Monday

Ferrari F355 review

Through the years, Ferrari’s have been called many things. In the mid-‘90’s, they were referred to as junk. Its cars, specifically the entry-level 348, were failing to win people’s hearts as well as comparison tests. Magazines tried to be nice because of the hood ornament, but customers could see it too. No one wanted them anymore. Inventory sat around on lots, waiting for buyers. The last of the 348 Spider’s were being offered with 0% interest loans – just like a GM product. Just imagine that for a second. After all, we're talking about Ferrari here. Production quantity had dropped 50%. Quality was subpar. Ferrari’s then new President, Luca di Montezemolo, had purchased a 348 with his own money and declared it “the worst Ferrari he had ever driven”. Harsh. Worse, a new competitor had entered the fray and was stealing attention from the famous marque. Honda, through its Acura division, had released a supercar that was usable, reliable, hand-built with exotic technology, reeked of quality and refinement, and drove better than the 348 stallion. Even more shockingly, it was significantly cheaper to boot. (review click here) Not enjoying that turn of events, Luca ordered an NSX, gave it to Ferrari’s engineers, and told them that is what they needed to spank. Ferrari needed to show the world that they still knew how to build the most exciting exotic automobiles on the planet. Never one to say die, Ferrari took the challenge head-on. The result was the stunning F355.

Even thirteen years later the F355 still looks fresh. Only a few indicators give away its age; in the interior the mechanical odometer, and on the exterior the pop-up lights. It’s low, sleek, and looks like it wants to devour the road even when sitting still. The body was functional as well as beautiful. Borrowing from lessons learned in F1, the undertray was designed to suck the Ferrari to the tarmac without resorting to teenage-looking massive spoilers up top. 18” five-star wheels were wrapped with Pirelli P-Zero rubber; pizza pan size brakes look ready to slow you at a moments notice whether 5-0 is spotted in your travels or you’re cooking a racetrack. It was originally offered as a Berlinetta (hardtop) or as a GTS (with a removable targa roof). A year later a Spider (convertible) model followed. They kept the same basic formula as their “entry level” cars had for twenty years – a V8 engine mid-mounted in the chassis driving the rear wheels. Even more F1 technology lurked in the car, including a 5-valve per cylinder V8 powerplant backed by a 6 speed manual transmission. In later years, the F355 would get Ferrari’s first road going paddle-shifted gearbox; yet another hand-me-down from the F1 team. More impressively, it undercut its predecessor’s weight.

Fumble around under the side intake to open the door and you’re greeted to the smells of Italy’s finest leather. Sit in the F355 and it’s all business. Everything you need is there and anything Ferrari assumed you didn’t need is missing. That list would include things like power seats (Spider models excepted), and a radio (an optional extra). In fact the seats only adjust back and forth and for rake. That’s ok though because the driving position was brought up to modern standards – no more unusual (weird) poses were required to pilot an Italian exotic. Seats are heavily bolstered and designed more to hold you in place than anything else; however at the same time they are quite comfortable. Some things hadn’t changed. The gearbox was manipulated by a metal rod with a metal ball maneuvered through a metal gate. A deft touch was still required to operate it successfully. Step on the clutch and it feels like it has all of six inches of travel – almost like a video game clutch. Like most Ferrari’s the harder you work it, the better it performs. But we’ll talk more about that in a second.

Twist the key to bring the motor to life and you begin to understand why the radio is optional. It is totally unnecessary when you hear the symphony that this V8 plays for you. Blip the throttle and the V8 revs quickly and urgently, thanks to very lightweight internal engine components. Glance at the tachometer and it promises good times up until 8500 RPM. The speedometer complements that with a 200MPH upper limit, and it's possible to get within 15MPH of that number. It’s said that the valvetrain in the V8 motor is built to handle 10,000 RPM, but you’ll run into a limiter well before that point.

The thing that has always amazed me about Ferrari engines is how unstressed they sound at any speed. Get in any normal car and start racing the engine to redline, and usually it’ll start to feel abused in the upper ranges. Not a Ferrari engine.
No sir, these engines are built to run and run HARD. The F355 proves to be no exception. Get on some open road to unleash all that it has to offer, and the F355 pulls harder and stronger right until it’s up against the redline. As you hold the throttle to the floor the sound becomes more urgent and sonorous with each passing number on the tach. This engine never sounds stressed; in fact it begs you for more. Power starts out softer than you might expect just off the lumpy idle, but builds predictably and progressively. You’ll find yourself keeping it around 4k because that’s where it starts to feel comfortable. Shoot it past 6000 RPM and the F355 flat out SCREAMS as all of its power is unleashed. Past 6k as a passenger you’ll be pushed flat against the seatback. It’s one of the most amazing sounds you will ever hear come out of a combustion engine. Ferrari completely nailed the exhaust note on this car. Not since the carb'd V12's has another engnine sounded so wonderful. And since the F355 Ferrari has never made an engine sound as glorious. The only thing I can compare it to is the sound of a chainsaw tearing through silk. There is nothing else like the sound of this engine. And with its flexibility and indestructible feel, you’ll find yourself exploring the upper ranges just because you can - the sound is that addicting. Jump off the throttle suddenly and the F355 burbles on the overrun for a second just like the race machines it was modeled after. Traffic and pedestrians will stop and stare. People will halt their conversations inside buildings from ¼ mile away when the F355 is playing its song (yes that is true). Cla-clank the gearbox to its next gear and you can hear the chorus all over again. Gear ratios are tight; RPM’s barely drop as speed climbs, always keeping you in the top of the powerband. You’re well into felonious territory by the end of third gear. And the F355 has three more to go. Do you dare explore those too? Whatever you're up for, the F355 is up for too.

