The Ferrari feels at home in this habitat despite the constrained straightaways. Its steering is quicker than that of the Benz by a full half turn of the wheel, the turning circle is marginally tighter, and the 107.1-inch wheelbase (longer than that of the Benz by 1.6 inches) leads to less chassis squirming in the corners. Redlined at 8500 rpm, the 65-degree Ferrari V-12 produces more power than the 90-degree Benz V-8 can manage before it signs off at 8000 rpm, and the V-12 also unexpectedly serves a slightly larger portion of grunt at low- to mid-range rpm.
To qualify for the badge of a Black Series, the big, bad Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG has received a more muscular setup for its chassis, including two-stage dampening, a stiffer front antiroll bar for quicker steering response, tighter bushings, lightweight wheels, a different assist profile for the steering, and special tires. This recipe works wonders on a racing circuit, but it is not entirely ideal for the real world, in which the road has ridges, dips, potholes, cattle guards, and railway crossings.
Whereas the SLS driver can adjust the suspension calibration from sadistic (Sport) to masochistic (Sport Plus), the F12 driver can summon heavenly comfort simply by engaging the button for the damper setting on the steering wheel. No matter to which position the manettino might be set, this puts the suspension in its softest calibration. This useful setting does not mean soft and wobbly but instead more progressive and stable. Where the SLS Black goes through crash-bang-wallop motions like a racing car, the Ferrari uses more wheel travel and body movement to absorb the punishment from the pavement.
Germany is autobahn paradise and Austria is a picture postcard, but Italy is friendly to fast cars. When you get stopped by a policewoman for delving into triple-digit territory on a rural highway, she asks, "Which car wins?" Although the Italian economy is deep in the doldrums, the love for beautiful exotic cars hasn't waned, so the sound of an angry Ferrari engine still draws a crowd even in the middle of nowhere. The V-12 is vocal at idle, then vibrantly baritone as it fills its lungs with intake air, and, finally, ferociously noisy when the optional LED-type rev counter in the upper arc of the steering wheel illuminates its entire range. Since the 6.2-liter V-8 in the SLS AMG Black Series received its acoustic certification in Stuttgart instead of Sicily, it is not as expressive when it revs up, but it does have a dark and evil voice, as Teutonic thunder and roar are accompanied by Italian bawl and bellow.
Where the great green amphitheaters below the alpine passes open up and the wide plains begin to spread their colorful blanket of crops and pastures, the cool mountain air fuses with a heavier warmth that pushes northward from the Adriatic Sea. We headed for Vicenza, now traveling on much smoother roads. One of the lucky Kacher sons -- Max, 23, or Sebastian, 29 -- led the way in the F12. Monitored from the Mercedes close behind, the Ferrari looked absolutely invincible as it weaved through the ubiquitous Fiat Ducato vans, Piaggio Ape tricycles, and assorted minicars with the ease of a chariot pulled by 731 horses. But every time the young eyes checked the rearview mirror (we love this part), the father's face loomed large at the wheel of the silver bullet. Here, there's no doubt that the broad-shouldered SLS Black can keep up with its red rival. While the F12 won't shine unless whipped through the transmission ratios by the keyboard at your fingertips, all it takes for the Benz to play grandmaster is a firm stab at the throttle.
Miraculously, the autostrada from Piovene Rocchette to Vicenza was as deserted as a Walmart parking lot at midnight. But this short, twenty-mile stretch to the busy A4 turned out to be a rough bit of blacktop with yawning expansion joints, deep anti-hydroplaning grooves, and a glistening surface polished by too many summer suns. The SLS made a bid for the front in a third-gear on-ramp but struggled to maintain its composure. While the front end bit the pavement, turned in, and followed a slightly ragged line drawn by many tired slabs of concrete, the rear end rolled and yawed in protest. Despite wide wheels and tires (wider at the rear than the front), the Benz drifted away from the optimal cornering arc. The chassis is just not compliant enough to work with the driver on such a rough surface, and there's too much excitement for body and mind. Herr Benz is a little portly, has heavy steering, and is quite proud of his muscle-building brakes.
Meanwhile, la macchina rossa irons out these idiosyncrasies in the road surface with remarkable grandezza. It is a wiry, light-footed swordsman with quick reflexes and easy yet precise handling. The F12's steering did feel a little light to us after three days on the road, and the hyper-sensitive brakes bite so venomously that every deceleration has a dash of emergency action. On the other hand, the Ferrari feels more maneuverable than its dimensions suggest, and its responses are sharp, like a proper sports car rather than laid-back like a GT.
Time to prepare for the final stop, so we let the sizzling engines cool down, silenced the Ferrari's crackling brakes, and put the Benz's poltergeist suspension to rest. During an extended aperitivo and then over a rustic dinner washed down with local amarone, the Kacher clan discussed, disagreed, and decided. As the grappa finally arrived at the end of the meal, the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta had edged the Mercedes-Benz SLS Black Series into defeat, and here is why.
The Ferrari goes faster and rides better. It has a softer edge, yet its performance, roadholding, and handling remain hard-core. On the debit side, the infotainment is not up to date, the transmission programming needs more sparkle in automatic mode, and a smooth getaway from a stop and a fluid crawling pace are not a forte.
The Mercedes-Benz has many of the same transmission issues as the Ferrari (managing the durability of a dual-clutch design matched with so much horsepower is very difficult), yet its gearbox software works better. The chassis is perfectly entertaining at the limit as the steering, the brakes, and the suspension form a cohesive whole. Nevertheless, this race-calibrated car is too harshly sprung and dampened to be a great road car, and it fights a bit when it is pushed hard.
So go ahead and buy that Ferrari F12 Berlinetta. It will take two people as far as your gas card can carry you, and if you just happen to be in Geneva at auto-show time, there's no telling what might happen.
Ferrari F12 Berlinetta
|Engine:||48-valve DOHC V-12|
|Displacement:||6.3 liters (382 cu in)|
|Horsepower:||731 hp @ 8250 rpm|
|Torque:||509 lb-ft @ 6000 rpm|
|L x W x H:||181.8 x 76.5 x 50.1 in|
|Track F/R:||65.6/63.7 in|
|EPA Mileage:||11/16 mpg|
|0-60 mph:||3.6 sec|
|Top Speed:||211 mph|
Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Black Series
|Engine:||32-valve DOHC V-8|
|Displacement:||6.2 liters (379 cu in)|
|Horsepower:||622 hp @ 7400 rpm|
|Torque:||468 lb-ft @ 5500 rpm|
|L x W x H:||182.9 x 77.8 x 49.7 in|
|Track F/R:||67.0/66.0 in|
|EPA Mileage:||13/17 mpg|
|0-60 mph:||3.2 sec|
|Top Speed:||196 mph|