Can Maranello evoke past greats with its latest front-engined V12, or do rivals from Aston Martin, Porsche and Lamborghini have a more complete take on the supercar formula?

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When Maranello announced the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta on the eve of the 2012 Geneva motor show, its billing as the fastest road-going Ferrari ever made, either in terms of bald acceleration or around the firm’s Fiorano handling circuit, or indeed anywhere, was formidable.

The supercar cognoscenti would probably still be in awe of all that now, if it weren’t for the models that Ferrari has unveiled since: specifically, one headline-stealing 950bhp hybrid.

The F12 is a traditionalist Ferrari at heart, with its naturally aspirated V12 engine in the nose and just two seats

Overshadowed or not, though, the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta is a landmark in its own right, and having been to Italy to sample it, witnessed it disdainfully dismiss the equivalent Lamborghini in a comparison test and seen it come painfully close to scooping our 2013 Best Driver’s Car title, it’s time to get well and truly under this car’s ingeniously sculpted aluminium skin.

Although Ferrari has been making front-engined V12 grand touring sports cars for the road for almost six decades, the car to which the new F12 owes its biggest debt is probably the 275 GTB of 1964.

Since the 275, Maranello has made equivalent front-engined V12 models in the form of the 365 GTB/4 (Daytona), 550 Maranello, 575M and 599. But during a 23-year gap between the Daytona and 550, it abandoned the front-engined V12 concept to experiment with mid-engined flat 12 models such as the Testarossa.

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It’s not just those with a cool quarter of a million pounds of vested interest in this car who will be interested to discover the full breadth and scope of the Ferrari F12’s talent and stature, however, and nowhere will you give a fuller picture.

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Ferrari F12 Berlinetta alloy wheels

The F12’s key contradiction is that it is both pioneer and throwback. This is Ferrari's first ‘downsized’ super-GT, and the first car of its kind to be lower, shorter, narrower and lighter than the one that it replaces.

As such, it seems to adopt a path leading, in design terms, in the direction not of the imposing 550, 575M and 599 of relatively recent memory, but instead towards the company’s more effete front-engined models of the 1960s.

The rear track is 1618mm, identical to that of the 599

The F12 is more than 200mm longer than the 275 GTB but its short overhangs visually reduce its mass, and its cabin-rear profile contributes to a classic sports car silhouette.

Compared with the 599, the F12 has a lower scuttle and seating position, a lower engine mounting and a resultingly lower centre of roll. Packaging advances have made the rear-mounted transaxle gearbox and suspension systems smaller, allowing a shorter rear overhang and a rearward shift in weight distribution.

Built by Scaglietti, the F12’s monocoque underbody is made of 12 different aluminium alloys and contributes to a 20 percent gain in torsional rigidity compared with the 599, as well as a 70kg overall saving.

The car is clothed in aluminium, too, its panels sculpted according to Ferrari’s unique ‘aerodynamics via subtraction’ philosophy. The arcing channels cut into the bonnet form the so-called Aero Bridge, diverting air from the base of the windscreen and using it to reduce drag around the wheelarches.

The net result is that this car produces 123kg of downforce at 126mph but has a drag coefficient of less than 0.3. In our experience, the car’s styling doesn’t win universal praise but, like it or not, you can’t deny that the F12’s design works.

Carbon-ceramic brakes and magnetorheological dampers are standard. Power comes from a 6.3-litre V12 with normal aspiration and direct injection. It produces 731bhp and 509lb ft of torque, sent via a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox.

Open the bonnet of the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta and you’ll find a pair of unusual protrusions, one at the front of each cylinder head, that appear to have nothing to do with the drive system for the valve gear.

They’re resonance chambers, into which intake air flows where it is ‘pre-charged’ on its way to the cylinders. The process, says Ferrari, makes for better combustion and a more generous provision of low-end torque.

And that’s just one of the things that Ferrari’s 6262cc V12 does particularly cleverly. Fed by direct fuel injection and ultra-precise combustion control, the over-square engine can run a compression ratio of 13.5:1 – 23 percent greater than that of the latest Aston Martin Vanquish – without knocking. The engine also runs so cleanly that it needs no catalytic converters.

The car’s headline 731bhp is the eye-catching figure – if you want more power than that, you can only really get it in production cars costing at least three times as much as the F12, although Ferrari has rectified this small issue with the 770bhp F12tdf. But its 509lb ft of peak twist is just as important, 80 percent of which is available from just 2500rpm.

