Staggering acceleration and brutal g-forces make the 599 GTO a pure thrill ride.

Photo: Rush 1
October 11, 2010

Most. Best. Fastest. Coolest. Such superlatives should be used sparingly in the automotive world, because companies like Ferrari have a disturbing tendency to introduce new products that blow away the previous ones, a knack for making what was exceptional last year appear almost mundane today. Indeed, forget the 599 GTB. Forget the HGTE, too. Welcome to the louder, shinier, crazier and much, much faster world of the 599 GTO.

My first pedal-to-the-metal acceleration run in the GTO reminds me of my first teenage kiss: a pent-up rush of pure adrenalin. I’m truly shocked at how the car explodes foward, and left grappling for adjectives. In a straight line, a 458 Italia astonishes—the GTO terrifies. It’s vicious, almost preternatural, in its fury.

I nervously let my eyes drop to the wildly arcing needles framed by the steering wheel, and realize that I am doing 105 mph on a public road limited to, well, significantly less. The GTO’s vital statistics bear out my surprise: It takes just 3.35 seconds to reach 62 mph from a standstill, 9.8 seconds to hit 124 mph. Top speed is over 208 mph.

Ferrari is to build exactly 599 units of its latest supercar—make no mistake, we are truly talking supercar here, rather than a mere evoluzione of the GTB—and, despite rumors to the contrary, has already sold the full allotment. Having spent a day in one, I can’t imagine a better car to spend $450,000 on.

Photo: Rush 2

GRAN TURISMO OMOLOGATO is not a moniker Ferrari applies to its cars lightly; the company has used it only three times in its 63-year history. The first was the 250 GTO in 1962; the second was the 288 GTO in 1984. While the 599 GTO is not a homologation model in the traditional sense (a road car built to legalize a race car), Ferrari has cleverly redefined the issue by describing it as a 599XX homologated for road use. And the latest GTO certainly delivers all the technology, engineering sophistication and outright speed that this description implies.

It isn’t a case of love at first sight for me, however. From the outside, the 599 GTO doesn’t shout that it is a radically transformed machine. While handsome and clearly functional, the new bodywork—bulged hood, side skirts, rear diffuser—only modestly distinguishes it from the GTB. I wish the styling had been more profoundly revised; after all, the shape of the 250 GTO departed enough from that of the 250 SWB to make it one of the all-time automotive masterpieces. Perhaps that challenge will be taken up by a brave owner and Ferrari’s Special Projects department.

My aesthetic discontent disappears, however, when I discover that the aluminum skin is thinner than that found on the GTB. This in itself speaks volumes about how extensively Ferrari has reworked its newest creation.

Much of the GTO’s cabin is familiar 599, but it has undergone the same transformation that changed the F430 into the 430 Scuderia: lots of carbon-fiber trim, Alcantara and technical fabric, bare-metal floors, lightweight racing seats. There are also a few subtle but special-feeling refinements, such as seat-back adjustment levers and the passenger’s grab handle crafted from carbon fiber.

Photo: Rush 3

The magic begins when I slide into the driver’s seat, turn the key and push the Start button. The exhaust’s raucous bark echoes off the nearby buildings, stopping pedestrians in their tracks and causing heads to swivel. A blip of the throttle reveals the cockpit’s lack of sound deadening, along with the gorgeously mechanical sound of valves opening and closing, and camshafts meeting cam followers. At this point, any occupant who’s not grinning a Cheshire Cat grin so wide that it almost causes physical pain is beyond hope.

This siren’s song is an audible reminder of the GTO’s massive 112 horsepower per liter. Without forced induction. The 6.0-liter V12 now pumps out 670 hp, 50 more than in the GTB. Even before I buckle my seat belt, I know that many of these ponies will be wasted on most roads within reach of the factory…but, then, half the fun will be trying to use as many as possible.

I engage first gear through the new, longer shift paddle (the added length makes the paddles easier to reach more of the time) and tentatively set off. Tentatively, because for the first 400 yards or so the car runs a traction and stability check on what’s under the rear tires, allowing the new-for-a-roadgoing-599 electronic differential to calibrate.

