Oxymoron From Italy: The Civilized Supercar

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MARANELLO, Italy

IF one considers the F12 Berlinetta to be nothing more than Ferrari's latest coupe, the point of the car has been missed. The supercar's body is merely the fancy wrapping for the gift that is a supremely powerful 12-cylinder Ferrari engine.

"Every time Ferrari has unveiled a new 12-cylinder sports car since 1947, something magical has happened," Amedeo Felisa, Ferrari's chief executive, said in an interview. "Our challenge in developing this car, beyond the continued evolution of that magic, was how to beat the best 12-cylinder car -- the 599 -- we've ever done. The F12 tops it, I am proud to say."

Mr. Felisa is not the only one here who feels that way. The F12 Berlinetta's birth is a point of great pride for every employee of the Ferrari works, it seems. On a visit last fall, regard for the car appeared nearly reverential.

The front-engine F12 succeeds the 599 GTB, assuming the role of Ferrari's top two-seat grand touring machine, the pinnacle of the company's model hierarchy. Its personality is more refined than the company's pure-sports models -- the 458 Italia and Spider, powered by V-8 engines placed behind the driver -- but that does not mean the F12 is a machine suited exclusively for high-velocity autostrada runs.

"The F12 is engineered to be driven," Mr. Felisa said. "So take it out of the garage. Drive it."

As directed, I took an arrestingly red F12 into the rolling emerald hills of the Emilia-Romagna region, the lush breadbasket of Italy. Those ancient roads, with decrepit asphalt, indifferent repairs and earthquake-induced undulations, had made for a rather punishing, harrowing drive in most previous Ferraris.

In fact, a few miles in a 1957 250 GT Berlinetta on these same roads in the Mille Miglia tribute rally last May proved downright bone-rattling. The newest Berlinetta -- a name Ferrari uses for a sporty coupe body style -- tamed that same tarmac and seduced it with subtle precision.

Mr. Felisa said that among the company's road cars, the F12 was nothing less than "the most high-performance Ferrari ever built." The mission of Ferrari's 12-cylinder engines has long been raw performance, of course, but the F12's power plant was asked to deliver more nuanced measures of technological prowess: everyday drivability and 30 percent reductions in fuel consumption and carbon emissions. In the European combined driving cycle (the E.P.A. does not yet list mileage for the F12) the fuel economy works out to 15.7 miles per gallon.

But are those relevant motivators for the motoring purists who rationalize the extravagance of a Ferrari?

"The auto industry is evolving," Mr. Felisa said. "Ferrari must evolve with it. We will be able to continue to evolve with innovation, new content and new thinking."

When Ferrari was a small-scale operation building several hundred cars a year, collectors -- speculators might be a more precise description -- could gobble up part of the company's annual output and park their new toys in climate-controlled garages. Wait a few decades and the passage of time might turn the more memorable models into multimillion-dollar classics.

At some point, Ferrari management concluded that this was not a sustainable business model.

"Collectors are our worst kind of customer," Mr. Felisa said. "A Ferrari is not meant to fill your garage." His message was clear: if owners don't drive their Ferraris -- if they are bought for decorative purposes only, the automotive equivalent of Fabergé eggs -- sales will eventually dwindle.

No special training is needed to drive the F12 in stop-and-go traffic, of which there is no shortage on the region's crowded two-lane roads. But when an opportunity to pass presents itself, nailing the throttle will instantly awaken one's inner Michael Schumacher. The V-12 bursts into an aria, the chassis seems to leap from a sprinter's stance, and -- voilà! -- the open road appears ahead. The vehicle passed quickly diminishes in size in the rearview mirror. The V-12's exhaust broadcasts an aurally optimized Sirens' song into the cabin.

It is indeed magical. "What just happened?" I found myself wondering after the first time I experienced this sensation -- the exhaust's scream becomes louder the closer one accelerates to the 8,250 r.p.m. peak, where all 730 horses are pulling.

The 599 GTB Fiorano could produce magic too, albeit in huge, gluttonous helpings; from a standing start, it could hit 62 m.p.h. (100 k.p.h.) in 3.7 seconds, according to Ferrari. But it was not a friendly everyday companion on roads like these. Response of the 599's 612-horsepower 6-liter V-12 to throttle input was instantaneous, brutal and unmitigated. Paired with a 6-speed manual transmission, that V-12 produced eyeball-rolling, sociopathic, felonious fun.

