For supercar fans, Italy is an embarrassment of riches and indeed, a daunting prospect for he who is tasked with writing a list. Arguably where the breed first evolved, largely within a 50-mile radius of the Emilia-Romagna city of Modena. While it’s mostly been the Bull and the Horse duking it out for Italian supercar supremacy, a few odd entries have joined the ranks over the years. Let’s chart the (extensive) history.
The 24 best Italian supercars
Of course, Lamborghini kicked it all off and of course, the first proper mid-engined supercar had to be the product of some hopped-up engineers moonlighting. That’s right, the Miura started life as an intra-staff passion project rather than a directive from up top. Yet this pipe dream racer for the road effectively set the precedent for what the very upper-most Lamborghinis had to be: Fast, V12, mid-engined and beautiful. You can add slightly dangerous to that in the case of the Miura, with its propensity to catch fire when there was fuel in it, and go nose-light at speed when there wasn’t. If you’re about to tell us that it shouldn’t be considered one of the best for these reasons, you’re missing the point.
De Tomaso Pantera
What with Ferrari being quite late to what we’d consider to be the traditional supercar formula, others could join the fray. Small-time racers and road car makers De Tomaso would effectively define their brand, with the Pantera. Envisioned as a GT40 successor for the road, it paired American Ford V8 power with Carrozzeria Ghia lines that were as elegant as they were aggressive. This fat-tyred spluttering V8 monster of a car lived for a solid 21 years, with over 7,000 made, and is considered a certifiably iconic supercar of its era today.
The Maserati Bora was a complete U-turn for Maserati. What was its first mid-engined car also, fully against convention for the trident at the time, was quite high-tech. Fully independent suspension, disc brakes and amenities like air conditioning made it a thoroughly modern prospect in 1971. It was also weirdly usable for such a wedge-shaped machine, with a flexible gutsy V8 engine. The fastest? No. The most dramatic? Absolutely not. Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t exactly a success, but it was a truly excellent car for its time. A true spiritual predecessor to the MC20? Quite possibly.
You’ve been waiting for it and we’re finally here. If the Muira was a beauty, the Lamborghini Countach was a straight-up jaw-dropper. Arguably Gandini’s magnum opus, his gift to the world, was one of the most extreme knee-jerks in design direction yet seen in the motor industry. Curves made way for edges and angles, elegance for anger. In an instant, the Countach became an icon, the unwavering dream supercar of two generations of enthusiasts. Does the reality live up to the hype? Like the Miura, the immortal wedge was flawed. But with those looks and the advancing musculature of the Bizzarrini V12, it’s so difficult to not love the pain. Objectively one of the best Italian supercars? Not even close. But it’s here by all other rights.
Enzo’s resistance to the mid-engined layout wasn’t to last. With the success of his prototype racers, the popularity of the Dino, the splash made by the Miura and the tidal wave made by the Countach, the Daytona’s follow-up had to evolve from GT into supercar. The GT4 BB might not have had the panache and raw bedroom wall poster power of the Lamborghini Countach but it saw the debut of the boxer V12 engine, which would live on in various guises until the mid-1990s. The pedigree of a race-proven engine layout and the beauty of Pininfarina styling combined in a critically-acclaimed car that was far more pleasant to drive and own than its Sant’Agatan contemporary.
And the Ferrari Testarossa carried that success on, combining outlandish and iconic ‘80s styling with a workhorse flat-twelve, accessible driving dynamics and surprising practicality. The BB, but more and better and if anything, more of a style icon.
Supercars got serious with the Ferrari F40. All of a sudden we could do over 200mph, 0-62mph in under 4 seconds in the right conditions and blow the doors off just about anything on the road or on track. Pretty it wasn’t but lord was it purposeful, with an attitude to boot. The 2.9-litre twin-turbo V8 was conservatively rated at around 478PS (352kW), though most left the factory with over 500. Those were some fickle horsepowers too, given the enormity of the turbo lag. To top it all off? The Jekyll and Hyde supercar was also the last to get the nod from Enzo himself.
