success in the Italian GT and Ferrari challenge series. Italian Motors has assembled a prototype version to give its customers a taste of what can be in store if they order one of the later, fully equipped 348 Challenge cars. Visually, the 348 Challenge is identical to the normal 348tb. This is no bad thing, since the 348 is an extremely attractive, but purposefully built, sports machine. On the surface, only minor changes are noticeable, including wider rear wheels, special leather bucket sports seats, and lower body panels, which are painted in the body colour instead of the usual black. The major changes are all under the skin and include the following performance enhancing systems: engine power increased to 332 bhp; a sports exhaust system; and modified gear ratios for greater acceleration. Driving the car is a real treat. Slotting into first through the chrome gate is firm and using the gear box takes getting used to. However, once mastered, the driver will be rewarded with firm, positive gear control. In a Ferrari, there is no point applying the standards used on normal everyday cars; you select the gear and do so positively. The same applies to steering and throttle control. But the Ferrari is not hard to drive. It handles easily and is endowed with modern braking and electrical systems that enable the driver to maintain total control. The 348 is an extremely advanced sports car - one that is fully accomplished in all aspects and ahead of the competition. But a Ferrari has ''soul'', unlike some of its competitors, and this is what sets the marque apart. To hear the 3.4-litre V8 roar into life and thunder at the press of the throttle provides an exhilarating thrill. Comparing the Challenge to the normal 348 is not easy; both are extremely fast and able sports machines with plenty of torque fed from the mid-mounted V8. There are subtle but pleasant changes. I felt that the Challenge had slightly firmer suspension settings, a deeper and throatier exhaust note and a more lively pick up in all five gear ratios. To fully test the car, I'd probably need a lap or two at Macau or somewhere similar, but that will have to wait until another day. On the move in town traffic, the Challenge is as docile and willing as the normally aspirated 348. It is only when you hit the slightly more open roads that things liven up, and the car can truly show its mettle. Ferrari has quietly improved the basic 348 since its introduction. The new 348 convertible (to complement the targa and hard top models) is due next month. The latest cars come fully equipped with catalysts and are slightly lighter than the original 348 by 31.7 kilograms. The new 348s also have a slicker gear linkage and changed transmission of viscosity, to aid gear changing. The 348 Challenge is an extremely well produced car. The seats provide excellent comfort and support. Just being in a Ferrari makes the driver feel special. This helps to explain the magic and appeal of Ferrari, and the reason why the company can continue to make exotic but saleable super cars. Driving the Challenge was tremendous fun and made me realise, as it would many drivers, what it is like to drive a proper sports machine and experience the thrill of actual driving. Whether moving at 48 kilometres per hour, or cruising on the highways at fast speed, the Ferrari still gives optimum driver appeal. For $2.18 million - just $100,000 more than the normal 348tb - there can be little doubt that Ferrari will easily sell these cars to customers who will be only too happy to exchange such an outlay for the chance to own one of these extremely special, limited edition super cars. FACT FILE TOP SPEED: 162 mph. 0-60 mph in 5.5 seconds. ENGINE: 3,405 cc V8, longitudinal, mid-mounted. MAXIMUM POWER: 332 bhp instead of the standard 300 bhp at 7,200 rpm. MAXIMUM TORQUE: 238 lb ft at 4,200 rpm. SUSPENSION: Independent, by double wishbones, coil springs and anti-roll bars front and rear. BRAKING SYSTEM: Vented disc with anti-lock front and rear. TRANSMISSION: Five-speed manual with limited-slip differential. COST: $2.18 million.