The Independent Road Test: Perfection on wheels - almost: John Simister is besotted with the Ferrari 456 GT, a supercar with annoying windows

You might expect a pounds 146,000 supercar, said by some to be the grand tourer to cap all grand tourers, to have no faults at all. If so, you would be disappointed by the Ferrari 456 GT.

With the door windows wound down as far as they will go, there remains an inch or so of glass protruding above the sill. You cannot imagine what a bind this is when you are feeding a ticket into a car- park machine. So irritating.

But the word has not got around, and other drivers still regard the Ferrari as perfection on wheels. You see them gasping, waving and pointing. This is a car that transcends envy. Drive a Porsche, say, and uncharitable folk might curl their lips and question justice. But everyone appreciates the 456. Its beauty, its presence and its sound are a pleasure for all.

Here is a big, front-engined Ferrari in the classic tradition. We have not seen its like since the Daytona coupe of 20 years ago, the intervening 412 saloon notably failing to arouse much desire. The 5.5-litre, V12-cylinder 456 manages to look modern and retro simultaneously; its slatted front grille, flowing curves and four round rear lights recall the most memorable of past Ferraris, while the fat wheels and flush glazing are determinedly 1990s.

The best reason for having the window almost down is to listen to the engine. A V12 with 48 valves, four exhaust pipes, 442bhp and 405lb/ft of pulling power (around four times the thrust of smallish hot hachbacks) cannot help being sonorous. From a well-mannered mumble at low revs, the engine's voice hardens, turning at last into an enthusiastic, full-bodied wail, enriched by the swish of all those valves popping open and shut hundreds of times a second.

And hurtle it does, passing the 60mph mark after 5.4 seconds and spearing on to a claimed top speed of 194mph. But, irrelevantly impressive as that figure is, it is the engine's monstrous shove from low speeds, even in the highest gear (sixth), that sticks strongest in the mind. This makes the 456, a car of considerable girth, remarkably handy in traffic. You see a gap, you go. No frantic revving, no drama: just squeeze the accelerator and you are spliced into the traffic flow as though inertia did not exist. And the best part is that no one minds, because they get a better look at the Ferrari]

The way the 456 steers, corners and brakes has a similarly dramatic, shrinking effect. You might expect frights from a Ferrari like this, but it is as fluid and well-behaved as you could wish. Even the gearchange is easy: six closely spaced ratios selected with a lever that slices into the notches in Ferrari's usual exposed metal 'gate'. The clutch operates smoothly, and if you have ever driven an older Ferrari, you will realise that such praise does not normally apply to the marque.

Of course, the 456 is beautifully made and solidly engineered. There is leather in abundance, including a set of fitted luggage inside the surprisingly capacious boot. (It takes longer to come to terms with the metallic-grey plastic vents, switches and steering- wheel spokes.) A couple of grown- ups squeezed in to the back would appreciate the remarkably resilient ride, which contributes much to its grand-touring abilities.

Doctors dread parties because fellow guests keep seeking medical opinions; motoring writers suffer similarly - they are forever being asked to nominate the one car they would most like to own. This used to be a difficult question to answer, but not now. The Ferrari 456 GT is the car that has it all, and does it all. It will entertain endlessly on the open road, it will amble good naturedly through city traffic, and your heartbeat will rise a little every time you see it.

Ferrari's 456 is, indeed, the best grand tourer in the world. Did I hear someone asking about the fuel consumption? No, I thought not. Thank goodness for that.

COMPARISONS

Aston Martin Vantage, pounds 177,600

Out-accelerates the Ferrari (as though it mattered) and consumes yet more fuel. Handling lacks the delicacy of the 456: this is a point-and- squirt car of the highest order.

Bentley Continental R, pounds 180,120

Smooth, silent and massively fast, the coupe-bodied, turbo- engined Bentley makes you very aware of its momentum if you try to drive it like a hot hatchback.

Ferrari 512 TR, pounds 131,001

This is the other approach to the ultimate Ferrari, a wide-bodied two-seater coupe with a flat-12 engine behind the seats. Noisy (but what a noise]), wide, cumbersome and impractical, but more of a quasi-race car experience than the 456.

Porsche 928 GTS, pounds 69,875

The V8 Porsche's performance is much more accessible now, with its latest engine improvements and manual gearbox, but the ride is still too hard. Half the cost of the Ferrari, and not much slower.

SPECIFICATIONS

Ferrari 456 GT pounds 146,000

Engine: 5,474cc, V12, 442bhp at 5,250rpm. Six-speed gearbox, rear-wheel drive. Top speed 194mph, 0-60 in 5.4 seconds. Fuel consumption: 11-16mpg.

(Photograph omitted)

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