In 1989 the sun finally set on the Countach. In its place, the Lamborghini Diablo, a new poster child for ‘90s kids and beyond. Never to be out-done by the Scuderia, the Diablo packed 492PS (362kW) from its 48-valve 5.7-litre Bizzarrini V12 and could match the F40’s 202mph top speed. Dynamically it wasn’t exactly a show-stopper, though the original rear-driven cars, the SE30 and the 6.0 ,all received praise. Regardless, its place in the iconography of the poster car and the fact it was my first matchbox, earns its place here.
The Ferrari 355 meanwhile was legitimately good. It had to be, on the boss’s orders. Luca di Montezemolo joined Ferrari in the early 1990s and did not care for the line-up over which he presided. As the limp 348 gave way for the reengineered 355, his changes bore fruit. Universal praise for its balance, beauty and thrilling 3.5-litre, five-vale-per-cylinder V8 shot Ferrari back to the front of the pack. One of Maranello’s prettiest, too, we reckon.
Some would say the Ferrari F50 was one of Maranello’s ugliest. As a ‘90s kid who grew up dreaming of this thing, respectfully, they’re wrong. This was the opposite of a record-beater. It bested the McLaren F1 in exactly zero objective metrics, and yet, today these are worth over £2 million. Why? An F1-derived 4.7-litre V12 with 519PS (382kW), manual box, carbon tub and a structurally-stressed powertrain. This thing was as raw and extreme a Ferrari experience as you could get. Not exactly a 641 for the road as they might have had you believe, but it’s got a special sauce, that you’ll find nowhere else.
The late 1990s were a touch baron for the Italian supercar sphere. Ferrari’s 360 was a soft landing off the back of the 355 and Lamborghini were desperately polishing up the Diablo while its replacement was readied. And then everyone was blown away, by a new marque. Pagani, based out of a small Modenese industrial estate, redefined extreme design, outstanding performance and delightful driving dynamics with the Zonda. In the 555PS (408kW) C12S 7.3, it was at a peak balance of its prettiness, performance and class leadership. It made life hard for Lambo’s difficult fourth album.
Revealed in 2001, there were worries that the new Lamborghini Murcielago had been sanitised by new owners Audi. It returned to beauty over extreme design, likewise the V12 was effective but somewhat muted. It didn’t take long for the insane LP640 to right its course, mind, with its enlarged 6.5-litre V12 discovering a screaming vocal range, as the slightly blistered design matured nicely. One of the prettiest Lamborghini’s ever made? We’d say so.
Contrast to that, even today, 20 years on, the Ferrari Enzo is far from pretty. Purposeful yes and it has matured well over the years but it’s still quite extreme. Happily, so was its performance, sporting the first outing for the incredible Tipo F140 V12, the Enzo had 660PS (485kW) putting power to the rear wheels via an F1-style paddle-shift transmission. This thing was the untouchable supercar king for a few years there.
Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradale
The first and only time we’ll make an entry for a version, rather than an entire model line. The 360 was pretty if not groundbreaking on release in 1999. The 360 Challenge Stradale? Well, on top of setting the precedent for the track-focused supercars that we know and love today, it produces one of the top five all-time great Italian supercar sounds.
Enzos and Zondas aren’t exactly in abundance and the Challenge Stradale was a hard sell as a daily. What did the casual supercar buyer go for in 2003? The Lamborghini Gallardo was the return of the so-called ‘baby Lambo’, that died with the Jalpa in 1988. With more power than an original Diablo, though, there was nothing baby about its performance. The sound of the original could wake the gods, though it arguably peaked as a driving machine with the LP550-2 Balboni.
Ferrari’s response was swift and decisive. The F430, while in concept a revamp of the 360, amounted to so much more. This thing was the definitive driver’s supercar on release in 2004, with variable traction control, a genuinely good paddle-shift transmission and of course, that screaming 4.3-litre V8 good for 490PS (360kW). Not as powerful as the Gallardo but it would take Lambo five years to come close to besting its driving feel with the Balboni mentioned above, by which time, Ferrari had both made an excellent track-focused version of the 430 (don’t worry, we love the Scuderia), and was preparing the F430’s replacement…
You thought the Enzo was done? Well, it was, but Maserati extracted the racing potential from that platform. A couple of GT championships for the trident’s trophy cabinet, some much-needed kudos and a homologation special for the books secured legend status for the Maserati MC12. It’s rare, too, with just 50 made for the road.
