Every year before the big summer holidays, I organize at least four supercars for track time and lots of road time in northern Italy. What I end up with always depends.

I really wanted the Koenigsegg CCR, but the car was deep into testing in Sweden and they only have one CCR for guys like me. Lamborghini had already committed the one available Murcielago coupe to something criminal in Moscow, but the Roadster was there if I wanted it. (I did, and I actually prefer it to the hardtop.) Ford GTs are seemingly non-existent for use in Italy and a Saleen S7 is even moreso when there's the chance that it might be compared to other mid-rear-engine supercars. And I love the Enzo, but I wanted the MC12. Maserati got me an MC12 Stradale and not with ease, because the only available press car had been crashed in Switzerland by some Swiss loafer. Pagani is fantastic about these things and their only Zonda F prototype was there for me. Likewise, Porsche came through with a black Carrera GT without any hesitation. The Murcielago Roadster-easily one of the most beautiful Italian supercars ever created-ended up working out brilliantly since I was able to remove the roof on it and also on the Porsche (they prefer calling it a roadster top) and the Maserati (they prefer the term "spyder") to keep the Lambo from feeling lonely.

Over two perfect sun-filled days just southwest of Parma, a few colleagues and I drove these four wondercars almost 300 miles, including two hours of track time at the circuit near Varano de' Melegari.

What is art?

In this ultra-chic segment of the market, it's very difficult to find any car that isn't mostly beautiful and a spectacular driver. That's why getting these four together in particular ended up being so interesting: I was able to make comparisons between cars which on any given day by themselves I'd automatically give a 10 out of 10.

Just briefly, the MC12 Stradale has awesome power delivery and belongs on the track. The Murcielago Roadster is the most comfortable every day for the most people and can cruise through gentle curves forever. Pagani's Zonda F wins on creativity and distinction, and it favors track time over road time though it handles both well. Finally, Porsche has created the shape that seems to appeal aesthetically to the most people, especially from the side profile, and it has the greatest amount of natural balance while driving at the limit in curves.

Seen from above, the Pagani Zonda F is absolutely the sexiest, with the MC12 in second place. Pagani's hourglass shape brings to mind a young Sophia Loren. From the front, I give it to the Porsche Carrera GT whose facial proportions may be perfect. Looking at the rear ends, the MC12 and Zonda F put on an amazing show, but the Murcielago Roadster captures the ideal edgy supercar image. From the side? That's a tough choice even after spending two days in perfect weather with all of them. I guess I might make it a tie between the Porsche and Maserati.

And how often will you see any of these on your local roads anyway? The Carrera GT and Murcielago Roadster probably come closest in that regard, but there will only be 1,500 of the first one worldwide and probably just a few less of the second. (Porsche recently announced that it will only plan for 1,250 Carrera GTs due to new United States airbag rules for 2006, but they now intend to sell those remaining 250 cars in other markets.)

I prefer the Murcielago Roadster to the coupe because, without the roof, the dynamic design of the rear end becomes a focal point. However, the cloth roof assembly that is included is the worst in the car business-if you buy one, take the roof into an onion field and burn it. Maserati should have left the roof of the MC12 Stradale intact instead of allowing it to be removed to create the spyder look. This design just doesn't look right without the roof. Meantime, Porsche has managed to design the Carrera GT to look good with or without the two roof panels attached. And then with the Zonda F, Pagani ought to as soon as possible design a removable roof solution for the F similar to that on the Pagani Roadster, easily the best removable supercar top in history.

Aside from the overall design, there are individual works of art easily found on each car. On the Murcielago, the one-piece forged 13x18-inch rear wheel created by Full Metal is the finest supercar wheel in the world. If I had to pick one item on the Zonda F, it would be the wood-accented steering wheel created for Pagani by Nardi. Maserati Corse has given the MC12 Stradale the most impressive pair of long hood air intakes I've ever seen; those three ultra-thin aerodynamic runners on each intake are fascinating. On the Carrera GT, I'd single out the two spectacular large lattice-work silver screens over the engine in back. What makes each of these details more artful still is that they wouldn't look right on any of the other three cars.


