It's Sunday afternoon, and our last glimpse of Venice came in our rearview mirror an hour ago. We're barreling north into Italy's Dolomite mountains to sample the 2012 Ferrari FF while a conga line of restless Italians inches south in the opposing lanes, their ski weekend over as they head home.
They're piloting various crossovers, some Range Rovers and a surprising number of Audi Quattro wagons and sedans. After awhile we realize we've driven for hours — in Italy — without seeing a single well-heeled Italian in a Ferrari of any description.
No surprise, really. The sun is out now, but fresh snow fell here over the last few days. And with their high horsepower and rear-wheel drive, Ferraris are environmentally constrained three-season cars, sunbelt cars. Ferrari thinks that's a deal killer for some potential Ferraristas.
The 2012 Ferrari FF is slated to address that problem via an ingenious "4RM" four-wheel-drive system that's coupled with hyper-advanced traction management. In the words of Ferrari engineering boss Roberto Fedeli, the FF is intended for "every day, every condition."
The 2012 Ferrari FF began as a thought experiment as Ferrari sought to replace the 612 Scaglietti, Ferrari's more traditionally laid-out V12-powered 2+2 coupe with pretend rear seats.
Mr. Fedeli, who could easily pass for Jon Stewart's quieter brother, tells us the new machine would have to meet the every day, every condition requirement, "without changing the weight of the car, without changing the size of the car."
So the brand-new FF weighs just 13 pounds more than the retiring Scaglietti (4,147 vs. 4,134 pounds) and its 193.2-inch length exceeds that of the 612 by a scant 0.2 inch. Their overall widths come within a tenth of an inch of one another.
Its four-passenger seating configuration does raise the roof by 1.4 inches, but the FF still stands 1.5 inches shorter than a Porsche Panamera.
Slipping Behind the Wheel
Our 6-foot 2-inch frame slips easily into the driver seat, where the view is all business. The steering wheel has progressive shift lights built into its upper rim. Two prominent fixed-position shift paddles sprout from the column behind — no other stalks or levers are to be seen.
That's because the controls for the headlights, turn signals and wipers have been moved onto the steering wheel to keep those paddles close at hand. The familiar rotary "manettino" switch dominates the lower right quadrant, but in the FF it has five positions instead of the usual three. Settings for Snow and Wet have been added alongside Comfort, Sport and Track.
Another button controls the damping range of the Magna-Ride magnetorheological shock absorbers. Nominally, these continuously variable suspension dampers operate in a normal range when the Manettino is set to Snow, Wet or Comfort, and they stiffen when it's set to Sport or Track. The button allows the driver to override the stiff program in Sport or Track if the road or racetrack isn't particularly smooth.
There's one more very important button on the wheel. It's big and it's red, but we push it anyway. The 6.3-liter V12 barks to life and settles into an expectant idle. We select 1st with the right-hand shift paddle and we're off.
That's the code name for the FF's all-new 6.3-liter V12 engine. The FF wouldn't qualify as a suitable 612 replacement unless it was also quicker and more powerful. The F140 EB delivers with 651 horsepower and 504 pound-feet of torque, a massive infusion of 119 more vigorously prancing horses and 70 additional lb-ft of torque than found in the Scaglietti.
Direct-injection (DI) is a big reason for this, as it allows the compression ratio to climb to a healthy 12.3:1 while delivering rated power on 91-octane super unleaded. Continuously variable intake and exhaust cam timing plays a big role, too, especially when it comes to torque. Fully 80 percent of peak torque, some 403 lb-ft of it, is available with only 1,750 rpm showing on the tach.
Myriad exotic coatings and other friction-reducing strategies operate invisibly, the most interesting of which may be the reed valves in the dry-sump oil pan that create negative pressure to help "pull" the pistons down. Multiply that by a dozen other little tricks and you get the big gains of the F140 EB.
On the Move
Our massively propulsed FF responds like a much lighter car, as there's plenty of torque for even the tightest uphill hairpins. The FF leaps from one end of its tach to the other just as quickly as it shoots from one tight corner to the next. A new multilink rear suspension maintains a firm, well-behaved footing throughout. Revised third-generation carbon-ceramic brakes offer immediate response and impeccable feel.
All the while the wailing V12 echoes eerily off the stone retaining walls, turning the heads of nearby skiers as we rapidly bang through the short-spaced gears of the new seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission. It's a beefed-up version of the rear-mounted seven-cog transaxle found in the 458, making the FF the first ever V12 Ferrari with this many ratios.
But we're not bemoaning the lack of a third pedal here, not at all. This is one of the few AMTs that's actually riveting to drive. Shifts are crisp and fast, the software never balks at giving us a downshift at high revs and those shift levers are always close at hand.
