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A special thanks to Ferrari Beverly Hills for providing the seat time in a Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradale.
For over 40 years Ferrari has been offering street-oriented versions of its racing models. The most famous of Ferrari nameplates, including GTO, 275 and F40, all owe their existence to the concept of creating a full-fledged race car, and then retrofitting it with the minimal necessary equipment to establish street legality.
In a world flush with acronyms like DOT, EPA and NHTSA, one may question the amount of leeway a modern automaker has to transform a race car into a street car. Yet one run through the gears of a 360 Challenge Stradale is more than enough to convince even the most jaded of Ferraristi that Enzo's spirit lives on in the latest Prancing Horse.
Just the act of running through those gears is your first indication that the Challenge Stradale is a special automobile, even as Ferraris go. All Stradales come outfitted with Ferrari's Formula One, automated clutch transmission, which uses paddles just beyond the steering wheel for gear swaps. These swaps take place in as little as 150 milliseconds, and because of the electronic interaction between the gearbox and engine, revs are automatically matched to provide maximum efficiency and stability when downshifting. This same transmission is available on 360 Modenas, and it typically includes a full automatic mode. But on the Stradale there is no such mode -- all gear changes must be accomplished by the driver, though the tranny will automatically drop into first gear when the vehicle comes to a stop. The settings of "Street" and "Sport," used on the standard Modena, have been upgraded to "Sport" and "Race" in the Challenge Stradale. In "Race" mode just the aforementioned 150 milliseconds pass between gear changes, the steering ratio quickens and the suspension settings stiffen.
Even when not in "Race" mode, the Stradale has many advantages over a 360 Modena. Ride height has been lowered by over a half inch through the use of stiffer (and lighter) titanium coil springs. The rear anti-roll bar is thicker, the brake system is upgraded with 15-inch ceramic rotors clamped by six-piston calipers (these are nearly identical to the binders used on the Enzo), and the wheels are lightweight BBS Challenge rims wearing 19-inch Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires.
Ferrari put the Challenge Stradale on a serious diet from top to bottom. Beyond the lightweight wheels, brake components and suspension pieces are the use of Lexan plastic in place of the rear glass (Lexan can replace the side glass as an option on European models, but not in the U.S.), carbon-fiber exterior mirrors, carbon-fiber interior panels and the removal of all audio equipment. Even the carpet and sound deadening have been yanked in favor of weight loss. Dropping nearly 250 pounds off the already lightweight 360 Modena is no mean feat, and as you might guess it greatly improves the model's already stellar performance.
Weight loss is good, but more power never hurts when it comes to creating the ultimate performance car. Ferrari accomplished both tasks with the Challenge Stradale by also bumping horsepower from 400 to 425. Tweaking elements like the compression ratio, intake flow, head porting and exhaust system back pressure provides this engine with a rather phenomenal output of horsepower-per-liter. It also gives it an unprecedented wail when driven like it's meant to be. Peak torque remains at 275 pound-feet, but with 250 less pounds to pull around the car feels far more willing at low speeds than the standard Modena.
In fact, "willing" is probably the singlemost effective word to use when describing the 360 Challenge Stradale. Our first few minutes with the car were spent escaping the confines of West L.A., and while we experienced fleeting moments of greatness on the rare occasions when space and conditions allowed for it, the overall sense was that of a wild mustang corralled in a petting zoo.
It wasn't until we found the open spaces of Mulholland Drive in the Santa Monica Mountains that we could truly appreciate what Ferrari hath wrought, and even then the car's abilities surpassed those of the public roadways. Items like the deleted audio system and cabin insulation were scarcely missed once we found the car's groove on our favorite twisty tarmac -- though your backside will be on a first-name basis with any Bott's dots and pavement irregularities encountered. Steering feel is as close to perfection as we've found, surpassing cars like the new Ford GT and even Porsche's 911 in terms of ideal weighting and feedback. The brakes are similarly mind (and neck) bending, not only in ability but also in sheer confidence-building (a good thing when piloting a $200,000 vehicle).
Speaking of confidence, the Stradale's at-the-limit behavior (an area often cited by 360 critics as less than ideal) showed a marked improvement over the Modena. Credit not only the vehicle's lighter curb weight but also the ultrasticky Pirellis. The few times we got the car out of shape it was remarkably easy to reel it back in, something we hadn't expected (and thoroughly appreciated). Because many buyers will be taking their Challenge Stradales to the track on weekends, Ferrari has blessed this car with a character that begs for closed course exercise.
The other aspect worth reiterating is the remarkable symphony that emanates from this exotic's exhaust pipes. Even by Ferrari standards, the Challenge is simply a feast for the ears. Those familiar with World Superbike racing will think a works Ducati has just entered their ZIP code whenever the Stradale's 3.6-liter V8 hits redline. Like the rest of the car, it's hard to believe this level of automotive expressionism is still legal in today's world.
Only a few hundred Stradales will be produced before the 360 drives into the automotive history books. The next-generation midengine, V8 model is due soon, and Ferrari wants to make sure this already-classic nameplate goes out in style. Certainly nobody can argue the point that producing yet another street-legal race car is fundamental Ferrari style.