Life is good: I'm bombing through the Italian countryside south of Modena in a Ferrari Challenge Stradale, the track-tuned version of the 360 Modena, which wasn't exactly a slug to begin with. The scenery is straight out of a travel brochure, the sound is straight off a racing MP3, and my "job" is to flog the car as fast as I feel like until returning to Fiorano for a three-course meal and a drive on the Ferrari test track.
Life gets better: Approaching a hillside hairpin, I punch the Race button on the carbon fiber center console and pull back on the F1-derived shift paddle. In the normal Sport mode, the electrohydraulic transmission downshifts like a standard-issue manu-matic. But now, thanks to slick new transmission software, the downshift is punctuated by a crisp, authoritative blip of the throttle that gloriously blasts off the low stone walls. It sounds like the hair-raising bark of-forgive me, Commendatore!-a Cosworth DFV circa 1972.
If motoring fast is your thing, then it's hard to imagine improving upon the Challenge Stradale. New for 2003, the roadgoing rocket ship is a cross between the 360 Modena production car and the competition version that races in the Ferrari Challenge series. As such, it's more caf racer than 250GTO. But with the exception of the essentially unobtainable Ferrari Enzo, with which it shares several exotic components, the Stradale may be the world's most impressive and exhilarating street car. "Our challenge," says project leader Patrizio Moruzzi, "was to put race-car technology into the road car."
Of course, the Stradale is more than an exercise in technology transfer. Instead, the impulse for its creation was primarily mercenary. Ten to fifteen percent of all 360 Modena owners already use their cars for track events, so there was a ready market for a street machine with competition credentials. Convinced that there were buyers who were willing to pay through the nose for a unique mix of performance, practicality, and exclusivity, Ferrari went for the full Extreme Makeover treatment.
The five-valves-per-cylinder 3.6-liter V-8 was massaged to increase power from 400 to 425 horsepower. Meanwhile, the liberal use of carbon fiber, titanium, aluminum, and Lexan trimmed nearly 250 pounds of fat to reduce the curb weight to 2822 pounds. Upgraded dampers and springs improved cornering adhesion by eight percent, while carbon-ceramic brakes featuring gargantuan fifteen-inch front rotors reduced the stopping distance by five percent. Throw in 50 percent more downforce, and you're looking at a 3.5-second improvement in lap times around Ferrari's Circuito di Fiorano.
Nevertheless, the racetrack still isn't the Stradale's preferred habitat. Its specially formulated, nineteen-inch Pirelli P Zero Corsas, which manage a remarkably happy compromise between grip and compliance on the road, seem a bit squishy on Fiorano's faster curves. Frankly, if lap times are the yardstick, you can do better than a Stradale at a fraction of the cost in a relatively ratty SCCA race car. But so what?
The Stradale isn't designed to be a race car; it's meant to feel like one, showcasing the pleasures of a competition thoroughbred without inflicting any of the pains on the gentlemen drivers behind the wheel. Thus, the exhaust was tuned not to optimize performance but to produce the coolest sound imaginable. In fact, since the engineers were able to dial out resonances, the Stradale sounds even better than a race car. Especially when the tranny does that amazing down-shift thing.
From the moment you drop into the deep, enveloping racing seat and wrap your hands around the steering wheel with its brushed-aluminum shift paddles, you can't help but feel like Michael Schumacher belting in for a lap at Monza. The door panels and center console are trimmed in carbon fiber. The floors are flat and bare. The pedals are drilled. Owners who want the full Phil-Hill-at-Tertre-Rouge experience can opt for sliding Lexan side windows instead of the more sensible electric jobbies.
Punch the red Start button, and the Stradale sparks effortlessly to life. At low speeds, the car is as mild-mannered as a choirboy. But as the needle sweeps past 5000 rpm on the screaming yellow tach, the engine goes into thrash-metal mode, with a 0-to-60-mph romp taking 4.0 seconds and top speed maxing out at 186 mph. Luddite that I am, I still think a manual transmission would be more rewarding than the clutchless semi-automatic. But the Stradale's sequential box switches ratios far faster than a human being could-a mere 150 milliseconds per gearchange-and you don't have to lift to shift.
Is the Challenge Stradale worth $200,000-a twenty percent premium over the "stock" 360 Modena? Only your financial advisor knows for sure. But if price is no object, then life gets no sweeter than in a Stradale.