Ferrari's fantasia
This is a Ferrari for our times. Anyone can drive it but it performs like a racing beast. Pinned back in his seat, John Simister enjoys every moment

This car's carbon dioxide emissions, according to official EU-sanctioned tests, average 490g/km. Ouch. Right, that's half the readers gone. I hope the rest of you will stay with me while I attempt to justify such carbon emission, and I won't be invoking the views of Jan Veizer, the Canadian scientist who ascribes global warming to cosmic rays. (But who knows? He may be right. Proof of CO2-influenced climate change isn't absolute, merely very compelling. It's a comforting thought when you're driving this car, a small thread of hope from which to hang yourself.)

So. Here's the Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano. And it is stupendously good - which has by no means been a given for past big Ferraris. But this time it's different. The 599 blows your mind.

What do you think of when you imagine a Ferrari? It depends on your age. For me, the archetypal Ferrari has a V12 engine under a long bonnet, this front-mounted engine driving the rear wheels and clothed in a curvaceous, fastback body styled by Pininfarina. Of course, there are other powerful Ferrari threads - the mid-engined family begun with the delicious Dino and currently represented by the F430, for example - but the V12 is the real deal. Think 250 GT SWB, 250 GTO, 275 GTB, Daytona.

And now, think 599 GTB. It replaces the 575 Maranello, a fine thing but imperfect in its non-blend of poise, suppleness and car-with-driver bonding. Well, I thought, that's just the way a hugely powerful V12 Ferrari has to be nowadays: too many conflicting requirements to let the car be what it should be. With the 599, however, a miracle has occurred. The cake is owned and eaten simultaneously. This is the way it should be.

How can I explain? Here's an example. A sinuous piece of inter-mountain autostrada about 100km from Ferrari's factory in Maranello, near Modena. A tunnel. Windows down, press the accelerator to open wide the two fat throttles (one for each bank of the vee-engine). All 620 prancing horses are unleashed as the sound of a 1980s Formula One starting grid is recreated. The engine can rev to 8,400rpm and the way it howls its multi-layered howl is beyond beautiful. Yes, the 599 is loud at full chat, but it transcends issues of mere noise. Surely, no one could fail to be moved by this music.

This engine, a 6.0-litre unit with an unusual 65-degree angle between its cylinder banks, is derived from that fitted to the Enzo Ferrari supercar. Changes are few and designed to suit it better for everyday use. The engine still sits low, with a separate oil tank instead of the usual sump, and the gearbox is in a unit with the back axle. The result is a little more weight on the rear wheels than the front ones, ideal for perfect handling.

The 599's structure is made of aluminium - which means the completed car weighs a little less than the 575, despite being a little larger. When I first saw the 599, at the Geneva motor show, I thought it over-styled and worryingly wide. Now I'm seeing it in natural light, parked at Ferrari's Fiorano test track outside what used to be Enzo Ferrari's house, and it all makes sense.

Aerodynamics and style combine in one startling package. See how the vents in the front wings cut into the doors. See how the sills fan out and up into cooling vents for the rear brakes. See the two-bladed diffuser under the rear valance, the termination of the flat floor that is part of a system designed to generate up to 150kg of downforce as the Ferrari approaches its 205mph maximum speed. (Where would you reach that? Germany on the day of a national strike?) And most intriguing of all, see the flying buttresses that stand proud of the bubble-shaped rear window. Air chanelled through the gap plays a big part in that downforce production.

Like the F430, the 599 GTB - the initials stand for Grand Touring Berlinetta, this last word indicating a car with a solid roof - has a steering wheel containing both a start button and a "manettino". The latter alters the 599's driving modes to suit ice, low grip, normal driving (termed "sport"), fired-up driving (termed "race") and in-the-lap-of-the-gods driving (all electronic systems turned off apart from the anti-lock brakes). Time was when a thrill-seeking driver would turn off all the electronickery because the interventions were so frustrating, but that time isn't now. As we shall see.

Press the start button, hear the beast awake. Into gear with the right-hand paddle-shifter; this 599 has the F1 sequential-shift version of the six-speed transmission, but this time it's the new F1-Superfast development able to shift gears faster than ever before. We're blazing off up the road, gearshifts smooth if I lift the accelerator a little during each shift, the snatch and surge of earlier such systems now all but computer-managed away. The mode is "sport", the engine is pulling with docility and determination from the low end of its speed range as if to remind me that I don't have to make it howl all the time.

Driven like this, the 599 is a civilised car: quieter and more compliant than the Aston Martin DB9 I drove recently. The steering is pure and accurate, the sort of system you notice only for the clear communication it makes with the front wheels. And the ride quality over lumpy surfaces is remarkable for a car with such huge wheels and lateral g-force potential.

Magic magneto-rheological suspension dampers are the key here. We've often seen cars with adaptive dampers which use electronic valves to alter the dampers' stiffness according to the car's needs, but this new system, co-developed by Ferrari and Delphi, is simpler, faster-acting and more effective.

The road snakes through the hills, bend after bend, and it's time to try "race" mode. Three things now happen. The gearshifts become faster and, if I rev the engine hard, the shifts are completed with just a 40-millisecond pause in accelerative thrust. This happens because the gears now shift before the clutch is fully disengaged or re-engaged, made possible by computer control of the engine to take loads away from the gear synchronisers.

Pinned back in seat - blink - pinned back in seat - blink - pinned back in seat again. It's relentless; were I to employ maximum effort from a standstill, using the "launch control" to get the engine revs just right before the twin-plate clutch bites, we would hit 62mph in 3.7 seconds and double that speed in 11.

The dampers are firmer now - too much so if you plan to revisit the autostrada - and the traction and stability system has loosened its grip. You can now let the tail drift as you power out of a bend, safe in the knowledge that it will drift only so far before the system reins you in so, so unobtrusively.

Ferrari calls this new system F1-Trac, and it is, indeed, used on the Formula One cars. Where it differs from normal ESP systems, which measure wheel speed and steering angle and react accordingly, is that it's based on a "map" which contains the 599's known limits of ability. If it senses events are overtaking this ability, it readies itself for intervention. That way it lets you drive closer to the limit without interfering, but is primed and ready to go when needed.

Letting the 599 loose on a demanding road is an almost dream-like experience. You feel at one with this 620bhp piece of fantasy. It's beautifully crafted and furnished with crackle-finish cam covers and intake pipes, lots of lovely leather and plenty of glossy carbon fibre if that's what you want (you choose). It has faults, of course - our test car's handbrake needed a hefty tug to make it hold, the seats creaked and a rubber bonnet seal came adrift as we attempted a taste of the speed potential.

Oh, and it will cost about £170,000 when it goes on sale here in October. At least that's cheap compared with the conceptually similar but far less engaging Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, yours for £313,565.

But what the heck? I can dream. Here's a proper, usable road car which is just 1.5 seconds a lap slower than an Enzo around Fiorano, yet which anyone can drive. But that universality doesn't dilute the experience. It purifies it, lets you concentrate without worry. It's exactly how a V12 Ferrari for the modern world should be.

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