Beauty & Brawn

The fast and gorgeous F355 reinvigorated Ferrari in the mid-1990s.

Beauty & Brawn 1
April 11, 2014

When the F355 debuted at the 1994 Geneva Auto Show, Ferrari enthusiasts around the world breathed a sigh of relief. The early 1990s had seen the company in a slump, suffering from slow sales and tepid enthusiasm for the 348. The F355 appeared set to change all that.

The F355 story began in 1990, when former Scuderia Ferrari manager Luca Cordero di Montezemolo bought a 348—about which he later said, “With the exception of its good looks, I was utterly disappointed.” One year later, Montezemolo signed on as the company’s president, and had the opportunity to reinvent Ferrari’s V8 sports car. And reinvent he did.

While it was built on the same basic structure as the 348, the F355 looked completely different. Its lines were sleek and clean, a gorgeous mix of classic cues and 1,800 hours of wind-tunnel testing; Motor Trend called the F355 “the best-looking Italian body since Michelangelo’s David.” The new car was initially available as a Berlinetta or targa-top GTS, and a Spider version was introduced in ’96.

The F355 was also much faster than its predecessor. Where the 348’s 3.4-liter engine had delivered 300 horsepower, the F355’s 3.5-liter V8 produced 375 hp in U.S. trim. Its astonishing specific output of 107.3 hp/liter (the highest of any naturally aspirated road car at the time) came courtesy of new, five-valve cylinder heads, an 11.0:1 compression ratio, and titanium connecting rods and a lighter crankshaft, which allowed an equally astonishing 8,500-rpm rev limit.

Finally, the F355 offered better, more user-friendly handling than the 348, thanks to a 30-percent stiffer chassis, electronically adjustable shock absorbers and 18-inch wheels. The driveline also saw improvements in the form of a slick-shifting six-speed manual transmission and, introduced in 1997, the paddleshifted F1 gearbox. While these technologies made the F355 more complicated, the new car would prove much more reliable, and far better screwed together, than its predecessor.

While the F355 was lauded on the show stand, the really rave reviews arrived after car magazines got to drive it. Road & Track described the 40-valve V8 as “probably the best sports-car engine ever made” and the car itself as “the purest purebred yet from Ferrari’s scuderia.” According to Motor Trend, “the F355’s rewards for the high-level enthusiast are immense; the sound, feel, ability and beauty of the car can’t be matched at any price." MT particularly loved the Spider version, citing its “bank-vault-like structure” before concluding “that the F355 can produce its blistering performances and traditional Italian driving feel while also maintaining such a high level of intercity civility and ease of operation is a tribute difficult to overstate.” 

And the F1 transmission? Said Road & Track, “We thought we might be jealous, what with the computer crowding in, grabbing the plea­sures of levering and pedaling, and nudging us toward the spectator section…[but] the clutching and shifting we’ve always enjoyed are still on the pro­gram.”

Nearly two decades after its debut, the F355 remains stunning to look at and fast and fun to drive. It’s even cheap to buy, by Ferrari standards, but there’s a catch: Running costs can be very high, even by Ferrari standards. That’s a tough pill to swallow, but when it comes to the driving experience we can wholeheartedly recommend the F355.

 

Marketplace | On the Road | The Garage I Owners’ Take

Intro | On the Road | The Garage I Owners’ Take

 

Marketplace

 

The F355 is one of my favorite cars to drive. I’ve literally driven hundreds of them, and every time I slip behind the wheel it’s like visiting with an old friend. Regardless of the value of other Ferraris and sports cars in general, it’s a lot of car for the money.

That was also the case when the F355 was new. During the car’s development, Ferrari really listened to what its clients asked for, then built it. This marked the beginning of Ferrari’s current market-driven philosophy, and its cars have been sold out ever since.

Unlike some of the newer models, the F355 had mostly finished depreciating before the last recession, in 2008-09. It’s safe to say that they have now hit bottom, and in some cases prices are creeping back up—at least for cars in excellent condition with low mileage and complete service histories. Such F355s are getting harder and harder to find, and buyers are willing to pay more for them. In a few instances, I’ve seen values climb around $10,000 in the past year.

