Exotic Cars Ramp Up the Speed

The Ferrari GTO Courtesy Ferrari

Homo sapiens have always coveted the sensation of speed. The Greeks invented competitive running games. U.S. Air Force pilot Chuck Yeager became a national hero the second he went supersonic. And Superman is admired for flying faster than a speeding bullet. But the best hope we mere mortals have of experiencing the same thrill is to drive a sports car.

Automakers constantly boost speed limits and zero-to-100-kph acceleration rates to appeal to car lovers determined to own the fastest vehicle of the day. But how fast is fast enough? Ask the execs at Italy’s premier sports-car makers, Ferrari and Lamborghini, and they’re likely to blanch at the absurdity of the question. Like Zeno’s dichotomy paradox, which suggests that a moving object can never reach its destination, exotic-car engineers will always be able to extract one more pony from an engine.

As a case in point, Lamborghini next month will begin selling its latest model, the 2010 LP570-4 Superleggera. Not to be outdone, Ferrari will debut its newest collectible, the 599 GTO. Both cars claim an identical zero-to-100-kph time of 3.4 seconds. Dizzyingly fast. Sick fast. “I never thought I’d see a road car that goes from zero to 60 [100kph] in three seconds,” says Dan Neil, automotive columnist for The Wall Street Journal. “In 1992 Ferrari had the 355, which hit 60mph in five seconds, and it felt like your head would tear off. I thought I’d had a baby the first time I drove it. And now, a five-second time is the bare minimum for anything remotely called a sports car.”

Lambo’s new Superleggera (it means “lightweight” in Italian) has a top speed of 325kph and achieves a 20 percent reduction in CO2 emissions from the last iteration, despite a significant bump of 25 horsepower. The new version’s power plant is a V10, 5.2-liter, 570hp engine that redlines at an impressive 8,000 rpm. Lamborghini’s president and CEO, Stephan Winkelmann, says his engineers were able to extract more power by transferring technology learned in the racing business.

The Superleggera’s significant weight reduction (and therefore amped-up speed) owes to extensive use of carbon fiber and a polycarbonate rear window, which replaces heavier glass. The two-seater has a best-in-class power-to-weight ratio. But the use of lightweight materials isn’t just about increasing power; the European Union mandated that all cars have a 20 percent reduction in CO2 by model-year 2012, and that fuel consumption be reduced 35 percent by 2015. Winkelmann says Lamborghini already has achieved the first goal and is now focusing on the second.

Though easy enough to drive, the LP570-4 is not a dumbed-down sports car for beginners. It demands respect simply because there’s monster power packed inside a lightweight body, and uneven acceleration could cause the back end to come around at high speeds. That said, when driven properly, this Lambo rewards the driver with exceptional handling and formidable G-force delight, accompanied by a symphonic exhaust note. And all for $245,695.

The folks at Ferrari think they have the winning Italian brand with the super-sweet 599 GTO, the fastest street-legal production model the company has ever built. This Ferrari extracts its power by combining a diet of lightweight materials with a big, old-fashioned, outta-my-way engine: a V12, six-liter, 670hp drivetrain. As Ferrari CEO Amedeo Felisa sees it, “The 599 GTO is the best expression of a sports car we’ve ever made; it is the ultimate Ferrari.” At least until a faster one comes along.

The 599 GTO’s winning formula goes back to 1962, when the Ferrari 250 GTO represented the world’s best racing technology packed into what many considered the first super-car, a street-legal racer. Only 39 were produced, and it quickly became the car to own among sophisticated automotive enthusiasts. It still is. Ferrari engineered another GTO in 1984, making sure that it, too, was the fastest production vehicle available at the time. It sold for the then-astronomical price of $400,000—just $40,000 less than the current 599 GTO model.

But Ferrari isn’t focused solely on velocity. If it were, its legions of fans could plunk down half as much for a car with the same track-time numbers and be just as satisfied. Instead, this sexiest of brands spins heads and yanks hearts by using the design firm Pininfarina—known worldwide as the Gucci of automotive style houses. Ferrari makes vehicles entirely by hand, and creates buying frenzies by strictly limiting production numbers for some models, including this latest GTO, of which only 599 will be released worldwide.

To make this GTO exceptional, Ferrari’s engineers didn’t overlook a thing. They noticed its fashionable wheel spokes created wind turbulence, slowing the car, so they redesigned them for air to flow around instead of through them. Using lessons learned from its F1 racing program, Ferrari adopted a new transmission that shifts gears in a blink-quick 60 milliseconds—a speed not found on any other street car. “We’ve always been able to do something better,” says Ferrari’s Felisa. “Why would we stop now?” Why indeed?

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