2003-2005 Ford GT meets 2004-2005 Lamborghini Gallardo and 2000-2004 Ferrari 360 Modena

Romp on the GT‘s throttle, and you are time-machined back three-plus decades to Ford‘s grandest glory days, when it thumped Ferrari not once but four successive years at Le Mans. In lieu of canaps and champagne to toast this second coming, Automobile Magazine organized a flat-out day on California canyon roads, hot laps of Mazda Race-way Laguna Seca, and quick pit visits to hydrate drivers and replenish fuel. Invitees were carefully screened. To salute GT Job One-chairman Bill Ford’s personal centennial parade ride-we summoned a classic foe and the freshest challenger to the supercar throne. Ferrari’s 360 Modena is the lineal descendant of the rosso corsa prototypes and GTs that raced valiantly against Ford in France. The atomic egg yolk Lamborghini Gallardo, christened Baby Bull, paws the ground with adolescent anticipation.What Ford achieved during the fifteen-month translation of its stunning show car into a street-legal standard bearer breaks both engineering speed records and the limits of imagination. To top Bill Ford’s lofty expectations, a motivated crew of 100 designers and engineers updated the classic envelope for the twenty-first century and loaded it with the largest gasoline V-8 in the company inventory, armed with a supercharger, an intercooler, and a dry-sump lube system; a light, stiff extruded-aluminum spaceframe clad with hot-formed aluminum skin; an aerodynamic underbelly to enhance wheel loading at the near-200-mph top speed; and substantially more braking and cornering power than the original GT40s ever enjoyed.

The marriage between racing prowess and roadgoing aptitudes is sometimes strained, but those lucky enough to coax the off the lot for the “substantially less than $150,000” list price will have scored the deal of the century.

Ferrari’s four-year-old 360 Modena is pure octane intoxication. If curves as elegantly muscular as Michelangelo’s finest work don’t grab you, the shriek of a 3.6-liter, 40-valve flat-crank V-8 racing to its 8500-rpm redline will. Like the GT’s, the 360’s foundation is an aluminum-tube spaceframe with power planted in the middle, but special measures are employed to coax such a small engine to run at true supercar pace. Titanium connecting rods tie the single-plane crankshaft throws to forged pistons. The clutch housing serves double duty as the dry-sump system’s holding tank. An induction system larger than the core engine consists of twin air filters, two electronically controlled throttles, a dual-volume bimodal plenum, and two runners feeding three intake valves per cylinder. When the engine revs over 6000 rpm, the Modena’s organ pipes wail a soprano solo to cry for.

Contrary to the supercar norm, the 360’s cockpit is graciously accommodating. Since the roof bubbles up higher than the Ford and Lamborghini ceilings and the door windows are sashless, slipping behind the wheel is as easy as settling into a lawn chair; the height difference between heels and buttocks is also comforting. Bucket seats combine supple cushioning, firm support, and ready adjustability by means of electric switches that mimic the seat’s shape and movement. Steering-wheel rim and spoke contours melt in your grip. The view forward is high-definition wide screen, with the sector bounded by the steering wheel full of legible needles, dials, and one electronic-bar-graph fuel gauge. Center stage is occupied by a prominent 10,000-rpm tachometer redlined at 8500.

Depending on your perspective, the view out the back is either helped or hampered by reflected engine-room images, but it certainly beats the GT’s and the Gallardo‘s rear visibility. Pedals and extremity rests are ideally located, and there’s a broad foot plate for the passenger to brace for the inevitable high-g ride. Overall, the Ferrari’s cockpit is the most user-friendly in this illustrious group.

Around town, the Modena pines for the open road. The brake and the throttle are touchy, so care is necessary to avoid jumpy starts and jerky shifts. Luckily, we had the opportunity to test the gated shifter against paddle controls. Purists will demand the former arrangement, if only so they can master hands-and-feet coordination during challenging three-two downshifts through an unforgiving metal maze. At first blush, the semi-automatic F1 paddles seem to have leaped from the reality edition of Gran Turismo 3. The $10,000 price of admission is high but, as we’ll explain later, it’s money wisely spent.

Steering a Ferrari 360 Modena onto roads snaking through the Carmel Valley a few miles southeast of Monterey is like offering a champion greyhound a sniff of the lure. The animal and the machine live to run.

Minor anxieties-placating the pedals, perfecting shifts-fade to black. Synapses and systems click into sync. One full-bore redline gear-change begs for the next. Those who know how to make cars go have polished the Modena’s gears and microprocessors to perfection.

