1997 Ferrari 550 Maranello

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Los Angeles Times

Ferrari's 550 Maranello will make no sense to those whose questions are cliches: Why would anybody pay $222,000 for a car? Where can you drive at 200 mph? How many cup holders does it have?

This is not to denigrate motoring mainstreamers. They are simply persons of different preferences. Chances are, they read the stock market better, list pointillists easier, stay married longer and certainly are broader conversationalists than those who consider left foot braking and short-shifting to be social graces.

Here's the focus. A Ferrari is more coveted Italian creature than necessary conveyance. It was not conceived to carry groceries or be wheels beneath a Hollywood Bowl sound system. Nor is it a hushed pod for easing crush-hour crawling in cushioned isolation. God gave us Oldsmobiles for that.

Forgive us our rhapsodies. But whenever a Ferrari is mentioned or crosses visions, there follows not a discussion on nuts, bolts and horsepower, but an exploration of mystique, philosophy and rationale of the global lust for what remains a primal machine of very narrow purpose.

A Ferrari is automotive engineering in pure form--an uncompromising combination of hand-squeezed, race-proved mechanicals dedicated to transforming maximum energy into a ferocious rite of exhilarating passage. Should comfort start diluting performance, the softer side is marginalized. Modern technology--and that includes traction controls, a radio, but no cup holders (probably by papal edict)--is added only when lesser car builders have sorted wheat from fad.

Ferraris involve all senses of their pilots and contain enough handling quirks to keep driving a sport. The gears still clank. The rear end will get irritated under hard power. And despite a lingering antiquity, Ferraris would find buyers if sold as street-legal single-seaters at twice the price.

As long as they remained marinara red, provided pace that flared nostrils and belched great Italian harmonies from huge exhaust pipes.

The 550 Maranello well lives up to this past.

And--to be expected of the car that will carry Ferrari into the next millennium--it brings much fresh and welcome stuff to the sports car table.

A replacement for the F512M Testarossa, the F550 is faster, more powerful, but measurably more civilized in form and function than the over-lathered and apparently bulletproof "Miami Vice" car.

Its lines aren't pushy or flashy--even subdued in side-by-side comparison with the Testarossa--and Pininfarina has sculpted a car quite close to last year's more dignified 456GT 2+2.This use of long curves in both cars--a shape that survives the test of being more exquisite by bird's-eye view than any worm's-eye view--may well settle down as the look of Ferrari for the '90s.

Gone are the Testarossa's mid-engine, slab sides and cheese-grater side strakes. Maranello returns Ferrari to its roots, to the '50s and '60 s when front-engine, rear-drive GTs and Daytonas were prancing from Modena and introducing a new post-World War II age of high-performance motoring.

The acknowledgment here is subtle: Although a mid-engine configuration might refine weight distribution and balance on a Le Mans car maneuvering at 200 mph, it doesn't add a sliver of stability when powering onto the San Diego Freeway. Nor does it create optimum room for passengers, packages and small pets.

Yet the 550 Maranello is a 200 mph street car.

It also roars from 0 to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds, with the electrically adjustable (via dashboard finger lever) shocks set in Sport mode, and traction controls unhooked to tease the last ounce of initial oomph from Pirelli Zero tires on magnesium wheels and a 5.5-liter, aluminum V-12 punching out 485 horsepower.

Therein the 550 Maranello concept.

By engineering, dimensions and performance, Ferrari has built a legitimate supercar that will run with ut blushing alongside similar screamers from McLaren and Jaguar, both more expensive but neither in production. Also the Bugatti EB110 that was virtually stillborn.

These were race cars with headlights and tamed lightly for the street. So is the Maranello, with much of its engine technology--including enlarged valves and ports, ram air induction, a freer-breathing exhaust, titanium connecting rods and lighter crankshaft--lifted directly from the F50 and Formula One Ferrari racers. As were the super grabby, non-fade brakes with ceramic insulators between pistons and pads--because when grinding down from 200 mph, brake fluids have been known to boil.