2005 LAMBORGHINI MURCIELAGO ROADSTER

Last opinion:Lamborghini Murcielago Roadster

Designed by a non-Italian for German bosses, the Murcielago is still the best wedge-shaped Italian supercar design I know. And as a roadster it's even better because the beautiful rear end becomes a showpiece. Overall, I want a harder ride with less three-lettered drive technology involved. I like the all-wheel-drive idea, but now the 3,670-pound dry weight is about 400 pounds too much. Simplify the suspension engineering and lose some weight, and this could be the most perfect Italian exotic of all time. Adding power and making ceramic rotors available, as will happen with the new version for 2006, will help.

Drivetrain

Longitudinal mid-rear engine,
all-wheel-drive with TCS

Engine

6.2-liter (6,192cc) 60 V12, dohc, four valves percylinder, three modes for VVT on intake and exhaust cams

Transmission

Six-speed manual, viscous coupling to fore-aft limited-slip differentials

Suspension

Independent double wishbones;anti-roll bars; anti-dive and anti-squat; electronic shock absorbers with manual and automatic control (Koni FSD frequencyselecting dampers)

Brakes

Ventilated rotors, augmented brake booster Power Assist, ABS, EBD

Dimensions

Length x Width x Height (in.):180 x 81 x 42
Wheelbase: 105 in.
Curb Weight: 3,671 lb

Performance

Peak Power: 589 bhp@ 7500 rpm (DIN)
Peak Torque: 470 lb-ft @ 5400 rpm
0-60 mph: 3.8 sec.
0-100 mph: 9.4 sec.
0-150 mph: 21.3 sec.
Top Speed: 205 mph

Production

Location: Sant'Agata Bolognese, Italy
Run: 250 per year
Build Time: 10 work days
Base Price: $319,250

On track

I made the decision to start everything off with a couple of hours of track time at dawn. The 1.48-mile circuit at Varano de' Melegari is extremely good for motorcycles and GT driving schools. It's tight and narrow in the turns, has average run-off areas and four straight sections. So for these four big exotic cars, a lot of braking and acceleration in rapid transition was going to be needed. Given their size, precision at the wheel was another biggie.

Controlled oversteer is possible with all four cars, even the all-wheel-drive Lamborghini. Switching off traction control is the obvious first step in this exercise. It's valuable to play like this since it shows how controllable the car is. While the Murcielago and Zonda have a natural tendency to want to correct themselves to straight, both the Carrera GT and MC12 will gladly hold a slide if that's what you want. It was thrilling to try this in these cars at last and all four, particularly the Porsche, showed that they can handle almost any amount of speed you might carry into a turn.

In this scenario, the Lamborghini roadster demonstrated its preference for public roads. In tight left-right transitions on track, the weighty Murcielago sways in the rear end due to its softer suspension settings and slightly higher center of gravity. This is one of the reasons why most owners should just leave the Lamborghini's TCS on. Meanwhile, the Porsche, Maserati and Pagani are so low and stiffly set up that it's really difficult to make big mistakes even though they're all rear-wheel-drive. The 34/66 front/rear weight distribution of the MC12 may seem a challenge, but the elaborate aerodynamic design keeps it glued to the asphalt.The Pagani and Maserati have fixed aerodynamics, though you can pre-set the single rear wing angle on both for the downforce you want. Meanwhile, the Lamborghini has an automated rear spoiler with three angles possible depending on your speed, and also the very serious-looking Variable Air-Flow Cooling System (VACS) that uses two moving air intake manifolds over the rear quarters-quite the spectacle to watch. The biggest showpiece on the Porsche is the rear spoiler that deploys to a height of 6.3 inches whenever speeds exceed 75 mph.

That the Lamborghini doesn't yet have ceramic brake discs available is bad planning. Even worse, the Maserati MC12 will never get the chance to have ceramics unless owners spend a lot of their own money to get a pair of Enzo CCM discs directly from Brembo, if this will even be allowed. Not surprisingly, therefore, stopping in corners with the Pagani and Porsche ceramics was outstanding, while stopping the other two without ceramics is merely great (Lamborghini) and good (Maserati).

