Review and road test of the Ferrari F355 (1994 - 2000)
F1 FOR THE PEOPLE
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
The Ferrari F355 carved out a little place in motoring history for itself. Widely renowned as the best volume model to roll out of the Maranello factory since the 308GTB, the F355 was a massive advance over its predecessor, the unloved 348. To this day, many mourn the passing of the F355 range, and there is no shortage of buyers who prefer its clean, understated looks to those of its successor, the 360 Modena. A used F355 is a far more reasonable proposition than many expect, but does the sticker price open up a bottomless money pit for those tempted by the allure of the Prancing Horse badge? Find out here.
(2 dr Supercar 3.5 litre petrol [Berlinetta, GTS, Spider])
Deliveries of the F355 began in September 1994, with two specific body styles available, the fixed head Berlinetta coupe and the Targa-roofed GTS. Both were an instant hit. The combination of clean, uncluttered styling and a massive boost in engine technology and power meant that the F355 was the 'it-car' for the remainder of the decade. In August 1995 Ferrari launched the F355 Spider, continuing the tradition of full convertible V8 models that the Mondial had championed so successfully. Summer 1997 saw the introduction of the F355 F1 models with Formula One style gearchange paddles replacing the traditional chrome gated gearshift.
The F355 Berlinetta and GTS models were deleted in summer 1999, replaced by the 360 Modena. The F355 Spider soldiered on until early 2000 when it too was replaced by an open version of the Modena.
What You Get
The Ferrari F355 marked a splendid return to form for the Maranello marque not witnessed since the 308GTB. Clean, cohesive styling that looked good from any given angle, a generous sprinkling of Formula One magic and a level of quality that was unprecedented all combined to make the F355 the most desirable Ferrari for years. Sit behind the wheel of the car and the level of quality is astonishing, especially when one considers the Fiat parts-bin interiors that characterised Ferraris of the eighties. Everything has been designed with a genuine appreciation of the look and feel Ferrari customers expect. The early cars were manufactured in an era when airbagged steering wheels and elegant design were mutually exclusive concepts, but that aside, the interior ambience hits the spot.
The engine is what makes the F355 special. With five-valves per cylinder and 109bhp per litre of specific output, a record for a normally-aspirated car, the V8 engine is worth the price of admission on its own. There's the traditional high-pitched dentist's drill sound of the starter motor before the engine rumbles into life. At idle it sounds awful. Deeply, manifestly ordinary. Indeed, if you were to trundle around below 3000rpm, a Vauxhall Vectra GSi offers more stimulating aural pleasure. As the revs begin to rise however, the flat-plane crankshafts, valve gear, induction system and exhaust all combine to create first a purposeful growl which rises to a banshee shriek and then an F1-style scream as the needle touches 8000rpm. Wonderful.
All models are equally sought after, but the Berlinetta is the best choice for the serious driver or the classic car collector. The GTS retains the elegant profile, but the Spider is slightly lumpen with the hood up. Another factor that serves as a demerit on the soft-top car is the power roof mechanism. Taller drivers will need to get out of the car before raising or lowering the roof. If they don't, they'll find that the power seat will slide forward to clear a path for the roof assembly and they'll be slowly squashed against the steering wheel in a cameo reminiscent of the garbage compactor scene from Star Wars. Not the effect you'll want to replicate outside a wine bar.
What to Look For
One of the key philosophies behind modern era Ferraris is increased usage. Chief of the Maranello concern, Luca di Montezemolo, quickly figured out that the best advertisement for Ferrari reliability was for the cars to be seen out on the roads more often. Rather than massively ramp up production, the alternative route was to make the cars more practical and user friendly - in other words to get people to treat their Ferraris like Porsche 911s, exotic but able to handle a daily commute without any histrionics. As such, the F355 has gained an enviable reputation for reliability. Watch out for bottom-book left hand drive versions which may not have been treated to the prescribed level of main dealer tender loving care. If you're after a GTS model, ask the vendor to fit and remove the targa roof, as this panel is very sensitive to warping. It also needs to be stored in a shaded, horizontal position when left off the car.
The clutch mechanisms in the F1 models have been known to give up the ghost within 5,000 miles of hard use. If the car is left in full 'automatic' mode, where the transmission changes gear for you, clutch life is reduced significantly if exposed to city driving. Low speed manoeuvring is always slightly jerky in this mode, but if you detect clutch slip, that will require work. Service intervals are every 6,250 miles, so check the service history to check that work has been carried out punctually. Every three years, regardless of mileage covered, the F355 will need its cam belt replaced. This is an engine out job and it's one of the reasons there are plenty of two and a half and five and a half year old cars on the market!
Exhaust manifolds have been known to develop hairline cracks, so listen for any blowing in this area. The only other notable fault that the F355 suffered from is an occasionally leaky cam cover. Make sure the cover is clean before any test drive and inspect afterwards for signs of oil.
(approx based on a 1998 F355 Berlinetta) Ferrari spares aren't inexpensive, but nor are they the horrendous expense that many would believe. A pair of front brake pads for the F355 retail at just under £100, and a new clutch kit is around £340. Expect to pay around £250 for a new radiator, and under £300 for a new alternator. A starter motor retails at around £250, whilst a replacement headlamp is £150. All of these prices are around half those of that sensible supercar, the Honda NSX. Makes you think, doesn't it.
On the Road
The performance credentials of the F355 are obvious. With a top speed of 183mph and a rest to sixty time of 4.6 seconds, it's not about to be embarrassed by any souped-up hot hatches. The performance is easily accessible, with a long flowing stream of torque making it possible to reach speeds which would warrant a custodial sentence in less time than it takes to read this sentence. You'll want to savour the soundtrack, to erase and rewind, to back off the gas and hear it ascend the scales time and again, that maniacal rending of canvas catapulting off buildings, tunnels and rock walls as the Ferrari slingshots forward on another intoxicating gale of power. Small wonder you'll leave the car with a wide grin of guilty indulgence.
The handling feels far more benign than the wayward 348, although the F355 never feels firmly planted to the ground in the way that a Porsche 911 or even a Nissan Skyline does. It feels as if it's on tiptoes, dancing around bends, teetering on the edge of an expensive interface with the scenery, but all the time responsive and darty. The steering is like quicksilver, the slightest tweak of the wheel sending the car's nose on an unflinching tangent. Up the speed to the point where the car is approaching its limit and you'll need to be a very skilled pilot. The benign feeling disappears and the mid-engined F355 adopts some distinctly mid-engined stereotypes. In other words if you drive it quickly but lazily, without due consideration to the laws of physics, it will spin, and you'll need to have the reflexes of a racing driver to play catch up. Fortunately to derive massive enjoyment from your prospective purchase, you don't need to continually tread this fine line. The F355 appeals on many subtler levels.
Many lament the fact that the F355 was replaced so early by the more dramatic, if less elegant, 360 Modena. There's a simple purity to the F355 that seems to have disappeared from Ferrari's latest offerings that will preserve the car's classic status. To lay one down like a fine wine is to waste one though. This is one Ferrari that appreciates being taken by the scruff of the neck and given a sound thrashing. As a used purchase there are lot of things to look out for, but a properly maintained F355 will provide satisfaction like nothing else. Look for a scrupulously cared for, low mileage car in one of the classic colours and you won't lose your shirt. But even if you lose shirt, trousers, shoes and everything else, you'll consider it a fair bargain for the thrill of dancing at that redline, all 380 horsepower at your disposal. With the F355 it's not a case of whether you can afford to buy one, more a question of can you afford not to?
Ferrari F355 (1994 - 2000) review by ANDY ENRIGHT