A quick 11.5:1 steering ratio helps, too, as few of our steering inputs are ever large enough to lose track of those shift paddles. The 2012 Ferrari FF responds with the directness and precision of a two-seater, even though we're currently flogging this mostly clear asphalt road on winter tires.
You read that right — winter tires.
It's probably time to mention that the name FF stands for Ferrari Four. The second F stands for one of two things: four seats or four-wheel drive. But the so-called 4RM part-time four-wheel-drive system is like no other.
It's easiest to start by thinking of the FF as a typical rear-drive Ferrari. A seven-speed transaxle feeds engine torque to the rear tires through an electronically controlled E-diff that uses a pair of wet clutch packs to shunt power right or left depending on which tire has more traction at any given instant.
4RM builds on that at the front end, but there is no transfer case to send power to the front wheels via a second driveshaft. That would be heavy; that would eat into interior room. That would negate the design goals of the FF.
Instead there's a second smaller gearbox on the front end of the engine that's driven directly off the nose of the crankshaft. As with the E-diff in the back, two wet clutch packs vector the torque left or right. But here, by working together, they can also feather the total amount of torque sent to the front wheels, and that's why there are only two forward gear ratios up front.
Gear one operates when the rear transaxle is in 1st or 2nd. The clutches slip and deliver partial torque in 1st and firm up considerably in 2nd. Gear two operates the same way when the rear transaxle is in 3rd and 4th. The 4RM shifts to neutral and departs the scene in gears five through seven, at which time the FF is a pure rear-drive machine.
A central computer oversees it all, controlling the E-diff and the 4RM clutches to continuously ration torque among all four tires at any given moment, using highly accurate wheel speed sensors to make rapid-fire adjustments that are less perceptible than wheelspin would otherwise be.
This is where the snow tires come in, as Ferrari has prepared a mountaintop handling course of pure packed snow for us to play in. The 4RM system and the E-diff are hooked into the Manettino and its five settings.
Each of the five switch positions allows a different degree of tire slippage. In the Snow position, the FF navigates the course with no slip, no drama. It easily starts from rest on an uphill slope with no detectable wheelspin. Engine output is being managed throughout, but we're barely aware of it. Anyone could drive this.
Each position up from there allows a higher degree of wheel slip, vehicle speed and, if you're up for it, slip angles. We ratchet up through to the Sport setting, position four, at which point the system allows us to drift through corners, rally-style, at something like 45 degrees. We have to countersteer and work it, but the FF drifts right where we're aiming.
We get the point. With 4RM, Ferrari really has added something to the automotive engineering landscape. This is new. This is different. This really works. As long as the snow isn't too deep, you can drive this V12 Ferrari all year 'round.
Actually, Ferrari has an answer to that, too, in the form of an optional hydraulic lift system that raises the front and rear spring seats to gain 1.6 inches of additional ground clearance at the touch of a button.
Ferrari says the FF will accelerate from zero to 62 mph (100 km/h) in 3.7 seconds. We're in no position to doubt that here, but it'll be some months before we can measure a U.S. model on our own track on summer tires. For reference, the same "they say" scale says the 612 Scaglietti is good for 4.0 seconds.
And we can't comment on the feel of the car on the standard 245/35ZR20 and 295/35ZR20 summer tires. We didn't feel put out by squishier winter tires that were 10mm skinnier, so we're not worried. It won't suck.
The least impressive aspect of the car is probably the navigation system, which stands out in an otherwise well-trimmed interior because it's the same one found in our departed Dodge Ram 1500 long-term test truck. Sure, it brings Bluetooth streaming and iPod compatibility to the party, but the parts-bin nature of the thing is off-putting and it frequently lost its way, and ours, in the Dolomites.
In our mind the two-box GT styling looks fantastic. The only thing we notice from the driver seat is improved rear visibility over that of a standard coupe. Rear-seat passenger room is tight, though. With the driver seat adjusted to our liking, the seat behind it is only comfortable for an average size adult at most. Front and rear passengers will have to pair themselves off by height.
The Case for Lottery Tickets
No official pricing is available, but various hints pointed to a base price in the neighborhood of $300,000. That's a bit surreal, but based on what the 2012 Ferrari FF can do and what it is, this is entirely reasonable and consistent within the Ferrari context.
But suggested prices may not matter because we're hearing the FF is already sold out for the first two years before anyone has read driving impressions like these. Perhaps the FF's four-place, four-wheel-drive concept is resonating strongly enough on its own.
From where we've just sat, however, we fully expect to hear reports of Ferrari FFs headed into the Dolomites with ski racks on top next year. Aspen, Vail, Lake Tahoe — prepare to see your first Ferraris out and about in the dead of winter on a sloppy day.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored press event to facilitate this report.