Beauty & Brawn

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

April 10, 2014
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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 begans 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

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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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