Speed, style and substance?

Are Italian cars more of a status symbol than a means of transport? Josh Sims deliberates

Its mechanics may be American, based on those of the Corvette ZR1, with an engine that can propel it from 0 to 62mph in 3.2 seconds and provide a top speed of 217mph. Its looks, however - aerodynamic, sleek, muscular and best seen in shiny red paintwork - are pure Italian.

The Mantide concept - which posted the fastest ever lap time for a production car on the famed Nurburgring Nordschleife track - comes from the hand of Stile Bertone, the styling company that also gave petrolheads the Lamborghini Miura and the Ferrari 308, among many others. It is, in short, a teenage boy’s poster motor, or a crisisriven middle-aged man’s last macho hurrah. But is it anything more than flash in an age of necessarily more discreet stealth wealth and eco-consciousness? Especially when seen pootling noisily through inner-city congestion, all growl and no prowl?

Italian sports cars may have a reputation for stylistic rather than engineering excellence (leave that to the Germans and Japanese) and yet, with this year the 40th birthday of Maserati’s first mass-produced car and the 65th birthday of Ferrari’s first road-car just round the hairpin bend, they still define the dream vehicle. And defiantly male ones, at that, as befits companies that choose a rearing horse (Ferrari), warlike trident (Maserati) and fighting bull (Lamborghini) for their badges. Certainly no other country’s auto makers would name a car after a exclamation of astonishment used by Piedmontese men upon seeing a beautiful woman - “countach!” - said to be uttered by stylist Nuccio Bertone on first seeing the prototype of his Lamborghini.

Italian sports cars have a reputation for stylistic rather than engineering excellence, yet they still define the dream vehicle

Of course, there is the clever investment value of such cars now: the rarer models from the Italian sports marques have seen sizable returns despite the recession. Take, for example, Ferrari’s Superamerica - of which only 57 right-hand drive examples made it to the UK out of a global production run of just 599. But perhaps the deeper desire to buy a posemobile stems less from a readiness to seem out of keeping with the times - encouraging the schadenfreude of wreckedexotics.com, a site dedicated to pictures of totalled super-cars - as a love with its racing history and design pedigree. “Today it’s not about showing off,” adds Stephan Winkelman, chief executive of Automobili Lamborghini. “Our client now is discerning - his choice of car is a luxury purchase and a statement of success, but its appeal also lies in an appreciation of pushing the boundaries and new benchmarks in design and technology.”

Perhaps the divide in the motivation of one’s appreciation is now more geographical. Less mature luxury markets have become boom ones for the Italian sports car giants: the first half of this year, for example, saw Ferrari post record sales, largely due to Chinese demand rocketing 116 per cent. Chinese owners of luxury cars are also on average a decade younger than their European counterparts and are more likely to be women too: Maserati has estimated that three times as many women in China buy its cars compared with rates in Europe. In markets such as China, flaunting wealth is still encouraged - a sign of success that others admire rather than envy.

In the West, once accusations of a lack in the trouser department have been overcome, Italian sports car owners might now be better positioned to argue that, in a post-flash society, their choice is more about aesthetics than the subliminal need for prosthetics. This, indeed, is what Italian cars, be they the reborn pint-sized Fiat 500 or even Italy’s best-seller, the Punto, are all about. Small wonder that Italy itself has ten or more world-class car museums, with Turin alone counting three: the Museo Dell’Automobile Luigi Bonfanti, Museo Carlo Biscaretti di Ruffia and the Pininfarina Collection. They may not be packed with the greenest, most innovative or most social cars, but they are a true celebration of automobile as art form.cars compared with rates in Europe. In markets such as China, flaunting wealth is still encouraged - a sign of success that others admire rather than envy.