First Drive: 2012 Ferrari FF

Ferrari Smacks Us With An All-Season Rocket

2012 Ferrari FF - Click above for high-res image gallery

The last time Ferrari blew absolutely everyone away with wall-to-wall surprises and equally sizzling performance all wrapped into one car was in 2002 with its Enzo. We're not saying that all things between then and today have been shabby, mind you. And we're also not saying that the 2012 Ferrari FF does it in marquee-and-fireworks Enzo-style, but the unexpected innovations aboard this gorgeous trailblazing all-weather shooting brake will keep conversation heated for an uncommonly long time. This is Ferrari thinking way outside its box of usual GT forms and, for no other reason than this, we must applaud them.

You're probably expecting us to drop the "But..." right about now, yanking the carpet away in the damning-with-faint-praise tradition, however, there isn't one to drop on the parade here. We've just reeled off some 150 miles of sheer V12 driving joy in the endlessly challenging Dolomite Mountains of northeastern Italy, and when finished with that, we only wanted more. Admittedly, we could do with a better onboard sat-nav and command center than the Harman Kardon unit, as well as a slightly weightier steering map for warm and dry days, but these are our only moments of quandary when assessing the FF.

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2012 Ferrari FF
2012 Ferrari FF
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Photos copyright ©2011 Lorenzo Marcinno / Carrstudio / AOL

FF means "Ferrari Four" and this unashamedly standout model will most likely cost around $300,000 when it hits North American ports in the end of October of this year. That's cheap. Why keep a $173,200 Porsche Panamera Turbo S, a $39,680 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited 4x4, a $111,100 Corvette ZR1, and a $21,200 Ford Transit Connect cluttered in your drive, when you can save both money and garage space by snapping up the ingenious and rare all-wheel-drive 651-horsepower Ferrari FF and call it a day? For that matter, why buy a house when you can have all the comfort and room we took advantage of inside the FF? The leather is luscious and an optional Schedoni [pronounced ske-DOH-nee] luggage set outfitted in the same hides runs around $10k.

2012 Ferrari FF

We are not ignorant of the fact that some of those who can afford an FF – together with legions of the less wealthy who aspire to simpler pleasures like a BMW xDrive model or some such thing – have been exuberantly vocal (usually in writing, huddled away in their computer lairs) about what an atrocity the FF is to the Ferrari brand and heritage. We have only one thing to say before we say more things: stick it in your ear. The FF is a genius move from a company that we frankly saw getting itself into a small rut and having an increasingly challenging time selling V12-engined dream cars, no matter how gorgeous they might draw them or how well they were engineered. Thinking of a world without a briskly selling V12 Ferrari makes us break out in a worrying sweat for humanity.

And seeing as there has been a real challenge for anyone selling 12-cylinder cars lately, any new V12 needs to be about a lot more than simply the engine and its power. That said, even the 6.3-liter "F140 EB" V12 sitting front/amidships in the FF possesses a raft of sophisticated improvements. Nuances to the FF's engine almost make the outgoing 612 Scaglietti's F133 F 5.7-liter V12 and its 536 horsepower seem historic. The 6.3-liter has more in common with the 611-to-661-hp 6.0-liter V12 in the 599 line. Just add 200-psi direct injection and new "reed" valves in the dry sump to keep oil from seeping back up with the pistons. Voila! 651 hp and 504 pound feet of torque and at least a 15-percent improvement in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.

2012 Ferrari FF side view2012 Ferrari FF front view2012 Ferrari FF rear view

Certainly we must talk design and packaging of this latest Ferrari that has succeeded in surprising everybody. First, just like Porsche and others before it, Ferrari found itself at a point where it needed to create something more "practical" – using the term very loosely, of course. Bringing new blood to the brand was necessary. One measure that reassures as we eye the FF before driving it is the 1.4 inches taller that it stands versus the 612 Scaglietti, while at the same time still remaining 1.5 inches squatter than a Panamera Turbo S. In all other key measures, the FF is almost exactly the same size as the Scaglietti, though the aluminum chassis and every aluminum body panel are all new. So, the FF still sits low down enough to be a sleek two-door supercar worthy of the Ferrari badge.

Marking Ferrari leader Luca Cordero di Montezemolo's words, there will never be a four-door Ferrari and hence, nary an SUV or crossover. So, also along these lines, the four-honest-seat FF should be as close to such genres as the company ever gets.

2012 Ferrari FF grille2012 Ferrari FF side detail2012 Ferrari FF wheel2012 Ferrari FF taillight

How Ferrari designers have established the taller rear section of the greenhouse is a thing of beauty, with rear-seat head- and leg-room that is copious for anyone up to six-feet, two-inches tall. Luggage space in back ranges from 15.9 cubic feet up to 28.3 cubes with the rear seatbacks simply falling forward and laying flat. Bagged skis and golf bags can also be stored by loading through the center section of the rear seats very comfortably. For many car companies, these facts and figures would be far from miraculous, but the FF is a 208-mph Ferrari with a thoroughly heart-wrenching exhaust symphony that sets it miles apart.