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The top-end prices listed here are for truly best-of-the-best cars with the F1 transmission, which was introduced for the 1998 model year. However, there are two F355 variants that can command even higher prices. The first is the “Serie Fiorano” cars, which were the final 100 F355s built and feature a number of upgrades. If you can find one, expect to pay a $5,000-10,000 premium. The second desireable variant is a 1998-99 car with a stick-shift. Because most F355s were ordered with F1 when it became available, very few late-model “three-pedal” examples were built, making those cars very desireable today. So desireable, in fact, that they can sometimes command up to a 20-percent premium over the prices shown here. —Evan Shone

 

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Model                                  Low               High            
F355 Berlinetta $30,000 $55,000
F355 GTS $35,000 $65,000
F355 Spider $40,000 $70,000

 

These prices are for fully serviced cars in good-to-great condition. Top prices are for cars with the optional F1 transmission.

 

Intro | On the Road | The Garage I Owners’ Take

Intro | Marketplace | The Garage I Owners’ Take

 

On the Road

 

Beauty & Brawn 4

Fast, fluid and easy to drive, the F355 can handle anything from switchbacks to freeway hauls. Here’s some of what we’ve said about this do-it-all Ferrari.

 

THE 5-VALVE V8 is without doubt one of the most evocative and symphonic of Ferrari’s many great engines, but it’s immensely physical, too. Its incredible range of rumblings, frantic yelps and screams delve deep into your soul and become as intimate with your skin as the embrace of the leather seats.

The road buckles and twists, but with the electronically-governed damper setting on Sport, the F355 mops up the undulations and transforms them into simple linear suspension movements. The most wondrous thing about punting Ferrari’s baby Formula One car down this stretch of road is the way it devours a serving
of corners that are every bit as curly as fusilli pasta. The F355 expresses no sign of impending disaster—it balances four-square and poised…the front end steering crisp and responsive, the tail staying steady in a controlled lean.

—Joanne Marshall
“Topless in Tuscany,” FORZA #9

 

SLIDE INTO THE COMFORTABLE but firm bucket seat, and you are greeted by a steering wheel that adjusts for height and reach. All instruments are clearly legible, the supplemental controls within easy reach.

The engine fires at the twist of the key. Though slighty notchy, the easy-to-use six-speed gearbox is among the lightest you’ll find in any Ferrari. The power-assisted steering is direct at all speeds, the brakes and accelerator as friendly and easygoing as your next door neighbor’s labrador retriever.

The 355 is an extremely tractable Ferrari, capable of nonchalantly pottering through rush-hour traffic. Where it shines particularly brightly is on twisty roads. Regardless if it is a Berlinetta, Spider, or GTS, chassis and suspension composure is impeccable, the car remaining flat as it demonstrates outstanding balance and prodigious cornering power.

—Winston Goodfellow
“F355: Modern Classic,” FORZA #21

 

BEFORE WE’VE REACHED the first corner, we know the F355 has the advantage in terms of flat-out speed [over the 348]. In addition to its extra horsepower, the F355 utilizes the quick-shifting F1 transmission to best effect, minimizing the amount of time that power isn’t being put to the ground.

The F355’s torque is not prodigious, but by 4,000 rpm the V8 is fully awake. After that, revs seem to pick up exponentially, and the engine note gets more and more insistent until it’s shrieking malevolently right up to redline. While the 348 has a very distinct power delivery that spikes noticeably towards the upper-most portion of the rev range, the F355 offers a flatter, more linear and very progressive powerband. This is a very fast car, one that accelerates effortlessly compared to the 348.

—Zachary Mayne
“The V8 Debate,” FORZA #78

 

Intro | Marketplace | The Garage I Owners’ Take

Intro | Marketplace | On the Road I Owners’ Take

Beauty & Brawn 5

 

The Garage

 

The F355 is great-looking, great-sounding and very rewarding to drive. That’s the good news. The bad is that the F355 can be a mechanically needy car with a high cost of operation.

Compared to the 348 it was based on, the F355 featured significant revisions to every major mechanical and electrical system. For example, the problematic, maintenance-intensive, single-belt cam-drive system of the 3.4-liter engine was replaced with a two-belt system reminiscent of the original 308 design. However, the F355 setup featured active hydrostatic belt tensioners in place of the
308’s manually adjusted tensioners.

The F355 is still very labor-intensive to service, however. Its engine and transaxle, which Ferrari called the Propulsore Completo, are tightly packaged onto a subframe that is designed to be dropped from the car for servicing. Ferrari currently schedules the F355 for timing-belt replacement every three years—but since the engine has to be removed for this procedure, most people elect to do a major service at the same time, even though it is only required every 30,000 miles.

