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motoring: Maximum horse power

Ferrari's radical new 360 Modena is an all-round success - it's bigger, lighter, stronger and faster. Michael Booth was invited to fling it round some corners
The existence of the glorious Ferrari must have first entered my consciousness 25 years ago. I can't remember the precise moment of epiphany - it may have been a picture on a Top Trump card, a poster in Athena, or even the opening sequence to Hart To Hart, where Robert Wagner duels with Stephanie Powers in a Ferrari Dino. Whichever it was, that first flash of scarlet sculpture captured a corner of my dreams.

Now, lost on the outskirts of Maranello in the industrial heartland of northern Italy, I catch a glimpse of Ferrari's latest creation: a sunflower- yellow 360 Modena, the radical new "entry level" model, launched earlier this year. Hoping it will lead me to my destination - the Ferrari factory where I am about to test drive one - I try to follow it. But with a twitch of the driver's toe, the car is a speck and I am lost once again.

Some time later, I find the Ferrari factory. In the waiting area, I dribble over the current range, including the pounds 167,700 456M GT (as owned by Rowan Atkinson) and the pounds 149,700 550 Maranello (as pouted in by Posh and Becks). The 360 is the most beautiful of the three, a lean sprinter among chunky decathletes. It stands at belly-button height but melts out to the same width and length as many saloons. Eighty per cent of those made are expected to be sold with the Formula One-style clutchless, paddle-operated gear shift, and in a few minutes, I will be driving one such version. No one at Ferrari knows this, but I have never tried a paddle-shift car before.

The pounds 101,244 masterpiece, to which Ferrari's English head of PR, Tim Watson, hands me the keys, is the very same yellow 360 I have seen earlier. Fortunately, once I've got it on the road, my fears about the paddle shift vanish; it feels entirely natural to change up and down by tapping back the two metal flaps on either side of the wheel. One day all cars will change gears this way, but for now there are still glitches - up changes are jerky and take an aeon. On the other hand, down changes are fluid and thrilling, thanks to an engine management system which cleverly blips the throttle to simulate the finest heel-and-toe change.

On a mountain route, the car explodes from corner to corner, faster than electricity - and I hang on for dear life. On narrow, blind bends, the car's girth worries me and I stop for a meditative ice cream. Reverent locals emerge to pay homage, and a man jokes that Italy has two national flags: one with green, white and red stripes, and one with a prancing horse.

Sadly, my drive ends with me heroically flinging the car round corners at no more than 10mph. Thick fog has fallen, and I can barely see the little yellow rectangle on the bonnet, let alone the crazy arcade game that is the Italian highway.

It will take better drivers than me to reach the 360 Modena's limits - but my two-hour test drive was enough to convince me that, despite its impracticalities, this is unquestionably the world's greatest sports car.

The credentials

The 360 Modena, Ferrari's radical new "entry level" model, was launched earlier this year. Unlike the last few generations of V8 Ferraris, which have been a gradual evolution of the 1975 308, the 360 is an all-new, all-aluminium design, mating radical "cabin-forward" styling by Pininfarina to a 400bhp engine. It is bigger, lighter, better equipped, stronger and faster than its predecessor, the 355, and it also generates four times as much down force (the aerodynamic effect which draws car to tarmac as its speed increases); it is capable of 0-60 in 4.1 seconds and a top speed of 184mph. The 360 is expected to account for 65 per cent of the company's production, and Ferrari limits its total production to just 3,600 units per year (about 11 a day), all of which are sold well in advance. Tim Watson, explains that every 360 Modena's engine undergoes four hours on a test bed and the completed cars are given a 100km shakedown before finally being delivered.