2004 Ferrari 360 Spider Road Test

2004 Ferrari 360 Convertible

(3.6L V8 6-speed Manual)

Emotion in Motion

The Ferrari 360 model first hit the market in 1999 as a replacement for the Ferrari F355. Ask anyone who's driven both and they will assure you that the Ferrari 360 was a tremendous leap forward from the F355, both in terms of performance and packaging. The 360's interior offered superior space and comfort, and the immediacy with which the car responded to steering and brake inputs had many enthusiasts labeling it "the best sports car ever."

Five years later, the supercar market has become quite crowded, with new entries from the likes of Lamborghini, Porsche and even Ford. Nearly all of these makers had the Ferrari 360 squarely in its sights when they developed their competitive models (Lamborghini Gallardo, Porsche 911 GT2 and GT, respectively). Ford went so far as to buy a Ferrari 360 Modena and tear it apart to figure out how the company had built the ultimate sports car. Yet, Ferrari seems to be taking the move in stride, knowing full well what the sincerest form of flattery is.

We were fortunate enough to land a ride in a 2004 Ferrari 360 Spider, equipped with the Formula One transmission, up to Monterey for the 2004 Monterey Historics and Pebble Beach Weekend. The trip was part of the 7th Annual Ferrari Challenge Rally, and as you can imagine, if driving a Ferrari is rewarding, driving a convertible Ferrari through California, with nearly 50 other Ferraris, is about as close to sports car nirvana as it gets.

But even without the company of other Ferraris, the Ferrari 360 Spider offers plenty of entertainment. Its midengine aluminum chassis, active double-wishbone suspension (also constructed of aluminum) and wide track design imbue the car with otherworldly handling qualities, making it feel as capable as anything we've driven. Yet, the Ford GT has it beat (just barely) by offering up similar all-out handling performance along with superior ride quality. The car never feels harsh, but you are aware of every bump in the road. A good thing -- for the most part -- in a car like this, but long-distance touring can get old due to the amount of road surface information constantly coming through the steering wheel and seat.

Body roll is essentially nonexistent with the active suspension placed in "Sport" mode, and its ability to track over bumps without upsetting the chassis is spot-on thanks to electronic dampers that take a mere 0.04 second to react. Cowl shake is miniscule (but perceptible) over larger bumps, though it's never enough to distract the driver or dampen confidence while flinging the Spider along snaking canyon roads. When not in "Sport" mode the 360 Spider softens a bit, improving its ride while allowing for greater body roll.

Feeding this advanced suspension is a steering system that feels better than any we've ever tested. Although close, the 360 is superior to Porsche's excellent Boxster and 911 in terms of overall feedback, precision and vehicle response. In terms of refinement, it absolutely trounces the Chevy Corvette and Dodge Viper while also edging out the Ford GT. Of course, the Ferrari 360 Spider costs more than any of those cars, but it's in these subtle areas (steering feedback and chassis dynamics) that the Ferrari's higher cost of entry begins to make sense. The 360 isn't substantially better than a 911 or Ford GT in terms of pure steering bliss, but it is better, and at this level of performance, even fine degrees of "better" cost money.

The steering wheel itself is pretty simple in terms of design and materials quality, but it's perfectly sized (with a large, grippy rim) to make it very effective. No audio or cruise controls. No fancy metallic inserts. Just a focused tool that really works, much like the rest of the car.

Yet, despite the 360's magical driving dynamics, with this car it's all about the engine. Not just in terms of acceleration -- the car reaches 60 mph in about 4.5 seconds -- but also in terms of sound and emotion. The 3.6-liter's engine note isn't as throaty as an American V8; it sounds more like a Ducati V-twin than any other four-wheeled conveyance we've experienced (except for a Stradale). It's also more visceral than anything we've driven and, along with the steering, that is one of the elements that separates it from Porsches, Aston Martins and Ford's new GT.

Unfortunately, it doesn't have any torque below 4,000 rpm, which is where the Ford smokes this one (literally). The Ferrari 360 Stradale weighs less and has more torque and horsepower, so it feels much livelier, as do Porsche's various horizontally opposed engines. For the fastest launches, you have to turn off traction control, floor the throttle and be ready to shift before the engine hits its rev limiter at around 9,000 rpm (redline is at 8,500). Even with the F1 transmission, you have to be on your toes (eh, make that fingers) to beat the rev limiter, as the engine's lack of alacrity vanishes above 4,000 rpm. From that point on, the V8 becomes a fiery demon of noise and power, rocketing the 360 Spider forward while emitting a shriek that can both frighten and delight -- usually both.

