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BOTH THE 360 SPIDER F1 AND SL55 AMG OFFER DROP-TOP THRILLS AND EARLY-NOUGHTIES ILLS, BUT WHICH WILL WIN OVER YOUR HEART?

BY DAN BEVIS

YOU REALLY can’t beat a back-road blast in a convertible. And if also packs a hilariously sonorous engine, all the better.

The gleaming Vader-like duo we have here today, refracting sunbeams from their inky paintwork under verdant foliage, make for quite an unusual match. the one hand, we have a bonafide exotic; a mid-engined Maranello sweetheart with a crackle-red V8 and balletic poise. the other, a premium mish-mash of German values – both cosseting and improbably thrusting. The latter also has a V8 – this one’s supercharged.

Can a Mercedes-Benz ever be a true rival to a Ferrari? Setting the insurmountable gulf in cold, hard cash values, they’re ideologically different that the very comparison of the two is absurd, and quite possibly entirely pointless.

Well, that’s what the internet would have you believe. But is proper, old-school paper and ink. And we’re here to tell there’s quite a strong argument for testing the Ferrari 360 Spider F1 against the Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG on a level playing field, without prejudice or preconception.

It’s not just about their identical 0-100km/h times either. So absorb the reality of a high-revving supercar being aggressively pursued by a thunderous GT cruiser. Leave your cynicism at door, it’s about to get very real.

Ferrari had big plans to mark the advent of a century that began with a two. They were planning a fresh new model, something to carry on the line originally drawn in the sand by 308 and scrawled anew by the 328, 348 and 355. Ferrari’s V8 offering would be no retro pastiche, no rehash of a time-worn structure, but something engineered from the ground up to be a creation to resonate through the ages.

The 355’s replacement boasted a larger 3.6-litre V8, and it was markedly beefed up for global markets – longer, wider, taller, this was to be a Ferrari for everyday use. Well, kind of.

That’s not to say it lost any frisson of specialness. In a first for a production Ferrari road car, the 360 Modena featured a stiff, all-aluminium chassis and body, its lightness allowing the larger 360’s kerb weight to match the diminutive 355. Look at it side-on, and you’ll see it has an absurdly long wheelbase, with almost no rear overhang. This is because it was engineered for a smooth and cosseting ride, with the incidental benefit being a negative lift coefficient. This was a taut and aggressive car, but at the same time one that could hold your hand and proffer a friendly smile.

The 360’s slippery and sylph-like shape was the result of 5000 hours in the wind tunnel. It lost the pop-up lights of its forebears, but gained an F1-inspired smooth underbody with a sort of air-tunnel running from the central front splitter cutout to the rear diffuser. Sure, it wanted to be a sensible Ferrari, but it also wanted to be a freaky racecar.

What’s really impressive about the 360’s slipperiness is the downforce – at 290km/h it generates 180kg of shove, which is remarkable for a car with no spoilers. So the lines are clean, crisp and unadorned; at the time it was criticised in some quarters for lacking in visual drama, but the design has mellowed gorgeously with age.

The 360 Spider heralded Pininfarina’s 70th anniversary of screwing together pretty motors, and unlike many convertible versions of focused sports cars, it wasn’t all that much of a compromise. The bonnet design and its stowage were precision-engineered not to cock up the aero, and the Spider’s ultimate drag coefficient was an impressive 0.36 to the Modena’s 0.335, while its 290km/h downforce figure was a stillmeaty 170kg. And with no extra weight or loss in stiffness, why wouldn’t you opt for the drop-top and hear the banshee-howl of that V8 in full aural technicolour?

WHY WOULDN’T YOU OPT FOR THE DROP-TOP AND HEAR THE BANSHEE-HOWL OF THAT V8 IN FULL AURAL TECHNICOLOUR?

Over at Mercedes-Benz, things were shaping up rather differently in 2002. The imposing new R230-generation SL had arrived the previous year, replacing the R129, and the SL55 AMG was an unapologetically naughty creation. Unlike the 360’s approach of trying to civilise a beast, the SL55 sought to unleash the beast within an already civilised creation.

While the mainstream SL models were straight-up Grand Tourers, the terrifying SL55 thought it was a supercar. It certainly went like one. Sounded like one, too.

This exercise in perception-warping was the most powerful road car that Mercedes-Benz had ever built, the supercharged 5.4-litre V8 lifting the cabriolet’s skirts and adrenalising it to 100km/h in the same 4.5 seconds that the 360 Spider prided itself upon. At launch, the SL55 cost $369,900; the 360 started at $421,500.

Being a 2000s-era German car, it was electronically limited to 250km/h, although early cars came with a 360km/h speedo.

In fact, contemporary road testers had a crack at removing the limiter and found that the SL55 AMG could smash past 320km/h. For reference, Ferrari’s quoted top speed for the 360 was 290km/h...

Mercedes’ supercar/muscle-car gambit paid off in spades, with one in every four SLs sold being SL55s for more than half a decade. Before long, the cars were offered with a peak performance figure above 368kW.

