"I miss my mommy."
Those frightened words floated from the mouth of a five-year-old boy strapped snugly into a booster seat in the backseat of the Ferrari FF I was piloting. Moments earlier, his father had allowed me to take him, and his two brothers, for their first ride in a supercar, and I had apparently failed miserably.
I craned my neck and moved slightly to the right, in an attempt to see him in the rearview mirror, before I asked with a cautionary tone, "What did you just say?" My mind raced during the next few seconds of silence. I wondered if I had unnecessarily traumatized him, or worse – given the little guy his first case of whiplash.
I knew this 651-horsepower Italian was going to get me into trouble.
Ferrari pulled the sheets off its FF ("Ferrari Four") at the Geneva Motor Show in 2011. Unlike its predecessor, the 612 Scaglietti, the all-new FF broke significant ground in several areas. First was its new 'shooting-brake' styling – think of it as a two-door wagon – penned by Pininfarina. The unique shape allows two adults to sit comfortably in the second row and bring their luggage in the spacious trunk. Second was its hand-assembled 6.3-liter V12, the largest-capacity engine Ferrari had ever introduced for a street-legal road car. Lastly, and after more than six decades of Ferrari building rear-wheel-drive cars, the FF boasted the automaker's first all-wheel-drive system.
It has impressive stage presence, and as a sculpture, must be grasped face-to-face.
Autoblog drove the FF for the first time in northeastern Italy nearly two years ago, when European Editor Matt Davis had the pleasure of tossing Ferrari's newest through the challenging Dolomite Mountains at the vehicle's launch. This time, I was offered the chance to spend several days with the four-passenger Italian in Southern California, where I had the opportunity to run it on very familiar turf.
Images and videos don't do the FF justice; it has impressive stage presence, and as a sculpture, it must be grasped face-to-face. In person, it is much larger than most expect, and its length is surprising. As chance would have it, the Ferrari arrived a couple hours before a Bentley Continental GT Speed Le Mans was picked up. Side-by-side, the FF was visibly longer, wider and shorter in height than its British competitor. The Italian's packaging dictated a long nose for the mighty V12, and a visibly stretched wheelbase to ensure passenger comfort (the Bentley rides on a wheelbase that is a full eight inches shorter).
Speaking of occupants, the FF will encapsulate four adults without any having even the slightest feeling of being cramped. Front passengers enjoy wonderful, power-operated, heated and cooled buckets, while those in the back drop into form-fitting seats that may also be folded to increase rear cargo space. Aft of the second row is a real cargo area, with a power-operated tailgate, which is roomy and expansive enough (28.3 cubic feet) to hold multi-night suitcases and even golf clubs.
The cabin appointments are nothing short of upper deck First Class.
The cabin appointments are nothing short of upper-deck First Class. Everything that isn't real carbon fiber or polished aluminum is covered in glove-soft leather, emulating a fine Italian purse in texture and smell. Fit and finish is excellent, too. I invited frank comments about the accommodations, good or bad, but most of my passengers seemed incapacitated by the aroma.
While it was easy for the occupants to gawk over what they could see and feel, few comprehended the technology hidden beneath the alloy floor just inches under their feet. Those who sat through my explanations were overwhelmed, as the innovation is just short of astounding.
Ferrari has shoehorned a massive powertrain into the FF, with a mid-front-mounted twelve-cylinder engine serving as its nucleus. Displacing 6.3 liters, the naturally aspirated, all-aluminum, twelve-cylinder utilizes direct injection to deliver 651 horsepower and 504 pound-feet of torque. Normally, the automaker would send all the power rearward – as it always has in the past – but not this time, as the FF is fitted with Ferrari's new '4RM' all-wheel drive system.
In the simplest terms, the FF boasts two independent transmissions.
In the simplest terms, the FF boasts two independent transmissions. Up front is a two-speed Power Transfer Unit (PTU) gearbox driven off the nose of the crankshaft by a conical gear, while the rear is equipped with a seven-speed transaxle dual-clutch automated gearbox, fed power through a traditional driveshaft. Even though this sounds like an unusually complex recipe for disaster, the two gearboxes interact with the precision of Circ du Soleil acrobats.
Most of the time, this Ferrari prefers to run unencumbered in rear-wheel drive. But that isn't always optimal, so a series of sophisticated sensors calculate traction and continuously decide if power needs to be sent elsewhere (the automaker says the predictive software logic that underpins the 4RM Control actually "estimates grip"). If asked to contribute, the PTU splits power to each of the front wheels with electronically controlled hydraulic wet clutches. It uses its first gear to assist the rear transmission's first and second gear, and its second gear to assist the rear transmission's third and fourth gear. Above that, when the vehicle will be traveling at triple-digit speeds, the front gearbox is passive and the FF operates only in rear-wheel-drive mode.