The F1 transmission has been refined by Ferrari over the past few years, and in its current form it works well enough. There's still the occasional lurch between gears, especially during the 1-2 upshift, but low-speed engagement is relatively smooth. BMW's SMG still feels better, and the Audi TT's DSG system far exceeds this one's refinement level. The problem with the BMW and Ferrari trannies is that they still behave like what they are: manual transmissions pretending to be automatics. When left in "Auto" mode, this one doesn't downshift readily enough, and it won't go into first gear by itself unless the car comes to a complete stop. When you combine this behavior with the engine's lack of torque below 4,000 rpm, you find yourself regularly lugging the engine unless you take control and manually downshift the transmission every time you drop below 25 mph. And unlike Audi's system, the first manual shift knocks the F1 tranny out of "Auto" mode, meaning there's little reason to use the automatic mode during low-speed conditions unless you want to keep turning it back on.

There's also an element of connection with the car that is lost by not having to row the gears manually, and there's still the inevitable head toss during upshifts when left in "Auto" mode, something the Audi system has eliminated. If the engine had more torque and the transmission worked liked Audi's, it would be a viable alternative to the classic Ferrari metal-gated shifter. Thankfully, when driven like a Ferrari is meant to be driven, the F1 does indeed provide quicker (150-millisecond), smoother shifts. Downshifts are particularly enjoyable due to the F1's throttle-blipping/rev-matching abilities that keep the chassis settled and the driver focused on other things, such as the fabulous steering and highly capable brakes.

For those times when you aren't pretending to be Michael Schumacher, the 360 Spider makes for a surprisingly civil companion. Our test car had the optional Daytona seats, and these provide excellent side bolstering and lumbar support. Seat controls consist of power adjustments for the seat bottom and seat back angle as well as a power lumbar adjustment. There was also a manual twist knob on the inside of the seat back to adjust the lateral bolstering cushions. Legroom and headroom proved adequate, if not abundant, and the quality of the leather reflected the 360's price tag. Seat comfort/style is yet another area where Ferrari continues to outpace its primary competitors.

Like most midengine cars, rear visibility in the Ferrari 360 Spider is atrocious. The high rear deck, thick roll hoops and rear fairings behind the seats make it hard to see out back, even with the top down. Gazing forward and over the rising "humps" above each wheel well is inspiring. The most distracting visual element is the shiny, exterior panel just behind the roll hoops. It's obviously meant to look good when the top is down (like any exterior body panel), but these areas cause reflections that make you think a vehicle is in your blind spot whenever you want to move into the right lane. We found ourselves constantly having to look twice to confirm whether a car was really there, or if it was just a passing reflection off of this panel.

Raising the fully automatic top somewhat reduced the mirror effect on these panels. It only takes about 25 seconds, but there's a fair amount of whining noise during the process, certainly more than we remember in any 911 or Mercedes convertibles. The plastic rear window similarly disappointed us, as did the fact that the top material was already retaining wrinkles when up, even after only 2,000 miles on the odometer. At least the top tucks under a hard tonneau cover when lowered, giving the car a clean (if somewhat chunky through the midsection) look.

Wind noise, with the top up or down, is effectively drowned out (as is tire noise) by the engine's roar. This isn't necessarily a bad thing since it sounds fantastic, but if at some point you get a hankering for less engine noise, there's not much you can do (putting the top up reduces it marginally). Air management is excellent because of the high rear deck, roll hoops, three-piece wind blocker (one inside each roll hoop and a removable section between the roll hoops) and sweptback windshield. In this way, the 360 Spider feels more like a targa than a true convertible. With the side windows down, wind buffeting isn't an issue below 70 mph, and with them up, it remains calm in the cabin up to 100.

Ferrari kept the 360's interior very simple and straightforward. Unlike many of today's premium vehicles, the climate control vents are not ringed in a metallic finish, the gauges aren't lit by electroluminescence, and the dash has a simple shape with a basic two-tone leather design (black on top, tan on the bottom). All 360s feature standard metallic trim around the center stack, on the center console and on the lower door panels. The hand-stitched leather looks and feels better than what you'll find in a Porsche and about on par with that of the Lamborghini Gallardo.

In terms of its basic design and purpose, the Ferrari 360 Spider isn't that different from, say, a Porsche Boxster S. Both are midengine designs mounted on stiff structures. Both offer excellent steering, superb suspension tuning and excellent brakes. Both are a thrill ride when driven hard. But the Ferrari has that subtle yet undeniable advantage in the areas of steering and suspension tuning that neither a Boxster S nor even a 911 Turbo can match. The steering is more communicative and telepathic. The suspension is more informative as to the nature of the tires' grip and chassis' dynamics. As a result, it handles better and feels far more nimble than it looks. Its wide stance and somewhat "heavy" styling cues (such as the high rear deck and fairings behind the seats) suggest it will be a handful around corners. But drive it hard and its go-kartlike nature emerges, allowing the car to turn instantaneously and shoot rapidly from corner to corner (as long as the engine is in the sweet zone).