The F12 offers all that and more -- and less. "It is a car with blistering performance," Mr. Felisa said of the F12's new 6.3-liter V-12; it delivers 730 horsepower and 509 pound-feet of torque, and it does this without the aid of turbocharging or supercharging. The F12's 0-62 m.p.h. sprint is done in 3.1 seconds, according to Ferrari, using the Launch Control feature. Top speed is "more than 211."

But, Mr. Felisa added, "The F12 also can offer pleasurable performance at lower speeds." It even has a hybridlike engine stop-start feature, to further save gas and reduce emissions.

Time and again, the F12 obediently followed slow trucks in a docile manner until prompted. And then it would vanish down the road. Roll-on torque, from about 2,500 to 6,000 r.p.m., is the V-12's performance sweet spot.

To package this V-12, Ferrari went in an almost counterintuitive direction. The F12 is smaller than the 599, halting a trend toward ever-larger Ferraris that seems, mercifully, to have peaked. Almost every feature of the car's elegant body, including what Ferrari calls aero bridges -- the sheet metal between the front wheel and the cockpit -- helps to channel air to reduce drag.

Compared with the 599, the F12 is lighter -- by more than 100 pounds with the "lightweight" options that hold the weight to about 3,600 pounds -- and more nimble.

The F12 also has a lower center of gravity, increased torsional rigidity, better weight balance, a lower coefficient of drag and more precise steering response. There's more, but a complete listing of all the gadgets on this car would bewilder even James Bond.

Thanks to a long menu of electronic features, including traction and stability control, yaw control, electronic differential and braking aids, an operator with basic training at a performance driving school can throw the F12 around a racetrack with reasonable confidence.

"The F12 is a fundamental step forward in every way," Mr. Felisa said.

It is, in short, a sportier sports car than its predecessor.

The direct-fuel-injected engine is based on the V-12 also found in the FF, but with notable improvements, including a higher compression ratio. It's a masterpiece of space-saving packaging, almost cube-shaped.

The design of the 7-speed dual-clutch transmission -- no manual gearbox is offered -- has been revised. The gear ratios are more closely spaced to better match engine power, and they are also optimized for the multiple mode settings: Wet, Sport, Race, Traction Control Off and Stability Control Off. Shifting occurs instantaneously; gone are the lag and balkiness of some past Ferrari auto-shifters.

Ferrari sought improvements in even the tiniest increments -- by millimeters, degrees and grams. The F12 is assembled with tighter tolerances and almost aerospace precision on a highly automated assembly line here that would have seemed sacrilege not long ago, given Ferrari's heritage of hand-built craftsmanship.

But a greater level of durability, quality and reliability are expected even of Ferrari these days. The F12 comes with a seven-year bumper-to-bumper warranty.

Human comfort is addressed too, with vastly improved ergonomics and luxury features. The driver's and passenger's seats can be ordered in almost any size and configuration, in an almost overwhelming array of colors, textures and materials. Matching luggage and golf bags are also available.

Cabin space and luggage capacity have been expanded compared with the 599, despite the F12's slightly smaller dimensions. Gone are the annoying steering column stalks; most functions are now found on, or around, the steering wheel. Most gauges still have analog faces, a nod to Ferrari cockpits of yesteryear.

"We do not want to change, or destroy, the characteristics of Ferrari," Mr. Felisa said. "But these kinds of improvements are the only way to ensure the future of the company."

The formula seems to be working: Ferrari announced increased profits and record sales and revenue through the first nine months of 2012. The F12 is expected to bolster profits further when it officially goes on sale in all markets, including the United States, this spring. Most of the initial production run was spoken for even before the price was announced.

"Our regular customers contact dealers and just say, 'We want the next Ferrari, whatever it will be,' " Joanne Marshall, a Ferrari spokeswoman in Europe, said. "About 60 percent of our customers are repeaters. They don't bother asking the price."

Should you be one of those who want to know before making the commitment, Ferrari says the F12 will start at $315,888.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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