Makers of fine luxury-sport cars are succumbing to the lure of enhanced revenue by adding SUVs to their lineups. Porsche set this particular stage with the Cayenne, while Bentley, Jaguar, and even Lamborghini explore the idea.
Ferrari, with its laser-like focus on performance, would seem immune to the siren song of SUV profits, but I hold that the FF model serves as an SUV stand-in among the very limited lineup. The FF offers seating for four, close to the typical five of an SUV, as well as additional cargo space. It also comes with all-wheel-drive designed to make it more capable in slippery conditions.
The Ferrari FF is about as close to an SUV as I would ever expect to see from a car bearing the prancing horse badge.
Despite its passenger and cargo space and all-wheel-drive system, the FF still drives like a Ferrari. The rigid body responded promptly to steering input, and the driveline always felt connected, as if coasting wasn't in its vocabulary. There is no sound I have enjoyed more than the scream of the FF's 6.3-liter V-12 engine, amplified by the optional sport exhaust, rebounding off the mountainsides of twisty valley roads.
Technically, the body style of the FF is referred to as a "shooting brake," a term with a history involving English hunters and horse carts. Looking like no other Ferrari, the roofline maintains its height as it extends back from the windshield, ending in a hatch. You might think of it as the hottest hatch in the history of the world.
The bodywork is all smooth Pininfarina styling. It looks like every slight curve was sculpted with artistic purpose. Two long doors allow access to front and rear seats. The headlight casings and their stacked LED running lights combined with the low, wide grille make the front look like a smiling face with the skin around the eyes drawn back by sheer speed.
The example delivered to CNET had a newish feature, a glass roof allowing scenic relief to rear seat passengers. That curved glass roof added a bit of space-age style to a body that, to me, has a definite 1960s modernist class.
The artwork didn't end with the body. Lifting the hood, I was greeted by gorgeous red-painted intake manifolds, their length hinting at the six cylinders running down each side. Underneath, direct injection technology helps bring the output up to 651 horsepower and 504 pound-feet of torque. As Ferrari no longer does manual transmissions, the FF comes with a seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual.
Unique among Ferrari models is the all-wheel-drive, a lightweight electronically controlled system that can send up to 20 percent of torque to the front wheels. Unlike Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive, this Ferrari system isn't designed to enhance high-performance handling. It operates only when the car is in its Snow or Comfort modes, so its purpose is to make the FF more usable in places with real winters.
Three times the charm
The all-wheel-drive system didn't play a part when I stretched the FF's legs on my favorite section of twisty road. With the Manettino switch on the steering wheel turned to Sport, I changed down to second gear with the paddle shifter and headed carefully into the first of a set of turns. The rigidity of the body became apparent when I turned the wheel, but the steering action was comfortable and responsive, not twitchy.
A red light embedded at the top of the steering wheel served as a warning that I was approaching the FF's 8,000 rpm redline, so I paddled up to third before the second of those four lights came on. I wasn't trying to impress anyone.
However, the car impressed me with how easily it took the turns. When I took the time to glance at one of the two speed displays, each on an LCD bracketing the big, yellow tachometer, I could see the car was holding 50 or 60 mph without much effort through the corners. Second gear wasn't needed, and the car was ready for fourth on each following straight.
Getting more comfortable with the FF, I took it up a notch, delighting in the snappy shifts from the gearbox, the easily modulated power from the throttle, but most of all the sheer artistry of the handling. The front responded to my steering input without a hint of understeer, while I could feel the rear track out just a bit, enough for some real seat-of-the-pants enjoyment.
In fact, I had so much fun taking the FF through these turns, and noticing that no cars had passed going in the opposite direction, that I did a u-turn and drove the whole run again. And since conditions remained traffic-free, another u-turn let me experience the FF through these corners a third time.
I would have been perfectly happy running the FF back and forth along this section of road all day. Adding to the enjoyment was that V-12 engine note reverberating around the mountains, so beautiful that I kept the windows down and the stereo off.
Leaving the transmission to shift for itself in its automatic sport mode, I was impressed by how well it responded. Powering up a straight, a stab at the brake pedal initiated an immediate downshift, getting the FF ready for the ensuing turn. Under full throttle, the automatic program held its gears right up to redline, proving more aggressive than my manual shifting and creating even more enjoyable engine sounds.
Appropriately for the FF's four-seater design, it proved very comfortable slogging through traffic in the city or breezing along a boring freeway. Switching the Manettino to Comfort mode loosened up the adaptive suspension, taking some of the hardness out of the ride. While it never got a soft as a car with an air suspension, Comfort mode did an estimable job of soaking up rough pavement.
More importantly, the FF did not feel as high-strung as some supercars when subjected to day-to-day traffic. Using the transmission's automatic mode, the fact of the 651 horses did not create a problem when I had to match the 10 mph of the traffic ahead, or set off from a stoplight while surrounded by buses and box trucks. The FF accelerated smoothly and did not need to leap at the lightest touch on the throttle. Under these conditions, the transmission shifted early, attaining fourth gear at only 35 mph.
While tame in the city, the FF always felt engaged. This is a car that demands an owner who enjoys the act of driving. I found it noteworthy that, while cruising down the freeway in seventh gear, the throttle required attention. The tight driveline means engine and wheels are constantly connected, with very little coasting.
There are a few quirks about driving the FF. Ferrari did not program "creep" into its dual-clutch transmission, nor will you find a conventional shifter. Instead, I had to turn the ignition, tap the right paddle shifter to put it in first gear, then actually push the accelerator to get it moving. Parking was a matter of stopping it with the brake pedal, then pulling the electronic parking switch.
Letting down the luxury side was an ugly navigation head unit in the dashboard. This unit, with a small LCD and plastic buttons on either side of the bezel, was recognizable from the Chrysler parts bin. Similar to Chrysler vehicles, volume and station selection buttons were embedded behind the steering wheel.
This head unit may have been serviceable for navigation, music, and hands-free phone calls, but it's a bit laughable in a high-priced Ferrari. I've seen this formula repeated in other exotic vehicles, where a company with decades of fine engineering and coach-building experience lacks the resources for a modern electronics department. It surprises me that there are no high-end electronics makers willing to custom build and supply cutting-edge connected head units for the likes of Ferrari, just as these automakers rely on high-end stereo makers for their audio systems.
As a boon to Apple fans, Ferrari has been aggressive about implementing CarPlay. The FF is slated to get this iPhone-integration technology.
Now, the bad news
The base price of a Ferrari FF comes to just under $300,000. The example I drove was optioned up a little, adding a carbon-fiber steering wheel for example, bringing the total to just under $350,000. That price makes the FF even less attainable than a 458 Italia.
However, if you look at an FF as a work of art, then it might seem more reasonable. Just consider that Norman Rockwell's 1960 painting, "The Flyswatter," sold last month for $989,000. I guarantee the FF will be a lot more fun than a picture.
Looking at Internet chatter, the shooting brake body style proves polarizing. Some people just love the long cab and hatchback style, while others commonly call it a "clown shoe." I am a fan of the style, along with its associated practicality.
Online rumors suggest that Ferrari has recognized that the FF suffers a popularity problem and will replace the model in 2016 with something more similar to the F12 Berlinetta.