In your dreams, you celebrate Spring Break in Maranello, Italy. You check out two of the finest stallions from Ferrari‘s stable, race an Aston Martin DBS similar to the one James Bond rolled seven times in Casino Royale, dine at glam restaurants, relax at a palace adjoining Ferrari’s backyard. Then a dramatic miscue jolts you from your reverie and dots your forehead with icy bullets of sweat.
The dream turns into a nightmare as the day’s drive ends with two hot, tired V-12-powered GTs ready for a rubdown and a feed bag. The rosso corsa 599GTB Fiorano is welcomed through Ferrari’s factory gate as if it had just run and won the Preakness Stakes. But, when your colleague attempts to wheel the silver-ingot Aston Martin DBS out of traffic and into the paddock, pandemonium erupts. Your formerly cordial Ferrari host waves frantically and shrieks as if 007, wearing Team McLaren Nomex and brandishing an assault rifle, is laying siege.
Your dream is our Italian job. Except for that one awkward moment, Automobile Magazine’s test of the world’s top two automotive status symbols could not have fared better. Road test editor Marc Noordeloos and I came, we drove, and we solved the riddle prompting this mission: which brand builds the better grand touring sports car?
To achieve the desired revelations, every journey must begin at an appropriate genesis. In 1931, Enzo Ferrari’s scuderia (racing stable) was just beginning to thrive. His new live-in garage was humming, his team had won more than a third of the events campaigned the previous season, and the relationship with benefactor Alfa Romeo was prospering. Ferrari drove the new Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 to victory at a minor hill-climb. But the next event, the Circuito delle Tre Province – a seventy-nine-mile dash over Apennine mountain roads – marked the end of Enzo’s driving career and the beginning of the Ferrari legend.
At the Sestola checkpoint, Ferrari’s Alfa 8C enjoyed a forty-second advantage over teammate and archrival Tazio Nuvolari driving a less competitive 6C 1750. Although his car was damaged, Nuvolari mounted a furious comeback on the final twenty-two-mile leg of the race. By flinging his roadster into bends and revving its twin-cam six-cylinder engine well past any sane limit, Nuvolari beat team manager Ferrari to the finish line in Porretta by a few seconds.
It was both a bitter denouement and an auspicious beginning. Ferrari retired as a driver to focus his energy on expanding his racing empire and manufacturing a few sports cars for wealthy patrons.
Twenty years after Enzo passed on to that scuderia in the sky, we revisited Porretta, located twenty-five miles due south of Maranello. The tight switchbacks that climb and descend the Apennine foothills, straighter dashes along the Panaro River, and a few high-speed squirts on the autostrada were ideal venues for studying how six decades of nurturing has advanced the Ferrari pedigree. Nuvolari’s role was played by the Aston Martin DBS, the most powerful and sophisticated front-engine two-seater ever to leave England.
Aston Martin sold its first car in 1922, when Enzo’s driving career was just getting started. The brand was early to adopt overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, and dry-sump lubrication – technology that we still consider modern.
The turning point for both marques came in 1947. Ferrari launched its seminal 125S sports car powered by a 1.5-liter SOHC V-12 producing all of 72 hp (factory literature lists output figures ranging as high as 118 hp). At Aston Martin, industrialist Sir David Brown arrived as neither the first nor the last financial angel to rescue the enterprise, kicking off a long run of DB models. The DBS badge first appeared in 1967, and one enjoyed a cameo role in the sixth Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Prices are appropriately astronomical for these two top-shelf road racers – count on a base price of more than $300,000 and a long wait to own the Ferrari versus about $265,000 and more ready availability for the Aston. Stripped to their shorts, they share the classic front-mounted V-12 blueprint consecrated by Ferrari sixty-one years ago and employed by Aston Martin since 1999. Countering the Ferrari’s larger, more powerful engine, Aston brought a slightly lighter curb weight to this contest. While Ferrari skins its aluminum structure with exquisitely shaped aluminum panels, Aston uses both composite and aluminum skin over extruded-aluminum bones. The DBS’s hood, front fenders, deck lid, and rear diffuser are molded in carbon fiber and clad with an ultrathin layer of fiberglass to mask the weave within. Whether you prefer the Ferrari’s sensual curves or the more aggressively scooped and slotted Aston, every glance at this rolling sculpture zings your heart like a teenage romance.