Mixed in with this mechanical symphony are countless electronic overlords, again working as part of the precision team, which include ESC, ABS, EBD an E-Diff and Ferrari's F1-Trac. Torque vectoring, sending power side-to-side to improve performance, is also a key player. To sum up, Ferrari's 4RM system is nothing short of magically mind boggling. And the best part of all is that the all-wheel-drive system adds but a mere 90 pounds to the FF's curb weight.
The all-wheel-drive system adds but a mere 90 pounds to the curb weight.
It is important to note that the human isn't left completely out of the traction equation, as Ferrari allows the driver to control many of the vehicle's dynamic settings through the FF's Evolved GT Manettino – the controls on the steering wheel. The five modes (ESC off, sport, comfort, wet and ice-snow) are calibrated to control both grip and damper settings, and they can be switched on the fly.
Speaking of suspension, the FF is fitted with Ferrari's third-generation Magnetorheological Suspension System that uses magnetically sensitive fluid and electrical currents to alter damping as often as every millisecond. While the system operates automatically, the driver may override the programming to soften the ride or lift the vehicle for additional ground clearance. At the end of each aluminum suspension arm is a third-generation Brembo carbon-ceramic material (CCM) brake clamped by a multi-piston aluminum monobloc caliper, which is hidden inside a lightweight, forged, 20-inch wheel (tire sizes are staggered, 245/35ZR20 and 295/35ZR20).
After putting countless recent miles on the Aston Martin Vanquish, Bentley Continental GT Speed and Mercedes-Benz CL65 AMG (the Ferrari's short list of natural enemies), I had a vague notion of how the FF was going to drive. As time behind the wheel would prove, I was dead wrong on many levels.
Unlike its competitors, the Ferrari FF reeks of a racecar.
Unlike its aforementioned four-place competitors, the Ferrari FF reeks of a racecar. Dropped into the supportive driver's seat, I faced an F1-inspired multi-function steering wheel pulled right out of the amazing 458 Italia. Like its smaller sibling, the FF forgoes many traditional column and dashboard controls (e.g., start button, turn signals, wipers, etc.) and places them directly on the wheel. The transmission is controlled via artfully styled, console-mounted buttons and the column-mounted shift paddles, while the blinkers and wipers are push switches. Other interfaces, such as the audio and climate control system, are more traditional in location and operation.
After turning the key and pressing the red Engine Start button, the FF's powerplant roared to life with a characteristic high-pitched note before dropping back to an anxious deep idle. As expected of a true dual-clutch system, engaging first gear didn't make the Ferrari move. Instead, light pressure on the drilled accelerator pedal was required to motivate the electronic brake hold to release and the clutch to engage. The gearbox may be left in Auto mode, or operated manually via paddle, depending on mission objectives.
With the Manettino set to Comfort and the Auto button engaged, I set out to probe the Ferrari's disposition.
Its rear tires let out a whimper as 651 free-breathing horsepower began to devour velocity.
The V12 engine, purely through generous displacement, provided plenty of power for tooling around at civil speeds. Shifts, both up and down, were silky smooth without any clatter, rattle or jerkiness. In full Auto mode, and when driven with a light foot, I found the FF docile and almost passive in character. There was pent-up excitement deep within, but it required constant prodding with a heavier throttle to find it.
But rather than forcibly dig for the FF's real talent, I switched the Manettino to Sport and disengaged the Auto mode for full manual control. With the front wheels straight, I slammed the pedal to the floor. Microseconds later, the FF hunkered down and its rear tires let out a whimper as 651 free-breathing horsepower began to devour velocity. With my right hand poised over the alloy shift paddle, and my eyes peripherally watching the tachometer needle, I cracked off the gears, one after the next, as the engine hit 8,000 rpm. The shifts were explosively quick and much smoother than expected. As the Ferrari wailed at the top of its 6.3-liter lungs, the accompanying soundtrack was mind-blowing.
I angrily cursed public roads, bureaucrats, rules and speed regulations before I pounded the brake pedal. The Ferrari pre-charges the hydraulics when the accelerator is lifted, moving the pads against the rotors to prepare them for their impending action, so the action of my foot was countered instantaneously with deceleration. Within a few seconds, 4,145 pounds of kinetic energy was converted into heat and then absorbed by the massive carbon-ceramic brakes. The FF came to a complete stop, yet its very capable braking system could do very little for my still racing heart. And I still hadn't taken it into the mountains.
