Ferrari is riding an ever-growing tsunami of success with nary a clunker among its many new offerings of late—the Motor Trend Best Drivers’ Car–winning 488 and its latest Pista variant being terrific cases in point. Who knows—at this rate, the SUV they’ve long threatened to introduce may even connect as a home run. This wasn’t always the case, however. To illustrate this let’s take a look back at what may rank as the ultimate malaise Ferrari—the 348. The car that replaced Magnum PI’s iconic Pininfarina beauty 308/328 was the first Ferrari I drove as a cub reporter, during which time the seat back broke and we experienced antsy limit handling and poor cross-wind stability. See, this was the last Ferrari developed before the Acura NSX showed the world that sexy mid-engine supercars didn’t have to be finicky, fragile, ergonomic disasters. Here’s what Motor Trend had to say about the 348.
“How do you replace a classic? It’s tough, but it needs to be done eventually. Ferrari’s transformation of the 328 into the 348 is much more interesting from a technical and engineering viewpoint but it’s bound to be the shape that people talk about first. Quite simply, the 308/328 was probably the prettiest production car Ferrari has ever built. You can look at the 348 and decide it looks quite nice when approached carefully from the right direction, but you wouldn’t say it’s pretty unless you’d had a couple drinks—and that’s no way to approach any car, especially a Ferrari.”
“The most flattering angle for the 348 is from slightly above the rear three-quarters. The line of the rear side windows is neat, with the rear window more reminiscent of the 246 Dino than the 328. But even from there, the sensuality is gone. Least flattering is the full frontal view, and that dummy grille is a copout: If you don’t need a grille, why have one? An innovative aerodynamic approach would have made more sense. In the press handout (referring to the Testarossa-style side strakes) is the following remark: ‘On a Ferrari a technical requirement becomes a stylistic theme and nothing is simply there for decoration.’ Oh, really?”
The “T” in 348 TB and later TS stood for Transversale, referring to the transmission’s orientation, not the engine’s. This represented a swap from the 308/328’s transverse engine/longitudinal transaxle design, as author Peter Dron explained. “The main reason for this was not any philosophical dislike of transverse engines, but simply a search for better cornering behavior. Like the Testarossa, the 328 had too high a center of gravity for ideal handling, and the rearrangement has permitted Ferrari to lower the engine by more than 5 in.” This engine orientation also made it possible to move the cooling from the front to the rear side openings, improving the car’s polar moment of inertia.
Perhaps some of the 348’s design challenges were dimensional. “The dimensional changes are in line with the current move toward extra width and height. Almost 2 in. shorter than the 328 (but with 4 in. extra in the wheelbase), the 348 is 8.5 in. wider and 1.7 in. taller. It weighs 2,740 lb, an increase of more than 200 lb, due mainly to extra equipment but also because of the more rigid chassis.”
Engine sound has long been a hallmark pleasure of any Ferrari, although the turbocharged 488 has taken some flak on this score. The 348 didn’t impress us much on this count, either: “It doesn’t sound like a V-8; in fact, the noise it makes is more like a high-pitched turbine than anything else, the characteristic whine of the flat-plane crank. It doesn’t have the hard edge of Lamborghini’s V-8 (similar to the old Cosworth DFV) or the deep, throaty rumble of the high-performance domestic engines. It isn’t an unpleasant noise, but it won’t make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on edge. It’s simply an efficient device, to be used to the fullest.”
“For some manufacturers, it might be hard to go to market when competitors are offering cars with demonstrably better performance for tens of thousands of dollars less. Ferrari, however, seems blessed with such cache that the numbers gleaned from mere fifth wheels don’t seem to make much of a difference. Take the Ferrari 348, for example. Its 0-60-mph time of about 6 seconds can be bested by such lesser-priced machinery as an L98 Corvette. Its slalom speed of a little over 63 mph is flat blown away by the humbly priced Nissan 300ZX Turbo. Even with anti-lock brakes, its stopping performance from 60 mph is bested by any number of ABS-equipped cars.”
When it first arrived on the market, the 348 nipped at the heels of the range-topping, Miami Vice/Sonny Crockett–popularized Testarossa. “It certainly does take off, too, with 0-60 mph in under 5.5 sec and a top speed of more than 275 kph (171 mph). This calls into question the purpose of a Testarossa, which is no more practical, doesn’t handle as well, and is no longer significantly faster. It’ll be interesting to see what Ferrari does with the ‘face-lifted’ Testarossa (an engineering as well as a cosmetic job), which is due out in the next couple years.”
Indeed that flagship replacement, the flat-12-cylinder 512 BB, quickly eclipsed the $100,000 cheaper 348 in terms of performance and sales, as we reported in our April, 1993 issue. This situation called for drastic action: “… radical surgery to increase the latter’s appeal to Americans. The operations included a roofectomy along with some minor bodywork nips and tucks. The result is the new 348 Spider, Ferrari’s first two-seat convertible since the 365 GTB4 Daytona. Along with its manual soft top, the Spider gets body-color lower cladding and engine cover, plus oversize prancing-horse badges front and rear. The open-air 348 gains added stability thanks to a 50-millimeter increase in rear track. And Ferrari claims a modest horsepower bump-from 300 to 312. Coupled with a new transverse gearbox and slightly lower differential gear ratio this should help the Spider scamper 0-60 mph in under 5.5 seconds. The price for all this al fresco excitement is expected to start around $120,000.”
“All-around visibility in the 348 is much better than in most mid-engine cars, and the large door-mounted mirrors are ideal. At first, it’s hard to spot the changes to the interior, and the character of the 308/328 has been carried forward into the 348. But there are significant improvements, not the least of them being an important increase in leg and head room and a better driver’s seat. For the first time with a Ferrari V-8 behind my shoulders, I was truly comfortable and didn’t feel cramped. At last, the factory has recognized that some of us—and quite a few Italians these days—are over 6 ft tall.”
After damning some ergonomic and build quality aspects with faint praise (“Heating and ventilation systems in Italian cars have moved from effectively non-existent through fairly feeble to a point where they are now almost as good as anything from anywhere else;” and “The interior was well put together, except the two outer vents were not perfectly aligned in the fascia”), Dron closed with this zinger: “There’s no doubt that the 348, from a dynamic point of view, is a serious and important step forward from the 328. It’s just as well, because it’s a bit like the plain sister who got all the brains.”
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