Those wishing to enter the DBS‘s cockpit must first pass an admissions test. The door’s outer edge rises as it opens, an Aston Martin eccentricity supposedly aimed at avoiding curb strikes. Some scrunching is necessary to clear the high sill, tall seat bolsters, and rakish roofline. The interior mood created by pinched window openings and a high center spine is slightly foreboding.
The more serious annoyances come next. The tach, as beautifully marked as an expensive Swiss timepiece, spins counterclockwise and lacks a redline. The handful of polished aluminum that tops the shift lever demands a strong wrist and a sensitive touch with just enough force to find the first-gear gate, but not so much that you bumble into reverse.
Then there’s the ignition key, which looks and feels like a small cell phone. What Aston calls an “emotion control unit” (ECU) seems more like a tool of the devil. It will jam in its receiver if you accidentally stick it in backward, and it’ll fracture a fingernail if you’re not careful pressing it home. But the greatest nuisance is that the official starting procedure will cue the company’s “Power Beauty Soul” gauge-cluster fanfare but not necessarily a whir of the starter and the vroom of twelve cylinders. If bank heists are your business, steer clear of the DBS.
By comparison, the Ferrari greets its driver with sincere hugs. Thanks to lower sills and a higher roofline, entry is a snap. The two 599s we drove on successive days were both equipped with the popular F1-SuperFast sequential-manual transmission, which clears the office of clutch-pedal and shift-lever distractions. Light-hued interior trim and ample glass impart a cheery interior ambience. But the warmest welcome comes from Ferrari’s colorful analog and electronic display cluster, which sports a 10,000-rpm tachometer, a 360-kph (224-mph) speedometer, and a lovely drawing of the engine replaced by secondary gauges upon the completion of system checks. Another endearing touch is the optional carbon-fiber steering wheel that sequentially flashes five warning lamps as you crowd the 8200-rpm redline.
These animals both start with a ferocious howl thanks to their two-mode mufflers. The stirring garage voice, which confirms that your money was well-spent, lasts a few seconds until valves in the mufflers close to route exhaust through a quieter but more restrictive path. The jungle throats return on the road when an appropriate combination of rpm (high) and throttle setting (heavy) is met.
One of our most enjoyable experiences was serenading Italian tunnels with three distinct twelve-cylinder exhaust ensembles. The Aston’s aria reflects fine breeding and professional voice training. A Ferrari 599 equipped with a sport exhaust system – the first of two cars we sampled – is capable of inflicting auditory pain on small animals miles away and is, we feel, too passionate for everyday use. (Ferrari doesn’t offer it in America.) The standard Ferrari system is nicely subdued until its muffler valves snap open, at which time the raspy tenor solo is more entertaining than a front-row seat at the Met. The raspiness comes from unequal firing intervals, attributable to this engine’s 65-degree V-angle.
Motoring out of Maranello with the red homeboy and his platinum playmate caused our hearts to swell with anticipation, but the moment we flicked left off the busy S12 main road on our way to Sestola, we knew we’d entered heaven’s gate. It took no more than three bends for revelation number one to register: these heavyweights love attacking roads that wriggle. Both the Aston and the Ferrari shift from polished grand tourers to rat racers the instant lower gears, mashed throttles, and tighter steering angles are applied.
Any trepidation we had about whipping the right-hand-drive Aston down narrow back roads evaporated. Racing genes, baked into the DBS’s soul by recent Le Mans GT1 achievements, are eager to serve. The steering is quick, tight, and so rich in road feel that the mere touch of tire to paint stripe sends a notice to your palms. Hints of understeer, registered during aggressive turn-in, melt away as soon as the throttle is engaged while exiting the corner. Quickly working the shifter between second and third became a natural act, even with the left arm in service. The only right-hand-drive handicap we noticed was a stunted dead pedal, the result of cramming the foot rest next to the transmission tunnel. That’s what the Brits get for driving on the wrong side.
Although the DBS is the first roadgoing Aston Martin to benefit from carbon-ceramic technology, the brake system’s linearity and predictability are beyond reproach. We dived in deep and braked late with no fear that these binders would put us at risk. The harder we leaned on them, the more forcefully they jettisoned unwanted momentum. There wasn’t a trace of fade, and the middle pedal remained a trusted ally throughout our test.
