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.

That priceless exhaust system, along with a low-restriction cold air intake system and polished intake ports, contribute to an extra 25 bhp, bringing the total for the Challenge Stradale to 425.

A less apparent, but probably more important component on the car, is a driver-selectable sport/race switch that changes the performance of the car's active shock absorbers and the shift characteristics of its paddle-shift transmission. The company, concerned about ruffling American feathers with the 360's wonderfully uninhibited exhaust note, is also considering tying in the exhaust bypass system. U.S. cars may end up with higher rpm and throttle-opening thresholds for the bypass when in sport mode but will retain the current values when switched to race mode.

Race mode also stiffens the suspension, giving the car a ride that could be considered punishing on the street, but that was fine for track use. More importantly, the switch banishes the surprisingly strong low-speed understeer that is present in sport mode. In race mode the Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires were amazingly responsive and consistent for full-depth treaded street tires, so top marks for the tire company. Repeated hard laps around Fiorano didn't seem to diminish the tires' grip or inflict visible damage.

Switching to race mode also selects a different program for the stability control system. In sport mode the system is too intrusive, even in highway driving. In race mode it seemed ideal for street driving and tolerable for track driving, though it prevented intentionally hanging out the tail in slow corners to offset the remaining understeer.

Sport mode, which is intended for street driving, indulges in leisurely 500-millisecond gear changes, which are necessary for Spic-n-Span emissions. In race mode, the transmission bangs off shifts in 150 ms, which makes for impressive full-throttle upshifts.

The stiffened race mode suspension also reduces nose dive due to forward weight transfer under maximum braking, which is the bane of street cars that venture onto the racetrack because the lightened rear tires are prone to locking and spinning the car. The characteristic is present in race mode but is thankfully reduced to a bit of tail-wagging in the braking zone rather than threatening to swap ends.

The brakes themselves are spectacular carbon ceramic devices courtesy of Brembo, like the ones used on the Enzo. Front rotors are 380mm and rears are 350mm. Extended tag-team lapping of Fiorano by journalists induced no fade, smoke or other symptoms of braking distress. On the street, the pads' friction coefficient feels a little aggressive, making it easy to accidentally brake abruptly in casual driving. But the trade-off is powerful on-track performance, which is, after all, the raison d'etre of the car. Also, that slight grabbiness contributes to shorter emergency stops in street driving.

"These brake pads let you save 2 or 3 meters in braking distance with respect to the other pads," explained Roberto Fedeli, who is responsible for technical development of Ferrari street cars. "Usually those meters make the difference between whether you save the car or not."

And this is a car worth saving.

Ferrari Challenge Stradale Specifications

Engine: Aluminum 90-degree dohc V8
Displacement: 3586cc
Power: 425 bhp
Torque: 276 lb-ft
Weight: 2,602 lb
L/W/H: 172.3 in./75.7 in./47.2 in.
Wheelbase: 102.4 in.Performance (factory claims)
Top speed: 186 mph 0-62 mph: 4.1 sec.
0-400 meters: 12.1 sec.
Price: $200,000

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