I also keep an eye on the instrument panel’s video screen, which displays the Virtual Race Engineer system: a diagram of the car showing tire, brake, engine and transmission temperatures. Blue means they’re still warming up, but when, after a few minutes, everything turns green, I can give the GTO’s performance my full attention.

Photo: Rush 4

Virtual Race Engineer also offers a second screen, which displays lateral and longitudinal g-force readings, as well as a slider that measures what percentage of the car’s performance is being used. I’m not exactly sure how the latter is calculated, but I can attest that being presented with this read-out and an open road has much the same effect on me as waving a red flag at a bull.

YOU’D BE RIGHT TO QUESTION THE SANITY of unleashing the GTO anywhere near unsuspecting road users—the screaming bellow of the engine that accompanies its approach makes preceding cars wobble in shock. Nonetheless, the Ferrari is a reasonably willing companion on real roads filled with mere mortals.

For one thing, contrary to my expectations, there is compliance in the suspension; handling subtlety and ride finesse have not been thrown out with the performance bathwater. While the cosseting, Grand Touring comfort of the GTB is long gone, the GTO will capably handle bumps, long distances and traffic just like any modern Ferrari. But—and it’s a big but—that’s completely missing the point.

There’s a bloody single-mindedness in the way the GTO snorts and rants along the asphalt that focuses your attention. Speed is like oxygen to this car; it is not content to potter along. For example, even tiny steering inputs get the massively wide front tires instantly trying to deflect the car’s course. According to Ferrari, the GTO responds to steering inputs 20-percent faster than the GTB, and a few points quicker than the 430 Scuderia, as well.

Photo: Rush 5

I quickly become aware that the GTO is testing me—it’s honed to assess my reactions, and push me to sharpen them. If you’re not in the mood to be constantly prodded, goaded into indulging the car’s sizzling need for speed, it’s probably best to leave the GTO at home that day.

If you are, however, a clear stretch of bendy B-road becomes Nirvana. In Race mode, the GTO’s electronic aids make the 3,500+ pound car almost as chuckable as a Scuderia. This is due in no small part to the second-generation SCM2 dampers, which both keep the tires pinned to the tarmac and endow the car with delicate, choreographed poise. And serrated claws.

Dynamically, the GTO is a masterful achievement, matching violent acceleration, brutal braking and downright feral lateral g-forces. The traction and stability controls are called upon constantly, and even their millisecond-quick corrections can’t stop the car from twitching under acceleration when I get on the power in anything but a perfectly straight line. If I mistreat the GTO ever so slightly, it complies with my orders but lets me know how it feels before being reined in by the electronic Big Brother.

I shudder to think what this monster would be like in the rain—and that’s before I have even considered turning off the driver’s aids in the dry! A part of me thinks that the traction control-disabling settings on the manettino (CT-Off and CST-Off) should come with big-lettered warnings like on cigarette packs: “Smoking rubber can damage your brain” or, perhaps, “You’re on your own now.”

Photo: Rush 6

The GTO is a big car which does not shrink around me like a Scuderia or a 458, but it responds to inputs with such immediacy and directness that I soon forget its size and bulk. The steering is simply magnificent, an initial lack of feel disguising surgical accuracy as well as a degree of delicacy I feared might be lost in the migration to 1.5-inch wider front rims and accompanying 40mm wider tires.

The GTO’s stopping power is equally impressive. The second-generation carbon-ceramic discs and pads offer incredible feel and remarkable efficiency, if more noise than before.

The lightly fettled F1-SuperFast gearbox shifts quicker than ever—upshifts take just 60 milliseconds—and remains a perfect partner to the engine. In practice, it is so intuitive to use that it fades unheralded into the background, like the bow which makes the stradivarius sing.

Speaking of which, have I mentioned the sound? The V12’s howl isn’t as strident or extreme as a truly high-revving Formula 1-esque engine; it’s better. Fuller bodied and meatier, the motor has a distinct hoarseness that makes it all the more thrilling. (The image that comes to mind is, of all things, a shrieking dragon.) And the way it crackles with a rasping blip on downshifts is truly awesome.

