MORE AT YAHOO! AUTOS
Ferraris can be many maddening things, including pricey, mechanically petulant and prone to in-shop sojourns that cost more than, well, some new cars. But one thing they have been unfailingly is beautiful. With most bodies sculpted by Pininfarina, a Michelangelo of sheetmetal, Ferrari coupes can make a dusty Afghan backroad seem like the Champs-Elysee.
So it is quite the event to have a new Ferrari model greeted with the equivalent of cat calls for its looks. That's the case with the new Ferrari FF, a $300,000-and-up two-door, four-seat family machine whose pre-release photos had many Ferraristi wailing in discontent and contemplating a new protest movement called Occupy Maranello.
The issue in a nutshell: to accommodate adults in the rear bucket seats, Pininfarina stylists extended the roof on this 12-cylinder brute, creating a car that looks not unlike BMW's hatchback-y M Coupe, only infinitely larger. That image danced in my head as I waited for an FF to slide out from behind the garage door at Ferrari of San Francisco, which had just taken delivery of its demo model.
Surprise. What greeted me was not the antichrist of automobiles but rather an innovative way to embrace today's global economic reality. Here's what's going on folks. People who have the kind of money it takes to buy Ferraris and their ilk are either thinking twice about it or are newly conscious of looking like Mr. Moneybags from Monopoly. Put simply, the more practical a spendy exotic is, the more likely it is to sell. Just ask Porsche (cue the equally maligned-at-release Cayenne and Panamera) or Aston Martin (back in the four-door game with the Rapide). Or as Greg Minor, president of Ferrari of San Francisco, declares: "We're now also in the business of practical, consumable luxury."
Ferrari's chairman, Luca di Montezemolo, may have started out in the company's racing division, but as a rumored candidate for top Italian government posts he's savvy enough to accept that, legend or not, his company must thrive or die in this new fiscal reality. The FF, he's said, echoes the Ferrari California - the company's first retractable hardtop coupe, aimed as much at women as men - in being "an authentic Ferrari, designed for people who want to experience the pleasure of owning one of our cars, but with different kinds of use." Translation: far from being a one-off exercise, the FF promises to be preview of practical models to come.
To that end, FF stands for Ferrari Four, and that's a reference not just to seating capability but to the car's four-wheel-drive system, a first on a production Ferrari. Dubbed 4RM (Quattro Ruote Motrici), it's an always-on system that sends power to the front wheels when it senses a loss of torque - i.e. slipping - at the rear wheels. It is no surprise that FF publicity photos show the car frolicking in the snow, or that Ferrari's newest posh driving school will take place this winter in Aspen, where participants will learn to fling FFs around in the white stuff.
In fact, as crazy as it sounds considering that most Ferraris are pampered pets taken out only on glorious days, the FF is aimed at ski-loving families, says Minor, who just took an order from an area entrepreneur who didn't want to leave his family out of the all-season Ferrari fun.
Walking around the metallic grey over tan leather FF in the late afternoon sun, I'm struck by how the car immediately telegraphs a message. Don't compare me to the 458 Italia slinking nearby, or the California two parking spots over. I'm a different animal.
The car's mission statement was straight-forward, says dealership marketing manager Emmanuel Turin, while showing off the car's attributes: "Two couples should be able to go away for a weekend with their luggage, or one couple for two weeks, with the (rear) seats folded down." Turin flips a few switches and suddenly the leather-lined boot is semi-cavernous and ready for a grocery run to Costco. (In what is surely a first, Ferrari's literature on the FF shows one configuration with a family of four plus a golden retriever hunkered down in the rear area, not the usual sales pitch for a Prancing Horse.)
Once inside, it's clear the FF is a true four-seater, banishing the contortionist requirements of anyone who wanted to climb into the back of past Ferrari 2+2s, such as the Mondial and the 612 Scaglietti. Ferrari claims the adjustable rear seats can accommodate a 6-foot-2 adult, and the front seats a 6-foot-5 adult, though not both at the same time. But the TV screens mounted in the front seat headrests make it clear who's most likely to be back there, cartoon-watching kids.
Up front, the feel is reminiscent of any big Ferrari couple, if perhaps less racing oriented than a 599 Fiorano. Emphasis was placed on making the FF a true daily driver, with available modern communications/music options familiar to anyone with a new Toyota (and, in the past, not a strong suit of Ferraris). Predictably, the driver has the best seat in the house. A centrally mounted rev counter tells you when to flick through the paddle-shift operated seven-speed transmission, while available front and rear cameras help take the stress out of maneuvering this large (6 by 16 feet) car. Another repair-sparing feature is a button that raises the car nearly 3 inches, the better to clear snowy driveways. And there's even a back-saving gizmo: instead of having to twist like yoga instructors to reach pillar-mounted seatbelts, front passengers have the belts "handed" to them by a mechanical arm (though one worries it's a kids-brawling-in-the-back incident away from being snapped off).
Time to hit the road. The FF comes to life with a bark that settles into a familiar Ferrari growl, the by-product of a 660-horsepower engine that can zip the car to 62 miles per hour in 3.7 seconds and hit 208 miles per hour if you've got a pass from local police. On a winding road over Mount Tamalpais near Highway 1, it's instantly evident that if pushed hard the FF will happily tear up a track. The most disconcerting thing about driving this car is looking backward; the notion that you can carry this sort of speed into turns and have three other humans along for the ride is impressive, though likely fool-hearty if you value your leather interior.
After much paddle-shifting madness, I slipped the FF into Auto mode, which frankly is where this model is likely to live most of its life. The question was: Can this beast morph into a lamb for the morning commute or kids carpool? But for a few noticeable if slight transmission hiccups when the car slows to a stop, the FF is impressively well behaved, with its engine politely lowering its voice to allow passengers easy conversation.
The verdict on the FF? No, it won't win any beauty contests with its long roofline, not compared to a road-bound jet fighter like the 458 Italia or the elegant brute that is the 599. But then again, if you own this car you're actually likely to gather your kids or your friends and, rough weather be damned, drive it. A lot. For a Ferrari, that's indeed something new.