Important to the chemistry of any supercar is the sound of the exhaust during performance exhibitions at the track. If a supercar roar is what you seek-and I definitely do-then both the Maserati MC12 Stradale and Pagani Zonda F are right for you. One step down from these is the Lamborghini Murcielago, which again is the most reasonable for every day driving. Though everyone who drives the Carrera GT loves it, everyone also comments on the uninspired exhaust note. I, too, don't quite understand why Porsche didn't have more fun with it.

All four cars run on independent double wishbone suspensions with a sophisticated and compact pushrod damper at each corner. This is the only way to go when the lateral g-forces are regularly so high, hard turning is frequent and the overall ride height is so low to the ground. Every car performed exceptionally well for on-track handling and stability, only the Murcielago, as I've said, showed a softer setting than the other three. The Carrera GT and Zonda F both use a 19-inch front and 20-inch rear wheel/tire setup with Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tires, and I felt these two behaved the best on track.


2005 MASERATI: MC12 STRADALE

Last opinion: Maserati MC12 Stradale

The "Stradale" part of the name is misleading. Simply stated: If you really want to drive this car properly, take it to a large track. Its 630 bhp and 471 lb-ft of torque demand long straights and sweeping curves, especially given the car's length. The sound of the exhaust and the sensation inside the cockpit are both completely amazing. The racing Cambiocorsa transmission is fast and fun, though it would be better with a higher redline than just 7700 rpm. I hope Maserati survives, because it needs to make more cars like this if only to dominate the FIA GT1 class.

Drivetrain

Longitudinal mid-rear engine, rear-wheel-drive with TCS

Engine

6.0-liter (5,998cc) 65 V12, dohc, four valves per cylinder, integrated Bosch fuel injection

Transmission

Six-speed manual sequential

Suspension

Double wishbones w/pushrod design; horizontal Boge dampers

Brakes

Self-ventilating cast iron Brembo rotors, Bosch 5.3 ABS and EBD

Dimensions

Length x Width x Height (in.):203 x 83 x 47
Wheelbase: 110 in.
Curb Weight: 2,943 lb

Performance

Peak Power: 630 bhp
@ 7500 rpm (DIN)
Peak Torque: 471 lb-ft @ 5500 rpm
0-60 mph: 3.6 sec.
0-100 mph: 6.9 sec.
0-150 mph: 13.1 sec.
Top Speed: 205 mph

Production

Location: Modena, Italy at Maserati Corse
Run: 50 total carsBuild Time: 1 month
Base Price: $800,000

On-road reality

It's kind of funny to speak with reps from supercar builders; they all generally want to convince you that their car is an everyday driver that you can enjoy like a rich man's Ford Mustang GT. The only one of these four I would suggest to a friend for everyday use is the Murcielago Roadster due to its softer suspension strategy, even though the scissor doors are an inconvenience for passenger entry and exit.

I'm not saying that you can't use the other three every day if you feel like it. Go ahead and drive all day in them. Just avoid routes that have too many bumps or holes. Overall, Italian road surfaces are pretty good and we all enjoyed all four cars over several miles free of traffic. But the stiffness built into the chassis of the Porsche, Maserati and Pagani makes it necessary to stop after every 150 miles to take a rest and get ready for the next 150. It's a physical workout in each of them, and if the drive is on smaller two-lane roads, the rest stops are needed even more.

Regarding the comment about the MC12 Stradale needing to stay at the track, I really mean a wide and long track like La Sarthe or Spa-Francorchamps, because the MC12 needs to stretch out and go at top speed to feel really right. So, on these twisting two-lanes out in the hills, though the MC12 can certainly drive these roads with ease, it would be best saved until weekend racing. Only then can it benefit from all that aerodynamic downforce designed into the elaborate bodywork. On the other hand, the Maserati is definitely a thrill on the highway while the sun is rising and there is no traffic. It is a supersonic jet that (thankfully) never takes off.

If the Carrera GT weren't fantastic under all road conditions, it wouldn't be a Porsche. I like this car better than any 911 simply because the front end is as stable as the rear end. Other than occasionally scraping its very low chin piece, the Carrera GT handles every road like a professional. There is a little harshness in the ride, but I like the level of roughness that Porsche has created here.

