During the 1990s, Ferrari completely reinvented its product line, shifting its cars from old school to new, from outlandish to understated and from fast to really fast. More importantly, build quality, reliability and user-friendliness became as important as aesthetics and performance. The 456, F355 and 550 Maranello were the face of this new way of thinking, one that was very different from just a few years earlier.
While the Ferrari legend was alive and well in the late 1980s—during that era’s market boom, it wasn’t unheard of for four-year-old 308s to be advertised for $200,000—the company was struggling with its current lineup. The flamboyant Testarossa was beginning to feel dated, the four-seat 412 was about to be discontinued and the all-new 348 was being condemned for suspect handling and poor quality. When Luca di Montezemolo became Ferrari’s president, he saw the problem clearly: “I had just bought a 348 with my own money, and, with the exception of its good looks, I was utterly disappointed. This was clearly the worst product Ferrari had developed for some time.”
Things began to change in 1992, when the all-new 456 was unveiled. Unlike its 412 predecessor, which had a body style dating back to the early 1970s, the 456 looked, felt and drove like a modern car. “It is more refined, more comfortable and a sight more sophisticated than any car ever to be built at Maranello,” said England’s Autocar magazine. Two years later, the 348 evolved into the F355, which journalist and former Ferrari racer Paul Frère called “the purest purebred yet from Ferrari’s scuderia.” Finally, in 1996, the final iteration of the mid-engine Testarossa, the F512M, was replaced by the front-engine 550 Maranello. “Of all the high-performance and exotic cars I’ve driven,” wrote Road & Track’s Peter Egan, “I think the 550 might be my choice for a summer of motoring around Europe.”
It was a stunning turnaround, one that placed Ferrari solidly at the front of the sports-car landscape of the day. We wanted to take a fresh look at these ground-breaking machines, and did just that on a recent weekday morning.
IT’S HARD TO KNOW what to admire first—the blue waves of the Pacific Ocean to the west, the sparkling San Francisco cityscape to the south, the rolling green hills of the Marin Headlands to the north or the three Ferraris arranged directly in front of me. After giving each their due, it’s time to focus fully on the cars.
I hop into Tom Lassen’s bright red 550 Maranello (s/n 115501) and turn the key. The 5.5-liter V12 barks awake, startling a heron that had been standing motionless nearby. As I ease out of the parking lot, in the rearview mirror I see Nizam Zambri’s maroon F355 (s/n 109634) and Don Sawhill’s dark blue 456M (s/n 116780) queuing up for photographs.
Several miles later, and well away from the radar-toting park rangers, I put pedal to metal for one of my favorite twisting roads. The Ferrari’s V12 responds instantly, and as strongly as its 485-horsepower rating would suggest. The engine pulls from as low as 2,000 rpm and really wakes up above 4,000, after which the power swells urgently all the way to the 7,600-rpm redline. The mechanical melody grows louder and more insistent as the revs climb, though even with this car’s Tubi exhaust, it’s not overly loud.
Approaching the first bend, I get hard on the brakes, then turn in for the apex of this sweeping left-hander. The steering effort is light, and the big Ferrari changes direction immediately. The 550 grips nicely and stays neutral until I begin to push harder on the gas pedal; then the back ends starts to come out. I lift off slightly, the rear tires hook up, and I plant the accelerator. The Ferrari simply launches onto the next straight. Even with the front wheels pointed dead ahead, I can feel the back rubber squirming, trying to break free.
Redline. I guide the light and precise shifter through the gate with a metallic click-clack. The clutch, which is heavyish at take-off, feels perfectly weighted now that I’m on the move. The renewed surge of power pushes me firmly back into the seat.
Suddenly, it’s time to slow down again. I heel and toe the downshift, the pedals’ spacing making it an easy operation. I turn in for the next corner. The Maranello feels perfectly balanced through the first part of this uphill right-hander; while the car had initially seemed rather wide, it is quickly shrinking around me. As soon as I get on the gas, the back wants to step out. I wait, and as the corner straightens, my foot goes to the floor. Once again, the Ferrari leaps down the road. Within a couple of seconds, the scenery is starting to blur. This is getting addictive.
Clearly, the engine is the star of the Maranello show. This fantastically powerful V12 is also astonishingly flexible, able to pull the car around 10-mph hairpins in third gear. Shifting seems entirely optional when I want to maintain a brisk, if not flat-out, pace.
