style=”flat” size=”4″]The car is red and low and sleek and looks like a piece of sculpture, never mind that the plinth is a crummy driveway on a bleak industrial estate near Egham in Surrey, and the background is a bland modern brick building.
I am late for my appointment – disgraceful when you consider that it is to take away a new Ferrari – but the company’s UK boss, Stuart Robinson, doesn’t seem to mind too much. He shakes me by the hand, and we walk around the F355, the first right-hooker in Britain.
The PR man gives me a brief rundown on how to drive the car. It doesn’t take long. Ferraris are still fundamentally simple to operate: no superfluous controls and switches, everything designed to make driving more pleasurable. There’s no silly trip computer, no electric seat controls, no fripperies instigated by marketing men. This is an engineer’s car, created by car lovers for car lovers. Salesmen sell it; they do not help conceive it.
The dreaming is over. It’s time to drive. The long, lightweight, aluminium door swings open easily once you’ve operated a (rather stiff) catch hidden on the underside of the side air intake. The sill is wedge-shaped: wider at the back than at the front. You have to vault it and then climb down into the dainty magnolia-leather-covered driver’s seat and grip that gorgeous black Momo steering wheel, small and three-spoked, with a yellow and black prancing horse boss staring at your chest. You sit very low and your feet are canted off to the centreline to pick up the three drilled alloy pedals.
The important things – the steering wheel, tachometer and speedo – are right in front. The column stalks have thick alloy ends, which make them much nicer to touch and to use than plastic alumnus. The second-division switches for ventilation and windows and such like (Second division? Yes of course, for they don’t contribute to the raw driving pleasure) are all grouped in the centre console, which is wide and leather-trimmed and has a little badge with the Ferrari and Pininfarina corporate flags interlocked at its base.
The important bit of the console is the gearlever. It rises, like Excalibur standing proud of the lake, from a seven-fingered alloy gate (six forward cogs aid one backward one) and is made from alloy with a lovely alloy ball on top.
The engine, all 3.5 litres, 40 valves, eight cylinders and 380bhp of it, fires with a high-pitched snarl. The revs jump around as the electronics try to control the energy. The old Ferrari days of having chains for the cams and carburettors for the air are long gone, but the new belts and injection and electro-trickery still can’t silence the massive heart.
You can hear the air entering the intakes, almost feel the beat of the pistons, and the chatter of the valves. Not surprising, really. The action is going on barely a foot or two behind you, and you’re separated from it only by a dainty little carpet-covered bulkhead. It acts a bit like a saddle, separating you from the heart and muscle and hair.
Give the long, slim, dogleg-shaped throttle a tickle and the revs jump instantaneously, let go and they die. Turn the engine off and it just stops. There’s no lazy delay: demand and you’re obeyed.
V8 engine has five-valve heads and revs to a frenzied 8500rpm, extraordinary considering its size. Sounds wonderful, too. Alloy filler cap is typical of superb detailing and is one of the reasons why the F355 feels so very special
So we make our way out of the industrial estate, unlikely home of the Prancing Horse in Britain, heading for the M25 and then the A1 to meet the DB7 for our North Yorkshire rendezvous, more than 220 miles away. This is not using the Ferrari as it should be used. A long motorway drag, constant revs, late afternoon turning to dusk turning to night, the Ferrari’s slim seat not all that comfortable, the crooked driving position awkward, the engine noise – so sonorous and inspirational and delectable many miles back – now an uncomfortable constant growl and unremittingly loud.
Yet there are some surprises on the day-to-day, sensible, use-it-as-a-tool front. Rear visibility is good. The standard air-conditioning keeps the cabin cool (or warm, depending on your whim) and the whole car feels solid and beautifully made, as no Ferrari ever did until Fiat took over.
The ride is good. It does a little jiggle on broken roads, just to reinforce its animated character, but for such a firmly sprung car wearing such big wheels and tyres, there is surprising cushioning between you and the tarmac.
We reach the hotel near Thirsk and park alongside the Aston, which arrived many hours earlier after its easier journey from the new factory near Bloxham in Oxfordshire. The Ferrari is much lower, and so much more ostentatious, so much more eye-catching. It’s shorter, wider, lighter.