Had I not known the location of the engine or which wheels were driven, I would have guessed incorrectly.
But that changed very quickly as I approached my area's famed Mulholland Highway. With the Manettino still set to Sport and my fingers doing the shifting, I kept the engine at 4,000 rpm and began to tackle the corners. Initial turn-in was astonishingly quick – more rapid than any four-place vehicle I have ever driven – as the FF responded to steering inputs as if it were a ton lighter. Body roll was negligible, and there wasn't a peep from the Pirelli rubber at each corner. I mentally praised the seat bolsters as they kept my torso firmly in place.
As my confidence increased, so did my speed. I expected understeer when braking late into a corner, as every single front-engine, all-wheel-drive vehicle I have ever piloted has plowed at the limit, but the FF was surprisingly neutral. There was no cumbersome or unexplained weight to the steering, or unnatural kickback through the wheel, either. Feedback was accurate, precise and nearly perfect. It drove with a mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive demeanor. Truth is, had I not known the location of the engine or which wheels were driven, I would have guessed incorrectly.
Yet the all-wheel-drive system was there. The FF carries 53 percent of its weight over the rear wheels, and that helps its ass-end stay planted. Even so, I found that aggressive mid-corner throttle would kick the tail out ever so slightly before the front wheels, which are capable of using up to 20 percent of the engine's torque, would magically pull everything back in line. The Ferrari is not petite by any stretch of the imagination, but it easily runs with packs of much smaller sports cars.
With the Manettino set to Comfort, the Italian felt tense, anxious and extremely underutilized.
The next day I loaded my wife and two children into the Ferrari for a daytrip to Ojai. It was only about a hundred miles there and back, hardly a cross-country trek, but the drive allowed me to load all seats of the vehicle and pack the trunk with gear. My son, nearly six-feet tall, sat behind my wife with her seat moved forward slightly, while my daughter sat behind me (I'm six-foot, two-inches tall). With the dual-zone climate control set to 70 degrees Fahrenheit and the gearbox in Auto mode, all of us were very comfortable during our four-hour tour. My wife praised the ride compliance and the dual speedometer/tachometer digital display on her side of the dashboard, while the kids boasted about the comfort of the rear buckets and the available foot room beneath our seats for their shoes.
The FF did well on the open road, where it was forced to blend into lifeless traffic flowing at a constant 65 miles per hour. However, even with the Manettino set to Comfort, the Italian felt tense, anxious and extremely underutilized. Compared to its competitive set, most of whom would rather spend their entire operating lives going in a straight line, the Ferrari wanted to take its passengers for a ride on the road less traveled, where the screams from its V12 could echo off the canyon walls. It prefers to be driven.
And that is what separates the FF from the Vanquish, GT Speed and CL65 AMG: operator involvement. All of the cars in this segment are very fast, they all handle well and each is very comfortable and well appointed. Yet the Ferrari stands above the others as the most intense. It is animated, engaging and there are no compromises for its utility or all-weather capabilities. When one considers its size, wheelbase, curb weight and passenger capacity, the performance of the FF borders on supernatural.
The performance of the FF borders on supernatural.
A few hours before it was to be picked up, I drove around the corner to a friend's home and offered his young sons a ride. Their eyes grew to the size of saucers when I lifted the hood and showed them the red crackle-finish intake plenums, and jaws dropped when I knelt down and showed them the huge carbon-ceramic brakes. Visual shock and awe complete, we all climbed on board for a quick spin around the block.
All three boys were quiet for the first few minutes as I patiently navigated surface streets to the edge of town. Finally, as I rounded the last corner, I lowered the windows and really opened it up. The Ferrari wailed as the V12 hit redline. I snapped off one shift... and then another. My young passengers, none of whom had ever experienced such mighty acceleration, were stunned into silence. Task accomplished, I lifted off the throttle and coasted.
A young frightened voice coming from the five-year-old in the back seat, broke the silence:
"I miss my mommy."
I craned my neck and moved slightly to the right, in an attempt to see him in the rearview mirror, before I asked with an cautionary tone, "What did you just say?" My mind raced during the next few seconds of silence. I wondered if I had unnecessarily traumatized him or worse - given the little guy his first case of whiplash.
Then, as our eyes met in the reflection and I took notice of his broad smile, my ears heard a budding automotive enthusiast deliver a perfectly timed followup:
"I'm just kidding. Do it again!"