Damn Puntos, Cinquecentos, Unos and all those other funny little Fiats. I'm at the wheel of Ferrari's updated front-engined flagship, the 575M Maranello, trying to make some tracks on the serpentine roads that wind and unwind through the hills not far from the Ferrari factory-in Maranello, Italy, of course. These wretched Boxus economus clog these narrow roads like so many ants in an ant farm. "Hey! Don't you know I've got 515 bhp under my right foot, and you-even though you live here and I don't-are keeping me from enjoying it!"

Finally a break: Snap the new F1 transmission down into second gear, and floor it-smoothly, as the road is still gray from the morning dew-and knock off three of the wheezing Fiats in a whack. Now, through a corner, then another, then another...only to run up on two Fiat Unos and a bus, going about 30 mph....

The original 550 Maranello, which replaced the mid-engined Testarossa and its derivatives in 1996, certainly wasn't hurting for more performance, or much of anything. Yet Ferrari felt it could up the Maranello's game: "575" stands for a displacement increase, from 5.5 to 5.75 liters. The "M" stands for modificata, loosely translated to mean "modified," a term Ferrari often gives to cars that have received a mid-life spa treatment. Ferrari's goal in morphing 550 to 575M was to make it faster and sportier without totally killing its rep as a quiet, smooth, long-distance runner.

The 575M's 65-degree V12 retains the dohc architecture and all-alloy construction of the 550 powerplant. Bore and stroke have been increased slightly, so the crankshaft and cylinder liners are new; the latter are also now steel instead of aluminum. The compression ratio has increased from 10.8:1 to 11.0:1, and the new Mahle forged pistons are said to improve combustion efficiency. Intake and exhaust cam timing has been modified, and the entire air intake and fuel-injection air-metering tract has been smoothed and enlarged.

A new Bosch Motronic engine management system incorporates drive-by-wire, allowing the 575M to meet both European Stage 3 and U.S. OBD-II regulations; it even earns an LEV rating. The new computer packs better knock-sensing capability, supporting the increase in compression. The exhaust system has been revised, incorporating an adjustable backpressure management feature, which allows it to operate at peak efficiency, no matter the rpm or load.

Whatever the hardware, the numbers are impressive: 515 DIN horsepower (which translates to about 508 SAE net ponies) at 7250 rpm, an increase of 30 DIN horses as compared to the 550. Torque goes up as well; there's more of it, and it's available over a wider rev range. The peak is now 434 lb-ft at 5250 rpm. Redline remains at 7750 rpm-expected of tiny Honda fours, but impressive for a large bore, nearly 6-liter V12.

Among the new technology Ferrari's management and product development team felt appropriate for the Maranello is the adaptation of its electrohydraulic F1 transmission management system-the paddle shifters that have proven popular on the mid-engined 360 Modena models. The 575M represents the first time Ferrari has employed this hardware in either a front-engined car or one with 12 cylinders.

It's much the same Magnetti-Marelli package used on the 360s, the new Maserati Coupe and Spyder, and the Aston Martin Vanquish. This is one factor that necessitated the use of a drive-by-wire throttle. As in the other cars, F1 features six forward ratios, plus Winter, Sport, and fully automatic modes. For those who relish that traditional, machined aluminum shifter and shift gate, a gen-ooo-ine six-speed manual transmission can still be ordered. Ferrari estimates that about 80% of the 575Ms to be sold here will be F1-equipped. The actual transaxle is the same in either application and has been beefed up so it can stand the pain served up by the more powerful V12.

The second important bit of tech news is the addition of fully active suspension damping. There's a damper/shock absorber at each corner equipped with electro-hydraulic valves. They respond to the inputs of six accelerometers placed around the chassis. The system makes its adjustments based upon input from two sources: the road and the driver's demeanor. It "reads" the road and, based on the surface, adjusts almost instantly; the valves can go from fully open to fully closed in 80 milliseconds. When the car is being driven aggressively, the dampers get the message and firm up accordingly. You can also pre-select Comfort or Sport mode should you wish to give the suspension some up-front guidance.

Nobody ever complained about the 550's looks, so Pininfarina, which designed both the original car and the updates for the 575, had relatively little to do. The grille area was enlarged and reshaped; the hood-mounted air intake is larger as well. The headlight clusters were redone, updated with gas discharge units, and washers were added. The 18-in. alloy wheels are new, too, but otherwise that's that.

