Ferrari F355 automated -F355 F-1 [review]

Ferrari 355 F1
Is nothing sacred anymore? Has the automatic transmission invaded the last bastion of automobile purity? Yes and no. Ferrari must have thought hard and long before embarking on this ambitious project. Yes, heaven forbid, an automatic transmission can be found in their 456 GTA but that does not make it any less of a car. However, it does not fully tap the level of performance available from this exoticar.

The inevitable would surely come to pass. Porsche has long resisted the advance of automatics but has rapidly seen their clever Tiptronic capture the lion’s share of their car sales. Only the true blue enthusiast would order a Porsche with a manual box. This is the way of the modern consumer and soon to be enthusiast. We who hold the manual transmission so close to our hearts are going the way of the dinosaur or is there salvation?

Ferrari’s F-1 inspired transmission carrying the same name, we thought would be just that saviour and finally we have had the opportunity to test the transmission thanks to the courtesy and implicit trust the local agents have with us. Yes, this is no small matter. To allow a $800,000 vehicle be reviewed is serious business even if it is the entry-level model of Ferrari.

We have recently driven the F355 before when the World Tour F355 passed through our hands so it was surprising that the 355 F1was made available to us almost as soon as it was homologated for sale here.

There is absolutely no visible external differences except for the F1 badge. If you have fallen in love with the body we won’t blame you. Almost everyone does. But it is the changes inside the cockpit and underneath that now interest us.

OK, enough beating about the bush. What exactly is the F1 transmission? We’d better start by saying it is not the traditional torque-converter type transmission found in nearly all the automatics today. The closest resemblance are those sequential gearboxes found in the Formula One and WRC cars of today. But it is better. Those sequential boxes as its name implies go through the gears in complete sequence, meaning to say 1-2-3-4-5 or 5-4-3-2-1 without skipping a gear, the F1 box allows you shift up into gears as long as it will not stall the engine but each intermediate gear on the way down cannot be avoided and mind you the F355 has six speeds to choose from! No big deal?

How about this? It has an “Auto” mode which will do the shifting for you like an ordinary auto through its six forward speeds. Interesting? Thought so. There is no auto shift lever to deal with, just a small aluminum alloy “T” switch where the lever once was to engage reverse and two buttons. Gear selection is performed via two paddles just behind the steering wheel but more on this later.

The gearbox and clutch are the same as the manual version which means there is no transmission losses due to torque converter slip. Six optimum ratios, are available, no need to compromise with just four or five and the reliability of the standard box in dealing with the sheer fury of 375 Bhp(280 kW).

Its getting a little technical now so we’ll just dive in. The gear shifting and clutch duties are replaced by a complex electro-hydraulic F1-type power train management system. It is a high-pressure hydraulic drive, designed to duplicate the six speed shift movements at the control arm of the transmission. Needless to say it shifts in ultra quick and precise movements under the control of the transmission management computer. To make full use of this speed, the clutch take up and release must be as quick and precise so another set of hydraulic rams control the conventional clutch. The result? Gearshifts in a mere 200 milliseconds, without the need of lifting off the throttle or navigating the steel gate guide plate.

There is more. Down shifting is done in the traditional fashion with a double declutch with an automatic blip of the V8 engine in between at neutral to match the incoming gear’s rotational speed with the rest of the transmission just like an expert heel and toe. Makes you look so good every time without fail.

Perhaps the ultimate party trick is the “sport take-off” or more appropriately, “launch”. Even with an expert behind the wheel, getting a car to launch just right is a decidedly hit or miss affair and perfect launches can only come after considerable practice. To get the revs just right without burning too much rubber or clutch is a black art. Power, traction and speed of clutch take up are all diametrically opposed parameters and each effects the other. Get one wrong and the run is botched. All three have to be spot on to get the lowest times for the sprint to 100 kph. The higher the power of the car, the more likely the mistakes.

Ferrari in one swoop has made each of its 355 owners a Schumacher, at least where launch capability is concerned. What the system does is detect your launch intention via the throttle sensor in terms of rate of throttle opening and it will allow the engine to rev up to 6000 rpm and then dump the clutch at a prescribed rate for take up and the 355 will take off with tyres just lightly spinning enough to wriggle the tail, smoke the tyres and leap off the line on the way to 100 kph in just 4.7 seconds. The best thing is, it does this every time, ever so consistently. Hard on the clutch? Not really. Ferrari says it actually saves on burnt clutches because of excessive slipping by Ferrari owners. Of course repeated launches will no doubt kill the clutch but they feel this sort of launch may only be occasional. We think with this sort of ease, owners will surely use it more.

If the user interface is not friendly, all the high-tech trickery will be worth squat. In the end, the user must be able to get the most from this technology and with human-limited capability, manage to use at least 90% of its potential without having to be a F1 driver. This we must admit was a concern of ours for Ferrari has not exactly been a forerunner when it comes to ergonomics and user-friendliness.

