2004 Ferrari 575M Road Test

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2004 Ferrari 575M Coupe

(5.8L V12 6-speed Automated Manual)

Touring in Grand Style

In the realm of performance cars, it simply doesn't get any better than Ferrari. Certainly there are cars that can surpass a given Prancing Horse product in a given performance measurement, but there remain aspects of these cars that cannot be equaled, let alone eclipsed, by competing exotic marques.

In other words, a Ferrari is still a Ferrari, and on the highest level of automotive passion and fulfillment, everything else is an also-ran. The specific factors that make up the Ferrari mystique are not easily identified, but they include such elements as racing heritage, exterior design, driving dynamics and, of course, measured performance.

And of the current Ferrari offerings, which include the 360 Modena, 456M (soon to be replaced by the 612 Scaglietti) and the 575M, the latter is probably the best representation of what most of us think of when we think "Ferrari." Remember that while racing played a key role in the company's early development, a long line of Grand Touring models have highlighted Ferrari's history. The classic 250s, 275s and Daytonas all featured a long hood wrapped around a V12 engine, as well as a short deck and a body penned by Pininfarina.

The 575M continues this tradition, as did its predecessor, the 550 Maranello. The V12 in this instance is a 5.75-liter alloy version with four overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and a dry sump oil lubrication system. The engine improves on the 5.5-liter unit used in the 550 Maranello by offering higher peak horsepower and torque (515 and 434, respectively) along with greater midrange torque. Updates to the engine's cylinder heads, fuel injection and exhaust system also contribute to its increased power and performance.

As capable as the engine is (and it is very capable), the real news involves the 575M's Formula One transmission, which marks the first time this transmission has been available on a V12 Ferrari (it debuted on the V8-powered 355 model in 1997). As with the 355 and 360 before it, the F1 uses an electrohydraulic clutch to change gears, meaning no clutch pedal and no shifter is involved. Gear changes are operated via paddles mounted just beyond the steering wheel, with the right paddle initiating upshifts and the left paddle producing downshifts.

The speed of these gear changes varies depending on a driver-selected mode. A fully automatic mode requires no driver interaction, but shifts occur in a relaxed manner that will likely leave occupants unsatisfied as their heads bob back and forth. Lifting off the throttle slightly during each gear change can mitigate the head toss somewhat, but drivers expecting the crisp action of a traditional automatic will be disappointed.

Putting the F1 transmission in "Sport" mode has a noticeable effect on gear change speed, but requires the driver to initiate all shifts (the transmission will drop into first gear automatically when the vehicle comes to a complete stop). Even quicker gear changes (dubbed "super fast" by Ferrari) occur when the engine controller reads high rpm and heavy throttle application, though the 575M's shifts never felt as quick as those we experienced in the company's own 360 Challenge Stradale.

When considering the F1 transmission, you essentially have to balance being freed from clutch pedal usage against being unable to experience a classic Ferrari gearbox. Those who have experienced the traditional Ferrari transmission know that it can be an acquired taste, but once you've mastered the metal gate shifter you realize that, like steering and braking, shifting a Ferrari is meant to be a personal experience. Losing that direct connection between driver and drivetrain seems contrary to the very nature of these cars.

The flipside, of course, is that you can shift an F1-equipped Ferrari with the precision of Michael Schumacher. Because the transmission is tied into the engine controller, issues like rev matching, and even suspension damping, are all coordinated during each gear swap. Sure, we all want to think we can precisely blip the V12 engine to perfectly align engine speed and rear wheel speed when downshifting, but with the F1 transmission we all really can. That feature alone can justify the loss of driver interaction. Add in the possibility of driving a 575M in heavy traffic (change "possibility" to "necessity" for Southern California residents) and the F1 seems like an inevitable, if somewhat contradictory, evolution of the brand.

One feature not to miss on the F1 transmission is the "launch control" system that can be tapped when a rapid start is required. By switching off the "ASR" button on the center stack and stomping the throttle from a dead stop, the F1 tranny will allow the engine to rev before dropping the clutch --; which it will then modulate to produce a near perfect launch. Ferrari has tuned the system to allow a fair amount of wheel spin, meaning ultimate acceleration time is probably sacrificed slightly in the name of noise and drama...but if that's the case, mission accomplished!

Another area, beyond the F1 transmission, where the 575M's performance felt less than 100-percent satisfying was the car's suspension tuning. Having driven a 550 Maranello at our test facility recently we considered that model to be extremely secure in its handling characteristics. We expected the 575M to feel similar, but immediately noticed a higher degree of body roll when driving our standard test loop. Switching the driver selectable suspension setting from "Comfort" to "Sport" reduced body roll somewhat, but the car still felt looser than our long-term 550 Maranello.