Perhaps an unpopular opinion, but I don’t like the way the Ferrari 458 looks. It’s fiddly, fussy and looks like sid the sloth from the rear. And my opinion doesn’t matter. Because regardless of how it looks, it’s one of the very best Italian supercars of the last 20 years, perhaps ever. Balletic, razor-sharp, blisteringly fast and ear-meltingly aural, it’s (especially the incredible Speciale version) the logical conclusion to the traditional mid-engined Ferrari V8 formula. The Gallardo, frankly, was trounced and would remain so for another four years (yes it lived too long).
As a fully paid-up Pagani fangirl, my reaction to the Huayra on reveal at the time was heartbreak. Not pretty, is it? And the magnificent V12? Stifled by turbos. So why is it here? Because like the Zonda, for a boutique hypercar, it was inexplicably excellent, at speed and around town. It was also beautifully made and with subsequent versions, only got better. It’s aged reasonably well in those versions too. I’d go as far as to say a tastefully specced Huayra Roadster is pretty. Not that such a thing exists…
Lamborghini courted controversy with the Aventador too. The Bizzarrini V12 was binned in a bid for lower CO2 figures. In its place, a monster 700PS (515kW) 6.5-litre lump that along with reduced carbon, had less of a personality. At least for some. For others, it was the darling of the London supercar rev limiter abuse scene. You can thank the Aventador for us now being able to look forward to ‘noise cameras’ on our roads, following London trials to stop owners of these from waking the dead at 3am. For its high-tech carbon tub and trick dampers, it wasn’t even that good to drive either, though vastly improved with subsequent SV, S, SVJ and Ultimae models.
In the face of the 458 and new rivals from McLaren, Lamborghini was a bit limp. The aging Gallardo stepped back and the Huracan stepped forward, or rather understeered forward. It looked great but was far from a dynamic match. Happily, with the Performante, Evo and STO, like so many other Lamborghinis before it, the Huracan matured beautifully. We’d go so far as to call the Evo rear-wheel-drive one of the best Lamborghinis ever made.
Then we come to what is still to date, ten years on, Ferrari’s definitive hypercar. The LaFerrari – it’s still a dumb name – hybridised a hopped-up version of the Enzo’s incredible V12 for a combined 963PS (708kW). It looked incredible, went incredibl-er and frankly earned that “The Ferrari” name. Even though it’s still dumb. Whatever successor that’s soon to come has big shoes to fill.
The MC12 earned its place here because it was a successful racer. The Maserati MC20, like the Bora, is here simply because it’s a good Maserati supercar. Something it seems is quite a rare thing… A high-tech V6, carbon tub and super sweet dynamics make this a choice in the current market as excellent as it is left-field.
Ferrari 296 GTB
Though the MC20 isn’t the only Italian V6 supercar to come to market lately. The reviews of the Ferrari 296 GTB are flowing in and by all accounts, it’s fabulous. That 120-degree twin-turbo six sounds great and goes hard, augmented like the LaFerrari by a hybrid system, for 830PS (610kW) combined. That could easily have been too much and yet most are praising the deftness of the 296 GTB’s execution. It looks gorgeous too, with more than a few echoes of the legendary 250LM. Yes the 488, Pista and F8 were excellent, but derivations of the 458 could never quite match the original’s brilliance. The 296 GTB is a whole new thing, with a heart and soul all of its own that can claim independent brilliance. The 355 can rest easy knowing it has a worthy great great, great-grandchild that over doubles its power output.
So that’s our extremely long list of the best Italian supercars. It was going to be, wasn’t it? If we’ve missed any, well, they’re not going in. This is too long already. But do let us know…
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