If you plan on piloting a F355 on rough roads and don’t currently see a chiropractor, you soon will. As you probably expect the ride is firm and harsh. There’s an adjustable suspension that comes standard, but if you’re transversing blown out roads like what are here in Michigan, it doesn’t matter. On the plus side, the F355 never lies to you; it telegraphs exactly what is going on under its four tires. Comfortable and plush it is not. But you know what? You don’t care. All you begin to care about is getting to open road to hear that engine sing at the redline yet one more time.

The best thing of all is that the F355 was built before a lot of computer crap started making its way into cars, even high performance ones. Yes there is a suspension that will automatically adjust to the road conditions, but manual override to soft or sport is a switch-flick away. ABS comes standard, but again if you’re the hardcore type feel free to disengage it with another switch. Don't want power steering because that would spoil the experience too? Some were made without it. It was actually an option to delete the power steering components. It’s just you, the machine, and the road. The driving experience is raw, and it’s exactly as it should be. No interference – just as much fun as your guts will allow. Get it wrong though and the F355 has nothing with which to save you. It just assumes you should’ve known better. It’s a refreshing change after being in other high power cars that mask their potential through a myriad computer systems or electronic do-dads. There’s a refreshing realness about the F355. It gives you unmasked feedback to everything that is going on. Get it right and this is one of the most satisfying cars you will ever drive, and probably the closest in experience and sound that you’ll ever get to a true F1 machine. Nevermind too this was one of the finest shapes to ever come out of Maranello. The 360 and 430 might be able to run rings around the F355, but they don’t look near as good doing it. Neither will you. The F355 is the one you pick because you want to DRIVE.

I don’t care what the spec sheets say and I don’t care what kind test numbers are thrown around from competing makes - not from a Corvette, not from a Porsche, not from a turbo riced Civic, or a modern BMW. NONE OF THOSE have the passion that this car does no matter how fast they test on measuring equipment. Exactly NONE of them makes you feel like this Ferrari makes you feel. That’s not a cop out, that’s the hard truth. You can quite easily feel why this car carries a premium price when some of those others mentioned will run with it at a fraction of the cost. The feelings you get when you are working in harmony with the F355 can’t be measured on a spec sheet or adequately described. It is simply one of the most amazing, purest driving cars that has ever been made. The F355 reminds you of every single reason why you buy an exotic automobile. If you don't smile ear-to-ear everytime you pilot that car, feel what it can do, and hear that exhaust note, then seek professional help immediately. You’re buying a piece of Ferrari’s racing heritage and technology, and everytime you drive it you feel like you are twice removed from Michael Schumacher himself. I’ve been in faster cars and I’ve been in more expensive cars. But none of them have ever topped the time I had in a F355. It is by far the purest, most focused, and most exciting car I’ve ever been in. Beg, cheat, lie, do whatever you have to do to get in one of these.

Fair warning though - it will forever redefine your concept of what a sports car should be, and at the same time disappoint you with 99.9% of everything else out there.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Excellent read for an exceptional car...

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much, very good article

Anonymous said...

As an owner of a 355 -- couldn't agree more with the reviewer. The 355 is THAT special. Thanks for an excellent review. My only criticism of the car is the ride height (very low) and the aforementioned power steering (the manual steering on my other F cars feels better).

Anonymous said...

I've just paid a deposit on a 355, my first Ferrari. I can't wait to pick it up, but having read this article I want it even sooner! Thanks for some great writing on an exceptional subject

mark said...

You guys are such good writers -- please bring back your blog. I have enjoyed every review you've written and even bought an E36 M3 partially based on your glowing review.

Anonymous said...

Last year, I had an accident and both my legs got paralysed from the knees down, the tendons were joined with surgery.
Unfortunately, to recover I had my legs in plaster for 3 months, then it took another month for me to stand up, the dream that kept me going and was better than anything the doctors could do, was the thought I’d be able to drive my 355GTs again.
I’m now able to drive it, but still can’t walk properly, however the joy at driving my 355 is the best medicine in the world, keep your pills and medicines, just take a couple of gallons of super unleaded in a 355, best medicine in the world.

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