Ferrari claims to have lightened unsprung weight in the 575M, and the car's active suspension can alter both ride height and the damping of each wheel, independently, to compensate for driving conditions. We did notice that while the 575M felt a bit soft under normal conditions, it also behaved better than we expected as our speed and aggressiveness increased. But remember that this is a large, heavy car (3,800 pounds) with a body that flares out. The idea that it might lean over and "kiss" something on a twisty canyon road does not add to the driving experience.

Our confidence in the car's stability eventually rose, but we prefer our exotic cars with road-going capabilities that instantly inspire, rather than requiring a "warm-up" period. An optional "Fiorano" handling package ($3,600) is supposed to further stiffen the 575M's ride quality, and we would consider this option if ordering our own car. We can report that steering feedback and braking behavior were exactly what we expected from a Ferrari, which is to say among the most rewarding we've ever experienced in a four-wheeled conveyance.

If the Grand Touring aspect of the 575M hindered the car somewhat on twisty pavement, it certainly lived up to its billing on long stretches of highway. The sticky Pirelli PZero tires, which proved tenacious around sharp corners, were also relatively quiet at highway speeds. Wind noise and seat comfort also met Grand Touring specs. Another upgrade from the 550 Maranello to the 575M is the use of six-way power-adjustable seats with memory settings for the driver. Our test car's interior was adorned in hand-stitched cuio leather of a darker, richer shade than what is used in most Ferraris. Unfortunately, the absence of a center armrest kept us from giving the 575M a perfect score in terms of comfort, a design flaw that seems particularly out of place in a car meant for long-distance travel.

Other improvements from the 550 include higher-quality climate control dials, metallic rings around the gauges and dash vents and a large centrally located tachometer that is easy to read at a glance. On 575Ms equipped with the F1 gearboxes, a high-quality metal plate between the seats houses the reverse gear lever and buttons for fully automatic and low traction mode (the latter starts the 575M out in second gear). Our test model was also outfitted with "50 Years in America" plates throughout the cabin, as well as the optional Becker audio system (a vast improvement over the 550's aural capabilities).

If there's an area that Ferrari must eventually address, it's the limited availability of high-tech luxury features in its Grand Touring models. The 575M competes with such tech-savvy players as the Bentley Continental GT and Mercedes-Benz SL65. Items like smart cruise control, one-touch up/down windows, a dedicated navigation screen and a power-operated trunk lid may seem frivolous to the Ferrari faithful, but the exotic car world has been flooded with entries offering such frivolity in the last three years. We're not saying it's time for a Ferrari with smart cruise control, but at over $240,000 our test car had no cruise control, another tough-to-explain situation in a Grand Touring vehicle.

If there's a positive spin to Ferrari's traditional philosophy, it's that no confusing interface separates the driver from the climate controls when it's time to turn up the air conditioning. But we found ourselves doing this quite often because the system struggled to keep the cabin cool when the external temperature rose above 90 degrees. Other areas Ferrari might want to rethink are the e-brake that sits between the driver seat and the driver door, the trunk-mounted CD changer and the limited interior storage compartments (though the trunk was wider and deeper than we expected).

Items we were happily surprised by included the powerful xenon headlights and superb build quality. Gap tolerances between the exterior body panels were surprisingly consistent, and the interior looked as well executed as anything you'd see from a high-volume Japanese automaker. Then there's the Rosso Corsa that our 575M showed up wearing. Nobody does red like Ferrari.

Which gets back to the reason why so many buyers will choose a 575M over a Continental GT or SL65 that offers more luxury and performance at a lower price. Those cars simply don't possess the racing heritage, sensuous body lines or driving dynamics that the 575M offers.

Once again, a Ferrari is still a Ferrari; everything else...isn't.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 8.9

Components: The 575M's optional audio system includes a Becker head unit, six-disc CD changer (trunk mounted) and a 200 watt, four-channel amplifier with analogue signal processing. Four speakers (one in each door and two behind the seats) effectively surround occupants with sound.

Performance: It's a common belief that the only thing you should be listening to in a Ferrari is the engine, especially if the engine is a V12. Past experience with factory Ferrari audio systems has supported this point of view -- as much by necessity as by choice. But the optional Becker system in the 575M delivered high power and precise imaging. We weren't happy about having to open the trunk to load/unload CDs, and the head unit's tiny buttons are as frustrating as ever. But at least now there's something to listen to beyond the 5.75-liter V12's intoxicating exhaust note.

Best Feature: Excellent sound quality and imaging.

Worst Feature: Head unit design.

