x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Ferrari Four answers the call of the tamed

Customers have been clamouring for a rear-seat model from Ferrari for decades, and this latest incarnation is an all-wheel-drive stunner that even those in the back can enjoy.

With the Ferrari Four, its engineers have finally created a family car that lives up to its brand.
With the Ferrari Four, its engineers have finally created a family car that lives up to its brand.

Ferrari Four; that's what FF stands for. But four what, exactly? It could relate to the radical new drivetrain or it could nod to the fact that there's room inside for four adults with normal limbs.

And therein lies a problem, because Ferraris with rear seats have always been the least desirable of the breed. Never mind the Scaglietti, do you remember the 400i, the Mondial and the 456? All four-seaters, all decent cars in their own right and all hideously expensive when new, but their values dropped like stones and now you can pick one up for the price of a ropey 5 Series. Proper Ferraris have two seats, end of discussion. Or so the moronic masses would have us believe.

Ferrari says the FF is an answer to the demands and wishes of its customers. According to the company's research, this car is what they've been wanting for decades, so here it is.

Ford in Europe did something similar in the late 1980s. Research consultants questioned tens of thousands of motorists to find out what they wanted from a car; the results were fed back to Ford, which then put all the suggestions into a blender and the Mk5 Escort launched in 1990 was the result. It was a catastrophe.

By listening to the masses, Ford launched a car that was so dull, so utterly devoid of merit that the only thing it was remarkable at was being unremarkable in every way. Evidently, the masses didn't know what made a good car; that sort of thing is best left to the experts, and eventually Ford replaced that dullard with the brilliant Focus, which changed the way cheap hatchbacks drove forever.

Has Ferrari now made a similar mistake with the FF by giving its customers what they think they want?

Not a bit of it. What Ferrari's elite clientele wanted was a stylish, powerful supercar with enough room for the kids/colleagues/golf buddies/Labradors, that was safe to drive in all weather conditions and felt like a Ferrari should feel. That was quite a tough call, but the result is a truly spectacular car.

With a front end that owes much to the recent 458 Italia and a backside that cannot help but remind onlookers of BMW's frankly mental Z3 M Coupe, there'll be little chance of losing it in the company car park. It's a physically imposing machine, almost five metres long and two metres wide and it positively exudes machismo - there's nothing girly about the FF.

Even if you don't like the looks, you'll struggle to find anything negative to say about the interior. It's a master class in Italian flair with rich, supple leathers adorning practically every surface. The overall design is pure and simple, with only the carbon-fibre steering wheel and its myriad buttons going against the visual grain. An optional passenger display screen that relays information about speed, gear selections, rpm and individual wheel traction could land you in serious trouble with a loved one and seems a tad unnecessary. To make matters even worse, Ferrari laughably refers to this gimmick as the "front emotion display screen". Best avoided, that one.

The seats are generous yet supportive and there really is room in the back for two grown-ups. And the boot offers 450L of space, increasing to 800L if you fold down the rear seats. You might balk at the idea of taking a Ferrari to the builder's merchants, but the company is serious about the FF being able to use every day for practically any purpose.

This practicality is one of the reasons the FF has been treated to four-wheel drive. Ferrari's customers were evidently getting hacked off because they couldn't take their cars to St Moritz or Chamonix for the annual skiing holiday. But now they can. And it's thanks to a revolutionary all-wheel-drive system that makes the FF feel like a Ferrari should, while offering added security and safety.

Before you accuse Ferrari of going soft, it's worth considering what 650hp and 683Nm of torque would be like on the road without the aid of clever computer software. Utterly undriveable, that's what. And even cars that are loaded to the gunnels with technology struggle to put down that sort of power if only the rear wheels are pressed into service. Ferrari calls its system 4RM, and it's an entirely new set-up that transmits torque to all four wheels of the car. Unlike conventional systems, it allows the retention of the traditional mid-front engine architecture with the rear transaxle connected to the engine by a single driveshaft. Added to this is a new Power Transfer Unit (or PTU) for the front wheels, which is connected directly to the engine.

This layout permits a sizeable 50 per cent saving in weight compared with a traditional four-wheel-drive system with a transfer case - handy as the FF already weighs 1,880kg - and it also allows Ferrari's signature weight distribution with more than half the car's weight over the rear axle despite its being front-engined.

The PTU is the main mechanical component of the 4RM and manages the difference between the engine and wheel speeds. It also controls the amount of torque sent to the front wheels and distributes it between left and right as required. The PTU gets its power and torque directly from the crankshaft through a system of gearbox ratios. Two independent clutch packs then "vector" the torque to a halfshaft connected to each front wheel. Sounds complex (and it is) but in essence it means there is no mechanical connection between rear and front axles because they are linked to two completely independent traction systems. This means the FF can be rear-wheel drive only, which in turn means it should drive like a Ferrari.

And, boy, is it a blast to drive hard. The V12 engine is nothing short of a masterpiece, and any fears this is a softie vanish as soon as the key is turned and the starter button pressed. I'm testing the FF in the Dolomite mountain region in northern Italy and, until last week, the roads were covered with snow and ice. Avalanches have sent the white stuff tumbling and, if Ferrari had said it was the exhaust notes of a brace of FFs that caused them rather than the soaring temperatures, nobody would have questioned it.

Mountain roads mean lots of tunnels, though, and here is where the inner schoolboy is unleashed. It's a simple process: slow down, drop into second gear using the huge steering wheel paddles and mash the throttle. The result is savage acceleration and a sound quite unlike anything else on the planet, as the cacophony bounces off the concrete walls and into the appreciative eardrums of anyone within a 2km radius. Performance levels are staggeringly high but, thanks to that clever 4RM tech, there's a new confidence in the way the FF handles. Yes, it feels like the shove is coming from the rear, but hit a corner with more speed than you anticipate (quite an easy thing to do) and you feel the front instantly grip, turning the car in with scalpel-sharp precision.

Pirelli once coined the phrase "Power is Nothing Without Control", and the FF succinctly proves the point. Despite its obvious size and its huge power reserves, it feels much smaller and much more focused than any car this big has any right to. The carbon brakes are superb, the magnetic dampers ensure the FF remains utterly composed and superbly responsive and the F1 gearbox shifts cogs so quickly that anyone hankering for a manual shifter needs their head examined.

It's a truly brilliant car, but then it should be - it's a Ferrari, after all. What the FF has done, though, is take the brand into uncharted territory with mind-blowing technology and an all-new style. But its most impressive accomplishment is that it's the first genuinely desirable four-seat Ferrari and will undoubtedly buck the trend for plummeting residual values. Mission accomplished - the FF is a proper Ferrari.

The FF starts at Dh1.18 million and will reach our shores by July.