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1998 Ferrari 550 Marinello

There are pros and cons to driving a $288,000 Ferrari 550

Maranello through the streets of Toronto.

Most of the pros are obvious — this is a gorgeous, quite

fabulous automobile.

But they also include the fact that when you pull up to

Canadian Tire's Yonge and Eglinton headquarters for an autograph

session honoring Canadian race drivers Greg Moore, David

Empringham, Lee Bentham and Alex Tagliani in a Ferrari, the

police don't shoo you away from the reserved parking meters –

they let you park right in front.

(When I pull up to media events in my 1983 Pontiac Grand

LeMans, they ask me to park 'round the back.)

The cons include the fact that everybody's staring at the car

(they never stare at the Pontiac, except to wonder what's

going to fall off next). Which means they aren't likely paying

much attention to their driving.

Which may explain why a real estate salesman drove right into

me as I was stopped at a red light, awaiting a chance to turn

right.

His entire life must have flashed before his eyes when he

realized what he had hit.

The damage initially appeared to be slight — a scuff on the

bumper. It turned out the exhaust system was also pushed in

several centimetres — it's probably worth more than this guy's

entire car, and I doubt Midas has a replacement in stock.

I'd been waiting for this moment — not getting run into,

rather, driving the 550 — for almost a year. I was fortunate to

be the token Canadian at the car's international media launch at

the Nurburgring racetrack in Germany last summer, but the

ride-and-drive program was ride-only.

Even that was pretty cool a few hot laps of the 'Ring's

Grand Prix circuit as a passenger with Max Papis, the personable

and talented former Formula One and Ferrari endurance series

driver who's now soldiering on in an uncompetitive car in

C.A.R.T.

The 550 Maranello is a replacement for the Daytona, in the

sense that it too is a front-engine, rear-drive, V12-powered,

two-door, two-seat coupe in the classic Ferrari Gran Turismo

tradition. (The mid-engined Berlinetta Boxer line appears at

this point to have been an evolutionary dead end.)

Stylingwise, Pininfarina didn't push the envelope with the

550 Maranello as much as reshape it.

It's a beautiful if hardly radical car, with plenty of

connection to former Ferraris — two oblique slots in the front

fenders, four round taillights. The front end is reminiscent of

the 'entry-level' Ferrari, the 355.

The most controversial element is the massive hood scoop. It

has been emphasized in many 550 photographs, but it's not as

obvious in real life. You may not like it, but at least it's

functional.

Mechanically, the 550 borrows somewhat from the two-plus-two

456GT. The chassis is a short-wheelbase variant.

Both share basic suspension bits, a 65-degree 5.5-litre

four-valve-per-cylinder V12 engine, and a rear-mounted six-speed

manual gearbox (the 456 is also offered with a four-speed

automatic), although all these bits differ considerably in

detail.

A higher compression ratio (10.8:1 versus 10.6:1), a variable

air intake system and a newer Bosch Motronic engine management

system boost output to 485 horsepower (from 436 in the 456).

Torque peaks at 419 footpounds at 5,000 r.p.m., up five per

cent from the 456.

In both cars, the aluminum body is welded to a tubular steel

frame.

Can't be done, say you amateur metallurgists?

A Ferrari-exclusive process called FERAN interleaves a special

film between the dissimilar metals, allowing them to be

heatbonded.

The interior is nearly filled by two massive power-adjustable

seats, upholstered in soft tancolored leather.

They are supremely comfortable and supportive, but the

leftside bolster on the driver's seat was already badly scuffed,

presumably by the seat belt tongue, and my test car had only

2,000 miles on it (it was a U.S.-spec car).

There's no back seat, just a carpeted shelf with two thick

leather straps, designed to secure luggage.

You'll likely need this shelf if you're going any distance, as

the trunk is small.

Two gigantic dials — speedo and tach — dominate the dash, with

coolant temperature and oil pressure on either side. Oil

temperature, fuel level and a clock are arrayed across the top

centre of the dash, with three large circular chrome-trimmed

vents immediately below.

A row of toggle switches — if they aren't identical to those

in the 355 they're awfully close — control such things as the

trunk release, the two-setting shock absorbers, and the traction

control system.

The six-speed gearbox is massaged by the Ferrari-traditional

polished aluminum ball-on-a-stick shift lever, working in the

Ferrari-traditional exposed metal shift gate.

There's no excuse for not knowing what gear you're in in a

Ferrari.

Max Papis is clearly able to push a car like this a lot harder

than you or I ever would or could. My laps with him showed me

that it is a sensational car on a race track.

Ferrari claims it is faster around the company's Fiorano test

track in Maranello Italy than a Berlinetta Boxer by a

sensational 1.3 seconds.

This is astonishing, considering the Boxer is a mid-engined,

performance-oriented car. Much credit is likely due to the

Pirelli PZero tires, specially developed for the 550 Maranello.

Papis's erstwhile racing partner, Fermin Velez, also thrashed

this particular car around Mosport for a weekend, for the

entertainment and edification of some of my media colleagues,

and to the detriment of both tires and brakes.

No road car, not even a Ferrari, can survive such torture

unscathed.

I was warned by the mechanics at Ontario Ferrari about the

brakes. They felt okay to me, but the tires were feathered at

their edges, and slightly out of balance. Hey, I can suffer a

little for a Ferrari.

I did manage a few interesting onramps during my brief time

with the car — let's hear it for the 407 — to the great

amusement of my passenger, Rachel the radio producer.

The 550 handles brilliantly, and the ride is surprisingly

smooth.

I found it difficult to detect much difference in ride quality

between the normal and sport shock settings marginally more

impact harshness in the latter, perhaps. I may have sensed

slightly firmer roll control, but that might be my imagination.

When you stick your foot in it, it goes. It isn't easy to keep

this car under any legal speed limit in the world. The aural

accompaniment is more subdued than with other Ferraris; turn off

the radio, roll down the windows, air conditioning be damned,

and listen to the music.

Ferrari understands that most customers with the wherewithal

to buy a car like this either cannot or are not interested

in driving all that hard.

Today's Ferrari has to be characterful, fast, and roadable,

but it must be comfortable, reliable and fully-featured as well.

To that end, the 550 Maranello is not much harder to drive

than your average Honda. The variable-ratio, variable-assist ZF

Servotronic steering is light and easy.

The clutch is no big whoop. The shifter requires a bit of

muscle, but less than in previous Ferraris.

The engine starts on the first key twist, and idles

obediently. Crack open the throttle, and it responds smoothly.

Despite being a highly-tuned engine, flexibility is

outstanding. Full throttle in sixth gear at 2,000 r.p.m. is no

problem.

Drivers who have never experienced the gasps and wheezes of a

multicarbureted engine could never appreciate what modern fuel

injection systems have wrought.

The air conditioning works. The power windows work. The radio

– must you? — works, even if the teenier-than-the-Japanese-use

buttons are a deterrent.

And nothing stops traffic — sadly, I can say that in both

literal and metaphorical senses — like a Ferrari.

Make mine light metallic silver paint with a bloodred

interior. Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report

based on driving experiences with a Ferrari 550 Maranello

provided by Ferrari of Ontario.

You can catch Kenzie each Saturday on Talk 640 Radio at 4 p.m.

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