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Auto Hypnosis

If You're in the Market for the Planet's Priciest Production Cars, Look No Further
Joshua Shapiro
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

(continued from page 4)

Etore Bugatti once remarked that Bentleys were the fastest trucks around. The Azure is no exception. It's heavy and huge--long and broad enough and nearly tall enough to match a Chevy Suburban. Next to an Azure, a Jaguar XK-8 convertible looks as tiny as a Mazda Miata. The Azure runs on a 1950s-vintage low-revving, 6.75-liter, 16-valve, pushrod V8 engine, with a Garret turbocharger, pushing a GM truck transmission. But to its credit, it develops 385 hp and very high torque (553 foot pounds) without much fuss. Bentley claims it will do 0 to 60 in 6.3 seconds on its cushy 255/55 WR17 Avon tires and max out at 150 mph.

The name Azure conjures up the blue skies and sea alongthe Grand Corniche. But the Riviera is closer than just a spiritual home for the car. The chassis are individually built in Crewe, United Kingdom. Then they are flown to Pininfarina, in Italy, where the folding roof, the one without the "starved cow" look,is installed. Finally, they return by air to England to be fittedwith interiors and completed, making this the most sophisticated and well traveled of convertibles. The process takes six months.

My second Bentley turned me around. Lacquered in peacock blue, a deeply satisfying ultramarine, it resonated with the Azure name. The car was finally properly dressed for its classic styling.The Azure is a bit like a fine Bordeaux. It clearly needs to be opened up to properly breathe and be appreciated. No wonder these cars are happiest tooling around warm, wealthy enclaves like Cap Ferrat in the Riviera, Hong Kong, Palm Beach and Palm Springs. A Partagas, a beautiful companion, the Azure with the top down, a sunny day and a quiet road. Things could definitely be worse.


Like Porsche, Ferrari is a postwar marque, having been founded in 1947 by the director of Alfa Romeo's racing division, Enzo Ferrari. Since then, Ferrari has turned out a series of 43 models of competitive racing cars and has still managed to make grand-touring road cars that have earned the brand worldwide recognition. Although almost 90 percent of Ferraris are exported, to my mind they look their best in their native habitat. Last autumn I was driving the Autostrada One from Rome to Florence, doing a comfortable 210 kilometers an hour, when I saw a red Ferrari 308 approaching in the distance. I changed lanes to let him pass. The driver pulled up momentarily, smiled and waved, and then blew by at 260. It was a memorable Ferrari moment.

The 550 Maranello is the latest offering to carry the black prancing horse on the yellow ground, and it celebrates 50 years of Ferrari automotive finesse. Refinement is the leitmotiv of the Maranello. The classically graceful low and wide body with thelong bonnet and cutoff tail is fabricated of aluminum alloy on a tubular steel frame. As with the aluminum Acura NSX and theAudi A8, the Ferrari 550 has a certain lightness and silken quality that match the subtlety of its styling and the suppleness and sensitivity of handling. The center cowl feeds dual air intakes to the fuel feed. Dual engine bay exhaust gills accent the front fender between the wheel arch and the door. Even the undercarriage is totally faired for aerodynamic stability.

The Ferrari 550 has a thoroughly modern design, with the usual air bags, antilock brakes and antiskid features that one expects. The windows automatically lower a fraction of an inch when you exit the car to effect a better seal. The black-leather dash with aluminum air vents holds a neatly laid out set of basic gauges. The drilled alloy pedals contrast with the tan saddle-leather seats and carpeting. The only noise in the cockpit comes from the ball-shaped solid aluminum gear lever hitting against the heavy aluminum shift gate with a satisfying "kerchunk."

Mechanically, the two-seat, Berlinetta-styled 550 is similar to the earlier Ferrari 456 GT coupe. Both have a 5.5-liter V12 up front coupled to a rear-positioned six-speed transaxle, and both share roughly the same dimensions, capacities and weights. The Maranello packs 485 hp, which can be used to accelerate from 0 to 60 in 4.3 seconds and reach a maximum speed of 199 mph. The 13-inch drilled disc brakes, the adaptive suspension system and the traction-control system keep a comfortable rein on the car, which performs any assigned chores without breaking a sweat. One wishes for a control to dial engine noise into the cabin.

When viewed as a replacement for the Testarossa, the rowdy, assertively angular mid-engine star of "Miami Vice," the new Maranello seems tame, almost docile. This is an accessible carwithout excesses whose quiet, unassuming beauty and discipline appeals to aesthetes, not cowboys.


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