Conclusion: The head unit looks as complex and underachieving as the 550 Maranello's, but this system's sound quality is vastly improved. -- Karl Brauer

Second Opinions

Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
Although I've heard this car referred to as the ultimate Camaro for its pony car proportions and gaping hood scoop, I've always considered it one of the best Ferrari designs in recent memory. It's aggressive enough to get its performance image across, but unlike the gorgeous but gaudy 360, this car flies a little further below the radar.

Such subtlety helps as the 575 sails past posted speed limits with the slightest nudge of the gas pedal. Unlike the more violent outbursts of most supercars, the power of the 575's V12 sneaks up on you. Flatten the pedal and there's nothing but a low rumble at first and then it's -- swoooosh -- and you feel like you were just shot out of a cannon. It takes some getting used to, but once you become attuned to the peculiar but generous power curve, it's hard not to lay into it every once in awhile just to get a taste. The F1 gearbox is considerably less addictive as it delivers shifts in a slow, clunky manner that leaves you pining for a proper manual. The shifts might be quicker technically, but I found myself sitting through each shift thinking, "I would rather be taking care of that myself."

Given its place within the Ferrari lineup, I didn't expect the 575 to be race-car tight, but its level of body roll and suspension flex was surprising. The swaying and bobbing gives the car a heavy, dated feel that is far from confidence-inspiring. Midcorner bumps generate far too much motion and even a light tap on the brakes will send the nose plunging toward the pavement. Admittedly, I didn't drive the car in its sport mode setting that supposedly firms up the dampers, steering and shifts, but if a Ferrari requires me to rely on technological gadgetry to make it feel right, it's not the one for me.

Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
Driving a quarter-of-a-million-dollar exotic with less than 500 miles on the odometer isn't exactly a comfortable experience, but it's a rare opportunity that no one in his right mind would dare pass up. And it's fair to say that the 575M drove like nothing else I've ever driven. The V12 churns out an endless barrage of torque and, no matter how clumsy one might feel behind the wheel, it would be impossible to catch this engine off-guard. Left in its manual mode, the F1 transmission rolls out extremely firm, positive upshifts. Hit the left-hand paddle going into a corner and the transmission takes care of everything -- simultaneously blipping the throttle and dropping down a gear -- so that you can think about braking and steering.

And for my sake, it was a good thing that a computer was managing the shifting, because I did not warm up to the car's handling characteristics. The touring coupe of the Ferrari line, the 575 is so wide that the C5 Corvette seems slender in comparison. From the cockpit, you get an excellent view of the car's curves and contours, but getting a read on its dimensions is difficult. Besides that, I was surprised by the 575's relative lack of structural stiffness (compared to that of less expensive cars) and the mediocre feedback from its steering. I have no doubt that, guided by the hands of a steadier driver on a closed road course, the 575 would rise to the occasion and turn in the kind of world-class performance expected of cars of this pedigree. But in the hour that I became acquainted with the Ferrari, it wasn't a natural fit, a car that I could get to know quickly and drive well. On the plus side, the ride quality was smooth enough that stints in heavy traffic were tolerable. And the cockpit offered passable comfort. The seats are extra firm and oddly contoured, and you need to be in good physical condition to fit between the generous side bolsters. At the same time, spacious footwells and plenty of seat-track travel assure that taller occupants won't feel cramped. Carefully stitched leather lines most surfaces, but the instrumentation is unremarkable and the controls are just low-grade plastic.

It goes without saying that Ferrari ownership is limited to a select crowd, but the 575's appeal seems especially narrow: True enthusiasts will go for the 360, while most of those seeking a world-class touring coupe would be happier with an SL55 or SL65. That leaves the 575 for well-to-do buyers willing to give up some outright enjoyment in favor of exclusivity and challenging dynamics.

Consumer Commentary

"I have been lucky enough to drive a 575 for a little over two months now and I can say it is an absolutely awesome car that can be used every day. It is Midnight Blue Metallic (Tour De France) with natural tan interior, stick shift with the Fiorano handling pack. In my opinion the perfect spec and color combo for this car but obviously I am a little biased. If you see me in Manhattan, give me a wave. I commute in it everyday, come rain or shine and (touch wood) have had no problems with it at all. It is great to drive, the clutch is precise and easy to use, the engine has a whirring roar and you have enough torque to smoke pretty much anyone in any gear. Last but not least, sitting in this car has a great sense of occasion. The suspension is firm with the Fiorano handling pack, but it feels good at speed. The only time the suspension feels really firm is on some stretches of Madison Avenue that have so many potholes and big metal plates covering the road that it feels like you are driving down Main Street in Kabul. Happy driving." -- forzaroma, Sept. 17, 2003

"I still find the 575M to be Ferrari's best-looking car, so short, brutal and powerful-looking. Classic GT proportions." -- merc1, March 10, 2004

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