Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano HGTE

"What exactly is the point of a $356,000 car?"

It floors me when people ask that question.

Talk them through the car's shape, its handmade interior, the soundtrack and force of its 612-hp V12 engine and the marque's mystique and you'll soon realize that with some people any attempt at explaining why this car exists is futile. They remain convinced that on public roads a Ferrari can't do much their reasonably priced family sedan doesn't do. Yes indeed, Concorde was just another airliner, and Neil Armstrong's small step for a man was just another pilot stepping off the bottom rung of a boarding ladder.

If people can accept that there's a place for a Mona Lisa among paintings, a Yo-Yo Ma among cellists, a Westminster Abbey among churches, I wonder why they can't see a Ferrari 599 for what it is.

Not that the car is perfect. The original 599 was deemed by some people who know Ferraris well to be a bit soft on the edges, the sort of criticism Ferrari suffers not for long. So now there is an HGTE package for the base 599 GTB-and the circa-$450,000 GTO, essentially the street-legal version of the 599XX track car. (HGTE stands for "Handling Gran Turismo Evoluzione." All 599 examples of the 599 GTO that will be built are already spoken for. Other than deprivation of bragging rights this doesn't matter much; nine out of 10 drivers (and I place myself low among the nine) couldn't come close to using the full capability of even the tamer HGTE on the track, let alone the road. 

Power-to-weight ratio and weight distribution (47 percent on the front wheels and 53 percent on the rear wheels) has been as important as ever to Ferrari with the 599, which uses aluminum for the chassis and body, unlike its 550/575 Maranello predecessor, which has a steel chassis and aluminum body and has a curb weight of 3,725 pounds-three pounds more than the base 599's. The entire front-mounted engine sits behind the front axle line, no mean feat for a six-liter V12 that still manages to preserve generous volume in the cabin. "If you can get the engine behind the front wheels the handling is incredibly different, with minimal if any under-steer," noted Ferrari North America vice president of technical services Adam Rowley.

The 599 HGTE's paddle-shifter F1 transmission is quick but no longer cutting-edge, retaining a dry twin-disc clutch. The new Ferrari 458 (F430 replacement) and California both have multi wet clutch packs (one for the even-numbered gears and another for the odd-numbered ones) between the crankshaft and the gears. Just as with a clutch pedal, driver technique determines the life of the 599's dry clutch-it prefers no-dawdle motion motivation over timid taps at the gas pedal but will tolerate them for parking. Depending on the driving mode selected with the mannetino, the 599 HGTE shifts gears in 150 or 120 milliseconds. The gains in F1 shift speed stem from technology that slightly overlaps the three functions of the shifting mechanism: it starts to throw the gear as the clutch begins to open, and as it's finishing throwing the gear the clutch is already starting to close again. However, in the swiftness stakes the single-clutch F1 cannot compete with multi-clutch transmissions.

The mannetino is Ferrari's multi-mode "sport" selector on the steering wheel, and it offers five levels of driver protection/ride stiffness. Set to the blue snowflake, it provides maximum traction control, a little less so when moved one notch clockwise to the green squirrelly tire tracks normal setting. One more click to the right applies the white sport setting, good for dry roads, stiffer suspension and quicker gearshifts. The orange race setting retains the sport-mode suspension and shift speed but provides less traction control. The spring-loaded red setting disables all the nanny electronics and unleashes raw power and handling with no intervention.

Regardless of whether or not it's at the cutting edge in 2010, the 599 HGTE's F1 transmission performs spectacularly while absorbing the punishment churned out by the 612-hp V12. During full-throttle acceleration in race mode, a brutal shudder accompanies gearshifts for a few nanoseconds as the structure absorbs the massive powertrain loads.

My neighbor, a farmer by trade and BMW M3 track racer by hobby, has an extremely long, straight, open and perfectly blacktopped driveway through one of his fields. Unbeknownst to either of us at the time, we bought matching 2003 BMW E39 M5s a couple of years ago. On a measured stretch of his driveway, he can get his M5 up to 116 mph before he has to hit the brakes. The 599 reached 130 mph in the same distance, far short of its 205+-mph top speed. The Ferrari's massive carbon-ceramic brakes (13.9-inch-diameter, 1.3-inch-thick rotors in the front) brought the car swiftly to a stop with zero fuss or drama.

I never thought I'd regard my M5 as a slug, but minutes after returning the 599 to Ferrari North America I pulled out onto busy Route 4 in northern New Jersey in the BMW and floored it. That 400-hp car suddenly felt mired in molasses. Unless you can buy one, don't drive a 599. Going back to a daily mule is like returning to the same old routine after a weekend in the hay with Scarlett Johannson; however good that old routine might be, it can never be the same.

Compared with the standard 599 GTB, the HGTE overall handling and turn-in are improved by virtue of different dampers and springs, a slightly lower ride height, thicker roll bars, stickier Pirelli tires (they cling onto any grit particles not stuck to the asphalt and fling them harmlessly but quite noisily into the wheel arches) and modular rims with 10mm more dish, adding a smidgen to the wheels' track. The HGTE rides a little more stiffly in normal mode, but not to the point that a long drive would be fatiguing. The car tickles all the senses, with exterior visual touches such as matt chrome for the radiator grille and the prancing horse on the trunk lid and, on the inside, a mixture of leather, Alcantara and carbon fiber; new carbon-fiber seats provide plenty of comfort and adjustment.

The 599 HGTE treats the driver's ears to an exhaust note that grumbles more at idle, and when the bypass valves in the exhaust system open as power builds, the noise is a magnificent racket, the noblest demise for a million atomized droplets of Shell 93. Owners of Maranellos told Ferrari they wanted a louder voice from their V12, and the 599 obliges, its bypass valves providing the best of both worlds-full-throated V12 noise under load and peace and quiet for cruising. Noted Rowley, "Exhaust design is integral to the engine these days-it's not just a pipe for expelling gases-and aftermarket exhausts that monkey with the pressure in the pipes, cats and mufflers often trigger check-engine lights that mechanics have a heck of a time tracing and fixing."

Attention to flow is much in evidence on the 599 HGTE, from the exhaust gases to the current of wind the car creates over itself. By sculpting the underfloor at the design stage in the computer and the wind tunnel, downforce can be moved to balance it between the front and rear axles. The "flying buttresses" just downwind from the doors channel airflow around the rear window and onto the nolder that forms the upturned lip of the trunk lid, and the massive diffuser between the exhaust pipes controls airflow lower down at the back end.

So, to return to the opening question, what exactly is the point of this car? Nothing, beyond confirming that mankind still has the thirst and the intelligence for pushing boundaries, for making today's best-of-the-best yesterday's milestone. It's evolution in action, our own version of the process that turned single-cell life forms into such homo sapiens as Da Vinci, Ferrari engineers and Pininfarina stylists.