Ferrari has always been about racing, and its road cars have always been about maintaining a race fantasy. So when the company races its road cars, as is the case with the Ferrari 360 Challenge series, it cements that relationship between road and track.

However, even ardent race fans and driving enthusiasts aren't always able to participate in such racing series. Some such customers would still appreciate a road car that is more track-capable for those occasional track days, and that is Ferrari's plan with the new 360 Challenge Stradale (Street).

The new car is lighter, stronger and faster than the 360 Modena F1, from which it is derived, and for enthusiasts all of the changes are for the better. The bottom line is a car that costs $40,000 more than a regular 360 but is stripped of most comfort items. That should steer poseurs and casual enthusiasts away, while the rigid racing seats, carbon-fiber interior bits and fantastic muffler-bypass exhaust system make the car utterly irresistible for the hardcore car nuts.

Ferrari trimmed nearly 250 lb from the regular 360's weight by substituting Lexan side windows and titanium springs for the conventional glass and steel. Also gone is interior carpet and sound deadening along with the radio (though it remains an option). The weight loss contributes to a 15mm lower center of gravity for better handling.

The firm racing seats (manually adjustable, naturally) are available in three different sizes, so it should be possible to match the dimensions of most drivers. If not, they can always pour an epoxy bead seat insert like the ones in real race cars. The seats come wrapped in fabric or handsome suede leather that gets a bit hot on sticky days. Unfortunately, four-point racing-style harnesses available elsewhere will not come to the U.S., and neither will a factory-installed rollbar. Legal implications, you know.

The single most attractive aspect of the Challenge Stradale is its trick automatic muffler bypass valve, which lets the engine sing completely unmuffled when driven hard but lets the car creep past sensitive neighbors-and EPA drive-by noise tests-with the relative stealth of the regular 360 Modena. Good news for current owners is that the exhaust system will be available for retrofit to existing cars.

The muffler bypass valve opens at 8500 rpm and above, when the throttle is open 30% or wider. Drive gently, and Superman's garish costume remains hidden beneath Clark Kent's subdued gray flannel suit. Gun it hard, and that suit comes off faster than a Velcro NBA warm-up suit at tip-off.

Tearing around Ferrari's Fiorano test track, where the Formula team spent part of the day shaking down the F2003-GA race cars for the upcoming Austrian Grand Prix, it was easy to imagine I was Michael Schumacher himself (lap times notwithstanding), judging from the glorious sound trumpeting from the open pipes. With the paddle-shift transmission clicking off precise downshifts, accompanied by crisp, computer-controlled throttle blips to exactly match revs to speed, the Stradale Challenge loudly proclaims proficiency (unearned by the driver!) for all at the track to hear. This car may be the best ego booster yet constructed.

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