If the DBS is the strapping male of this set, the Ferrari Fiorano leans toward the feminine side. Its steering and brake actions are both lighter to the touch. While the Aston’s brakes are purely force sensitive, a common racing characteristic, the 599’s stopping power is proportional to a blend of pedal pressure and travel. The difficulty of getting brake applications exactly right is eased by the lack of clutching responsibilities. Clicking a carbon-fiber paddle to downshift for a bend and upshift as the revs mount on exit is also notably easier than rowing a shifter, pumping a clutch pedal, and nudging the throttle. The minor gripe we have is that the paddles are attached to the column instead of to the steering wheel – in tight hairpins, your grip must be disrupted to click a shift.
Even though it’s a few pounds heavier than the Aston, the Ferrari moves with a ballerina’s agility. Turning toward an apex is more thought than effort. Gentle steering touches and subtle throttle adjustments tighten the cornering line on demand. Adding throttle when exiting a bend kills understeer without sliding the tail so wide that you have to add emergency opposite lock. The stability system always seems to vote in favor of more speed. The only item on our wish list is additional steering feedback to provide a more accurate impression of when the front tires are about to slide.
Shifting was optional in these sports cars, because both have the cubic inches and the flexibility to move you smartly without fretting over the tach reading. In the Ferrari, at least 90 percent of peak torque is available from 3300 to 8200 rpm. The Aston delivers 93 percent or more of its maximum shove between 3000 and 6700 rpm. Using both second and third gears shot us up the velocity register so rapidly that we began relying on third alone to moderate the speed and noise being inflicted on this normally peaceful part of Italy.
To gauge pace in a more clinical manner, we used an airstrip located on the opposite side of Maranello for instrumented testing. Exploiting an automatic launch-control system not available on U.S. models, the Ferrari bolted to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds without a whiff of wheel spin and through the quarter mile in 11.7 seconds. (The only quicker car that Automobile Magazine has tested is the much lighter Porsche Carrera GT.) With ample tire smoke available on demand, the Aston posted acceleration figures 0.6 second slower to 60 mph and exactly one second behind the Ferrari in the quarter mile. The pecking order was the same in braking. The sub-1.0-g cornering limits we measured were lower than we expected, because testing space was restricted and the surface available for the cornering procedure wasn’t up to our normal standards.
Back on our road-race route, we homed in on each car’s chassis rhythm. Aston uses Bilstein five-position adjustable dampers to maintain taut reflexes and to keep body motion under strict control. There’s also a track mode with even firmer damping. Noordeloos and other journalists who attended the DBS’s launch reported float over road swells, apparently prompting a revision to firmer normal-mode damper calibrations. Our gripe was not with the dampers but instead with the springs, which felt stiff enough for the Baja 1000. Traversing rippled pavement at high speeds induced annoying vertical oscillations that the dampers ignored.
Ferrari uses electronically controlled magnetic dampers that impressively handled the full range of road conditions we encountered. Ride motions were always supple, every wheel maintained a sure footing, and the suspension never crashed into its stops. In chassis tuning, the Ferrari reigns supreme.
The manettino switch, which lets you step through five different operating modes with coordinated adjustments to the stability control, shift speed, and damper action, is another Ferrari strength. While the middle Sport setting is perfect for dry-road entertainment, two additional steps in the conservative direction for slippery surfaces and two that offer wilder track-day behavior are laudable bragging points. That said, Noordeloos longed for the ability to speed up the shifts without altering the suspension’s suppleness, a feature Ferrari incorporated in the 430 Scuderia.
Beyond the driver-controlled adjustments, each car changes character with speed in a distinctive way. The Aston maintains its stiff upper lip whether you’re cruising or challenging your driving skills. Noordeloos aptly described it as half American muscle car, half racetrack refugee, with a dollop of polished aluminum, carbon fiber, and custom-tailored leather to round off the sharp edges. The Ferrari sweeps through broader emotional extremes – soft and sweet now, hard and fast when provoked – revealing the wild Italian temptress within. The amazing thing is how the 599GTB is able to embrace every situation with an astute blend of confidence and competence.
This time, Tazio Nuvolari came home second. The Aston Martin DBS put up a fierce fight, reinforcing our certainty that the current owners of this treasured brand are on a brilliant track to the future. But when the race ended at Porretta, it was the Ferrari 599GTB Fiorano that earned our bouquet for its remarkable combination of speed, poise, and versatility. Years of shrewd tuning and regular infusions of advanced technology have evolved the classic V-12 Ferrari into the best grand tourer big bucks can buy.