So why are they parked together in the same hotel car park, about to lock horns on northern England’s best driving roads? Because they’re rivals. The Aston costs £78,500, the Ferrari £83,031 (and when you’ve got 80 grand to spend on a motor, five grand here or there makes no difference). They have similar power (380bhp for the Ferrari, 335bhp for the DB7). The Aston has back seats, but they’re so incidental – useless for anyone other than small children – that it’s effectively a two-seater just like the Ferrari. The engines are similar capacities.
Both cars are aimed at drivers. And if the Aston is biggish and brutish and front-engined, and the Ferrari is daintier and lighter and mid-engined, then so what? Wasn’t that always the big difference between Ferrari and Aston, between Italian sports cars and British sports cars?
When you’ve got big, fast, powerful cars to play with, it always seems to rain here. But even though we leave the hotel before the sun turns the grey clouds pink, it’s clear that the rain will stay away today.
I stay in the Ferrari to blow away the cobwebs of the long grind north from London the night before. The roads are now windy, up-and-down, deserted, narrow. We go gingerly at first, for Ferraris have always been intimidating cars. You don’t just get into a Ferrari and whip it. Not if you’re prudent.
The steering, although power-assisted, is still firm, and so is the clutch and the brakes and the throttle. They all take the same amount of effort to push or twirl or control, and that is one of the signs of a well-honed sports car. The throttle on our test car is rather jerky, making the car doubly difficult to drive smoothly. Instead of a creamy progression, the throttle tends to move in a series of little bursts. It can’t be typical.
The gearchange is stiff and requires precision, but it was always thus with Ferraris. You have delicately to direct that long alloy gearlever from gate to gate, carefully matching the clutch and the revs, using just a touch of strength and much precision.
This is also a wide car – six inches or so broader than the Aston – mostly because of the side radiators, shrouded by the shapely hips. So you have to be careful on narrow roads. Yet it shrinks around you. Get used to the roads, get used to the light, get used to the weather and get used to the car, and you’re a driver wrapped in scarlet-red cling-film. Whatever you do, the car does, too.
The steering feels a little low geared at first; you have to give it quite a twirl to get around hairpins and negotiate tight corners. You don’t just steer with the wrists; forearm is needed to get lock.
It doesn’t glide over the roads; its relationship with the blacktop is far more intimate than that.
Ferrari’s cabin has few frills, but superb detailing and finish. It’s designed to make the experience rewarding. You sit askew: Note alloy drilled pedals and dainty alloy gearlever sprouting from gate.
Aston cabin really looks like the work of craftsmen. Leather and woodwork is superb although the plastic Ford switches are blemishes. Instrument graphics could be better, too. Seats are good, but steering wheel hides part of binnacle.
‘There’s no brutal kick, no please-slow-down wail from passengers. The DB7 is a discreet car, for those inside and out’
You can feel those tyres slapping the road, feel the springs and dampers compressing and rebounding, and you have to make little corrections with the steering as the car follows the road camber. You’re constantly working the wheel, constantly having to concentrate.
Especially when you work that engine – and work it you can, for the tacho in front tells you that it can rev to 8500rpm. At low revs in the low gears, the car feels punchy, eager. Tread deeper and eagerness turns into anger, anger turns into rage, and by the time you’ve hit 5000rpm or so the F355 is screaming, the steering wheel is jiggling as the road’s ridges are squashed by the big Michelins, you’ve snapped the gearlever through another gate, and the revs have dropped a little but you’re still in a nice fat torque band, and the tachometer needle races closer to the war paint, and the scenery is now sweeping by so fast that you really have to concentrate hard, and the engine is screaming so loud that you can barely hear yourself think, let alone hear any gasps or entreaties or pleas from a passenger who may be terrified or may be exhilarated, and now you’re brushing 8500rpm and you’ve never heard a sound so good, and the comer is coming up to you fast and you’re hard on those brakes, which at this speed really do require a firm shove, and you’re heel and toeing down through the gears, keeping the revs up as you go into third, then back to second, and you feed in more revs and the whole wonderful experience repeats itself all over again as you blast down the next straight. And you only ever got into fourth. Two gears to go.
