Ferrari returns to Front Engine layout- the Ferrari 550M [review]

Pictures just do not do justice to the Ferrari 550M. It does not convey the sense of awe when in its presence. It does not convey the intrigue or the desire this machine evokes. You just have to be there. But sadly it is easier said than done. The entrance fee to this exclusive club is going to set one’s account back by a million dollars, so perhaps for many the closest one will ever get to a 550M is in these pictures.


What is it that makes it command such a hefty premium over other luminaries such as the M3, NSX or 911? Let’s start with the most obvious. The styling. Pininfarina has done wonders for Ferrari in the past. Admittedly the latest 550M does not have the sock it to you looks of the Testarossa or for that matter the 355 but you’ll need to be up real close to appreciate this car. It is a large car, with a purposeful crouch over its fat tyres, ready to pounce. Some have said it looks too much like the Supra, maybe in proportions but it is far more elegant and classy. Somehow there is no escaping the rearward cab and long snout profile but this Ferrari looks its best in profile or from the rear three-quarter view, the view most other car users will get as this missile passes by in the fast lane.

Then there is the wonderful V12. It is different from the previous 512 M which had a Flat-12 in its midst. The 550M cradles this jewel up front between its front wheels, balanced over the front suspension members. Nearly 500 Bhp from 5.5-litres makes this a highly tuned motor, to be precise, it is actually 485 Bhp at a lofty 7000 rpm. It does not get the 5-valve treatment found in the 355’s V8 but even with 4-valve heads it manages to raise torque past the magic 100 Nm per liter mark with 568 Nm at 5000 rpm and consequently it feels most lusty at this engine speed.

Perhaps lusty is a poor adjective, more like wild or thunderous. This car at 1640 kg is no lightweight yet it is catapulted to 100 kph in a blink, 4.4 seconds. The slowest part is the gear change, which adds about 0.5 seconds, even for a good one. We can only imagine how well the 355 F-1 gearbox will mate to this engine but that is another story altogether.

Noise? A subject of contention. Ferraris have been renown for their Formula One like scream at full revs. Surely it is a sign of the times when even Ferrari has to pipe down. Drive-by noise pollution has come under strict scrutiny especially in countries like Switzerland and Germany. Soon Europe will adopt this as the new EC regulations. Well, not all is lost. Ferrari has cleverly allowed the glorious note to be played within the 550M’s cabin but very little is shared with the passers-by. True it is somewhat muted but if you have done a trans-continental trip in something like a 308, one will appreciate the quiet this new Ferrari has to offer.

However, the revelation one gets after having driven this car is far beyond the mere sum of its parts. It is a seriously developed package in every way. It is no longer the intimidating, macho machine of before. This wild cat has begun to don Versace outfits and obviously went to finishing school and graduated with a Masters degree. This is the first time a Ferrari actually flatters the driver rather than intimidates him.

From the time you first get into the cabin, you’ll feel welcome. The interior styling is more soothing rather than hard edged and business-like but there is no mistaking its Italian flair. It looks sporty but with a luxury touch, one of the year’s best. Yes, one still needs to enter rear-first and then hoist your legs over the sill and into the cabin but it is less demanding now.

Unlike previous engines, this one fires up almost instantly, a corollary of the strict EC emission regulations it has to pass. Then it ticks over almost unnoticed until the gas pedal is prodded then there is no mistaking its presence but it now comes from the front. For reasons of superior packaging and practicality, the hard decision to move the engine from the mid-mounted position to the front was made. However Ferrari was determined to make this 550M faster than its predecessor, the 512M around the Fiorano track despite not having the ideal layout.

Thanks to the ZF servotronic steering and lightened clutch take up action driving this beast was no more difficult than say a WRX or EVO V. The only difficult thing was to exercise restraint when has 485 Bhp underfoot. Ferrari thought it wise to have a traction control system and they were correct. To unleash the fury of all 485 horses through the rear 295/35 ZR 18 Pirelli P-Zeros would be impossible except in a straight line. If done just right, the 550M will do 0-100 kph in just 4.4 seconds and if given enough road, will reach a terminal velocity of 320 kph. Shifting through the six forward speeds was surprisingly easy for a Ferrari. Shift effort has been reduced considerably and the lever works with slick action.

Of course, stuffed with six speeds makes for a rather tight gate pattern and as we found out mistakes can be made when down-shifting quickly. At one long sweeper, I intended to move from 6th to 4th but found 2nd instead. Several surprises were in store for me. One that the synchros were so good that it allowed me this shift, two that there was hardly any drama when the engine was forced to near the redline and finally that the car’s handling was brilliant. As soon as I let the clutch bite, the car began to oversteer but never aggressively. Sure it slew couple of metres sideward but the steering and chassis was perfectly on top of the situation all the time, providing the necessary information. A quick dab of counter steer and getting back on the accelerator was all that was needed to nurse this car back to the intended line. This little misadventure served to underscore the brilliant chassis the 550M possess.