Unimpeded by traffic on a winding byway, this Ferrari rips into a bend with the brakes on and the nose sniffing hungrily for the apex. With the stability system disabled, there’s a hint of understeer that melts away when the throttle is pedaled to tear out the exit. The steering is so quick and light that wrist action handles the task nicely. The beauty of the F1 paddle-shift system is that minimal attention is diverted from steering, braking, and gassing to en-gage the right gear for any occasion. Each paddle click takes a fraction of the time required to shift the conventional way, so there’s no reason not to work the gearbox as if it were a pinball machine.

The Modena’s performance envelope is too huge for mailing. But the best part is that the nooks and crannies of this speed and power portfolio are so accessible. The perennial search for the best-handling, most fun car on the planet ends here, at the sign of the prancing horse.

Give Lamborghini ample credit for challenging Ferrari‘s supercar sovereignty with the new Gallardo scheduled for late-fall arrival. (A pre-production U.S.-spec model chaperoned by technical services manager John Amette upheld Lamborghini’s honor at this meeting.) The Murcilago’s younger brother is first and foremost haute couture on wheels. But don’t hold that against it, because high-caliber tech features are second on its priority list, and a raving lust for the road comes third.

The Gallardo’s 5.0-liter V-10 engine is at its core an Audi 4.2-liter V-8 with two extra cylinders, new four-valve cylinder heads, variable intake and exhaust timing, dry-sump lubrication, and a dual-plate clutch. The piston displacement supremacy over Ferrari’s V-8 is a substantial 38 percent, an advantage offset only slightly by the Lambo’s 17 percent longer stroke. Compared with the Ferrari’s humming-bird motor metabolism, the Lamborghini’s is more like that of a predatory hawk.

Another strategic difference is what Lamborghini calls viscous traction. To supplement rear-wheel drive through a six-speed transaxle, an external output shaft runs forward alongside the engine to empower a viscous coupling attached to a front differential. Under most circumstances, the Gallardo’s front axle provides only a small percentage of the driving impetus, but in the event of slippage at the rear wheels, the viscous coupling responds to the speed discrepancy by substantially increasing front-tire torque.

Packing such a meaty powertrain inside an envelope that’s tidier than the Ferrari’s means something has to give. Push comes to crunch in the cockpit. You sit low and farther forward, with the upward sweep of the beltline rising past your shoulder like a steel turtleneck. (The Gallardo uses aluminum skin-over-spaceframe construction except for its doors, which are steel-paneled for side-intrusion resistance.) The left front tire lives where your clutch foot would enjoy bracing. Sweeping windshield and dash-top surfaces intersect over the front wheel centerline, well ahead of your toes.

Outward visibility is sacrificed to the fashion gods. The inside mirror offers a mail slot’s view of the world you’ve just departed. Flying buttresses obscure the rear quarters, and all you see of the hood is a brightly painted edge that peeks through a wiper linkage that is complex enough for aircraft duty. To their credit, the Gallardo’s sculptors did skew the forward portion of the beltline low and keep the A-pillars narrow to facilitate flanking maneuvers.

The Gallardo’s bucket seat feels as rigid as a cement park bench on initial engagement. Side bolsters apply a gentle bear hug to your hips and ribs, and the hard bottom cushion is raked steeply for excellent thigh support. To our surprise, the seat wore well during our long, fast day in the saddle. Trim quality and cabin furnishings-right down to the his-and-hers automatic climate controls and the electroluminescent instruments-are the best of the test, thanks in no small part to Audi’s role as a doting parent.

The Gallardo’s V-10 engine croons a throaty tenor’s melody through the midrange, with a timbre that’s richer than an American V-8’s but less insistent than a Ferrari V-8 or V-12’s. Jab the throttle with the tach needle shirking at the low end of the dial, and the surge forward is more enthusiastic than the Ferrari’s off-song response. In fact, the Gallardo is strong like a bull no matter what the tach says. There’s a crescendo to 5000 or so rpm, after which the reverberation subsides as the engine clenches its teeth for the climb to the 8100-rpm redline. Unlike the Ferrari, which screams incessantly for more whip, the Gallardo moves you by dint of its strapping torque curve.

Beneath the Gallardo’s swiftness, there’s a hint of deliberation. The flatter torque curve and four-corner thrust yield a super sports car that’s distinctly less engaging than the Ferrari Modena. The controls, especially the steering, solicit less attention and issue less feedback. As you charge into a bend, a flashing stability-system lamp warns that you’re pushing the grip limit long before the chassis thinks of losing its cool. Large throttle movements cause little or no deviation from the path directed by the steering wheel. Gearing is so tall and the ratios are so widely spaced that we shunned the shift gate’s top three slots. The Gallardo is a powerful but gentle bull with most of the intimidation bred out of its soul. That makes it the ideal choice for supercar novices.

