At the track

Around the 1.476-mile circuit at Varano de' Melegari, there are multiple chances to explore the cornering, braking, handling and power of any car. It's a good, tight circuit for getting aggressive.

Before entrusting the F430 to us, Ferrari reminded me that the 19-inch Bridgestone Potenzas were a fresh set put on the night before. After a couple of progressively hotter laps, I tossed the car around in an open area to make the Potenzas boil, and they were brilliant throughout our time on the track. Face it, the Ferrari, with its E-Diff technology and that V8's power curve, is made for moments just like this. The sheer speed with which any Ferrari engine climbs to its redline-in this case 8500 rpm indicated-is dramatic in itself, forcing the driver to be more actively involved.It would be nice to try a slightly longer wheelbase on an F430 than the current 102.7 inches. But then, the front and rear tracks are the widest here at 65.7 and 63.6 inches. Between these track widths, the optimal center of gravity, rigid and light aluminum chassis, supreme E-Diff torque wrangling and double-wishbone suspension with well balanced pushrod dampers, Ferrari has built a track-day-and everyday-star.

The second car here to which one naturally looks while driving the Ferrari is the Gallardo SE, fellow Italian and a model that has shown, since its introduction in late 2003, that it is a solid track car in its own right. This Lamborghini defines a proper "Super GT" car. It's the shortest car here at 169.3 inches in length, and has the next-to-longest wheelbase at 107.5 inches and next-to-widest track widths at 63.9 inches and 62.7 inches front and rear. From any angle, the Gallardo SE, aesthetically, is my preferred European high-performance car. Less sensual but more hardcore.

Supporting my admiration for this limited-run SE (Special Edition) version is a stronger suspension package with selectable sport suspension as standard and shorter ratios for first through third gears in the E-gear paddle transmission. Both of these upgrades go a long way in the Gallardo mix since it has been exactly these two items that I've thought were slightly less than correct on the standard car. On track, the Gallardo SE is right there with the F430 in handling and acceleration out of tight turns. Only 250 SEs have been built and every one is sold.

It's remarkable to keep in mind that the Aston Martin V8 Vantage has a 4.3-liter 90-degree V8 engine-exactly like the Ferrari F430. At 374 bhp SAE peaking at 7300 rpm, however, it is decidedly different in character from the Ferrari V8 (483 bhp maxing out at 8500 rpm). Throttle response is much more civil and engine revs climb more gradually than on the excitable Ferrari. It is shorter in overall length than the F430 (172.5 inches versus 177.6) but it shares the same wheelbase of 102.7 inches. Track widths on the V8 Vantage (61.7 front, 61.5 rear) are substantially narrower than on the Ferrari or Lamborghini, and this, along with the engine being up front, its 242 added pounds and the slightly taller body style, account for much of the difference in dynamics versus the F430.

Chatting with V8 Vantage chief engineer David King, it's correct to believe that this initial 374-bhp version of the car is the absolute base model and the future holds miraculous things to render the car more powerful, lighter and tighter. As King stated, "At this point, there is all manner of exploration going on with various prototypes. Few ideas are being dismissed as unreasonable." The V8 Vantage is not content simply doing battle with Porsche 911s; it wants Ferrari V8s to sweat nervously, too. According to many Aston contacts, there is a dual-clutch-style transmission with paddle shifting coming available by the start of 2007 and then things will really heat up. As it stands, however, this is the first really tossable Aston I've driven in many years. Having the optional 19-inch Bridgestones was a nice bonus.

In the flash company of the F430, V8 Vantage and Gallardo SE, it's so easy to take the M6 lightly. That dark color, the civilized 6 Series design with the long and tall proportions, heaviest-by-a-good-chunk curb weight, lack of double wishbones, four honest seats and healthy cargo space-all of it on paper tells only a tiny part of the story. One press of the accelerator to the floor with DSC (Dynamic Stability Control) completely off, the 500-bhp "Power" button on and the SMG III seven-speed in "Sequential" mode and set at Level 6, one quickly discovers via Launch Control that the mild-looking M6 is actually a brilliant maniac eager to break free. Actually, with or without Launch Control, the torque from the 5.0-liter V10-383 lb-ft starting at 6100 rpm, with an 8250-rpm redline-makes the M6 on its Continental SportContact2 tires just as spectacular a latex-burner as the Ferrari on Bridgestones. Using carbon fiber for the roof panel removes 11 pounds from the highest point of the car, thereby lowering the gravity center for better track handling.

Many feel that the heavy technology on the M5 and M6 is simply way overboard. The SMG III tranny has 11 possible shift modes, for instance. Yes, it is. But this car is a wild toy for wild executive boys-at-heart, and the technology is all usable and very noticeable when switched on or off. That's serious experimental fun and flexibility in my mind. Only the M6 can really be a comfortable cross-country tourer for three or four people with luggage one minute, and a blithering lunatic at the track the next.

Given its lightness and overall track-inspired characteristics-from ceramic rotors to a lighter and stiffer aluminum chassis than on the 360 Modena-the F430 is king at the track among these four. But what the BMW gives up in weight it more than makes up in sheer power and high technology. This made the sleeper M6 almost dead even in certain sections with the Gallardo SE weighing 242 pounds less and with its identical torque coming at a significantly lower 4500 rpm. Meantime, the V8 Vantage as it is tuned today is a severe warning to all other GT cars of what's in store over the next five years out of Gaydon in the U.K. and the Cologne, Germany, engine shop.

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