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BEHIND THE WHEEL / PAUL DEAN

A Slinky Speedster

July 09, 1993|PAUL DEAN

PHOENIX — Our Ferrari 348 Spider, dressed for summer in crocus yellow and black leather, spent its down time between desert runs parked outside the grandam Arizona Biltmore.

Measured by endless and coveting glances--also by a steady dribble of snapshooters using the Spider as their vacation prop--Pininfarina, who styled the 1993 car, clearly outscored Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed the 1936 hotel.

Such public appreciation also proves that despite a noticeable softening of sales and the sagging images of super-cars, Ferrari survives as a 47-year sculptor of genuine performance art and the mystical marque--with a new convertible that is no usurper.

The 348 Spider has the full song of Ferrari, an aluminum V-8 alto ascending into a ripping, purring Italian opera that on still mornings will cock ears in the next county.

Without the tin top of the 348 coupe, the Spider shows the slinkier look of a tough, purposeful, road-racing classic. It is enhanced by broad Bridgestones on 17-inch wheels and vaned side ducts a la Testa Rossa that actually deflect cooling air into radiators.

Like every Ferrari since the 1947 125 C Sport, the Spider stands waist high. There's also a mild bustle--amply louvered--that is typical of mid-engine cars and a road-sweeper front low enough to mush snails into escargot .

And its air horn puts out a cheekier sound than Pete Sampras cussing Wimbledon.

The Spider has been refined mechanically and is fractionally quicker from rest and faster at the top end than its hard-top sibling. A smaller muffler reduces exhaust resistance, more efficient electronics allow better engine management and the combination squeezes an additional 12 horsepower--to 312--from last year's 3.4-liter engine.

Ferrari's first soft top since the four-place Mondial of the '80s--also the first two-seat Spider, or Spyder, since the '74 365 Daytona--the 348 has gone topless with complete dignity.

It looks and rides as a thoughtfully conceived, thoroughly engineered convertible and not some decapitated coupe.

Top down, the windshield belongs to the flow of the overall design and does not stick out like a sore dorsal fin. Top up, lines of the canvas roof are clean and integral, and construction substantial without any appearance of temporary shelter.

Fit of the top is impeccable with God's breezes staying out and man-made refrigerated air staying in even when heading past Palm Springs one 105-degree noon in June.

Although a manual operation--Ferrari considers power seats and automatic transmission as equipment for softies--raising and lowering the roof is a one-catch, one-lever, one-person, one-minute operation. In fact, setting the leather boot over the top takes longer than stowing the roof, owing to Murphy's Law of convertibles: One snap must always refuse to fasten.

Reinforcement--mainly a stiffer windshield frame with some chassis strengthening--has been conservative. Still, there is zero cowl, windshield or hood flex no matter the speed or road surface.

Aerodynamically, the car is an anomaly. Wind noise with the top down is greater at moderate speeds than when tempting fate and the CHP. There's also less cockpit turbulence and fewer ruffled hairdos with the windows down than raised. Those funny Italians.

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The interior is businesslike because the business of anyone driving a Ferrari is staying alert amid blurred scenery, not leaning back and admiring the view.

Primary instruments are saucers set dead ahead for glimpsing all you need to know at high speed. Secondary dials are mounted in the center console because knowing how much gas remains is hardly a concern at 150 m.p.h.

Seats are for supporting butts, lumbars and thighs, not coddling them until sensory functions are lost. Pedal positions are a world standard for heel-and-toe shifters who would rather lose their credit line than botch a gear change.

The only cockpit insignia is Ferrari's celebrated prancing horse as the horn button. The gearshift is a licorice golf ball atop a chrome stalk. A brushed aluminum gate guides the shift pattern with reverse top left and first-to-second a careful shove-and-shuffle across the bridge and up.

If all that sounds backward, even awkward, see it as Ferrari's dedication to the basics of precision driving, a Nuvolari formula followed since the '40s--and one that lesser exotic car makers only began replicating in the '60s.

And the 348 Spider fully subscribes to this Gospel According to Enzo Ferrari: That mechanical purity mated to a driver's senses and reflexes is technology enough.

Balancing a car by throttle and brakes; shifting deftly to preserve power; feeling steering lighten as speed increases and manual demands must adjust instinctively. These remain responsibilities of a driver, goes the creed, not some luxury car's automatic controls.

Similarly, a Ferrari demands the soul of a duelist willing to go one-on-one with uncaring machines. That's why the car is so misunderstood.

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