When I asked Horacio Pagani how he can compete against Ferrari, Porsche and Mercedes, he said "It's better to be the head of a mouse rather than the tail of lion." It's a nice Italianate metaphor (especially for an Argentinean), but it's not strictly accurate. If the Pagani Zonda is a "mouse", then an F15 is a "plane". Plant your right foot in a C12S and the AMG-fettled Mercedes V12 barks, roars, howls and then screams like a wounded grizzly. Any lion with an ounce of self-preservation would run for his life.
And not make it ten yards. When thrashing the Zonda on the twisting two-lane highway above Modena, there was one long straight. For the first and only time, I was free to explore the mystery known as "third gear". Those of you who've driven a race car flat out might appreciate the resulting rush. I doubt it. On a track, you don't need to watch out for Italian truck drivers coming from the opposite direction (using the racing line). Flooring the Pagani Zonda on a public road hurts your brain, blows your mind AND loosens your bowels.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Horacio's 7.3-liter time machine blasts from 0 – 60mph in 3.6 seconds, and on to an astonishing (if estimated) 210mph. At the same time, it can trundle around town like a top-spec Mercedes luxobarge. But why walk when you can fly? With 553ft.-lbs. of torque underfoot, all six gears offer an open invitation to low earth orbit. Resisting the need for speed requires the kind of monumental self-control best known to banned drivers.
Unlike its supercar predecessors, the Zonda isn't merely a straight-line speed queen. It's also a blindingly quick and competent corner craver. No matter how you approach a bend, no matter what you do with the pedals or steering wheel in the curved bit, the Zonda C12S just goes 'round. Too fast in? Brake, turn, go. Slow in, full blast out? And away we go. Reverse camber 180-degree uphill switchback on broken pavement? This way sir. If you can imagine driving a 555hp go-cart with all the poise and self-assurance of a Porsche Carrera 4, you can imagine caning a Zonda.
If you switch off the Zonda's traction control and goose the gas in the middle of a turn, she'll ease into controllable oversteer. Or so I've heard. Despite my best efforts to ignore my passenger's pleas, I couldn't get anywhere near the car's lateral limits. Given the irregular deployment of pre-dented crash barriers along the cliff-side road, I could understand Sam's reluctance to experience a short, sideways tour of the Italian countryside. Strictly between us, I reckon only someone who's suffered a catastrophic injury to their family jewels could hurry a Pagani Zonda C12S down a winding mountain road without experiencing a strong and sustained cargasm.
Mechanically, there's nothing revolutionary on offer; the Zonda is a super-wide rear-wheel-driver with a double wishbone suspension, a big engine and Brembo brakes. The car's faultless handling is down to balance, thrust and weight– or lack thereof. Credit the carbon fiber construction. From its monocoque chassis to the windshield wiper mounts, the Zonda is the material's meisterwerk: a fantastically rigid car that's a full thousand pounds lighter than the similarly explosive Lamborghini Murcielago. Flinging the featherweight Zonda around feels like jogging in a Zegna suit.
If only it were as stylish. The Zonda's spider-like countenance and seven foot wide posterior reflect Sr. Pagani's lifelong infatuation with Group C racing cars. While there's no denying the self-styled supercar's "presence" (a code word for a design that shocks rather than seduces), it's the first automobile I've encountered that looks best from twenty feet above. The detailing is also more than a bit quirky, as exemplified by the car's gattling gun exhausts.
If the Zonda's exterior lacks the Enzo's sex appeal, the Carrera GT's restrained minimalism or the SLR's resemblance to a normal road car, at least its pod-like interior is the most comfortable. The Zonda's cabin cossets the driver with hand-stitched leather, perfectly woven carbon fiber and faultless ergonomics. Again, there are slightly jarring design elements: the toggle switches are out of proportion to the rest of the switchgear, and the dash-mounted ventilation periscopes are more practical than attractive. But it's still a fine place to while away the hours.
It will be at least a year before well-heeled US enthusiasts will enjoy that privilege. Sr. Pagani claims he will have crashed enough cars and filled out enough paperwork to legally peddle his supercar stateside in 2006. He also promises a new US street-legal version that will beat the Enzo in every major category (including price). Given the current Zonda's build quality and road manners, I wouldn't bet against the Argentinean. Sometimes mice guys finish first.