This baby Ferrari is the fastest production Ferrari of all on the road, such is its nimbleness, its usability, its verve. It is also the fastest around the com-bulkier and altogether less desirable 512TR.
The Aston feels like a normal car, when you drive it next day. You just walk into it, like you step into a Mondeo or a Cavalier. Everything is bulkier, posher, more luxurious. The seats are thicker, the centre console wider, the dash chunkier. You sit higher. The window does a little jump when you close the door, sealing the cabin – just like on a BMW 8-series E31. (The door shuts with a rather puny clunk, incidentally.)
The foot tunnel is narrower than the Ferrari’s, and you feel that your legs fit that tunnel rather like a finger fits a glove. It’s tight, intimate, and you can rest your knees on the centre console and the door casing just to increase the man/machine conjunction. But – the shame! – there’s no left foot-rest and that’s inexcusable on a car aimed at drivers.
Nonetheless, the driving position is better than the Ferrari’s: you sit straight, with the pedals right in front rather than off-centre, and the pedal cluster is at the same angle as your hips. Like the Ferrari’s, the steering wheel – a chunky, leather- clad four-spoker on the Aston – is rake-adjustable. But whatever the angle, it always obscures the bot-tom of the main instruments.
The cabin uses marvellous Connolly hide – softer, shinier and more supple than in a Jaguar (though the Ferrari’s is just as fine) – and the woodwork is as good as you’ll get. The problem is the switchgear. It’s all from Ford – or looks as if it belongs in a Ford. Even the key looks like a Ford’s, and where you’d normally find the Ford oval on the key head you find an ovalised version of the DB7 logo to fill the space, which looks naff.
The electric seat controls are from the old Jaguar XJ40 and they’re down on the centre console, near your knee. Jaguar ditched them on the new X300 because they weren’t very good. Your knee can press against them, moving you relative to the car.
Gearchange is a bit clunky and note unsightly Ford window switches. A 30-grand Jag gets its own switches, why not an 80- grand Aston? Engine is supercharged straight-six, really roars under full throttle. Performance excellent for car’s size.
A Jaguar has much nicer switchgear and interior componentry – the only chromed bit on the Aston is the fly-off handbrake – and when you consider that Jaguar prices start from under £30,000 and this Aston costs almost £80,000, you can see where Ford, which owns both companies, is putting its money.
There are no such qualms about the outside. It’s a great design, period. The nose looks like a modern version of the old DB4 or DB5, which is exactly what Aston wanted, and there are lovely sweeps and curves on the long bonnet. In soft light, the sun picks up those gentle shapes beautifully. The rear is more handsome than gorgeous, but it definitely belongs to the nose. The styling is a single entity, just like the Ferrari’s. These are two of the most beautiful sports cars in the world.
The DB7 body is a mixture of composites (bon-net, front wings, nose-cone, sills, boot) and pressed steel (the rest). The car is largely hand-assembled on the old Jaguar XJ220 line, but it’s not handmade, not like a Virage is. The floorpan is Jaguar XJS and so is the wishbone suspension, apart from springs, dampers, geometry and bushings.
The engine is based on a Jaguar’s, too. It’s the old AJ6 six-cylinder 3.2 engine, but the block and head are remachined, and there are new cams, valves and pistons. The Eaton M90 supercharger is the same as the new Jaguar XJR’s, but it runs 40 percent more boost. The gearbox is a five-speed Getrag, just like a manual Jag’s.
It’s easy to use but lacks the intimacy of the Ferrari’s shift: in the F355 you can almost feel the cogs meshing, the drive being transmitted rear-wards. The Aston’s gearchange feels like an Escort’s, only not quite as light. It’s too heavy, too clunky. The brake and steering and clutch are also rather anodyne: they work well enough and are quite light but there is none of the involvement that the Ferrari imparts. You guide the Aston; you drive the Ferrari.
