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SPECIAL AUTO ISSUE

Self-Propelled

Why Everyone in Los Angeles Should Have a Ferrari

September 14, 2003|Dan Neil | Dan Neil is automobile critic and columnist for The Times.

It's about 9:15 a.m. on the southbound 405 Freeway, today or tomorrow or sometime next week, I've lost track. It's a parking lot out here. A woman in a BMW 540i behind me has her foot on the steering wheel and is painting her toenails. A ladder-draped Toyota pickup ahead is blasting out tejano loud enough to disorient dolphins in the bay. As far as the eye can see, commuters are nattering into their cellular headsets, like a vast motorized artillery unit of Time-Life operators.

I, too, am standing by.

My car is a molest-me red Ferrari 360 Spider on loan from Ferrari North America. I have one week in a $185,000 Italian sports car so sexy that it appears to have been forged from melted bra clasps and garter-belt snaps; so fast it can blow the foam off lattes outside of any Starbucks it passes; so unspeakably deck as to leave the most jaded Hollywood tyro and P. Diddy wannabe cringing with envy. In short, it's the ultimate L.A. car.

Or is it?

There are a lot of things Angelenos need: martini-flavored Valtrex, for instance; tinfoil hats to block Hollywood's mind-probing stupid rays.

But I think it's safe to say that nobody in this town needs a red Ferrari convertible. This car will go 0 to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds, which would be great if I could ever get to 60 mph. Instead, I've spent most of the past three days cooling my heels. And while it's certainly true that my heels are consummately cooler than everyone else's, there is something slapstick about a guy in a fast and glammy car, trapped in traffic, some hint of class revenge. Write all the zeros you want on that check to Ferrari Beverly Hills, or Bentley, or Lamborghini. That clapped-out '89 Toyota Corolla--the one with the old lady's worldly possessions wadded into it like gun cotton--is just as fast as you are between Sunset and Melrose. My Ferrari, with its 400 mid-engine cavalli and paddle shifters behind the steering wheel is stuck, attached head and tail to traffic, just one more segment in an endless tapeworm wound through the bowels of Los Angeles.

Metaphor police. The town needs metaphor police.

Southern California is the world's monster garage. Hot rodding, bike chopping, low-riding, cruising, slamming, biker boyz, power princesses and drive-by shootings . . . they all started here. Most of the world's car makers have design studios in the region, from whence to observe the innate behaviors of SoCal's automotive fauna, like biologists' blinds above the Serengeti. The country's most prestigious and prolific automotive design program belongs to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

And yet L.A. is a perversely unpleasant place to drive. Every morning untenable multitudes boil out of the suburbs like cockroaches, funneling onto the freeways, scrambling over one another's clear-coated backs, as if in response to some frantic, purblind instinct. City streets are gridlocked. People are existentially ticked off. Yesterday I saw a middle-aged woman scream astonishing obscenities into the face of another commuter and give him the finger with both hands in a kind of rapid-fire machine-gun flip-off (you know the technique). She had a "Jesus is Lord" sticker in her window.

Simply on the basis of mechanical function, the perfect car for this asphalt purgatory is something small and expendable, like a BMW Mini Cooper or maybe a Ford Focus SVT coupe--screaming meemy subcompacts with point-and-shoot power to seize the initiative in traffic, tight turning radiuses for easy parking, excellent gas mileage and safe-sex interiors. These cars are like sawed-off point guards running circles around NBA giants.

So how is it so many people drive Hummers, Cadillac Escalades, Mercedes Gelandewagens, Range Rovers? The rolling stock of Los Angeles has more off-road capability than Rommel's Afrika Korps. This is acutely puzzling owing to the region's superabundance of road.

Here's a little thought experiment: A Cadillac Escalade is 16.5 feet long. A Ford Focus coupe is about 14 feet long. Let's say you have 10,000 vehicles idled on the freeway, which is about 9.5 miles worth of four-lane, bumper-to-bumper, head-exploding traffic. Now assume 1,000 of these vehicles are 'Slades (or their less bling-afied cousins, Chevy Tahoes, or like-sized Ford Expeditions). If you replace those vehicles with Foci, you have an extra 2.5 feet multiplied by 1,000. That's an extra 625 feet of free four-lane freeway. Now apply the formula to the 4.5 million daily commuters in the L.A. area. That's more than 70 miles of suddenly vacant asphalt. Pretty soon L.A. starts looking emptier than London in the opening scene of "28 Days Later."

Commuters roiling the freeways every morning aren't giving up their huge, gas-bonging SUV's though, are they? And the fact that Vipers and Ferraris and Lambos, oh my, can't get out of second gear hasn't slowed sales down any. Mechanical function? Civic responsibility? Please.

It's all about representing.

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