If you were feeling like being a completely politically incorrect swaggering international spy for two days in a place that actually encourages everyone to be completely politically incorrect swaggering international spies, where would you go? What car would you take with you? Italy, with either an Aston Martin V8 Vantage, Ferrari F430, Lamborghini Gallardo SE or BMW M6. And so I did. Myself and my three male cohorts from Italy, Japan and Germany. All of us searching for the essence of life in the mid-1960s. Anything to prop up our frail machismo, bruised and battered by almost thirty straight years of attacks from all sides.

Time to call women chicks again and have them look back at us and smile guiltily, goddamn it. Parma, Italy, is very good for this type of unevolved activity. We drove all four cars how we pleased, the local law urged us on with repeated thumbs-up, and we ate and drank as if tomorrow might not come. But we spread joy to all.

Basic concept: Two 5.0-liter V10s (M6 and Gallardo SE) and two 4.3-liter V8s (F430 and V8 Vantage), each pair with one front-mid engine (M6 and V8 Vantage) and one rear-mid engine (Gallardo SE and F430). Go nuts. All four have a 90-degree vee, are naturally aspirated and keep things moist with dry sump lube, baby. And all would be basically identical in their rear-wheel drivelines if it weren't for the Lamborghini and its all-wheel drive sending 30% of torque to the front axle in its default mode.

But what are we talking about here really? All four of these sex-a-machines absolutely define the people who buy them. What kind of swaggering intrigue-seeker are you? Cross-shopping? In this group? Get off it; these drivers know what they want.

Pretty colors

It was fitting that the F430 showed up painted simple Ferrari Rosso. The F1 paddle shifters, E-Diff torque management and Brembo ceramic rotors are new-age advancements to the traditional Maranello recipe, but at first glance all you see here is a stereotypical red Ferrari.

The expensive re-inventing of Lamborghini is one of the things ensuring that both Audi and VW will get into Heaven when they die. Getting this 2006 Gallardo SE in orange metallic with pearl black metallic accents was more than I was expecting. This car, just as it is here, is for me the perfect Lamborghini, second only perhaps to an orange or green metallic Miura SV.

Aston Martin has done itself a large favor with the V8 Vantage. As a pure design statement, it may be the most stunning thing to look at since the Porsche Carrera GT came to Earth in Paris in 2000. Everywhere we drove in Italy, the Baby Aston (painted Oblivion Blue!) drew the most crowds.Certainly not least, the BMW M6 is a beautiful freak: a 2+2 executive coupe with the ability to melt its tires and rip your heart out with one tap of the throttle. In fact, the very reason I love the M6 so much is that almost no one on the street knows what it can do. It looks like a regular BMW 6 Series-a car I actually do not love. The Interlagos Blue paint on ours had the car eerily fading out of view like a wallflower at the Sadie Hawkins dance.

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.

Burrito getters?

Super, but also super practical. At least when compared to any full-blooded exotic grabbing more headlines. Both the M6 and V8 Vantage easily fit the role of everyday driver, but the F430 always surprises me with its ability to absorb potholes well. The "manettino" switch on the Ferrari steering wheel is tremendous technology that produces immediate results in all five positions. And despite the healthy knees required of any Lamborghini owner, four-wheel traction turns it into a four-season car, especially when you pop on the optional Pirelli Sottozero winter tire set for snowboard season.

Expectations were that the M6, in either the comfort or normal modes of the EDC (Electronic Damper Control) system, would be the most comfortable and show the most yaw and pitch under sporting conditions. While the comfort part ended up being true, the Aston Martin had body roll at least equal to that of the tall M6 in hard turns. This was a slight surprise for all involved, but was not taken as any sort of black mark. The stock V8 Vantage is truly meant to be an everyday driving car and, as such, it provides ample flexibility while remaining a terror on country lanes. As a base model, it's more fun than a BMW 650i and as agile as (with much more power than) a Porsche Cayman S. It could do with an EDC-style suspension range, but all things in due time.

Regarding the F430, the five manettino settings are genius and simple, and the pushrod dampers do an amazing job with the 19-inch wheels over occasionally scrappy Italian roads, even in race mode. The E-Diff, working together with any setting on the manettino, is the finest technology recently pulled from F1 for road use. Just as everyone is working furiously to have their own version of Audi's DSG transmission, so are they all heatedly laboring to get their own lightning-quick electronic differential. The F430 with E-Diff is a major leap beyond what was already terrific handling at speed in the 360 Modena. At a purely tactile level, too, the feel of the F430 steering wheel in your hands is tops.

As so many have said before now, the Gallardo is a supercar that anyone can drive in almost any weather. Our SE version showed, however, that at the car's heart is a racer. Even with the sport suspension deactivated, the ride was more rigid than anything felt in the other three cars. I personally love this in this particular car. Even so, with its great seats, driving the Gallardo SE cross country for hours-without exaggerating too much-would not be out of the realm of human comfort. Gear ratios for fourth through sixth are actually just slightly longer than on the standard Gallardo, so highway cruising is even an iota better than before. And the sound of the exhaust bellowing behind you is like a full-time massage with musical accompaniment.