Such a combined service typically runs in the neighborhood of $7,000—unless corners get cut or something unexpected needs to be repaired or replaced. Note that there is no universal list on what is needed for a major service (e.g., new timing belt tensioner bearings, new alternator and A/C belt tensioner bearings, cam seals, valve-cover gaskets and coolant hoses are often, but not always, included), so ask your mechanic about this beforehand to avoid any surprises.

Beyond high service costs, the other major concern with the F355 is the extremely high temperatures generated by the engine, which cause problems not seen in earlier models. The most expensive of these issues concern the valve guides and the exhaust manifolds, which are described below. —Brian Crall

MAJOR ISSUES

FAST-WEARING VALVE GUIDES

The F355’s valve guides, which were originally made of bronze with a high copper content, were not capable of coping with the 3.5-liter V8s high internal temperatures. The fix is to install the factory’s updated steel valve guides, which were introduced late in the model’s production run. This isn’t cheap: A good rule of thumb is that replacing the valve guides costs about double, or a little more than double, the price of the major service that will need to be done at the same time.

MELTING EXHAUST HEADERS

The F355’s high exhaust temperatures lead to exhaust-manifold failure—specifically, the manifold tubes melting and burning through inside the heat shields. If left unaddressed, this failure can lead to severe internal engine damage in the form of very heavy cylinder wall and piston-ring wear. This is one of those cases that highlights the fact that cars do not fix themselves, and ignoring problems leads to greater expense, not less.

As with the valve guides, the fix isn’t inexpensive; the cost to replace a pair of manifolds generally starts around $8,000. There are a number of factors that affect price, including choice of replacement manifold. There are several available, but I always recommend picking one of the two brands of fully insulated, heat-shielded manifolds: OEM Ferrari or Tubi Style. My preference is for Tubi, which is significantly more expensive but has proven far less problematic than the factory units.

 

MINOR ISSUES

High exhaust temperature can also cause rapid deterioration of the CV joint boots. Replacing the boots can easily run $1,000.

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The 1996-99 U.S.-specification F355’s “On Board Diagnostic 2” (OBD2) smog system is very sensitive and will set off the “Check Engine Light” (CEL) in response to small irregularities. This is not as minor as it may sound, for two reasons. First, in many states a CEL alone is enough to fail a smog inspection. Second, it often takes a good diagnostician to resolve a CEL. The 1995 cars featured the earlier OBD1 setup, which has fewer parameters and is much less likely to throw a CEL.

The F355 Spider’s power top can be very fussy, and it is expensive to fix should it run into problems. The top-two issues are low hydraulic oil level and faulty seat-position sensors. The system’s hydraulic oil goes down even if it’s not leaking, so it must be checked and topped off during routine serving to avoid malfunctions. The Spider’s seats automatically move forward and out of the way when the top is raising or lowering, then return to their previous position at the end of the cycle. If the seat-position sensors fail, the automatic-top operation ceases to function. Fixing this issue used to mean replacing the entire power track assembly, a very expensive proposition. These days, the sensors are available alone; replacing them in both seats runs north of $1,000.

The Bilstein adjustable shocks can suffer from three distinct problems. The first and easiest to diagnose is oil leaking from the coaxial shaft attached to the adjustable valve in the bottom of the shock. Delta Vee Motorsports offers a reasonably priced rebuild, which includes a great, transferable warranty. The other two problems will result in a warning light on the instrument panel. First, the actuator itself is known for failure, both mechanical and electronic. New actuators cost about $1,000 each—the good news is they used to run $2,000 each. Second, the gear on the top of the previously mentioned coaxial shaft, which is driven by the actuator to perform the adjustment, can crack and fall apart, preventing the actuator from performing its job. There was a time a new shock was required, but now those gears are made by England’s Hill Engineering and are available from Ricambi America for $40.

No Ferrari of this era can be discussed without mentioning the infamous sticky interior parts. The black “soft touch” coating (which Ferrari still uses today) on many interior parts can become gooey and start to rub off on hands, clothing, etc. Rob at Sticky No More provides an excellent refinishing service, and his website lists the cost to refinish each part.

 

Intro | Marketplace | On the Road I Owners’ Take

Intro | Marketplace | On the Road I The Garage

 

Owners’ Take

 

Steve Westrate

1995 F355

Purchased first F355 new in 1995; totalled in 1998 with 35,000 miles. Purchased second ‘95 F355 in late ’98 with 7,000 miles; currently has 45,000 miles

Why did you want an F355?
It was the newest Ferrari, the hot ticket. At the time, I had a Testarossa, but I wanted a track car so I got the F355 as soon as it came out. My first F355 was the second one sold at Ferrari of Los Gatos, and my current F355 was probably the first. Little did I know that I would be hooked by the most-expensive-to-maintain Ferrari of the modern era.