Prior to Daimler taking full control of AMG in the 1990s, AMG had operated as its own independent entity – an engineering firm specialising in tuning Mercedes-Benz products, although they did dabble in other brands, too. The SL55 AMG was the car that put those three letters on the map. The bruiser-witha-warranty had to be good. And it was. But can it hold a candle to the Maranello motor?

HOW CAN A SENSIBLE, GROWN-UP BENZ COMPARE TO

05 reliability quirks to watch for

FERRARI 360 SPIDER

ONE It’s not advisable to buy a 360 without a recent cambelt service or replacement. It can cost in the region of $1000 to do the job.

TWO That F1 transmission can also wear out the clutch quickly. Ideally the car you buy will have had a clutch change in the last 20,000km.

THREE Pre-2003 examples had issues with clutch wear, but the factory produced a TCU remap, helping extend the life of the clutch significantly.

FOUR Inside the cabin, the seat bolstering can wear out over time, but this can be fixed by a reupholster fairly cheaply.

FIVE While the roof mechanism is sturdy and folds quickly, regular use can stretch the fabric, which may cause buffeting at speed.

The thing about driving a Ferrari is that you’re not just driving a Ferrari. You’re taking responsibility for the perpetuation of generations of impossibly passionate enthusiasts, and the product of one of the world’s most revered brands – not just in the motoring sphere, but anywhere.

We’ve chosen a Spider with the F1 transmission today because it feels most closely matched to the ethos of the SL55 AMG, which has an auto ’box and a folding hardtop. The gearbox takes some explaining – the F1 transmission can be used as a full automatic, although owners don’t tend to do this and experts advise against it, as it’s harsher on the clutch. No, the way to use it is as a robotised manual: from neutral, you flick the right-hand paddle to engage first gear, release the handbrake and tickle the throttle. There’s no clutch pedal, so you don’t need to worry about stalling.

You pull away, feed in a howling bootful of revs, and keep ploughing belligerently on until the shrieking V8 just behind your shoulder suggests another ratio may be in order, flick the right-hand paddle again, and it all starts afresh. When you decelerate, the gearbox takes care of the downshifts for you, although if you want to overtake – or just misbehave – you can flick the left-hand paddle to drop a cog or two. And if you flick the little toggle switch down by the door to enter Sport mode, the revs flare dramatically on downshifts and the upshifts happen that little bit faster.

As for the rest of the car, you’ll be pleased to know that the decades of anticipation weren’t washed away into the gutter in a slush of disappointment. The 360 is really rather good, you know. The cabin is roomy enough to allow you entry without any embarrassing body origami, and this car features the optional super-thin carbon-fibre seats which do a superb job of cuddling you like an over-familiar auntie.

The owner has already pointed out the hidden switch under the dash that jams the exhaust valves wide open, rather than waiting until about 4000rpm to start shouting, so obviously I flick that first before pulling away.

The drama is intense and immediate. You sit low and enclosed in the car, with very little over-shoulder visibility and no real idea of where the nose ends, but none of that matters. People will hear you coming, they’ll make room. Flat-plane crank V8s make a gloriously sonorous announcement. Having fumbled the first few gearshifts, I realise that lifting off the throttle to upshift like in a regular manual just lets the revs die, so I simply keep the accelerator pinned, flick up through the ’box flat, and let the scenery melt into a halcyon dream of befuddled science.

THE ROLLERCOASTER LUNACY OF A MARANELLO SEX BOMB?

MERC SL55 AMG

ONE Make sure the central locking and the vario-roof are working. If either isn’t, it could mean the boot seals are past their prime and water is getting in.

TWO Also check the drain-offs in the corners of the boot where it meets the C-pillars for corrosion, blockage or signs of still water.TWO Also check the drain-offs in the corners of the boot where it meets the C-pillars for corrosion, blockage or signs of still water.

THREE A good service history is essential. The 16 plugs are expensive and the fuel filter is located above the diff, which is awful to change.

FOUR Ensure the SBC brake pump is kept up-to-date – they have a habit of crashing. It can cost a lot to replace – as can the ABC pump.

FIVE If the suspension sags or drops overnight, it could be the sign of expensive leg wear. Check under the arches for corrosion.

THE TERRIFYING SL55 THOUGHT IT WAS A SUPERCAR. IT CERTAINLY WENT LIKE ONE... AND SOUNDED LIKE ONE, TOO

The car doesn’t let you forget for a moment that you’re ensconced within supercar royalty. The sumptuously trimmed cocoon is lavishly adorned with tell-tale badges, the seismic engine sound never lets up for a second, and the balletic poise of the thing is otherworldy. It feels as if your hip-bones have been bolted directly to the cabin floor; if you take the pressure slightly off one buttock, the car obligingly darts in the opposing direction. This is probably as close to a fairground ride as it’s legal to get on Her Majesty’s highway. ‘It’s only got 294kW,’ but frankly this is exactly as much as the chassis needs. The 360 is so perfectly balanced it beggars belief.