Well, I was more careful from that point on but the 550M never discouraged hard driving. In fact it seemed to welcome it. The engine is omnipotent. Just press the throttle at practically any revs and it lunges forward. Drop a gear or two to get into the power band and the car does a warp-speed jump, mashing you into the seat. This sensation is intense but short lived in the lower gears as it has a close ratio box but from 3rd or 4th the sustained g-force is truly impressive.

So much for speed. In the twisty bits, this large car has the ability to shrink fit around the driver and the car behaves with the lithe and agility of something much smaller. Approach the corner at speed, begin braking, at the same time heel on the accelerator and blip as the downshift is performed, get into the right gear and accelerate out at full bore. The 550M squirms a little but never out of line, the car has dispatched 485 Bhp coming out of a tight bend and you’d barely notice that it has rescued you except for a little flicker of the two stage TCS. The primary stage of this system cuts engine power to restore traction and if that is insufficient, the computer will override the ABS and begin applying the brakes on the wheel that is still spinning. Working in tandem these processes allow the driver to merely plant his foot down and rocket out of any corner without the drama of a lurid fish-tail oversteer. One can switch this off for more entertainment but it works so undetected that it may as well be left on. On the racetrack of course, for those wishing to steer the 550M with the power may have to do so but that is best left to the confines of safety on a race circuit.

The surprises here were the ease of heel and toe, the brilliant chassis communication and the tack-sharp steering. It may be power assisted but this servotronic device only assists at parking speeds and removes much of its presence at speed. It is by far the best servotronic system I have sampled as the others found on some German cars were so far off the mark, they should have stayed with the hydraulic system instead.

The stability of the chassis is due to its immense torsional rigidity. Ferrari claims 15000 Nm/degree for torsion and 8000 Nm for flexion. These figures are double that of a normal saloon. This is a result of the hybrid tubular steel frame-monocoque chassis that also uses aluminum welded to steel, thanks to a special Ferran steel alloy which allows such an unlikely union of metals. The aluminum is used on the non-stress bearing areas like the body panels. This is not just a pretty face, the depth of its abilities outstrip any car in current mass production. With a tube frame, strength is optimised and only heavy where it needs to be. Exotic construction increases cost which may well be what the Ferrari customer wants. Much as it is produced on an assembly line, the car is assembled largely by hand and Ferrari will only produce about 700 of these beauties each year, a substantial portion of the total capacity of around 3500 annually. Perhaps with the end of the F50 production, there is a possibility of increasing production but not by too much. As the production methods are only partially automated.

With the 550M, Ferrari has proven to a skeptical press that Ferrari is a usable everyday supercar. It is fairly easy to drive but that only serves to hide the extreme performance envelop that it has. What is even more impressive is just how accessible this performance potential is. Unlike the F40 or F50 where the driver should be specially trained by Ferrari, this 550M provides its owners with a user-friendly interface that requires no more coaching than a briefing by the local agents. If you are looking for an automatic version, we believe Ferrari is readying a 355 F1 type transmission for use in the 550M, but it is mere speculation at this time so for now only the 355 and 456 have automatic transmissions so it is conceivable that the next recipient would be the 550M and boy what a car that would be. For now, we envisage much of the 550M’s time will not be spent exploring the limits but if the occasion arises, the 550M will positively shine, both on the road and on the track like no other. King of the hill? There is no doubt in this reviewer’s mind but at a princely sum. If you have the cash, this car has the dash. AL



STEERING Assisted Rack & Pinion. ZF Servotronic
Feel Excellent
Weight Moderate
Turn Radius Large
Rating 9/10

BRAKES Ventilated Discs, ABS, Superb Anchors
Rating 9/10

GEAR BOX Manual 6-speed, Slick shift action
Rating 7/10

ENGINE 5474cc, V12, 4-valve heads, Quad Cam, 48 valves, Bosch Motronic 5.2
Power 485 BHP(357 kW) @ 7000 RPM
Torque 568.5 Nm @ 5000 RPM
Red-line 8000 RPM
0-100 Kph 4.4 seconds
Driven wheels Rear, TCS
Rating 9/10, Glorious, All engines should be like this, refined power.

SUSPENSION Double Wishbones all round
Handling 9/10, Taut, Sharp, Predictable, Tossable, Excellent
Dive/Roll Negligible
Ride 5/10, Firm but not bad really

TYRES Pirelli P-Zero, Asymmetrico,
Size f: 225/40 ZR 18, r: 295/35 ZR 18
Rims Alloys
Rating 9/10, Cutting edge technology, combines good ride

BODY 2-door Coupe, Exoticar
Length 4450mm
Width 1935mm
Height 1277mm
Wheelbase 2500mm
Kerb Weight 1640 Kg

INTERIOR 8/10, Elegant with an attitude, Lanvin of interiors
Air Con Works Great
Seats Luxury Sports Seats, Holds you in
Noise Fair, Quiet for a Ferrari


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