Photo: Rush 7

As you’d hope, the GTO is much louder than the GTB. Along with all-new intake and exhaust plumbing, Ferrari allowed itself one small but significant aural indulgence in the form of a tube channelling intake noise from the filter housings into the cockpit. The goal was to produce “an engine sound that would be clear and powerful inside the cabin in all driving conditions.” Mission accomplished, along with 8 additional decibels. A Ferrari V12 hasn’t sounded this deliciously visceral since the Daytona.

WITH THE 599 GTO, Ferrari has truly raised the performance bar—so much so that I feel I barely scratched the surface of the car’s capabilities. The tarmac that twists its way through the hills around Maranello can be a driver’s delight, but it would take an unfathomable lack of common sense, or perhaps a death wish, to try and push this car to its limits on these country lanes. The performance of the most powerful road Ferrari to date is blistering, yet I was only ever able to exploit four gears, and usually fewer than that.

The local autostrade presented another set of challenges. Given an empty highway, the GTO’s tremendous speed utterly blew me away—along with every other car in the vicinity. But open stretches are few and far between, and the car eats them up so fast that it sometimes felt like I was on the brakes more than the gas. Besides, I’d certainly hate to have to explain to the local constabulary, once they’d set up a road block in order to get in front of me, what exactly I thought I was doing!

Without access to a racetrack, then, it is impossible to accurately report on the GTO’s full talents. But I must confess that I’m not too disappointed to have missed out on that experience; I enjoyed every single second I spent in the driver’s seat.

Photo: Rush 8

Regardless of what Ferrari produces next, the 599 GTO is the best, fastest and most thrilling car I’ve ever driven. Damn the superlatives—full speed ahead!

SIDEBAR: GTO TECH TALK—A deeper look inside what makes a 599 GTO.

The GTO’s V12 receives the 599XX’s dual intake plenums, which are connected to allow pressure compensation between the two cylinder banks and improve volumetric efficiency at high revs. The heads house such goodies as DLC-coated tappets and “super finished” camshaft lobes in a quest for maximum efficiency. Likewise, a redesigned crankshaft with oleo-dynamic counterweights and pistons with printed graphite coating on their skirts help reduce internal friction by 12 percent. Fuel efficiency climbs by 3 percent over the GTB.

Thinner aluminum body panels and glass, including the windshield, help shed the pounds—as do items like lighter wiring, a lighter torque tube and titanium wheel nuts. Combined with the spartan interior, these changes drop the GTO’s weight 220 pounds compared to the GTB.

Numerous wind-tunnel sessions saw the GTO emerge with a new hood, front splitter, side sills, underbody and rear diffuser, as well as a more pronounced trunk-lid nolder (a.k.a. spoiler). The new bits create significantly more downforce—317 pounds at 124 mph versus 154 at the same speed in the GTB—without increasing drag.

Photo: Rush 9

Ferrari’s second-generation magnetorheological suspension (SCM2) features a faster CPU and new accelerometers that provide actual readings, rather than estimates, to monitor body roll in real time. New springs and anti-roll bars are tuned to reduce roll and quicken front-end turn in.

First seen on the 599XX, second-gen carbon-ceramic discs (CCM2) are now mated to pads of the same material for increased consistency, improved stopping power and lighter weight. Ventilated wheel donuts inserted between the rim and the brakes improve cooling and help counteract the aerodynamic turbulence created by the wheels.

Those 20-inch forged aluminum wheels are wrapped in Michelin Pilot SuperSport rubber. Developed specifically for the GTO, the tires weigh 10-percent less and deliver 20-percent better rolling resistance than other tires of similar dimensions.

Gear ratios are 6-percent shorter than the GTB’s, and shift speeds are much faster: 60 milliseconds on upshifts, 120 milliseconds on downshifts. The GTB’s times are 100ms and 500ms, with the sportier HGTE upshifting in 85ms.

Exhaust manifolds replicate the 599XX’s six-into-one design, the only difference being the addition of a single catalytic converter per cylinder bank. Hydroforming technology allows thinner walls for the exhaust pipes as well as fewer welds, contributing to a considerable 29-pound weight reduction in this area.

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