The main cabin upgrades stare you right in the eye, in the form of an updated instrument panel that puts a large tachometer front and center. A new steering wheel incorporates textured leather and aluminum. Central tunnel controls are freshened, some switchgear has been repositioned, and the six-way adjustable seats are also new.

Ferrari now offers a carbon-fiber interior trim package, too, just one of many custom touches available through the Carrozzeria Scaglietti owner customization program. Later this year, even more aggressive two-piece 19-in. wheels will be offered, combined with Pirelli tires developed specifically for the Maranello (255/35ZR19 front, 305/30ZR19 out back).

Short-stroke V12s sound wonderful even on the starter motor; this one lights with a whump before settling into a smooth yet edgy idle. Our car was equipped with the F1 tranny; step on the brake and snick the right paddle to select first gear. While any Ferrari is certainly about handling, balance and high-speed cruising, there's something also to be said for a good hard launch and just running up through the gears.

Ferrari's engineers anticipated that and gave the F1-equipped Maranello an extra tool for the job called Launch Control. Select the Sport suspension setting, de-activate the ASR traction control and press the brake pedal; this tells the system you're looking for maximum launch velocity. Bring the revs up to 3500-4000 rpm, then let off the brake and stab the gas pedal. You'll get just enough wheelspin for a good launch, hit 60 mph in around 4.1 sec. and cover the quarter mile in 12.25 sec. Ferrari claims a top speed of just over 200 mph, and we've no reason to doubt it.

The wider torque band is easily felt, especially in the mid-range. There's power to be found most anywhere on the tach, and though you don't need to rev it to redline to get awesome performance, it's just stupid fun to do so. We're also surprised at how much we like the F1 gearbox in this car. Drive moderately, and the shifts are smooth yet positive. Go for it, and the F1's techno bits will back off the throttle, release the clutch, find the next gear, engage the clutch and go back to full throttle far quicker than human limbs can do the job.

These upshifts are impressive, but downshifts are even better, as the system will do all of the above plus perform a perfect throttle blip that results in ideally matched revs. This newest version of F1 shift control is the fastest yet in terms of actual shift execution speed. Ferrari confidently claims that the 575M is actually quicker in F1 form. There's never a reason to not be in the right gear. We also appreciate Ferrari giving us ASR traction control logic that actually allows more than a little wheelspin, then invades as late and as gently as is required to keep the shiny side up.

Though 500+ horsepower and a make-me-look-like-Schumacher tranny are impressive, it's the active damping that makes the new car so noticeably improved over its predecessor. Ride quality is better than that of the 550, both when cruising on smooth surfaces or dealing with rough pavement. Yet, when it knows you're making time, it's stiffer and more controlled than before. Even over cobbled surfaces, we always felt that the tires stayed in contact with the ground, we were in control and the car was making up the difference.

The steering system remains wonderfully communicative, if perhaps a bit overboosted. No complaints with the Brembo brakes, either. There's stopping power aplenty, with good pedal feel, high limits and little sense of fade.

The Maranello's cabin was always an elegant, purposely comfortable place, and it remains so; we're particularly pleased with the new gauge cluster, which is more performance oriented, easier to see, and the instruments themselves are easier to read. Not so easy to spot, but worth looking for, is a tiny plaque that reminds you of Ferrari's 2001 F1 World Championship.

I know I'm supposed to do my job as a journalist and find some stuff to gripe about. Well, okay, if I must. First of all, the thing costs a quarter of a million bucks-big problem for most of us, but no biggie for the well-heeled clientele that already has its orders placed. After enjoying the banshee wail from the 360 Modena, I'm a bit disappointed in the quieter, metallic fizz coming out of the Maranello's exhaust pipes. Yeah, I know this car is meant for the more mature who are more likely to take it on a 500-mile-per-day vacation than a run around the race track. But it still doesn't sound like a Ferrari. Guess there's always a high-buck, stainless-steel aftermarket exhaust.

Even though its road manners are superb, you're always aware of the car's mass. With all this lux and tech, there's no way it's not going to be heavy, as long as the chassis and a few body panels remain steel. We hear that future Ferraris will rely more heavily on aluminum and composite materials in the name of less weight, but such a major redesign was not part of the plan this time around.

And one more complaint: Ferrari's fabulous new 575M Maranello would benefit from some rocket launchers and mortar fire, much like you'd find on a James Bond-spec Aston Martin. They would sure come in handy, should your favorite road become a little too overcrowded with commuter Fiats.

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By Giancarlo Rosetti
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