As a swansong for not only the F12, but the naturally aspirated V12 engine, Ferrari is set to unveil the F12 M at the 2017 Geneva Motor Show with its headline power output increased to 750bhp.


Ferrari F12 Berlinetta dashboard

Ferrari’s claim to have increased cabin space in spite of the Ferrari F12’s reduction in overall size is borne out by first impressions. Your backside seems to drop a long way into the leather sports seat, which, despite its thin and purposeful appearance, is not only supportive but also perfectly comfortable over long distances.

Your legs stretch out very straight in front of you, your heels ending up at almost the same level as your hips and, even if you’re taller than average, your scalp will be comfortably clear of the roof lining. The driving position is excellent, with as much adjustment on the steering column as most will need.

There's a decent amount of space in the Ferrari's boot

There is enough space behind the two seats for coats and shopping bags and there are storage nets for loose items. Further back, the boot is large by supercar standards: up to 500 litres in all. A couple of large cases fit easily.

The car’s switchgear-heavy steering wheel takes some getting used to, even after exposure to the 458, it won’t suit everyone. For us, the indicator switches seem a logical migration, but somehow the wiper and main beam controls still don’t.

Thankfully, Ferrari continues its tradition of mounting the gearchange paddles on the column rather than the wheel, making them much easier to use with steering angle applied than they might otherwise be.

You navigate the F12's various systems by using the slightly fiddly selector by your right hand and the right-hand LCD display screen in the instrument binnacle. The control logic could be more intuitive, but the connectivity options are good. The Bluetooth phone connection is reliable once established.

Sat-nav comes as standard but it isn't the easiest to use. It's a dramatic improvement over previous units, however. The map appears in the right-hand screen in the binnacle and relays directional prompts as well. Programming is quite lengthy by the standards of the best premium brands, but Ferrari says there's voice control for it. It wasn't something obvious enough for us to access and test, though.

Other standard equipment includes an anti-theft satellite system, a rear parking camera, an electrically adjustable steering wheel, climate control, cruise control and temperature monitoring.

Ferrari’s standards of fit and finish continue to improve, but the F12’s cabin could be slightly richer and more distinctive. There is plenty of commonality to be recognised by 458 owners here. It didn’t irk many testers, but having spent close to £300k, an F12 owner might expect a bit less of it.


Ferrari F12 Berlinetta rear quarter

If there were more than five stars available here, we’d have awarded them. Given the increasingly prevalent fascination with turbochargers and electric motor assistance, there’s a splendidly old-school decadence about a naturally aspirated 6.3-litre V12 that revs to the moon.

Across the industry, only Lamborghini’s and Aston Martin’s V12s are anything like it. Even then, the F12’s engine feels in a class of one in combining top-end power with low-end tractability. It is more alert and responsive than any other large-capacity engine in recent memory.

Ferrari has kept the brake and accelerator pedals a respectful distance apart, which is appropriate for a car in which you would not want to mistake them

The figures tell most of the story. The 731bhp peak is at 8250rpm, with the more modest 509lb ft torque peak appearing at a still-heady 6000rpm (just 750rpm shy of where peak power is delivered in Aston Martin’s V12 Vantage S).

It used to be said that when you bought a Ferrari, you paid for the engine and got a car thrown in free. Not quite how it feels today, but there’s no doubt that the F12’s powertrain is its stand-out feature.

Against the clock? A slight rearward weight bias and an effective launch control system meant the F12 hit 60mph in 3.0sec precisely, before going on to pass 100mph in 6.5sec. Among the other road cars that we have tested, only a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport provides a genuine benchmark.

Accelerate in the right gear from 30mph and just 2.3sec later an F12 will pass 70mph. In fourth, a gear that can be engaged at under 30mph yet take you to the other side of 120mph, that time is still only 4.6sec. At its peak, the Ferrari will hit 211mph.

In an F12, you will never yearn for more power, nor for a faster, better gearshift: its dual-clutch unit is first class in its speed and smoothness. Although Ferrari has taken the F12 and tweaked the recipe, producing the F12tdf which gives it 770bhp, but alters the character drastically.


Ferrari F12 Berlinetta hard cornering

The F12 continues Ferrari’s recent trait of extremely light and remarkably quick steering, as Maranello attempts to make its cars feel more agile than their kerb weights – in this case, a respectable 1715kg full of fuel – would suggest.