Perhaps it’s a little unfair on the Mercedes that I drove the Ferrari first. After all, the SL is a car that could happily blend into urban traffic until somebody in the know spotted the badge. You could leave it in a car park and be fairly confident you wouldn’t find a crowd of hysterical teens Instagramming it on your return. How can a sensible, grown-up Benz compare to the rollercoaster lunacy of a Maranello sex bomb?

The answer is: surprisingly well. For starters, Mercedes-Benz didn’t scrimp on the drama with this car. Lifting the bonnet reveals a hell of a lot of engine. That brutal supercharged V8 could act as a dinner table. Suddenly the lengthy E-Type-ish nose makes a certain amount of sense.

And there’s certainly no shortage of dreamweaving in the cabin. But at the same time, it all appears very grown up. After the outright and deliberate silliness of the Ferrari, clambering into the sober-suited SL55 feels like being driven home in your dad’s Fairlane after you’ve spent the day karting.

The cosseting continues as you ease the broad-hipped tourer into traffic. Everything feels very executive, very highclass. The interior’s evidently been mapped out from first principles as an exemplar of quality materials and solid Teutonic fit-and-finish. There’s an S-Class vibe, a conviction that this car could serenely waft you to the other side of the Earth with barely a fluttered eyelash.

And then you put your foot down. And everything in the world disappears. Memories dissolve, the past boils away into infinity, the future becomes an irrelevance. A moment ago you were way back there, and somehow you’re now right over here. How the hell did it do that?

This car provokes a strange sensation around the backs of the ears as you bury the throttle, and it takes a few moments to diagnose. Eventually you realise that it’s simply a symptom of smiling more than you ever have done before. This sturdy, executive showpiece of dependable engineering simply shouldn’t be able to do this. There’s no pitch or body roll at all, it simply gets on with getting you around the corner.

Pulling up at a set of traffic lights, Mr Hyde climbs back into the spacious boot as Dr Jekyll once again wrestles control of the ECU. The blown bent-eight idles smoothly, almost silently. There’s no hint of the menace that lies beneath. As the light flashes green, I pull away gently, in deliberately leisurely fashion, just to see how it reacts – and it’s fully switched back to being a sensible dad-spec cruiser. Remarkable. So I stamp violently on the throttle like a belligerent teenager and, yes, Hyde’s back, whacking his mighty sledgehammer right into the very cheekbones of physics. I don’t think I could ever get tired of this. If I owned one of these, I’d get through an embarrassing amount of fuel.

The SL’s owner says his consumption figures are really nothing to write home about, and I reassure him that I’ve always believed that life’s too short to care about fuel economy. If you want to eke out your fumes, buy a Prius. “I once got 40.4L/100km from a particularly punishing run,” he smirks. “But I bet it can be sensible if you are?” I counter. “If you took it easy you could see... what, something in the nines?” His hearty laughter is all the answer I need. “14 is good,” he asserts. “I did once see 12.8, but... that’s not why you buy a car like this.”

THIS ISN’T HEAD RULING HEART – QUITE THE OPPOSITE

It’s a fair point. Yes, this is a car that can happily swallow the weekly shop and could cheerfully spirit you to the other end of the continent and back. But it really is all about what it can do when you’re not being sensible. Squeezing that throttle is like being given house points at school – it’s your visible reward for knowing how to do things right.

There’s a reason these big-hearted SLs have such a fervent following. They just do everything so well. It’s been quite a journey, pitching together two cars so ostensibly different and yet, in numerous aspects, so weirdly comparable, and really getting to know their nuances.

The Ferrari 360 Spider F1 is a phenomenal, reality shatteringly machine, one that gratifies on all measurable levels. As a lifelong Ferrari fanboy, it fully lived up to the hype I’d wrapped the thing up in. With jangling Modenese bells on. It’s sensational, fabulous, awe-inspiring.

Nestled in that slender carbon-fibre bucket, the prancing horse gazing back at you from the centre of the steering wheel as you juggle the paddles and absorb the impassioned gazes of the pedestrians who flash by in a vivid blur, it really is the stuff of childhood dreams.

But... upon once again exiting a junction and turning on full opposite lock in the SL55 with the howling hooligan siren song of tyre-squeal, it becomes obvious who the victor is. This isn’t a case of head ruling heart; quite the opposite in fact. The Merc is able to serve up just as much violent, kidney-pulping thrust as the Ferrari, albeit surfing on a wave of thudding torque instead of shrieking in your ears with high-drama, race-honed fury – but it can do other things as well. And do them brilliantly.

The 360 is an utter joy, a masterpiece. A life-affirming manifestation of passion itself. But the SL55? It’s cheaper than the Ferrari, which means Maranello’s offering has to be good – and the reality is the AMG serves up a rich three-course meal of sumptuous satisfaction. The 360 is a wonderful, delicious treat. The SL55 also provides the vitamins, the fibre and the protein. It’s not just good-for-a-cheaper-car. It’s genuinely better.

Speculators may demand the Italian badge, but enthusiasts will find fulfilment in German engineering. And as a dyed-inthe-wool Ferrari obsessive, that’s not easy to admit.