About a decade ago, sports cars were all pretty much designed to let you go fast as long as you were willing to suffer for the privilege.
Partly this was a condition of a desire to cut back on the weight that hampered performance, and partly because suspension systems weren't sophisticated enough to offer speed as well as comfort.
But there was a large portion of mad male machismo in the mix that said you had to be as tough as an NHL goon and also know exactly what the Hades you were doing if you bought a Corvette or a Ferrari or a Porsche or whatever.
That equation was forever changed when Honda's Acura division brought out its NSX roadster, which provided comfort and performance in the same package, and soon enough the other companies were following suit.
Ferrari, for instance, spent about a decade moving its Italian products closer to the comfort side of the equation, while keeping a steady eye on their go-fast abilities. In going fast, of course, they were immensely aided by their F1 operation, which has been hugely successful these past few years.
Well, we thought Ferrari was keeping an eye on the go-fast side of the business (consider the gaudy, record-breaking numbers from the new and incredibly expensive Enzo Ferrari model), but it turns out it thinks there's still room for improvement in this area. The company says it feels the need to "return to the pure essentials of a racing car that can be used on the road." This isn't such a strange thing for a company that started selling cars to consumers so it could finance its racing efforts.
So now the Fiat-owned firm is bringing out an offering that swings the needle a few notches toward performance and away from comfort. That would be the Ferrari Challenge Stradale, which is based on the 360 Modena and is designed to be noticeably faster and about 20 percent more expensive than that model, but it also comes without many of the convenience items you can get in $15,000 Korean coupes.
As Ferrari puts it, "Anything that does not increase performance and safety has been cut to the bare bones, or eliminated. The result is a very light, very nimble sports car that rides like a racing car, with pinpoint, responsive handling."
In Italian, the overall goal for the Challenge Stradale is described as "come in pista," which means "tracklike performance."
In terms of the U.S., that means a $175,000 (the exact price is still under discussion) car with air conditioning but no floor mats (meaning there are exposed welds) and no stereo. It is also just about the most competent car on sale in North America.
To wit, the Challenge Stradale will go from zero to 60 mph in four seconds, and is 3.5 seconds faster than the Modena 360 around the company's Fiorano track (the same track Ferrari uses to set up its F1 cars).
We didn't get a chance to run the two cars back to back on the ampersand-shaped track to examine their relative merits, but a few laps in a Stradale proved that it lived up to its "come in pista" billing.
This means that, unless you're Michael Schumacher or Gilles Villeneuve (whose statue marks the entrance to the track), you're not really capable of pushing a Stradale anywhere near its limits. But anyone can appreciate the exquisite ability of the car in corners and under acceleration. Who better to breed a racecar for the road, after all, than the most honored racecar company in the world?
Stripping the car of things like upholstery and a stereo and so on might seem like nothing more than tokenism, but it went a lot farther than that and involved the use of metals that are usually described as "unobtainium." The result is that at 2,822 pounds it's 242 pounds lighter than a Modena, and that would account for at least half of the faster time around Fiorano.
Courtesy of some aerodynamic changes from the Modena (including a longer nose, a slicker undercarriage and a revised rear end), the Stradale produces 50 percent more downforce, which pays off most particularly in high-speed handling.
Weight and aerodynamics would make Stradale a faster car, but this is Ferrari we're talking about, so there are also engine and running gear changes to report.
Lifting the horsepower bar on a naturally aspirated 3.6-liter V8 that already develops 400 hp at 8,500 rpm is not easy, but the wizards at Ferrari managed it by doing such things as reducing the resistance of the air supply line to the new carbon-fiber air boxes and matching the rotating masses with great care. The result is an engine that's good for 425 hp at 8,500 rpm, which primarily only has an effect at high speeds but is good for bragging rights at any velocity.
Ferrari says "radical" changes were made to the Modena's suspension system in preparing the Stradale, including four titanium springs that are 20 percent stiffer, and a larger antiroll bar in the back. On the whole, these changes are said to "speed up the transients in maneuvers, achieving better driver-car interaction."
All of this power and ability is controlled through the fabulous F1 automatic transmission, which you operate by paddles on the steering wheel. During hot laps on the track, they shave milliseconds off the time it takes to change to the correct gear, and that counts.
But the techno-cherry on this car has to be the carbon-ceramic brakes (or "freni carbo-ceramica" in Italian) from Brembo. They impress even Ferrari, with official company PR spin using the word "amazing" to describe their performance and stopping distances, and their ability to do the job endlessly on a track without fade.
Unless you're an extraordinary pilot on a high-speed track, most of this will not be apparent when you drive the Challenge Stradale. On public roads, you'll find the car noisier than just about anything built in the last 10 years, and not altogether happy to be burbling around in traffic. But who cares?
After all, you don't always have to be throwing down with someone to prove you're Wyatt Earp; just knowing you're the new sheriff in town is usually good enough.