Electronic traction controls tickling engine and brakes take the worry out of wheel spin and getting your major investment--at yesterday's close, a Maranello was worth about 6,000 shares of AT & T--sideways and into the weeds. But disengage them, and you'll realize how hard they have been working--and how sharp responses must be with almost 500 horsepower and more than 400 pounds of torque under your right foot.

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The interior is quintessential Ferrari--gorgeous leather, rich carpeting--and with infinite attention paid to the driving position and setting of controls. Because this is space dedicated to movement and direction, not teatime and watching the scenery. Dials are huge and instantly readable; seats are for those proud to be called Snake Hips and gently reclined because Italians still believe in driving with straight arms.

In mute tribute to the glory days of Ferrari racing, the speedometer and tachometer needles point straight down when at rest. That's so they point straight up, and can be seen at a glance, at 160 mph and 6,000 rpm and reaching for the outer limits.

The pedals are drilled. Because in the '40s that represented a mild weight reduction. The shift knob is an aluminum ball on a chromed stalk, clanging through six forward gears and a stainless steel shift gate--because that cattle-guard shift gate is a Ferrari trademark as protected as the Greek temple radiator on a Rolls-Royce.

The Maranello's interior is form-fitting and purpose-built to be one notch above spartan. With the exception of a blocky rear end, the exterior is well stated and elegant.

But to perfect insides and outsides, Ferrari could do worse than raid the houses of other icons to steal an overseer or three responsible for the finest in fits and finishes. For Mercedes-Benz doors don't close with a clatter. The trunk lid on a Rolls-Royce doesn't shut like a bait box. The Maranello's trunk lid also squeaked, and pedals could use resetting to bring smoothness to heel-and-toe shifting.

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All is forgiven, of course, once this preordained classic is underway. Power is enormous, and that lusty V-12 keeps pouring it on from each shift until red line in any gear. The Maranello is into triple-digit speeds before there are dou ble digits on the stopwatch. And while still in fourth gear.

It is also two cars in one.

In softer, sedate hands, it tools around town, breathing gently in its first four gears. It's light on the clutch, easy to shift; the steering is powered and well-balanced, and only tiptoes are needed for braking. It's a pet pony.

Then cuff its ears. Pour on the Chianti. Force the pace, order this car around, let it know who's the boss. Then it becomes a bronc; spirited, vital and very, very quick.

It stirred our child within on Interstate 5, a safe distance north of Del Mar. A Mustang came sniffing. A little too close.

So we indulged, slapping the shifter from 6th to 4th.

In the space of that thought, the Maranello was in full song and surging in quiet rage. Thousands of precision pieces performing one concert, one purpose. While the radio thundered out something appropriate: "Wrath of the Gods" by Rossini.

An Italian car, Italian music,It lian fire in the hole.

That's why somebody would pay $222,000 for a car.

1997 Ferrari 550 Maranello

The Good: Ferocious power, but more peaceful looking. Heritage still shows, but quirks of shifting and road-holding have been civilized. Impeccable around town, flawless when roaring between towns.

The Bad: Wanted: fit and finish man who speaks Italian.

The Ugly: About $21,000 in luxury and gas guzzler taxes, and unlikely to qualify for good driver insurance rates.

Cost Base: $200,000 (standard equipment includes leather interior; air-conditioning; anti-lock brakes; dual air bags; power windows, mirrors and seats; adjustable suspension; power steering; traction controls; adjustable steering). As tested: $222,000 (adds taxes, destination charges).

Engine 5.5-liter, 48-valve V-12 developing 485 horsepower.

Type Front-engine, rear-drive, two-seater supercar.

Performance 0-60 mph, as tested, 4.8 seconds. Top speed, estimated, 199 mph. Fuel consumption, estimated average, city and highway, 11 mpg.

Curb Weight 3,700 pounds.

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