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Ferrari F355: PH Heroes

Prior hadn't driven a manual shift Ferrari in nearly ten years. Guess what he liked about the F355...

By Matt prior / Wednesday, August 29, 2018

A quarter of a century ago, the nice round number carmakers stretched to reach wasn't the 1000hp-per-tonne of today's fantasy league, but what now seems like a relatively modest 100bhp-per-litre.

Step forward the Ferrari F355, which arrived at the 1994 Geneva motor show with a 3.5-litre engine mounted longitudinally in its middle. The 109hp-per-litre that its naturally-aspirated, flat-plane crank V8 developed meant that the car put out 380hp at a sonorous 8250rpm, on the way to an 8800rpm rev-limiter.

The F355 fairly wowed the world back then. This week PH has driven one and - spoiler alert - come away bowled over all over again.

The supercar power race didn't start with the F355, and it certainly didn't end with it either. The F355 made a bit more poke than the 348 that preceded it and today the 720hp 488 Pista makes 190% of it.

It's a level of performance that leaves this 1994 car - this sweet, balanced, elegant 380hp Ferrari - feeling like a delicious sweet spot in all the decades of supercar development.

To drive an F355 today is to try a car that feels modern yet restrained; usable yet exotic.

You climb in and sit low, but on seats that by today's standards feel flat and offer a driving position that gives exceptional visibility. The steering wheel, ugly as the first days of airbagged wheels were, adjusts for rake but is mounted relatively low, while ahead is a dash and scuttle set at around chest height. There are thin A-pillars, a wide window behind you and a rear view mirror that takes in all of that plus the flat rear deck. Three pedals - 'cos this is a manual, like most 355s were - are marginally offset to the left at the wheelarch.

In a modern supercar the door cards would come up to your shoulders and you'd feel cocooned. The F355 feels spacious, offering a broad view across a dashboard that felt luxuriously finished at the time, but doesn't today. These days its switchgear and plastics wouldn't make it into a low-end supermini, but the leather and carpets are ageing well on this 44,000 mile car.

I don't want to dwell on the driving position - there's actual driving to do - but I think it's worth it because so much of the experience is dictated by it.

As with a Mazda MX-5 it feels slightly like you're sitting on, rather than in, the F355, so much higher than you would in a modern supercar. Although surely there's barely anything in the hip-point - the car is a touch lower, overall, than today's 488 GTB, at 1171 v 1213mm. At 4.3m long it's around 30cm shorter, too, but the more significant feeling is that the F355 is narrower.

In the grand scheme of things, the F355's 1900mm wide body versus the 488's 1975mm doesn't sound that much. But the F355's diddy mirrors are barely wider than the bodywork, while with the 488's mirrors out, it's a 2.2m wide car.

Throw in the higher window line and more cossetting driving position of a modern supercar, the harder to gauge extremities, and you get a feel for what the F355 gets right. It's more approachable. Out to shock you less. I start the engine on the key in the yard at Slade's Garage, of Penn, where it's for sale at just under £100,000, and it fires to a tense but refined idle, without the dramatic BRAP of modern start-ups.

The F355's control weights feel modern. There's a tightness and consistency to the relatively light steering, while the three pedals have a medium weight and fine smoothness. They're less demanding, and more precise, than those in a BMW 3-Series.

This is the first manual Ferrari I've driven in almost a decade but I don't remember the last one's gearshift feeling this good, either. There's cliché after cliché to say about the cool round ball atop the lever, but what's never occurred to me before is that being metal, of course, there's no squidge to it. So it allows you to move the lever around the gate with more precision. There's stickiness to the shifts when it's cold, but as it warms through, it just becomes easy and oily smooth.

The F355 is an easy car to drive smoothly all round. Its ride is firm but composed. There were two stage electronic dampers but I leave them in standard mode.

Throttle response is good, positive, linear; you ask, you get. Matching revs on upshifts is easy if you're positive with the controls. On small throttle blips on downshifts it threatens to feel carburettored, like it hasn't quite cleared its throat, but if you give the throttle a bigger prod, the engine zings and dies quickly like the best of naturally aspirated motors.

Which isn't surprising, because this is one of them. Maybe the naturally aspirated (sub-12-cylinder) supercar engine did reach its apogee in the 458 Speciale, or maybe it's bettered today in the Porsche 911 GT3 RS. But here's a motor that can still hold its head high in any company. Its reactive at low revs, sharp at higher revs but, better than both of those things, the five-valve engine's power builds incredibly smoothly, with no flat spots or kicks. It just starts, and goes, and keeps on going.

Want more? It steers gracefully and corners with genuine agility (dry weight was claimed at 1350kg, so probably 1525kg fully fuelled at the kerb).

It stops less powerfully than a modern carbon-ceramic-braked car, sure, but there's easier pedal modulation. How it behaves near or beyond its limit I can't tell you, because I'm disinclined to find out in a retailer's £100,000 car. But below there it's fantastically engaging, and reports at the time said it was incredibly special.

What remains special today is the whole experience. As a road car it's about spot-on perfect: the right size, the right speed, composed-riding, it sounds terrific, and is pinpoint responsive. (See also, the same period Honda NSX, now, as then, the closest thing to offering this experience.)

Sure, new supercars are faster, grippier, easier to throw around. But on the road, I can barely think of a single one that's more downright enjoyable than the F355. A hero taken out of its time, but better for today than most modern alternatives.

 3,496cc V8
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 380@8,250rpm
Torque (lb ft): 268@6,000rpm
0-62: 4.7 seconds
Top speed: 183mph
Weight: 1350kg (dry)
CO2: Probably a fair few
On sale: 1994-1999
Price new: £78,000
Price now: £100,000

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