Fiorano. Say it slowly and with an Italian lilt. To Ferraristi everywhere it's a place of pilgrimage, the holy site where all Ferraris, race and street, come for their shakedowns. Fiorano, the test track of the Prancing Horse-and I got to drive there. (I know what you're thinking, and I don't care.)

It wasn't planned. A dozen or so U.S. journalists were gathered in Modena for a test drive of the forthcoming 612 Scaglietti in late March. Day one saw us touring the Ferrari factory. Inside the hallowed buildings, we were warm and dry; outside, it was snowing-heavily. Uh-oh. Imagine driving a 540-bhp rear-wheel-drive car on narrow, twisty snow-slick roads in Italy. Exactly. (You can take your hands off your eyes now.) Ferrari had the same thoughts. It wasn't snowing on day two, but just in case the weather turned again, Ferrari brought us to Fiorano. There, at least, we could sample the 612's amazing power and agility without (too much) fear or causing (much) damage.

Everyone got three laps each. No instruction, no warnings, just drive out onto the track and go. (We needed to get on and get out; the F1 team was waiting to test the new 2004 F1 race cars, something the wouldn't do with journalists present.) My driving partner went first, allowing me to get the feel of the track and its lines. Then it was my turn. Nice and easy on the first lap, finding-and occasionally missing-the optimum approach and exit for each turn.

The second go-around was much better; the third, even faster. Accelerating down the straightaway, the speedometer needle flew toward-but didn't quite reach-the car's stated top-speed mark of 199 mph. Slowing the GT down was equally quick thanks to the substantial brakes-13.6 in. front, 13.0 in. rear. While the 612 Scaglietti is definitely a big car, it moved as nimbly as a well-sorted sports car. Not once did I feel I was anywhere near the 612's limits. Given more time on the track, one of us might have found them, but I suspect only the Schumachers of the world could fully enjoy the 612's range of skills.

Then, suddenly, it was over-the track time, that is, for we still had a full day of driving ahead of us. Thankfully the weather was cooperating.

Now that the thrill and anxiety of driving Fiorano was over, I turned my attention to the car's details. The 612 Scaglietti is a big car-at 193 in. long, 72 in. wide and 52.9 in. high, it is the largest street car Ferrari has ever produced. The Enzo is wider by 8 in. but is much shorter in both length and height. For many purists it's too big. I don't agree. Given the directive of clothing a mid-front V12-engined GT capable of holding four adult-sized occupants comfortably, Pininfarina did an outstanding job.

The lines from every viewpoint are fluid; there's not an abrupt or awkward angle anywhere. The long, wide and sleek hood invites the eye up and over the exquisitely proportioned greenhouse, which is set off by a cut line from the front fenders that blends into the arched, muscular-looking rear fenders. The tail, with its classic high, round lights, is reminiscent of previous front-engined Ferraris, and the side scallops are a paean to the 375 MM berlinetta ordered by Roberto Rossellini for Ingrid Bergman. It's a complete, powerful design, at once contemporary yet evocative of a stellar past.

Ah yes, power-or more properly potenza. Nothing sounds, nothing moves, nothing feels like a Ferrari V12 engine. A specially tailored version of the 12 cylinder found in the 575M, the 612's powerplant produces a voluptuous amount of brio: 540 bhp at 7250 rpm (98 more than the 456M's) and 434 lb-ft of torque at 5250 rpm.

Think "gearbox" and "Ferrari" at the same time, and paddle-shifting should come to mind. While the 612 Scaglietti is available with a six-speed manual, 90% of Scagliettis ordered will be heading out the door with the new-generation F1 gearbox. Called the F1A (A for automatic), the Formula One-derived gearbox is smooth and fast. Two modes, Auto and Manual, can be switched to "Sport" (the button is on the steering wheel) for even faster shifts and throttle response. There's also a program for icy conditions (via a control on the tunnel console) that can be put into play in normal Auto mode. No matter which way you choose a gear, the F1A has been designed to please in all driving situations.

For either gearbox version, a standing start to 62 mph is reached in a mere 4.2 sec. The F1A version is faster than the manual at longer distances: The quarter mile is reached in 12.25 versus 12.30 sec. And this in a 4,056-lb car (European spec).

By Sherri L. Collins
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