At the same time, the 550 is no one-trick pony. Deselecting Sport mode noticeably softens the suspension, making the car a comfortable if taut cruiser. The interior is very understated, almost formal, and simple, with a big tachometer and speedometer dead ahead and three secondary gauges smoothly recessed into the top of the dash. The handsome seats are comfortable and feature very supportive side bolsters. The leather, which covers the doors, dash and seats, smells wonderful. The three-spoke steering wheel is nicely sized, shaped and located, as is the aluminum-knob-topped gear lever.
Later in the day, I ask Lassen what inspired his June 2007 purchase of the Rosso Corsa 550. “I had a 348 ts and an F355 berlinetta, but I always wanted a V12,” he explains, “and the Maranello is just the classic front-engine Ferrari. It’s got lots of interior space, a trunk my wife loves and gobs of torque. The thing’s a real beast, unlike the V8s, which you really have to rev up. Turn off the ASR and the 550 will just melt the tires.”
While we talk, F355 owner Zambri takes the Maranello for a spin. “It’s a torque monster!” he exclaims when he returns. “Compared to my F355, you don’t have to rev it out at all; where I would be rowing between second and third in my car, I can just leave the 550 in third to catapult out of a corner. The drivetrain is magic, the power seems endless. The Maranello’s nose does feel heavier than my car’s, and while it’s very capable, it just isn’t as nimble as the little F355. But it’s much quieter, especially on the freeway.”
NEXT UP is the Le Mans Blue ’99 456M. “I wanted a 360, but the wait was too long, so I tried this car out,” owner Sawhill explains. “I liked it: It had tremendous torque and was quiet and comfortable. Plus, it had room for my dogs, they fit really well in back. A person could get back there, but it’s really tight.” He has owned the Ferrari for six years.
I slide into the 456’s driver’s seat, and inspect an interior that looks very much like the 550’s. The basic shapes and layout are the same, and the detail differences are minor; for example, the center console is longer, and the secondary gauges and HVAC controls are in different locations. The cockpit feels a little more airy, probably because of the rear seats. Overall, though, the most noticeable difference is the 456’s seats, which are softer and much less aggressively bolstered.
Firing up the engine reveals another difference: The 456’s V12 is much quieter than the 550’s. And, as I soon find out, slightly slower revving and less responsive. It does feel torquier (though it isn’t, by 20 lb-ft), thanks to its maximum torque of 398 lb-ft arriving at 4,500 rpm versus 5,000 in the 550.
This all makes sense in the context of a 2+2 Gran Turismo, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the 436-hp 456 is slow. On open roads, I find myself sailing along just a few ticks slower than in the 550. And luckily for me, the 456 is a serious sleeper; as I sweep around a bend a little too quickly, the local constabulary don’t give the Ferrari a second look.
The excellent brakes help with this non-encounter, as well. They are very easy to modulate and seem even stronger than the 550’s stoppers, although this is likely a difference between these two particular cars. The 456’s transmission and clutch feel the same as the Maranello’s.
The differences begin to reappear once I push harder on a winding road; the 456 is several notches more relaxed than the 550 when it comes to handling. Heading into the turns, I have to crank the slower steering more to get the same change in attitude. Interestingly, the steering itself feels smoother and somehow more natural than the 550’s. The 456 turns in smoothly and is very nimble for its size, but I’m always aware of its weight as the pace quickens. The car leans a lot, too, even in Sport mode, though this doesn’t seem to affect its overall grip; more than once, I exit a corner only to realize I could have taken it faster. In addition, this Ferrari puts down its power very smoothly, without the frantic, sometimes startling rush of the 550.
The 456 is no canyon carver, but as soon as the road opens up a bit the big Ferrari is back in its element: planted, powerful, quiet and extremely comfortable. Even if it didn’t have back seats, this is definitely the car of the three to take on a road trip. While it was outclassed in the twisties, on the highway the 456 delivers a sense of effortlessness the other two can’t match, simply eating up the miles.
When Maranello owner Lassen takes a stint behind the 456’s wheel, he comes away impressed with its cruising capabilities. “It’s almost the same car as mine,” he says. “The steering wheel is identical, the shifter placement is the same. But the 456 is very civilized—smooth, quieter and comfortable—more so than the 550. The engine feels a skosh tamer, but it’s very tractable. I was driving along in second gear for a while before I realized it, it’s so quiet. It’s more like a normal car than mine.”
LAST BUT CERTAINLY NOT LEAST is the Rosso Barchetta F355. Visually, this is the one that really gets my heart racing: Where the 456 and 550 are sleek, modest and handsome, the more extroverted berlinetta just screams sports car, with its compact size, gorgeously aggressive lines and mid-engine layout.