What do you use your Ferrari for?
When I was younger, I’d take it on trips. My wife and I took the first F355 on a road trip all around the West. We took it to Bondurant, and Bob Bondurant drove it; he liked it a lot, and took me for a ride. At the time, it was the equivalent of today’s 458. We put about 4,500 miles on it on that trip.

Today, it’s for recreation. I’m not into tracking as much as I used to be, and I haven’t done the Virginia City Hillclimb in years. I just keep it, maintain it and use it for occasional drives.

What do you like most about the F355?
I think it’s the nicest-looking “3-Series” car. I like its styling and I like its performance. In a shiny red Ferrari you get a lot of looks; it’s kind of an ego boost. People don’t realize it’s 19 years old, they think it’s new.

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Any dislikes?
The maintenance. I don’t know who won, marketing or engineering, when they decided you had to drop the engine to change the belts. I think Ferrari never really learned to do valve guides right—every time they drop the engine they check the guides—and that’s been consistent since my first Ferrari, a Dino. Tracking it used to cost around $1,000 a day, once you factored in the fluid changes, tires, brakes and making sure it was tuned up right.

How reliable has your F355 been?
It dropped a valve after its first service, but it’s otherwise run well. An engine ECU problem once forced it into limp-home mode, basically shut the car down; it took an ECU rebuild to make it run again. I also had a problem with bad cat temp control sensors.

How about wear and tear?
It’s got original paint that looks great. The seats are getting a little tired, but that’s probably my mass, not an issue with the seats themselves. I did have the sticky stuff addressed, and had the [shrinking leather on the] dash redone.

Would you recommend this car to a friend?
Not really, honestly, if I wanted to be a friend. It’s the maintenance. If you want an older Ferrari, get a well-maintained 328, which is older but more repairable.

 

Kevin Enderby

1997 F355 GTS

Purchased new in 1997; currently has 121,000 miles

Why did you want an F355?
It was pretty simple back when the F355 was new. That was when the curve started going vertical in terms of improvements in quality and performance; the F355 was the first radical step up in that regard, such a better car than the 348.

What do you use your Ferrari for?
Everything. Initially, it was my track car—it retired my 308—but I also used it for tours, concours, everything. It’s now been relegated to being a daily driver, unless my F430 breaks down, in which case I’ll put it on track. But it’s really too fragile for that now.

What do you like most about the F355?
I think it’s a real pretty car, both inside and out. Plus, it’s one of the easiest Ferraris to see out of and drive on a regular basis. When they’re running, they’re really fun cars to drive. My F355 is my favorite of my three Ferraris to take on tours.

Any dislikes?
It’s twitchy on track. It’s got just enough power and a short wheelbase to get into trouble on track, especially if it’s damp. On the street, the nose hangs out so far it’s easy to touch down. And it’s a maintenance nightmare. There’s no other way to say it.

About that maintenance….
There’s two big problems. First, the headers burn through regularly if you actually drive the car. Second, the valve guides go out; anyone who has 60,000 miles on their car has done them. These are all fixable issues, but then you have the engine-out service. If everything’s perfect, you might be lucky and get out at $5,000. But you never do; there’s always something, like a leaking water pump, that you have to do while you’re in there because the cost to go back in is so high.

How about wear and tear?
It’s got its issues. The interior goes to hell—all the sticky stuff—over time, not with use. You find NOS interior parts in a box, they’ll be sticky, too. The leather wears pretty bad, as well, and the seats have big bolsters. The interior just does not wear well.

Would you recommend this car to a friend?
Absolutely not. Whenever anyone asks me about buying an F355, I tell them that an F355 plus one major service is 360 money, and that the 360’s much more car. Or move down to a 328, but that’s definitely what I would call a vintage car in comparison.

You have to love these cars and have deep pockets to be happy with one. There’s only one guy I haven’t been able to talk out of buying an F355, but he loves it and knew what he was getting into.

 

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  • Tech: E-Diff
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  • Collector Rick Principe
  • F1 season-opener
  • 2014 12 Hours of Sebring
  • 2014 FORZA Tifosi Challenge
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