Maranello, Italy Anything with a prancing horse on it seems to sell like crazy these days--Ferrari flags, Schumacher caps, fire-engine-red scale models, embroidered polo shirts, and, of course, sports cars. The waiting list for the U.S.-market 360 Spider stretches into the first quarter of 2004, factory-fresh 360 Modena coupes call for at least twelve months' patience, and even the V-12-engined heavyweights aren't available on short notice. So when Ferrari announces a limited-edition model, the importers can be very picky about whose order they accept. Being rich is obviously a must, being famous helps, but being a loyal, longtime collector is the strongest argument in the case for delivery. In the instance of the 550 Barchetta, it took only a few weeks to select the 448 lucky aficionados who are now entitled to part with $245,000 for a powerful and exclusive two-seat sports car that has a rudimentary part-time roof.
The official name of this new Ferrari is the 550 Barchetta Pininfarina. Pininfarina's name is included because this car is intended to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the design house and coachbuilder. The company has a long association with Ferrari, dating back to 1952, and has shaped a bunch of milestone open-top Ferraris, among them the 500 Mondial, the 375MM Spider, the 250GT Spider, the 330GTS, and the 365GTS/4 Daytona. Pininfarina's latest creation is a first-rate crowd-stopper, but in some ways, it's also one of the company's weaker efforts. Simply stated, the 550 Maranello is not particularly suited to such a conversion.
When you lop off the roof of the coupe, the car's proportions suddenly look funny: The wheelbase seems a little short, the overhangs are too long, and, robbed of its greenhouse, the broad-shouldered body appears cluttered and busy. We like the lowered windshield, the A-posts with body-color roots and jet-black uppers, and the aluminum fuel-filler cap. But, at the same time, we could do without details such as the tacky yellow Ferrari badges on the flanks and the two-piece, five-spoke alloy wheels.
Enough lamenting. There's plenty to admire about the car beyond its obvious star quality. The body structure, for example, has been beefed up to compensate for the absence of a metal roof. The fit and finish are superior, too. From the driver's seat, the dominant surface materials are supple leather, a faux suede called Lorica, and bright metal accents, including drilled pedal surfaces and the trademark shifter gate. Other nice touches include the three-spoke Momo steering wheel and green-on-black Jaeger instruments. The bucket seats with safety-belt cutouts look almost too racy for a grand tourer but are unexpectedly comfortable and generously adjustable. Not many people have seen a 550 Barchetta with the roof in place. The canvas weather protection is best described as a bikini top. Ferrari says it's there only to get you home through an unexpected deluge rather than to act as serious foul-weather protection, and it doesn't look as if it would survive the sacrilege of an automatic carwash.
Mechanically, the Barchetta is pure 550 Maranello. The spring and damper ratings have been recalibrated, but the weight is unchanged, as are all dimensions except for height, which is three-quarters of an inch lower. The ragtop will sprint from 0 to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds, a tenth of a second slower than the coupe. Above 100 mph, however, a less favorable drag coefficient of 0.41 (compared with the coupe's 0.33) interrupts the picture, and top speed falls from 199 mph to a still-impressive 187 mph. The 48-valve 5.5-liter V-12 develops 485 horsepower at 7000 rpm and maximum torque of 419 pound-feet at 5000 rpm.
The open-air Ferrari is not really a high-tech car by current standards. It features driver and passenger air bags but no side bags, its rollover protection is very passive, the standard traction control isn't accompanied by a skid control system, and modern conveniences such as high-intensity-discharge headlights, a navigation system, tire-pressure monitors, or an integrated cell phone just aren't available. Like the 550 Maranello, a six-speed manual is the only available gearbox on the Barchetta--neither the 456M GTA's four-speed automatic nor the 360's F1 paddle-shift gearbox has made it into Ferrari's V-12 flagship. The roof mechanism is said to require strength, skill, and patience, and there is no hard top available.
In many ways, the 550 Barchetta is the legitimate successor to such legendary open Ferraris as the 166MM, the 250 California Spyder, and the 365GTS/4. But Pininfarina's latest work also comes across as something of an afterthought, a stopgap that's a calculated moneymaker. Like the 550 Maranello donor car, the 550 Barchetta is guaranteed to be a great driver. But one suspects that the best reasons for buying one are to complete one's collection of milestone Ferraris or to really tell the world that you've made it. And indeed, perhaps no car on earth says you've arrived quite like the 550 Barchetta.