The 550 Maranello premiered in 1996 as a V12 replacement for the F512M, and was Ferrari’s first big front-engined GT in 20-odd years. If the 512 isn’t wild enough for you, the 550 has 45 more bhp and cuts almost a half-tick off the already infinitesimal 0-60 time – and the real essence of the car is obvious from merely my first 20 seconds with it.
From behind the wheel of Paul’s Mercedes estate I hop straight into the 550, square up to the edge of the road, and, having never driven the model before, pull out with hard right-hand steering lock and what doesn’t feel like a lot of throttle at the time. Oops. Wrong. The car launches with a vengeance, kicks the rear end out in a pendulum-swing attempt at a 180, and as the traction control warning starts flashing I counter-steer, short-shift to second, collect up a small side-step to the opposite side, and press on down the road grinning, never letting off the power the whole time.
The moral of the story? Any car that not only saves a stunningly ordinary driver from his own silliness but also flatters his ego in the process has got to be a fantastic piece of machinery. In retrospect, I’m fully aware that what I deserved was an embarrassing 10mph half-spin and stall; what the 550 gave me instead was a bail-out so neat and subtle that it felt as though I did it all myself. A big part of that, of course, was thanks to an unobtrusive and sensitive traction control system; more importantly, though, the car has such a sense of balance and overwhelming competence about it you feel capable and at ease from the moment you take the controls. Good as the 512M is, driving it and the 550 back to back the difference in confidence-factor stands out like a sore thumb.
Too bad then about the Buick Riviera interior styling. The Maranello may have the Testarossa beat on comfort and ergonomics (the heel-and-toe is to die for) but, when it comes to fighter pilot fantasies, the 550 doesn’t have a clue. Worst yet, the car we’re driving has those miserable four-point ‘racing’ harnesses and as always they’re complete bollocks: hard to get into and impossible to adjust, so I usually wind up getting bitchy and sitting on them; how safe is that? Sadly, they’re part of our test car’s otherwise desirable World Speed Record option package, along with stiffer suspension and the carbonfibre seats; it could have been worse, they could have given the WSRs a wretched paddle-shift gearbox.
Where the Maranello shines, though, is in driving refinement. This is a remarkably civilised automobile and that statement doesn’t have to be qualified with ‘for a car capable of 200mph’. Potter around the village at a walking pace or blast from that to 100 before you can finish this paragraph, it’s all the same to the 550, and come to think of it, the car would probably do either in sixth gear. Unlike the Testarossa, it’s actually comfortable with normal everyday driving, and never gives the impression you’ve got too much car for the circumstances. Furthermore, the service techs at Bob Houghton, who have seen it all, use terms like ‘bulletproof’ in connection with the 550; engine builder Peter North says it’s the best production Ferrari engine ever.
The bottom line: the 550 is one of the fastest and most usable Ferrari 12s to date, and being plentiful and just barely out of production is priced seriously low for its performance level. Expect to pay in the mid-50s for a good one, but be aware that very short-mileage cars loaded with goodies have recently sold in the 60s, and this rare right-hand-drive WSR with its cherished registration number is over $110,000. Very collectable, that.
550 Maranello (1996-2002)
5474cc all-alloy V12, dohc, four valves per cylinder, Bosch M5.2 engine management system, variable inlet and exhaust manifold geometry
485bhp @ 7000rpm
419lb ft @ 5000rpm
Six-speed manual or four-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Coil and wishbone, driver adjustable shock absorbers, anti-roll bars, electronic traction control
Four-wheel vented discs, servo-assisted, ABS
Top speed 199mph