Before we get into the whys or hows, let's get straight to exactly what it is that the new Ferrari FF delivers. Because one single mile of road succinctly sums up what it has to offer and, rather conveniently, it's the mile I've just driven.
It starts perfectly calmly, on a straight, nicely surfaced valley road in the Italian Dolomites. Although it's a fast road, progress is pegged by slow-moving traffic ahead. There is no frustration from the FF, though. There's minimal road, wind and engine noise, and with its 7-speed, dual-clutch gearbox in Auto and adaptive dampers in Comfort mode, the FF does slow very well. But when the traffic moves aside and the road ahead disappears into a tunnel, the FF shows it does fast and loud even better.
Power is provided by a 651hp 6.3-liter V12 engine. However, it is torque rather than top-end power that defines how the FF responds because, with 504lb ft, it has more torque than even the 599 GTO. And with 80 percent of that maximum figure available from 1750rpm, the FF is not only fast – as quick from zero to 124mph as the 599 GTB despite the extra weight – but also effortless.
But, presented with a tunnel and a V12 Ferrari, low-end response has to give way to top-end noise; the FF is a classic-sounding Ferrari, the noise more derived from the engine than the exhaust.
Emerging into daylight, the road quickly changes character, first becoming twistier and then starting to climb. Through the initial corners – fast third and fourth-gear ones – the FF feels like a classic rear-drive GT, albeit with a faster steering ratio than perhaps I'd expected; at 2.2 turns it is only fractionally slower than that of the 458 Italia. With the manettino switch moved to Sport, firming up the dampers, the FF turns with real agility and little body roll.
And then, with no warning, the road throws up an evil section of bumps – which the FF soaks up fluidly, even in Sport – before slowing to a second-gear hairpin. And it is here that the FF performs a trick no other production Ferrari has previously been able to. Get the FF's nose turned in – it will understeer a little if you're too ambitious with entry speed – and then simply bury the throttle. What happens next is not a demonstration of clever traction control and stability systems – although the FF has those in abundance – but of what happens when you direct the drive from a Ferrari V12 not only to the rear wheels but also the fronts. The FF is the first four-wheel-drive production Ferrari. The result is near-perfect traction, zero interruption in power and simply staggering acceleration.
The mile is almost up, but leading immediately from the hairpin is one final corner and another insight into the FF. A mid-range third-gear corner, it would be easily flat in the dry, but today there's a stream of melting snow running across the road mid-corner. A tell-tale dash graphic indicates that the front axle is again being called upon – information that can be relayed to the front passenger on a display just above the glove box, should you want to scare/reassure them – but there is no apparent loss of grip and no call to the ESP gods. Sure, a rear-drive Ferrari would be equally safe with the electronics on, but I bet it would be more dramatic.
So in just one mile the FF has shown that it can cut it at low speeds, that it is refined and rides well, that it sounds the business, and that it can serve up quite staggering straight-line and cross-country pace. And it has done all that while carrying three full-size adults in comfort and 16 cubic feet of luggage – or all the photographic and video equipment we bring on a job like this. "Impressive" doesn't really do it justice.
So why has Ferrari produced a four-wheel-drive station wagon? Partly because there has been perhaps too much crossover between its two-seat and four-seat V12s, and partly because Ferrari is broadening its product scope, but mainly because its customers asked for a more usable car. You'd also imagine that the addition of four-wheel drive would be a major sales boon in certain markets – the snow belt of North America, for instance.
As to the how, the FF is a mix of what is, in Ferrari terms, relatively conventional and radical. The structure is familiar: an aluminum spaceframe, with the wheelbase extended by 1.6in. over the 612 Scaglietti to increase cabin space. Although the engine is new, and the first road V12 Ferrari to use direct injection and stop-start (bringing a 25 percent improvement in emissions over the 612), it is a development of the unit from the Enzo and 599 GTB. Even the way the drive is sent to the rear wheels is broadly standard, through a 7-speed, dual-clutch transaxle coupled to an E-Diff.