The finest quality of the Pagani Zonda F on the road is the fact that you can see absolutely everything out to the side and front. The design makes it so the view is panoramic, and this creates a high level of confidence and ease at the wheel. The transparent roof is another nice touch. Seeing what's behind you is much easier, too, thanks to new remotely adjustable side-view mirrors that are actually useful. This is also the most comfortable interior of the four which helps lessen the impact of the competition suspension settings. The custom-built six-speed transmission is easy and fast to shift via the short lever.

Ah, yes, but what's really the point of driving these incredible cars on the road? The point is that you want people to notice you. Each of these cars by itself can draw a crowd without even trying. Imagine having all four of them together driving through several towns and stopping for an occasional coffee. The crowds were everywhere we stopped and absolutely everyone turned a head to look. This is the point. These cars make you famous immediately if only for the fact that everyone has some idea of exactly how fast you could go if you felt like it. If you dared.


2005 PAGANI ZONDA F

Last opinion: Pagani Zonda F

This is the perfect Zonda. The 602-bhp version of the AMG 7.3-liter V12 is one of the best engines of all time. Weighing so little and with so much power and torque, the Zonda F is a good competitor for the Maserati on a large, long track. Horacio Pagani always emphasizes the heart and soul of his hand-made cars and never the performance. I think he can start talking about performance a little bit more now. In this class, I see it as a bargain given the huge price for the MC12. There is some talk that Pagani Automobili is on a thin financial edge, but it's a company that always survives.

Drivetrain

Longitudinal mid-rear engine,rear-wheel-drive with TCS

Engine

7.3-liter (7,291cc) 60 V12, dohc, four valves percylinder, Bosch fuel injection

Transmission

Six-speed manual withself-locking differential

Suspension

Independent double A-arms; anti-roll bars; helical springs and Ohlins adjustable hydraulic dampers;aluminum alloy suspension arms

Brakes

Ventilated Brembo hydraulicrotors, ABS

Dimensions

Length x Width x Height (in.):175 x 81 x 45
Wheelbase: 108 in.
Curb Weight: 2,711 lb

Performance

Peak Power: 602 bhp
@ 6150 rpm (DIN)Peak Torque: 549 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm

Performance

0-60 mph: 3.5 sec.
0-100 mph: 6.8 sec.
0-150 mph: 13.0 sec.
Top Speed: 214 mph

Production

Location: San Cesariosul Panaro, Italy
Run: 25 total cars
Build Time: 8 months
Base Price: $500,000


2004 PORSCHE CARRERA GT

Last opinion: Porsche Carrera GT

Key to the Carrera GT equation is balance. Weight distribution of 42/58 is spot-on for a rear-mid-engine car. I think most people would drive away from here in this car after a lot of thought and debate. It's not just the weight configuration, but also the exterior proportions, the Porsche name and the steering response. As full packages go, this a good one. The Carrera GT, Boxster and Cayman S rear-mid philosophy is Porsche's way into the future and I have a feeling that 911 sales will make up less and less of the annual budget as time marches on.

Drivetrain

Longitudinal mid-rear engine,rear-wheel-drive with TCS

Engine

5.7-liter (5,733cc) 68 V10, dohc, four valvesper cylinder, sequential multi-point fuel injection

Transmission

Six-speed manual

Suspension

Double wishbones w/inboard spring and damper pushrod design, anti-roll bars

Brakes

Cross-drilled PCCB (ceramic) rotors by SGL, ABS

Dimensions

Length x Width x Height (in.):182 x 76 x 46Wheelbase: 108 in.
Curb Weight: 3,042 lb

Performance

Peak Power: 612 bhp@ 8000 rpm (DIN)
Peak Torque: 437 lb-ft
@ 5750 rpm
0-60 mph: 3.6 sec.
0-100 mph: 6.9 sec.
0-150 mph: 13.2 sec.
Top Speed: 205 mph

Production

Location: Leipzig, Germany
Run: 1500 total cars
Build Time: 130 hours
Base Price: $440,000

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