Zambri has owned the F355 for two years, and uses it on a daily basis. “It’s my first Ferrari,” he says. “I wanted a 360, but when I drove one, I found that the F355 was more involving. I really like the car’s balance: It’s got the right amount of power for the prodigious amount of grip. It doesn’t have any safety nets, like ASR, but you’d have to be pretty ham-fisted to get it out of shape; it’s very forgiving.”
The F355’s cockpit is quite different from the others. It’s tighter and less luxurious, the occupants sit much lower and the front wheels intrude into the footwells. The overall design feels a bit older and less flowing, but it’s still very appealing and, as in the other two cars, all of the controls fall easily to hand.
Turning the key wakes the high-strung engine, which is noticeably louder than the V12s in the larger Ferraris. Pulling away, I find that the clutch is about as heavy as the 550’s—the 456’s is lighter than either—and the shifter is heavier. The F355’s seats fall between the other two cars’ in terms of bolstering, though their bottom cushions are the firmest.
As you’d expect from a 375-horsepower 3.5-liter V8, the engine likes to be revved. Peak power comes at a stellar 8,250 rpm, and maximum torque of 268 lb-ft arrives at 6,000. The engine’s powerband is much broader and more linear than the numbers suggest—the pull begins around 3,000 rpm, and is well under way by 4,000—but the V8’s free-revving nature and intoxicating noise encourage me to keep the revs high. Besides, the transmission feels happiest when shifted quickly at high rpm.
When pushing hard, the engine is a constant companion, filling the cockpit with its distinctive, high-pitched call. It’s a much more urgent sound than that of the V12s, a scream rather than a howl. It’s never overwhelming, though, and it fades into the background during steady-state motoring.
Of the three Ferraris, the F355 is the one that feels most fluid when the road tightens. The tarmac that twists up, down and around Marin Country’s Mount Tamalpais provides an excellent location to sample the car’s handling, especially since there’s no other traffic to be seen as I approach a challenging downhill section.
I dive into a tight left-hander. The brake pedal is firm and perfectly positioned for easy heel-and-toe downshifts. There’s little brake dive, which allows me to turn in without delay. The car reacts instantly, feeling more of a piece than the 550; in comparison, the larger car turns in two stages, the front followed by the rear. I stomp on the gas, and the F355’s rear end bites, with no hint of lurking oversteer. The thrust out of the corner isn’t nearly as strong as in the 550, but I feel like I’m carrying more speed into it.
I click-clack up through the gears, then brake for a couple of esses. The F355 slices cleanly through these turns, revealing the best overall balance of the three Ferraris. I’d like a little less lean in the corners, but the amount of grip is outstanding, as is the car’s agility. Most impressive is how easy the F355 is to drive fast. As Zambri says, you’d really have to go out of your way to get it to bite you.
This is the second time I’ve driven this Ferrari; the first was for issue #79’s “Primary Colors.” I wasn’t happy with the car’s steering feel then, but now I discover that it’s consistent with the 456 and 550’s, as well as slightly more precise. The F355’s steering is also the slowest of the three, though not by much.
Sawhill hops out of his 456 to take the F355’s wheel next. “It’s definitely a sports car, it’s a lot of fun,” he says afterward. “It’s very responsive, has good seat-of-the-pants feel, makes good sounds through the gears and revs nicely. I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to see out, but visibility is pretty good. The only thing that was a little disconcerting was that I could only see the six inches of hood closest to the windshield; I couldn’t see the front of the car.”
DRIVING THESE THREE FERRARIS today is a powerful reminder of just how good they were when introduced. The acclaim they received when new was certainly justified, and their large production numbers reflect that.
There’s also good news for enthusiasts who are interested in buying one today: These are still exciting cars to drive, and all three are bargains by new-Ferrari standards. As Lassen comments, “New 550s were north of $200,000; now you can get them for under $100,000.” That’s also true of 456Ms (the earlier, non-M models are less expensive), while F355s can be found for as little as $60,000. That’s not inexpensive, of course, but we honestly can’t think of a new $100,000 car that’s more exciting than the 550 Maranello.
As we mentioned up front, the 1990s marked the beginning of a new era at Ferrari. The F355, 456 and 550 were the first of the resulting breed of cars, which have ultimately led to the company enjoying its most successful year ever—both in terms of finances and build numbers—in 2007. The importance of these three models is more than just period sales; they brought quality and all-around usability to the Prancing Horse legend, helping to make Ferrari what it is today.