Ferrari 348: 1989-1995Superficially, the 1989 348 looked like an evolutionary development of the 328. Except for the side strakes swiped from its big brother the Testarossa, the styling carried forward general themes established by the 308 and 328. It wasn't much larger than the 328. And it carried a slightly enlarged version of the now familiar Ferrari quad-cam, 32-valve engine. But in fact the 348 was a vastly different car from its immediate ancestors. Even if wasn't a vastly better car.
The biggest change from 328 to 348 was a move from body-on-frame to unitized construction — the first time ever in a Ferrari. For a small manufacturer like Ferrari, such a radical change in how it built cars was not an insignificant development. And that wasn't the end of the engineering innovations.
"...instead of a transverse engine and an inline gearbox, everything has been turned through 90 degrees," reported Motor Trend in its first driving impression of the 348. "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 inches."
The transverse gearbox fitted to the 348 also gave the car its official name 348tb, with the "t" indicating the transmission's transverse orientation and the "b" for "Berlinetta," indicating a closed coupe. There was also a 348ts, with the "s" meaning "Spyder" and a removable roof panel over the cockpit. Yet there was another 348 Spyder on the way.
While the 348's suspension was new in every detail and component, it was similar in concept to the 308/328's. There were still double wishbones at every corner of the car with coil springs, and the geometry was massaged to minimize dive under braking. The 348 did, however, get 17-inch wheels instead of the 328's 16s, with appropriately larger tires.
With increases in both the bore and stroke dimensions, the new 3.4-liter version of Ferrari's now familiar V8 was rated at a full 300 hp at a wailing 7200 rpm. And it was pushing around a body with some significant changes. "Despite a 4-inch-longer wheelbase than the 328," reported Road & Track, "the 348 is about 2 inches shorter overall....The side air scoops are as prominent a design element on the 348 as they are on the Testarossa, and provide function as well as form. The upsides of this design include a cooler cockpit because all sources of heat are behind the driver, reduced weight (the plumbing carrying fluids to the front of the car has been eliminated) and a larger, more usefully shaped front trunk.
"The downside is that more of the car's weight is over the rear wheels; we measured a 40/60 front/rear weight distribution for the tb versus 44/56 for the last 328 GTS we tested. Despite significant weight-saving measures, including an aluminum hood and deck lid and graphite-reinforced plastic for the central tunnel, the 348 tips the scales about 100 pounds heavier than its predecessor.
"Some of the 348's additional avoirdupois can be blamed on its greater width, up a whopping 6.5 inches primarily because of those massive side scoops. But inside, the 348 driver will find that a portion of that extra width has gone into a welcome increase in cockpit roominess."
Road & Track's test measured the 348tb getting to 60 mph in 6.0 seconds, which was certainly a solid performance (and better than the 328) but no better than that of some cars costing one-third the Ferrari's $94,800 price. Motor Trend claimed the car rocketed to 60 in just 5.5 seconds and topped out at 171 mph, which led the magazine to conclude that "...this calls into question the purpose of the [larger, 12-cylinder] Testarossa, which is no more practical, doesn't handle as well, and is no longer significantly faster."
The 348 was basically unchanged through 1990 and 1991, while a less restrictive exhaust bumped the 348's engine output during the 1992 model year to 312 hp. Also, a monochromatic paint scheme was introduced and a "serie speciale" model for the tb and ts included thin F40-like racing seats, a wider track and reduced ride height.
A full convertible version of the 348 made it into production for 1994 in the form of the 348 Spider. "The Spider's top is simple, well made and clever," wrote Road & Track. "Stowing it involves releasing a single lever in the middle of the header, pushing the top halfway back, then lowering a handbrakelike handle located next to the driver seat. This causes the structure to descend neatly into a small space behind the seats with a simultaneous collapsing of the fabric buttresses — like little circus tents having their poles pulled out. The top does not compress completely below the rear deck's surface, so snapping on the padded cover is needed to tidy the appearance."
Road & Track measured the Spider zipping to 60 mph in just 5.6 seconds and completing the quarter-mile in 14.1 seconds at 101 mph.
Also new for '94 was the "348 Challenge," a special version of the 348tb equipped with a roll cage and racing seats for the Ferrari Challenge spec-racing series. Basically, the Challenge was a way for really rich guys to go racing in a Ferrari without having to worry about actually preparing a racecar. The Challenge series would continue using subsequent V8 midengine Ferrari models.
The 348 was a success, with the Spider gaining enough popularity to continue through 1995 even though the 348tb and 348ts had been replaced. But Ferrari's dominance of the exoticar world was coming into question. After all, Honda had introduced the all-aluminum Acura NSX in 1991 and that car was instantly hailed as an all-time great — not just a great Honda, but a great midengine, 2-seat sports car. Ferrari was going to have to respond forcefully to regain its position atop the supercar heap.