However, the way the FF directs power to the front wheels is anything but conventional – for Ferrari, or anyone else. The short story is that Ferrari patented a system in 2005 that is compact and light and, in theory, doesn't corrupt steering feel; the firm has been developing it since. For a more detailed explanation, see p40.
The four-wheel drive engages imperceptibly. There is no driveline shunt, no sudden tug on the steering, no extra mechanical noise, and it appears to happen almost instantly. Whether that's because it does or the system pre-emptively engages the front axle in certain circumstances is not clear, but the result the same.
What you can feel from the driver's seat is the effect that the additional driven axle has on the FF's handling. Through fast corners, the FF retains the sense of being rear-wheel drive, but in low to medium-speed corners – just at the point where the FF it is about to change into oversteer – the front drive intervenes and there is a sense that the FF is being pulled as well as pushed. The benefits of this are clear: this is a 651hp, 208mph car that comes with remarkably little intimidation, just the ability to dispense its performance potential extremely effectively. Which, I guess, for a GT makes sense, as does the fact that the four-wheel drive system means the FF needn't be sidelined during the winter. I tried it briefly on snow (with winter tires) and it coped well enough.
However, I can't help but feel that, from an emotive point of view, the addition of all-wheel drive has eroded a little of the interaction that I expect with a Ferrari. I'm not saying the FF isn't emotive – how could it not be when it is so extrovertly styled and sounds so sensational? – but just sometimes I'd like to be a little more involved in the job of managing and exploiting what basically feels like a nicely sorted rear-drive chassis.
Especially when, in other respects, the FF is surprisingly dynamic. Raffaele De Simone, Ferrari's chief test driver, says that, to drive, they wanted the FF to be closer to the 458 than the 612. Much of this comes from the steering, which can take a little time to get tuned into. Initially, I found my first steering input was often too large, meaning I then had to unwind a little lock, which served to exaggerate the sense of body roll. But with time the steering becomes almost, if not completely, instinctive, at which point the FF changes direction with very little body roll, beyond the first initial weight transfer. In short, it rarely feels like the 16ft.-long, 2.1-ton car it so plainly is when you stop and get out.
The other slight disappointment is that the dual-clutch gearbox on the particular FF I tried didn't feel quite as slick as those I've sampled on Ferrari's V8 cars. High-rev, high-torque upshifts weren't as fast and low-rev downchanges weren't always as smooth. That said, it is still night and day better than Ferrari's old single-clutch automated transmissions.
But these grumbles aside, what the FF managed to prove over that single mile it built on for the rest of our seven hours with it. In truth, it is hard to identify a direct rival. Especially when you consider the price: $359,000. Probably the closest competitor is the Bentley Continental GT, but they are very different cars. The Bentley is heavier, more obviously four-wheel drive, and not as agile or fun to drive. The FF is not only quicker but also more spacious. Maybe you'd consider the Aston Martin Rapide, which is at least as good to drive, if not slightly superior in some respects, but it is nowhere near as versatile as the FF, and at a different price point.
Given all this, it is impossible not to be amazed by what Ferrari has achieved – in particular that it has incorporated the security and versatility of all-wheel drive while avoiding many of the traditional technical downsides (specifically weight).
It's a different type of Ferrari from a 599 or 458 – anyone contemplating buying one needs to understand that – but today has certainly made a convincing argument for the new packaging layout, even if does leave the FF with Jello looks. But, as others have said, Ferrari should be congratulated for having the guts to produce such a car.
The verification came at the end of the day, when our journey back to the UK from the Dolomites involved a three-and-a-half-hour coach ride, followed by a two-hour flight. When asked, both our photographers voiced a preference to keep their seats, leave our stuff in the trunk and point the FF toward London. And given the opportunity, I'd happily have driven them the 838 miles in one hit. If that's not a verification of a fine GT, I don't know what is.