The interior is largely unchanged meaning to say the typical Italian driver’s position remains. This is curious since the 456 and 550 do not suffer from this. It is noticeable but never uncomfortable enough to distract you from the pleasure up ahead though we were hoping for a more vertical steering wheel. In what seems to be an apparent stroke of genius, Ferrari engineers placed two control paddles or flippers just behind the steering wheel within a finger’s stretch. The right paddle when pulled towards you changes the gears upwards from 1st to 6th which is displayed on a digital readout in the centre of the instrument panel. The left paddle is then left to change gears downward from 6th to 1st. It has a fixed position at the three and nine o’clock position unlike the others which are located on their steering wheels. There is good reason for this. In Formula One, the drivers barely have to move their steering wheel a whole turn from lock to lock which would mean the driver does not have to shuffle his hands like in a normal car. This also means the relative positions of up/down or +/- are unchanged. We discovered this foible when in the mountains in a car with steering wheel mounted switches. It was great with the steering pointed for the straight-ahead position but in the hairpins when we had to crank the steering over, who knows just how many times and to what position, it was impossible to keep track of which way we should flick the switch to shift down to a lower gear. With the Ferrari system, since the paddles were always in the same relationship, we found and we are sure any driver would concur that this is a far better system because a road going car has far more turns of the steering wheel when going from lock to lock.

That is fine for moving forwards but what about stopping in neutral or reversing? For neutral, a simultaneous flick of both left and right paddles will engage “N”. If you forget to get out of gear when coming to a stop, this F355 saves you the embarrassment, it will go into neutral for you in that event, even in manual mode. In auto mode, you can choose to take charge by flicking the paddles and taking over. Engaging reverse is more complicated but serves to eliminate accidental selection. From the neutral position and with your foot on the brakes, the small “T” lever can then be lifted and pulled towards you to select reverse, indicated by “R” in the digital readout. Feather the throttle lightly and the car rolls. It is not locked in gear as the clutch knows when to disengage.

With automation comes even more safety features. Selecting either second, first or reverse, the car must be at standstill and with your foot on the brakes. This is to prevent accidental selection of a gear and then stepping on the gas pedal instead of the brakes, which sometimes happens with traditional automatics resulting in dire consequences. A press of the accelerator pedal will then ensure the desired propulsion. It is actually simpler than it sounds.

One the move, all you have to do is flick the right paddle to shift up through the gears to your liking or astute judgement without having to lift off for gear changes. Mind you there is no torque converter to slur the change points so this is no Lexus challenger. There is a very noticeable lurch when going from 1st to 2nd but the rest of the gear changes are far better than what the average Ferrari driver can achieve. We have been assured that Ferrari can actually adjust the engine power and clutch take up parameters so, in future smoother shifts can be expected. Well, we’d venture this, though it is a noticeable lurch, it is no worse than the others and its clever clutch take up, makes it better than even the Ruf EKS and Saab Sensonic. To further put paid to that, these two other systems don’t even offer the full auto mode which the F355 does. A double grand slam!

Wait there is just one more item. Just from the attitude of your right foot via monitors in the throttle body, the car’s computer knows which mode to select, normal or sport and this governs the suspension settings at the same time, matching the driver temperament to perfection.

Are we smitten by the Ferrari 355 F1? Boy are we ever. It is bad enough we love the plain vanilla 355 but add this high-tech transmission to the love potion and we are completely gone. Is it now the perfect car? Pretty close. It handles wonderfully. High speed travel is a walk in the park. Now with the help of the new transmission usability reaches a new high. No longer is the driver bogged down with the heavy clutch and recalcitrant gearbox. And he is as impressive as Ferrari’s own test drivers when it comes to burning rubber. At the other extreme, if a relaxing gait is called for, the full auto mode provides the necessary comfort for the evening’s dinner engagement. But it is not perfect, not if you want to carry things other than your favourite companion. Golf equipment has been further hindered by the addition of the relatively compact computer box behind the passenger’s seat so previously where a slim golf bag could fit it is now near impossible. However, if one could play with just a driver, a seven iron and a putter it might just work out and vastly improve your game at the same time. Just kidding, the most serious drawback about this Ferrari is the price. At $780,000??? it is fantasy for us mere mortals. But everybody needs a dream or life would be so meaningless. AL



STEERING Assisted Rack & Pinion
BRAKES Ventilated Discs all round, ABS

GEAR BOX F1-type, 6-speed Automatic/Semi Automatic

ENGINE 3496cc, V8, 5-valve heads, 40 valves, Quad Cam, mid-engined
Power 375BHP(280 kW) @ 8250 RPM
Torque 363 Nm @ 6000 RPM
Red-line 8500 RPM
0-100 Kph 4.7 seconds. A first, an automatic which is even faster than a manual!
Driven wheels Rear. Limited Slip Differential

SUSPENSION Double Wishbones all round
TYRES Pirelli P-Zeros
Size 225/40 ZR 18 and 265/40 ZR 18
Rims Alloys with space saver spare or emergency canister
BODY 2-Door Exoticar, Berlinetta, Spider or Cabriolet
Length 4250mm
Width 1900mm
Height 1170mm
Wheelbase 2450mm
Kerb Weight 1350 kg

Price $780,000 in 1997

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