348 - Ferrari's Unappreciated Masterpiece or a Red-Headed Stepchild?
For years the 348 has been thought of as a bit of a black sheep in the vintage Ferrari family, but does it deserve that reputation?
While it seems a bit unfair to call any Ferrari truly unloved, it’s well known and well reflected in market values that the 348 is a bit of a black sheep in the Ferrari family. Naysayers point to the relatively low 300 horsepower and five second zero to sixty time as well as the infamous engine out services. However, I’ve yet to meet someone who has actually driven a 348 and had bad things to say about them. Back when I was 18, the first Ferrari I ever drove was a neighbor’s 348ts, and since then I’ve made no secret of the fact that I genuinely and thoroughly enjoyed that experience. But over the years I did start to wonder if I didn’t have rose tinted glasses on at the time because it was my first time driving a Ferrari. To find out, and as a 25th birthday present to myself, I got myself a 1994 348 Spider for the day this past weekend.
Every journey begins with walking up to the car and getting inside, so we’ll talk briefly about styling and interior accoutrements before we get into the driving experience. The 348 isn’t the prettiest car Ferrari has ever produced, but there’s nothing bad about the design either. I personally prefer the look of the targa models (like the one I drove years ago) and coupes to the spider, just because the C & D pillars are quite nice, but the spider does look good with the roof down. Perhaps it was because the example I drove yesterday was yellow, or perhaps it was because it had a louder exhaust, but I was fully aware of how many people were looking at me, even when I went through Malibu where I saw around 10 other Ferraris within an hour, so points to the 348 for catching eyes like a supercar should. On the inside, one thankfully doesn’t find any sticky buttons as Ferrari hadn’t switched to those plastics yet but one does find an interior that does feel quite dated. There are power windows and power locks, and there is a tucked away radio that can be switched out for a more modern unit without looking glaringly out of place (as had been done in both cars I drove), but that’s about it. The leather seems to hold up well to age and the elements, but one does hear plenty of rattles going over bumps. The seats are also quite tight if you’re “big boned” like I am, and the pedals are quite close together, which takes some practice and getting used to for those with wide feet like mine.
The first part of my journey in the 348 was a few miles of LA freeways from the location I picked the car up at out to Santa Monica and Malibu. Before I could get on the freeway though, I had to wrestle the car out of the parking spot it was in, praying I had the strength to turn the steering wheel since the car has no power steering and praying I’d be able to get some feel of the extremely heavy clutch. When I did manage to get it out onto the freeway, the ride was rough and there was nothing to be done about the buffeting noises from the wind.
Those things don’t matter though. Neither do the quibbles about the cramped seat or pedal configuration. What does matter is the noise that came out of the back when I dropped it down a gear and put my foot into it as I went through the McClure Tunnel and emerged out onto Highway 1 in Santa Monica and the incredible scream it made as I ran it up through second and third through the Malibu Canyon Road tunnel. What does matter is the feeling of slotting the dog-legged gated shifter into gear and the satisfying click when you check you’re in neutral (come on – we all do the neutral wiggle just admit it). What does matter is the connection I felt to the road as I carved my way up Malibu Canyon Road, then later through my favorite switchbacks back near my home.
Might have let the cat out of the bag a bit soon there, but I digress. After I had made it off the freeway and onto the Pacific Coast Highway, I thought I was in heaven. At low speeds the 348 made just enough noise to remind me what I was driving, but not so much that I couldn’t enjoy some of my favorite driving songs. Add in a beautiful, clear day and the views of the ocean from PCH going through Malibu, and you truly feel like you’re living in a movie – that life couldn’t get much better. Then I made it to Malibu Canyon Road and realized that was all just the warm-up act – the real show was still to come. Given that I didn’t have the road to myself and that I was just custodian of the 348 for the day I didn’t take the car near its limits, but even being cautious, the 348 felt amazing through the canyon, like it was finally doing what it was built to do. The steering feel was extremely direct and communicative and at higher RPM the transmission felt buttery smooth.
After the drive through Malibu I still had quite a bit of time left with the 348 so I brought it home and took it out on some of my favorite local roads to cruise down, then up through my favorite switchbacks for testing out handling feel. In both places the 348 excelled as it had in Malibu, perhaps even more so without the excess traffic. The only negative I noticed through the entire afternoon was how often I found myself having to worry about the low nose on the car, though I suspect I was being extra paranoid since it wasn’t mine.
In case it wasn’t clear already, I absolutely fell in love with the 348 all over again during my time with it. Yes, it’s flawed as a car. Yes, the engine out service is an absolute nightmare (though I am told by several owners that aside from that maintenance isn’t too bad if the car is actually driven and given Italian tune-ups). No, it’s not as pretty as the Ferraris of the 1960s or as iconic as the Testarossa. No, it’s not as fast as a 360 you could get for the same money. But I can honestly say as a pure driving experience it is a serious contender for the top spot, up against when I had a Huracán Performante out on a track. Yes, it is that good. The term “go-kart” gets thrown around a lot when describing smaller, agile, cars but frankly I can’t say I’ve ever felt that term applies more than I do with the 348. In recent years I think others have slowly begun to agree with me as prices are slowly creeping up, though they’re still much cheaper than any other manual Ferrari. I genuinely think the only thing holding prices down is fear of the engine out service at this point, as 355s have also held lower and they suffer from the same service, and it does cost an arm and a leg. Even so, I’d be more than happy to drop a kidney as a down payment if anyone out there has a 348 for sale.