At just two turns lock to lock, and with a decent turning circle, the F12 feels endowed with the steering DNA that runs through Ferrari’s other models. The Ferrari’s steering is so quick and light that this car belies its weight, albeit not its size, on turn-in, which is notably brisk. Then it settles into steady-state understeer if you let it.

Ferrari's transaxle architecture helps the F12 to a 46 percent front, 54 percent rear weight split

There’s so much power here, though, and it comes in so quickly, that you can push through any understeer at any speed, in any gear, with a flex of the right foot.

That’s when you’ll feel the need to be on top of your game, because such is the ferocity and immediacy of the response – of both throttle and steering – that it can get quite unsettling. Keep your nerve, though, and you’ll find that this is a faithful, well balanced car that can be steered on the throttle easily and without fear.

At lower speeds, that makes the F12 feel like an easy-going companion. The magnetorheological dampers have soft and firm settings, and you’d use both, because neither is pushed to an extreme. And with a progressive clutch take-up and tractable engine, only the car’s physical bulk, of which there is plenty (although much of it is unseen ahead of the windscreen), makes it feel a little unwieldy.

That said, because the reserves of power are always there and always so accessible, it pays to keep the steering wheel’s Manettino switched to a conservative ESP mode if you are just ambling around. The electronics are involved frequently at even a modest pace and, coupled to the steering’s quickness, make the F12 a less relaxing drive than, say, a V12 Vantage S.

Similar things apply with increased speed, only they (naturally) happen more quickly. The F12’s ride is adeptly controlled, and it’s only ever visibility and the law that limit the speed with which you can cross country, such are the F12’s levels of ability.

On a circuit, at first it will be as much your nerve as the Ferrari’s power that limits the speed at which you’ll travel. We can’t think of a race track where you’d crave more poke. Traction is actually very strong in a straight line, but put cornering forces into the mix and the available power will always find a way to overwhelm the rear tyres.

Once you’re attuned to the relative playfulness and faithfulness of the F12’s front-engined handling, using more power than the tyres can handle becomes second nature. However, all of this happens despite the F12’s quick, overly sensitive steering and not, as in a V12 Vantage S or a Porsche 911 GT3, thanks to it.


Ferrari F12 Berlinetta

As this is a Ferrari – and a V12 Ferrari at that – discussion of its value or sticker price or running costs are all but redundant.

Nevertheless, as the numbers are amusing and eyebrow-raising, we’ll indulge your interest. The F12's list price of just under £240,000 is less than that of a Lamborghini Aventador and other assorted exotica, but more expensive than practically anything else. And that’s just for starters.

Supercar performance predictably entails supercar running costs, but that will trouble few buyers

No example will leave the factory (or the dealer) at that level. With its paint job alone costing over £15k, our test car had no problem whatsoever in sailing past the £300,000 barrier.

Then you have to run the thing. Ferrari’s seven-year Genuine Maintenance scheme is very good, and standard in the UK, but it won’t help you fuel or tax your F12. At current prices, the 92-litre tank will cost at least £105 a time to fill with super-unleaded and that will last for just 260 miles if you repeat the 12.9mpg average economy figure that we managed.

Start enjoying the V12’s epic performance more often, and getting it as low as 3.7mpg (our return on the track) will be no effort. Road duty will be £490 a year.

There's just one engine, one specification and limitless options: if you care about depreciation, pick from them sensibly. If not, please yourself. Budget cachet and rarity will aid residual values but high transaction prices are unlikely to, so pick options wisely.

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4.5 star Ferrari F12 Berlinetta

There were times before this test when we'd wondered if any car with a single driven axle really needed 731bhp and after why 770bhp was needed on the F12tdf.

Whether even a supercar needs to be so fully endowed in the foward-thump department. And now?

We’re talking about excess here and the fact is that nothing comes close to rivalling the F12

The Ferrari F12 doesn't need all of this poke, of course, but the ferocity of the powerplant undoubtedly determines and underlines the character of this most urgent of grand front-engined supercars.

Alternatives such as the Aston Martin Vanquish are better looking than the Ferrari, but otherwise on another page, while the Porsche 911 Turbo S just doesn't have the pomp. Even the Lamborghini Aventador S, which has the price, power and presence of the F12, doesn't offer up the dynamic charm of the Italian supercar.

Supercar, not GT car – you'll note that we're inclined to make the distinction. Because although the F12 has an extremely habitable interior and decent-size boot – plus a vast fuel tank that turns its laughable economy into a usable range – this is still a car that, at heart, is dominated by its performance.

But what performance. And what drama.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.