Helping the exterior proportions are the surface treatment and detailing of all the lines of the FF's sexy rear, as well as the standard 20-inch wheels bookending the long 117.7-inch wheelbase. Whereas we're still not 100-percent convinced by the headlights of the sensational 458 Italia, the LED light design up front on the FF is just right. Does the FF have too large a mouth? That V12 does need to breathe a lot and stay cool, hence the constant Italian smile.

2012 Ferrari FF rear seats2012 Ferrari FF rear cargo area

Sitting in the multi-adjustable driver's seat within the first class cabin, before us is an impressive steering wheel that's clearly inspired by the one gripped on occasional Sundays by Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso. By forgoing all traditional stalks, the now larger column-fixed carbon-fiber shift paddles for the new seven-speed F1 DCT automated manual gearbox sit closer to the backside of the wheel, and thus right at our fingertips like never before. Besides the five-mode GT manettino switch and red Engine Start button, a windshield wiper toggle and the "Schumacher" button for softer suspension while in Sport or ESC Off on the manettino, Ferrari has incorporated the turn-signal controls into the 3-o'clock and 9-o'clock positions for thumbs to activate or deactivate. This seems small as far as features go, but it's a revelation of functionality. There are also the "Look, Mom, I'm racing!" red LEDs that light up left to right at the top of the wheel as the revs build to the 8,000-rpm redline.

Luckily, we were directed to many a tunnel with perfect acoustics during our drive day, and this obligated us to downshift even when not really necessary, and there were a few occasions when we couldn't help but pull both paddles to find neutral so that we could then just blip the throttle like rabble rousers. And what a sound from the FF's four burnished tips! The throttle is so responsive that we could blip out entire songs as we coasted briskly through the heart of many a mountain. There's nothing anywhere more emotionally evocative as a carefully tuned Ferrari V12 singing in a tunnel.

2012 Ferrari FF interior2012 Ferrari FF interior2012 Ferrari FF gauges2012 Ferrari FF suspension settings

And it's not just all sound and fury with no substance. The 651 horses and 504 lb-ft of torque work together with all that sweet tech on board to move this 4,147-pound Ferrari as though it weighs about half a ton less than it does. Despite all of the changes, the FF weighs just 13 pounds more than the 612 Scaglietti. Given its added power and torque, acceleration to 62 mph is quoted officially at 3.7 seconds versus the Scaglietti's 4.0 seconds. We'll take odds right now on a digitally timed 3.3 seconds to 60 mph as soon as Ferrari lets us do that. Four adults and their bags – moving very quickly.

The Dolomites are a perfect testing area for dynamics and engine characteristics. The A-Number-1 innovation on the FF is the two-ratio gearbox mounted in front of the V12 linked directly to the crankshaft, looking a bit like the motor hung on the front of a Morgan 3-Wheeler when it's naked. These two ratios in front are what give the FF its lightweight all-wheel drive only when needed. Think about it: Do 99 percent of all-wheel-drive vehicles need to be all-wheel-drive at all times? No, they do not. How often do you need four-wheel drive in gears 5 through 7? Just about never.

2012 Ferrari FF engine

This system is labeled "4RM" – "4 Ruote Motrici" meaning "four driven wheels" – and it is a Maranello in-house patented approach that we know others will be using in the future. First off, it is mechanically much simpler than a traditional all-wheel-drive setup, it weighs half as much and the reactions are silk smooth. There is no center differential needed and no additional shaft is required to pass from the rear axle back up to the front axle. You do not talk of a torque split here. Rather, the seven-speed F1 DCT and E-Diff torque vectoring on the rear axle still run most of the show and they are built to manage up to five times the torque of the front axle. The mechanism on the front of the crankshaft is referred to as a PTU, for power take-off unit or power transfer unit. Take your pick.

Wet clutch packs on the rear transaxle and the front PTU are synchronized by the FF's sophisticated ECU to make sure all four wheels are doing everything they can at all times to give you the dynamic advantage under all driving conditions. The PTU has one gear that acts on the front wheels while the F1 gearbox is engaged in either first or second gear in back. The PTU's second gear is used with the F1's third and fourth gears. There is more slip programmed into the PTU in first or third gear, while less slippage happens when in second or fourth. This variation is to simply maintain proper wheel speeds between front and back at all times while in these more sensitive first four gears. The PTU's first taller gear is good up to around 60 mph, while the longer-legged second gear can engage up to 125 mph or so before rendering the car a traditional full-time rear-wheel-drive Ferrari fast-lane funfest from fifth through seventh gears.

