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 Ford GT 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.