The engine sounds like any other engine at idle – quiet, not that rorty – but it pulls with real gusto from low revs. The DB7 rarely feels supercar fast, even though it is. Whereas the F355 transmogrifies from the brisk to the breathtaking as the revs rise bigtime, the DB7 always feels – no matter what the revs – gutsy rather than gorblimey. It’s very progressive torque, very progressive power.
There may not be a step to the power delivery, but there is certainly a change in the engine note. Give that throttle pedal a big prod, and the slight whine and groan of the motor under part load is banished, replaced by a guttural roar that sounds like a Boeing 747 at take-off. The noise isn’t that refined or really even that nice but you know that somewhere in front of your toes there is an engine that means business, and when you do activate the roar the car rushes to the horizon with renewed vigour. There’s no kick, no oh-my-God-please- slow-down wail from passengers. Rather, there’s a quick gaining of momentum like a high-speed train building up to its maximum or a plane on take-off. The DB7 is a more discreet car to go fast in, both for those on board and for those outside.
When you do push, the Aston doesn’t hold on as well as the Ferrari. There’s more float, more wallow, and there’s oversteer at the limit which is quite easy to control even though the steering feels a little remote at big speeds. There comes a time, as you try to follow the Ferrari, when you just have to accept that a lighter, more powerful, mid-engined car is faster and more inspirational on a winding moorland road, so to hell with the Ferrari, I’m going to slow down and enjoy the scenery (and the car) and let the other guy play grand prix driver and risk life and limb.
No, the Aston is better on wider, less sinuous nomads better on A-roads or motorways; better at touring than blasting. It’s a more pleasurable car no drive most of the time, but it’s not more pleasurable to drive when you really want to have pleasure. The climax of excitement isn’t as great.
The ride, when touring, is extraordinary. Look at those tyres – wide rubber strips on big alloys – and you’d swear that the Aston would be lumpy and thumpy. It’s not. It’s comfortable, it’s supple, as well as being well controlled when the big speeds build and the big bumps are banished. There’s a little more road noise than is ideal, but — gosh – look at the size of those tyres.
Piry wind noise isn’t better suppressed. At below the speed limit, the doors and windows start to gush. Add the slight groan and whine of the motor and the road rumble, and you can’t call the Aston a quiet tourer. Other GTs are better.
The DB7 is the most convincing car to have come from Aston for 30 years. If you’re in the market for an 80 grand car, and it has to be your only car, then you’d have to take it over the F355. You’d be mad if you tried to use the F355 every day, although such are the quality strides made at Ferrari recently, it could probably handle it.
Rather, the Ferrari is a special-occasions car. It’s a car to savour, a car to enjoy, a car to use on nice days on great roads, a car – if you’re lazy – merely to look at and admire. It’s a car made by a company on the top of its form, comfortable in what it’s doing; the work of a marque that knows it makes the best sports cars in the world, but still shocks the rest with the depths of its brilliance.
I’d buy one rather than the Aston because it does what it’s designed to do so brilliantly. There are better GTs than the DB7 just as there are better B-road flyers (the F355, for one). The Ferrari raises the stakes, the DB7 doesn’t – quite. Instead, it proves that Aston Martin is reinvigorated and is making desirable cars again. Mind you, that alone is cause for great celebration.
|CAR||ASTON DB7||FERRARI F355|
|Engine:||3228cc 24-valve straight-six||3496cc 40-valve V8|
|Power:||335bhp at 5500rpm||380bhp at 8250rpm|
|Torque:||360lb ft at 3000rpm
||267lb ft at 6000rpm|
|Transmission:||Five-sneed manual||Six-Speed manual|
|Tyres:||245/40 ZR18 (F/R)||225/40 ZR18 (F) 265/40 ZR18 (R)|
|Front:||Double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|Rear:||Independent, wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Independent, wishbones, coil springs anti-roll bar|
|30-50mph (in fourth)||5.1sec||4.9sec|
|50-70mph (in fourth)||4.9sec||4.0sec|
|70-90mph (in fourth)||5.4sec||3.8sec|