Ferrari 575M F1 Maranello

With the arrival of the 612 Scaglietti, Ferrari's 575M Maranello is faced with something of an identity crisis. If the 612 is the consummate Italian GT and the 360 is the thrill-seeking road racer, then what, exactly is the point of the 575? It is a tricky question but thankfully, I have a thousand miles in which to find an answer.

The route from London to the Magny-Cours circuit in central France is exactly the sort of trip that this car was designed for. Long and fast, with a mix of high-speed autoroute and sweeping country roads, it should offer plenty of scope to stretch the potential of the 5748cc, 515-bhp V12.

First impressions are mixed. The 575M has never been a thing of beauty but time has been kind to it sculptured lines and when dressed in the graphite grey of our test car, it adopts an understated yet purposeful edge. And the interior is terrific. A beautifully appointed blend of tan and black hide, it is further enlivened by the optional (#1,470, $2,685) Daytona-style seats with their pleated inserts. At first, they feel excessively bolstered, but their long distance comfort is peerless.

Less gratifying is the engine. It seems absurd to describe a Ferrari V12 as soulless, but that's exactly how it feels. There's no questioning the performance of a car that can reach 202 mph and achieves 0 to 62 mph in 4.2 sec., but the soundtrack is insipid. Where is the exhaust bellow, the rich, deep-throated timbre that makes an Aston Vanquish such an engaging companion? The 575M sounds apologetic by comparison.

But it's still a Ferrari and the badge succeeds in making every journey an adventure. On our arrival at the Channel Tunnel, we're greeted by two 20-something female customs officers who take a giggling delight in asking me if the car has an LPG tank. They're dismayed to discover that it's a two-seater--if only we'd brought the Scaglietti.

Later, on our approach to Magny-Cours, we pause in a tiny village and immediately draw a crowd. They speak no English and their heavy dialects prove too much of a challenge for my basic French. The only word we share is "Ferrari" although I do understand their warning about "les gendarmes." In sleepy rural France, the arrival of the Prancing Horse is still an epic occasion.

After the rampant exhilaration of the 360 Challenge Car, it is almost a relief to climb back into the 575M and commence the return journey. Our car boasts the Fiorano Handling Pack, which lowers the car by 15mm and adjusts the steering and suspension for a more aggressive set-up. It helps to make this huge car even more responsive without compromising the cosseting ride quality.

If only the F1 gearbox was equally refined. The Magnetti Marelli system has improved dramatically since it was first introduced on the F355, but while the upchanges can now be perfected with a feathered throttle, the downshifts could still be smoother. If it were my car, I'd save #7,000 ($12,785) and stick with a stick.

It's still early morning when we stop at a vineyard in the Sancerre region to grab a memento. The owner is so excited by our presence that his daughter is dispatched to prepare an impromptu tasting. She seems somewhat bemused when we depart with four bottles of the cheapest plonk.

Heading north, with the speedo nestling at 100 mph and the 23-gal. fuel tank eating up the miles, I am at last able to fathom the appeal of this car. Despite this car's #168,311 ($307,406) pricetag, the 575M F1 is not a Ferrari to grab the senses and seduce in a moment. Instead, it's a car to appreciate for its depth and subtlety. If it has a role in the current Ferrari range, then it is as the consummate driving tool.

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