Out on real roads, the tightly wound Ferrari and Lamborghini are dead close and the Aston and BMW stay very nearby in the rear-view. Driving styles are different for each car. A rear-mid engine set-up with a lower hip-point requires less body English, more arm-and-shoulder quickness. A front-mid engine position with a long bonnet requires a bunch of entertaining body movements from the driver. Naturally, I have a ball in either mode.

Cabin design on each of these collectibles is brand-consistent. By the end of our two days in the driver's seats, the two words on all lips for the Ferrari interior, at least when compared to the other three here, were "Spartan" and "purposeful." Designer Frank Stephenson (now sadly ordered over to save Fiat and Lancia from their doom) pulled the Ferrari V8 experience out of the 1980s and into today with the F430. It's clean and handsome, taut and simple to understand where everything is.

At the other extreme-and not unpleasantly so-is the BMW M6 with its raft of high technology making any new driver feel as though he's in a flight simulator. The cabin is the narrowest of the four and the materials the sturdiest in that German school-matron sense, though the seats do keep some of the standard 6 Series cushion.

Between these two separate animals sit the Lamborghini and Aston Martin. The Aston takes the award for best overall balance between driver comfort, positioning and support. In its own right, the V8 Vantage interior is almost as essential as that on the F430, but it's more compact by a bit and feels like a solid fit for any roughly typical driver's body. As with any car at this level or higher, really large people need to ask themselves some humbling questions while looking into the mirror.

For my money, the Lamborghini has the single best driver's seat and most reasonable amount of switch and technology clutter. The steering ratio, with just 2.4 turns lock-to-lock, adds a lot to this feeling of ease.

Weighing all things

One of the bragging points in this market segment is a car's power-to-weight ratio. Whereas there are several types of weight ratings condoned worldwide, in my mind the absolute only weight that matters is when a car sits at the curb with all of its fluids topped off. Ready to run, nobody in the car and no luggage. Dry weight is truly useless and only exploited these days to impress the lowbrows.

We found a government scale and took the manufacturers to task. Highest weight claimed by Ferrari itself for the F430 is 3,196 pounds for the European-spec car under DIN parameters. With our more straightforward criteria and the F1 gearbox, we got 3,351 pounds. Lamborghini fesses up to just 3,152 pounds dry weight and our check showed a real-world Gallardo SE with its E-gear transmission tipping the scales at 3,539 pounds. Aston Martin stands by a 3,461-pound DIN curb weight for the V8 Vantage, but, with the add-on of 19-inch wheels, it actually comes in about even with the Gallardo SE at 3,539 pounds. Finally, BMW were the only ones to hit the bull's eye: A ready-to-fly M6 bends the scale at 3,946 pounds curb weight. The power-to-weight range starts with the Ferrari at 6.83 pounds per horse and ends with the Aston at 9.45 pounds per.

V8? V10? Front? Back?

All four engines stir strong emotions. The V8 in the Ferrari-keeping in mind the image desired for cars like these-is at the high end of naturally aspirated V8 excitement. Meanwhile, the 4.3-liter V8 in the V8 Vantage is easier to live with in this base version. Push the Aston accelerator all the way to the floor in neutral, however, and the sound bouncing off of the 7500-rpm redline is right out of the Sebring pit lane. Shades of things to come.Both the Gallardo SE and M6 carry a 5.0-liter V10 and behave very differently from one another. Accelerating from idle, the M6 engine builds its revs more gradually than that in the Gallardo. But once you hit 6000 rpm in the M6, the revs grow as quickly as they do in the F430. After the aggressive throttle response in the F430, the Gallardo SE is only slightly less hyper due to the two added cylinders. Almost all of those gathered preferred the exhaust sound from the Lamborghini over that from the other three.

In fact, it's no secret that Ferrari is developing its own V10 engine right now to go into either the replacement for the F430 in 2010, or as early as late 2007 in the new "Dino." The reason for this is to have some of the marketing success that Lamborghini has had with this V10 in the Gallardo. On the other hand, Formula One is switching to small V8 engines next season and this could affect the overall image of both V10s and V8s.

Most actively balanced of these four cars is naturally the Gallardo SE with its Audi-style all-wheel drive. This traction setup makes the 42/58 weight distribution much more controllable for less experienced drivers. The placement of a large engine almost right in the center of a car behind the driver is traditionally also more stable than a full-on front or rear engine. But all cars in this segment-certainly all four of these cars-have so much new technology, and repositioning of other components like gearboxes and batteries, that any reasonable weight distribution can be played with to achieve exactly the drive characteristics the engineers desire. The exciting and much weightier M6-54/46 weight split-is a great example of a car that should understeer a lot but doesn't have to once you know how to better drive it at its limits.

If I had to choose the perfect configuration? How about the Gallardo SE with the entire Ferrari powertrain and ceramic rotors? Or the V8 Vantage with all 500 bhp from the M6?Or, much more pertinent, which one could get me the most Bond girls?

I'm copping out on this one, yep.

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