Ford took the opposite tack. Instead of striving for geniality, it drew the raciest genes from its corporate pool and reengineered them just enough to spawn a semicivilized road car. The GT would look right at home on the grid of any endurance race. Its 500 horsepower in a 3500-pound package yields more than enough acceleration and top speed to run with the Ferrari and Lamborghini bluebloods.

The GT’s racing heritage is both a blessing and a curse. Stripped of a direct tie to the Anglo-American sports cars that spanked Ferrari so painfully in the ’60s, it loses its reason to exist. But preserving that essence while factoring in modern crashworthiness and creature comforts constituted one of the grandest engineering challenges of all time.

Computer-aided design and analysis was in its infancy when Ford used such tools to accelerate the original GT40s from blueprint to racetrack. This time around, every detail of the car was born, nurtured, and massaged on-screen until the parts fit and performed perfectly in the digital sense. Only then did they make the leap to the physical world. More than a few inventions were required to pack modern necessities inside an eleven-tenths-size tribute to the Le Mans champs. The skeleton consists of fifty or so extrusions, castings, and panels joined by computerized welders. Floor panels are made of two sheets of aluminum roll bonded together and then inflated to resemble bubble wrap. Fuel pumps, baffles, and the level sensor are encapsulated by a molded plastic tank, like a ship in a bottle. Under a Monza-style fuel cap, the filler pipe is sealed by miniature trap doors that swing obligingly out of the way when prodded by a pump nozzle.

A massive Eaton-Lysholm supercharger pressurizes induction air to twelve psi and sends it through a water-to-air intercooler en route to the 5.4-liter engine below. Press a red start button, and the 32-valve, four-cam V-8 that’s roused sounds nothing like the truck motor from which it sprang. There’s a hearty rumble but no hint of blower whine, in spite of the fact that rotors spin and the drive belt whizzes only inches from the driver’s ears.

Coaxing first gear into engagement with a polished-metal ball and lever that operate long shift cables requires a firm hand. The clutch pedal plays dead until the very end of its travel. When it finally engages, the roll-off is smooth and confident. Minimal throttle pressure shakes inertia’s grip in spite of a first gear long enough to carry you past 60 mph.

In contrast to the Italian road-party animals, the mood in this cockpit is serious business. Every nudge of the throttle yields a huge lunge forward. Mild turning desires become decisive changes of direction with no roll or hesitation muddying the response. Cornering g’s rise with no apparent end. The holding tank for horsepower behind your shoulders pours forth like a fractured water tower.

Underpinnings feel as solid as an aluminum ingot. The same bumps that spike the Ferrari’s and the Lamborghini’s suspension stops glide under the GT without commotion. Generous wheel travel, supple damping, and fat tires roll plush carpet over imperfect pavement. Massive Brembo brakes sop up speed with the effect of a platoon of radar cops.

At Laguna Seca, the GT charged the tight turns and mastered the sweepers like a seasoned track veteran. You can dive into a decreasing-radius bend on the brakes, hurl in aggressive steering demands, and jump on the power without shaking the tail loose. Pushed over the highest peak of the mountain of grip, the front tires take a half step to the side as a gentle reminder that momentum is always quicker than mayhem.

Translating that virtuoso circuit performance to the road is frustrated by baggage that tags along for the ride. The squished roof, thick windshield pillars, and tail full of horsepower severely restrict your view of a world fraught with road hazards. The Ford GT‘s cast aluminum pedals are slippery underfoot, the racy-looking seat provides no detectable thigh support, and critical dials and accessory controls are obscured by the go-kart-sized steering wheel. Such shortcomings are inevitable when a complex car is designed and engineered on a go-fast schedule. Several of them are on chief engineer Neil Hannemann’s honey-do list. Others will continue, when production commences next spring, as the automotive equivalent of beauty marks: character blemishes beyond the reach of any engineering fix.

Two examples: A shaving kit and a good-size purse consume the luggage capacity. The integrated door and roof design, deemed an essential part of any legitimate GT40 heir, can be a royal pain. Hinges provide a full 90 degrees of swing, but if you’re stuck in tight confines-such as adjacent to a BMW in your two-car garage-the entry/exit procedure borders on a Houdini act. (Bend smartly at the knees and hips. Duck-walk backward under the roof portion of the door. Before the onset of dizziness, rotate buttocks over the sill and into the seat. Complete entry by swinging torso and legs into place. Reverse the process for tight-quarters exit.)

Ultimately, insufficient luggage space and doors that recall Ford’s Le Mans victories with each and every drive are a small price to pay for a car with this much character and vitality. The Ford GT is more than a Ferrari-thumping power-to-weight ratio. It goes beyond the performance-per-dollar deal you can enjoy with the Lamborghini Gallardo.

Look at the Ford GT as rolling history, your small part of a monumental achievement. Grab one if you can.