2012 Ferrari FF driving

We drove plenty of sundrenched dry mountain roads with a plethora of hairpins that would suck the wind out of and overtax the weight-shift characteristics of almost all other cars we know that can compete. We flew over graveled sections of road, hammered the third-generation Brembo CCM ceramic brakes ad infinitum and played a lot with the third-generation Delphi magnetorheological dampers via the manettino switch and Schumacher button. The throttle to the new direct-injected V12 motor knew no rest and the responses were precise. Overtaking a constant flow of delivery trucks and people driving slowly into the mountains for the weekend became an afterthought as the FF's mid-range enthusiasm imposed itself.

Shifts from the Getrag-Ferrari F1 DCT gearbox are emotional moments, and happen exactly as we hoped they would while staying in Sport mode practically all day long. In full Auto mode with the manettino set at Comfort, this DCT is far more livable than the former Graziano single-clutch race-oriented boxes. Do not let yourself be fooled, though, it's still manically satisfying to slap the carbon-fiber paddles up and down the scale. The FF's downshift throttle blips are the stuff of legend.

2012 Ferrari FF driving2012 Ferrari FF driving

In those myriad curves – ascending, descending, flat, and all in abundance – the all-season 20-inch Pirelli P Zero tires – 245/35 ZR20 (95Y) front, 295/35 ZR20 (105Y) rear – were made to look infallible thanks to the 4RM system conducting all negotiations between the PTU in front, E-Diff with F1 DCT in back, and the agile F1 Trac rear axle torque control. Launch Control comes on all FFs and it can be used in all five settings of the manettino this time around. On the dry, just stand on the brake with the left foot, press the Launch button and insert first gear, floor the throttle, which holds at 3500 rpm, and let go of the brake. The F1 tranny then takes over and automates all the shifts at the 8,000-rpm power peak. Sadly, all our testers this day wouldn't let us try out the LC party – something about cars possibly flying off the narrow mountain roads in unskilled hands and whatnot. We'll just need to hit the closed track later, we suppose.

The FF also proves itself a capable snow-goer on optional 20-inch Pirelli Sottozero tires. We really see the entire 4RM suite of features at work here and the controlled oversteer drifts are just weird since we've never been encouraged to behave this way in a Ferrari. On our testers, there was a Traction Index interface to the left side of the driver's display that was as addictive to watch as the green graphics in any slow-moving Japanese tree-hugger car. This digital display showed the traction values jogging between the four wheels in real time as we scooted over ice and snow, or over wet or dry pavement. It was fascinating stuff that a Ferrari spokesperson confided will not be offered on production models. Pity, because it was amazing to play with – especially when kicking out tail in empty hairpin sections.

2012 Ferrari FF driving in snow

It's in exactly those tail-swishing dynamic sections of road where the FF equation all comes together. In our preferred Sport manettino position, feeling the forward PTU help pull us through and out of all hard curves while still letting the rear end swing around was akin to ballet. The FF profits from a typical 47/53 percent fore/aft Ferrari weight distribution and there was no perceivable understeer through whatever curves we were barreling into and screaming out of. It was also here, on dry pavement, that we wanted the feedback of a slightly heavier wheel, just as we've come to love on all other Ferrari models – especially the 458 Italia. In the slick stuff on winter tires, this lightness is ideal, but we were looking for it to tighten up a touch on warm, dry asphalt.

Funnily enough, a Ferrari guardian angel/spokesperson (who came to aide us after our left front Michelin Super Sport summer tire found a nail) handed us his backup FF and said in passing, "Try the steering feel on this car." Later, after having driven this other FF all the way back to base camp, someone informed us that the steering map had been increased by ten percent for this pre-production car as an experiment. It was just the ticket and we hope that this calibration at least gets offered as an option somehow.

2012 Ferrari FF rear 3/4 view

Other than all that, what can we say? Those out there who are so caught out by the non-traditional nature of this amazing Ferrari GT variation are only going to cheat themselves. Maranello has absolutely done it to a tee with the FF. In a sense, the FF is one of those beautiful moments where a company has answered a question that nobody was asking, only for us to drive it and smack our foreheads for not having thought of something like it sooner. It takes all of the racing lore Ferrari puts into each car it builds and adds every single bit of correct versatility that we'd add were we in charge.

The FF's first year of production is already sold out and annual volume is planned at around 800 units, though Ferrari intends to stay open to making more if and when more are needed. European left-hand-drive FF deliveries start the end of May, worldwide right-hand-drive units ship in July, and North America gets federalized FFs into buyers' hands in late October.

Just in time for the early snows.

2012 Ferrari FF
2012 Ferrari FF
View 25 Photos

Photos copyright ©2011 Lorenzo Marcinno / Carrstudio / AOL

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