Just Off the Boat From Italy

By Christine Binkley, October 27, 2006

Full disclosure: Both my vehicles have kids’ car seats strapped into the back. So, when offered the chance to drive the new Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano, the first person I called for advice was Elaine Wynn, wife of casino mogul Steve Wynn. She buys a new Ferrari every year.

“Wear pants,” Mrs. Wynn suggested firmly. So, clad in my favorite blue Elie Tahari slacks, I’ve slipped down into the low-slung, carbon-fiber-and-leather driver’s seat of the 599 with my dignity intact.

My heart is thumping. I press the brake, punch the red ignition button on the steering wheel and the engine revs with a roar that has literally been composed by sound engineers to purr and growl differently at each setting. I go first with the automatic-transmission choice — yes, there’s a choice — and we glide into Beverly Hills, Calif., traffic.

Then, I venture into the six-gear manual transmission and the car mothers me: It downshifts when it sees fit. There’s no stick shift and no clutch to push — just two finger-operated paddles by the steering wheel that serve to shift down (left paddle) and up (right paddle). An LED panel on the steering wheel flashes a warning if the revolutions-per-minute near the 8,400 red line.

I’m driving with James Del Pozzo, the 33-year-old general sales manager of the local Ferrari dealership, who says shifting with the paddles is “like playing a videogame.” We ascend the Santa Monica mountains and hit curvy Mulholland Drive.

Ferrari buffs say this car is groundbreaking, with its 620-horsepower V12 engine installed up front to more evenly distribute weight. This is an innovation over the rear-engine Ferraris that I’m told make driving in Beverly Hills traffic much like guiding a bronco through a rodeo chute. The engine placement allows the car to sit up higher off the ground, making it easier to get into and out of — in a skirt (though I felt more comfortable in pants). This is supposed to make the 599 the first Ferrari to appeal to women and less race-oriented drivers. I’m thinking of it as the soccer moms’ Ferrari.

But the base price of the 599 is way out of car-pool territory — $249,034. This version started at $265,295 because it came with a special transmission — and went higher because of options including an $800 iPod hookup and the $3,500 LED steering wheel. It belongs to Giacomo Mattioli, who is to Ferraris what Wal-Mart is to Procter & Gamble.

The F-List

Most Ferraris come from Italy by boat. This one was flown in to arrive in time to do a promotional lap last weekend at the Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, Calif. (Most Americans won’t get a chance to glimpse one until next year.)

With just 14 cars a day gliding off the assembly line, Ferrari can’t keep up with demand. Mr. Mattioli, who was once married to the granddaughter of company founder Enzo Ferrari, owns Ferrari and Maserati dealerships in Beverly Hills, Pasadena, Calif., and the Silicon Valley, as well as a stake in a Ferrari F430GT race car. The marriage to the founder’s kin didn’t last, but his grip on the company’s U.S. distribution channels held, and the man now sells more Ferraris than anyone in North America. Waiting lists for a new Ferrari can be years-long. The more you buy, the faster you’ll rise to the top of the next model’s list — a stroke of marketing genius that encourages some Ferrari lovers to buy $300,000 cars they don’t want in order to maintain their place in line for the one they covet.

If you ask Mr. Mattioli how this delivery schedule is determined, he’ll mumble vaguely about complex computer programs. But the truth is that Mr. Mattioli is the man who manages the F-list in Hollywood. According to people familiar with the dealership, it was Mr. Mattioli who decided that TV and filmmaker Michael Mann (who liberally sprinkles his work with Ferraris like the F430 Spider that Crocket drives in “Miami Vice”) will be getting his new 599 before Nicolas Cage gets his. Mr. Cage declined to comment. Mr. Mann didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The 599’s maximum speed is something over 205 miles per hour, according to the sales brochure, which is actually a hardcover book worthy of a coffee table. I couldn’t test this out in Los Angeles traffic, so I called Tony Marnell, a Las Vegas construction contractor who made enough money building casinos, including Bellagio and the Wynn, that he now owns 10 Ferraris, give or take.

Mr. Marnell says he once drove his Enzo Ferrari — a car so hot that it was named after the company’s founder — on a Nevada highway at 235 mph. The trouble with Ferraris, Mr. Marnell explains calmly, is that you can overtake ordinary cars at such a pace that before you know it, vroom, you’ve rear-ended some poor Honda right there in the fast lane.

Rare Kindness

Yet the Ferrari tries to protect drivers from its raw power. At 60 mph, its sensors read the ground 200 times every 3.2 inches. This is why you can’t burn rubber unless you disengage all the safety gear using the “manettino,” a tiny switch on the steering wheel with choices for normal driving conditions and rain and snow, as well as psychological needs like “sport,” “race” and one that might be named ” burn rubber.” (It turns off the stability and traction control.)

This is not the kind of problem I normally face on the streets of Los Angeles. The cars parked in my Hollywood Hills garage are a Subaru Outback and a dented Infiniti i-something. I can’t get the Crayola marker stains out of the Infiniti’s back-seat upholstery. Nobody eyes my wheels with lust.

Yet most everybody is green with envy about my Ferrari joyride. That includes the suave gentleman in the white Mercedes sports car who tries to wave me into traffic ahead of him on Mulholland Drive — the first kindness anyone has ever offered me in rush-hour traffic in this city.

Ferraris in Beverly Hills are sold by two salesmen, Mr. Del Pozzo and Bryant Kreaden. Mr. Del Pozzo says he has seven points on his driver’s license, which puts him dangerously close to riding a bicycle to work. He has collected these points in other people’s Ferraris, because it turns out that Ferrari salesmen generally can’t afford to own a Ferrari, as Ferrari dealers do. When Mr. Del Pozzo heads home from work six days a week, he climbs into the seat of his Toyota Prius. Mr. Kreaden drives a Scion, another Toyota product.

Maybe that’s also mea culpa for the gas they use at work. At 11 miles per gallon in the city, the Ferrari 599 is in league with a Hummer. Still, the 599 is a work of art. It reminds me of my husband’s Italian Lotto tennis shoes, which made his feet look sleek even in dirty sweat socks. Its body is sculpted to send air over the hood, through a gap in the side-view mirrors, and behind the “flying buttresses” at the rear. This serves the purpose of placing roughly 150 pounds of air pressure onto the rear end when traveling at 124 miles per hour, which helps keep the vehicle on the ground, Ferrari says.

So just for the record, in case anyone from the Beverly Hills Police Department is wondering: We did not go zero to 60 in 3.7 seconds in front of those gated homes along Crescent Drive on Monday. No way. Wasn’t us.