Ferraris aren't cars. They're rolling, metal-and-glass celebrities, photographed and obsessed over by millions of fans around the world. Any mortal who learns that you've just driven one--including the customs officer I encountered when I returned home from Italy--gets the vapors. Indeed, when Ferraristi spot any activity whatsoever through the hallowed gates of Ferrari's Fiorano test track near Maranello, Italy, they jump around as if an espresso had just been spilled in their laps.
So, stop the presses: the Ferrari 599GTB Fiorano receives an optional sport package called the HGTE, or Handling Gran Turismo Evoluzione, for the 2010 model year. You might think that ordering a Ferrari with a $30,000 sport pack is the equivalent of ordering a Frigidaire with a cold package. But remember, this is a Ferrari--every little detail counts. Ferrari engineers have found some room for improvement in the three years since the V-12-powered coupe's debut, which couldn't have been an easy task - dynamically, there was nothing wrong with the original car. The HGTE package isn't as comprehensive as the Scuderia treatment that the mid-engine F430 gets - it includes no additional horsepower and no weight reductions. Instead, the goal was simply to better achieve the basic 599's target - to combine the handling of a mid-engine sports car with the passenger comfort of a front-engine grand tourer.
The HGTE is distinguished, visually, by redesigned exhaust outlets framing a matte black (instead of gray) diffuser, new twenty-inch wheels, and the choice of two grilles - one similar to the regular 599's, but with wider slats, or an optional black mesh grille. Inside, the HGTE comes standard with full carbon-fiber treatment, and the seats--the same supportive thrones as in the normal 599--have Alcantara inserts and are embroidered with a "Handling GTE" logo. The tachometer face is white rather than yellow, and the exterior color of our test car was a new, as-yet-unnamed, deep red that will be available, at least initially, only on the HGTE.
Most of the HGTE's changes are under the skin. This 599 sits 0.4 inch lower and rides on stiffer springs. The front wheels grow in width by half an inch, and the rear antiroll bar is marginally thicker. When the manettino is in one of the high-performance modes, recalibrated dampers give a slightly firmer ride. The changes seem subtle on paper, but Ferrari claims a 36 percent reduction in dynamic roll and similarly dramatic decreases in static roll stiffness and pitch resilience. Say what? Uh, suffice it to say that the HGTE provides better body control and more lateral grip with far less understeer.
Make that no understeer. During laps around Fiorano, the 599 showed off its impeccable balance (53 percent of its weight lies over the rear axle), its enthusiasm for turning in (some 80 percent of the 599's weight is located between the axles), and its preternatural ability to shrug off its own mass (it tips the scales at nearly 4000 pounds). Indeed, the Handling GTE has certainly earned its name.
There is no "acceleration" badge on the 599, but there needn't be--its 6.0-liter V-12's stupefying 612 hp is a sufficient reminder. The monumental thrust is metered so progressively and gently at low revs that it's easy to forget how much remains on reserve, a problem very easily rectified by a stab of the right pedal and a pull on the downshift paddle. At full power, the 599 scrambles for traction, fighting brutally with its stability control and lunging forward (or sideways, or both) like a fighter jet taking off in a hurricane. Ferrari claims that the optional F1 automated manual bangs off upshifts in 85 milliseconds, 15 milliseconds quicker than in the regular 599.
Mash the brake pedal, and it'll let out a little sigh before the pads clamp down on the cross-drilled carbon-ceramic rotors. When you're decelerating from high speeds, the brakes will sing a little, but they'll never fade. Ever. The engine sings loudly, and although some additional amplitude was welcome over the standard 599's too-quiet exhaust note, the HGTE's revised mufflers can let out an unpleasant boom at less than 3000 rpm.
Not that there's any reason you'd stay there for long. Oh, sure, the HGTE continues to offer the 599's all-day, cross-continent comfort, but there are other cars that swallow the miles just as effortlessly. When the instrument needles start heading for the sky, though, the HGTE can kick the living daylights out of most any other vehicle on the planet. The handling package simply ensures that the 599 never loses its composure while doing it - in stark contrast to the hysterical fans chasing after it.
HANDFUL of a HANDLER
The 599GTB HGTE is quite a handful on the track, not because of any flaw, but because the understeer we're so accustomed to experiencing in street cars is almost completely absent.
The 599's high limits mask its weight, and it's very easy to dole out too much power exiting the corners.
Ferrari test driver Andrea Bertolini explains that, in track mode, the stability control doesn't slow him down at all - it just provides a safety net in case he messes up.
The Specs: 2010 Ferrari 599GTB
Base Price: $356,825
engine: DOHC 48-valve V-12
displacement: 6.0 liters (366 cu in)
horsepower: 612 hp @ 7600 rpm
torque: 448 lb-ft @ 5600 rpm
transmissions: 6-speed manual or automated manual
steering: Power rack-and-pinion
suspension, front and rear: Control arms, coil springs
brakes: Vented discs, ABS
tires: Pirelli PZero Rosso
tire size f, r: 245/35YR-20, 305/35YR-20
L x W x H: 183.7 x 77.2 x 52.6 in
wheelbase: 108.3 in
track f/r: 66.5/63.7 in
weight: 3950 lb
EPA mileage: 11/15 mpg