Both the Aston and the Ferrari employ the classic systeme Panhard layout of front engine and rear drive, a setup that dates back to the 1890s. Oh, and they have more power than you will ever really need. On the track, you must brake a little earlier than in the Porsche, let the car settle, then dial in the required angle of rear-end dangle with the gas pedal. Sure, it's old-fashioned, but, by gosh, it's fun. Driven hard, the 508-horsepower 575M feels like an overgrown 250GT Lusso, and the 460-horsepower Vanquish feels like a modern DB6, only with much more of everything. The Ferrari's steering is as precise as a neurosurgeon, and both cars' F1-style gearboxes make you feel like a hero, particularly when they blip the throttle automatically on downshifts.
The Aston is a bit of a mess on the track, with too much roll, too much understeer, and slightly spongy brakes. On real roads, though, it comes into its own. It just lives to gallop along the autostrada at 130 mph all day long, and it shrugs off mid-corner bumps as if they were minor irritants. The ride is great, too, and the steering is second only to the Porsche's. If ever a car showed that track work tells only a small part of the story, it's the Aston.
The Ferrari, too, is marvelous on the street, a big car that's brilliantly nimble and breathtakingly fast. On the track, it feels a little soft and undertired, but only a maniac would think it hasn't got enough grip on the twisting roads near Reggio Emilia. Both V-12 engines are glorious; the Ferrari's is subdued aurally, but the Vanquish's has a magnificent, soulful wail that fills the cabin. You change gear to hear the engines sing; there's so much torque, you could leave these two cars in top gear most of the day.
You expect a car as big as the 571-horsepower Lambo to flounder around, but it comes across like a gigantic go-kart on the track. It's not as spectacular as either the Aston or the Ferrari, but the tail end wants to dance more than the Porsche's. (And dance it did, off track, for both Sherman and me.) At the end of our second day with the cars, when Sherman and Kacher had left with the Aston and the Mercedes, DeMatio and I gunned the Lambo and the Ferrari toward Ferrari's hometown of Maranello. More darty than the 575M, the Murcilago rides flat and true, and it feels a lot smaller than its gargantuan width would imply. It's insanely fast, too, the speed accompanied by a wondrous, bellicose growl, a V-12 engine aria an octave or so deeper than the Aston's.
The 493-horsepower Mercedes is the surprise here. It's brutally fast, sounds like a big V-twin Ducati in heat, and is actually a better track car than the Ferrari or the Aston. There's so much midrange urge that it threatens to overwhelm the rear tires at any opportunity. However, the steering isn't as communicative as the four other cars', and we dislike the artificiality of Mercedes' Active Body Control. The simple answer to that last problem is to turn the ABC off, at which point the car becomes livelier and more pleasing to drive hard. It doesn't quite entertain or connect the way the others do, however, and is the athlete of this bunch: all the talent in the world but a bit lacking in personality.