It's these types of intangible elements that separate the Ferrari 360 Spider from similarly priced competitors. They can't be tracked by performance testing equipment, and they can't easily be described. But they do exist, and currently strong market values for 360 models suggest that more than enough people know about them.

The replacement for the 2004 Ferrari 360 Spider will be in showrooms in a matter of months, and that car is said to have more torque and an improved F1 transmission. If both rumors are true, we could be looking at the greatest sports car on the planet.

Sounds familiar, don't it?

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 8.5

Components: The 360 uses the same Becker head unit as Porsche and, now, Chrysler in the Crossfire. This means only a single CD slot behind the head unit's display, though a dealer-installed CD changer is available. There is one midrange speaker in each door and two bass drivers mounted between the seats. And there's one small tweeter near the top/front of each door, just below the A-pillar.

Performance: This Becker head unit uses too many tiny buttons, a small display that's difficult to read, and a complex menu system for items like manually adjusting the radio and tonal settings. Why various European automakers continue to use it is beyond us. Sound quality was excellent, as the system did a commendable job of drowning out engine and wind noise, even at highway speeds. Plenty of power and effective separation and imaging.

Best Feature: Strong bass and overall volume output.

Worst Feature: Overwrought head unit design

Conclusion: Ergonomics are weak, but the system's sound quality almost makes up for it. -- Karl Brauer

Second Opinions

Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
What a bummer. Never did I think I'd say that after driving a Ferrari. After decades of waiting, the day had finally arrived and I had the keys to a 360 Spider in my hand and a song ("I can't drive 55") in my heart. The source of my disappointment was the 360's "F1" semi-automatic gear change. I've driven a few cars with this type of transmission, such as the BMW M3 and the Audi TT, and found both of them superior to the 360's system. Although the F1 was great when performing downshifts, executing them rapidly and with a rev-matching blip of the gas, upshifts were clunky and slow in comparison. The TT with DSG, however, was able to perform its upshifts rapidly and seamlessly. This all struck me as rather ironic, considering one of these was an Audi and the other a world-class supercar, not to mention Ferrari's domination of F1 racing, where this type of transmission originated.

Aside from the tranny, the 360 was enjoyable. The frenetic rush of acceleration and spine-tingling sound of the midmounted V8 was enough to cause sporadic, giddy laughter from both fortunate occupants. But there was something missing, the oneness that I thought I'd feel with this car. I'm a traditionalist who likes his sports cars to have three pedals and require the skill to operate them smoothly. If this Ferrari had the six-speed manual with the gated shifter, I'm sure that I'd be singing a different tune, but for now it's "Tainted Love."

Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
Let me just say up front that I consider the 360 coupe to be one of the most aesthetically pure designs on the road today. Seeing one on the road reminds you of all that's good about car design that's dictated by passion and not profitability. That said, our 360 tester disappointed me in a way that was truly disheartening. For one, the F1 shift mechanism is a case study in overkill. All that F1 technology bundled together and it adds nothing to the driving experience. Sure, it might be able to shift more quickly than my hands can move, but the clumsiness with which it operates is so far removed from the elegant simplicity of a traditional shifter that it's rendered useless on anything but a racetrack. Second, while the wail of its V8 at redline is a slice of automotive nirvana, the pitch that emanates from the exhaust tips at normal speed could just as well be a Toyota four-cylinder with a hole in its muffler. For $200K, I expected a little more. Beyond that, its driving dynamics are nothing short of phenomenal and it guarantees you the front spot at the valet, but for my money I want something that speaks to me, not an 18-year-old wearing a red vest and sneakers

Consumer Commentary

"I haven't driven the Gallardo yet, but have driven a 360, which is wonderful. I have been in an early production Gallardo and while it's the first Lambo I can sit comfortably in (I'm 6'1" and--er--well, not slim) as far as headroom is concerned, the seats are very narrow and not supportive." -- tsaupe1, Dec. 24, 2003

"I think the 360 is a great car, but as a daily driver, I found its ride to be very harsh. Now don't get me wrong, I love to feel the road and my Turbo has great road feel. But I thought the 360 was a little over the top. Great on the track, though." -- fhill1, Feb. 8, 2003

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