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Monterey Car Week trappings are as luxe as the stars of the show

The world's luxury car companies go to great expense at the annual Monterey Car Week to grab the attention of the world's most discerning car buyers.

Rolls-Royce, Maserati and others rented villas — the English company on the water at Pebble Bay, the Italians in the Tuscan-like hills above Monterey — and hosted weeklong open houses, where the Champagne and caviar were kept chilled and ready.

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The Ferrari folks? They rented a gas station.

The legendary Italian marque took over the Shell station at the Carmel Highlands General Store, a vintage location just south of Monterey that has been a north coast landmark for half a century.

Ferrari, in partnership with Shell, dressed the General Store's gift shop to look like an Italian villa, installed a garden area where real Italians served real Italian treats such as prosciutto, Parmesan cheese, espresso and gelato, and dubbed the facility "Casa Ferrari."

The effort and expense were all in service of Ferrari's rollout of its model-year 2016 cars, in particular the 488 GTB, the company's dramatic new street racer.

Ferrari brought only one of the low-slung, hard-charging chariots to the Monterey peninsula — flown in from Italy, in fact, as soon as it was off the factory floor in Maranello. Liveried in the classic "rosso corso" Ferrari red, the car was on display through the Casa Ferrari week.

A select group of favored customers got a chance to drive the bright new beast.

And I was one of them. Ferrari gave me the keys to the 488 and told me to go for a drive. Unchaperoned, Wherever I liked. For an hour.

I gulped the last of my espresso, slid in and slipped away — headed south on Highway 1, aiming for Big Sur.

The 488 GTB is designed, the company says, to be a comfortable daily driver that is also a competent track car.

The race car part of the vehicle is fitted with a 3.9-liter, mid-engine, V-8 power plant that makes 660 horsepower and 560 pound-feet of torque — more muscle than is required for a trip to the mall.

It's a turbo-charged engine, Ferrari's first non-naturally-aspirated car since the F40 of the late 1980s. It revs and roars like a classic Scuderia racer, making one of the loveliest sounds known to ever strike the motoring ear, and can go from zero to 60 in under 3 seconds before topping out at 205 mph.

The daily driver part is fitted with gentle amenities not normally found in track cars — powerful air conditioning, a sound system and Alcantara or leather seats. (It can even be ordered with matching luggage.)

Despite the comforts, it's meant for very focused driving. Everything necessary to pilot the 488 is in the steering wheel — paddle shifters, turn signals, horn and windshield wipers — so the driver never need lift his hands from the wheel or his eyes from the road.

Flying south, the 488 felt like a heat-seeking missile, intuitive, effortless and extremely fast, generating generous G-forces as it hooked in and out of the coastline's swirling esses.

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Ferrari says the 488 is designed to be exciting for drivers of all skill levels. Fitted with sophisticated sensors that monitor everything from speed to tire rotation to traction, it will make a good driver better and help a better driver improve his lap times.

"It you are speeding or about to lose control of the car, the car will help you," said the company's communications director, Stefan Lai, on hand to guide people through the 488. "It will help you slide lightly without losing control or the car, and will help even the best driver become more consistent."

Company executives were reluctant to discuss the cost of setting up and maintaining Casa Ferrari through the weeklong Pebble Beach auto extravaganza.

Representatives for Rolls-Royce and Maserati were similarly reticent about the capital outlay involved in establishing their Pebble Beach beachheads.

But the effort is substantial.

Rolls took over a huge villa on 17 Mile Drive, just across the water from the 18th green at the Lodge at Pebble Beach, which on Sunday morning was transformed during the Concours d'Elegance into a parking lot for the most beautiful cars ever made. The company emptied the private home of everything that belonged to the owners, repopulated it with rented furniture and for a week held a private open house for friends of the company.

BMW had a 17 Mile Drive villa just around the corner. Maserati had something similar, but inland, taking over a private hilltop retreat with sweeping views of Monterey Bay.

A local real estate agent intimate with the cost of short-term rentals, who has worked with Rolls-Royce, BMW and other top car companies, said the property owners get premium rates for the weeklong rentals — as much as double what they'd get any other time.

It wouldn't be unusual for a car company to pay "in excess of $100,000" for the rental, Andy Nygard of Carmel Realty said, and for firms to incur substantial other costs associated with clearing the house and storing the owners' belongings.

"These are $40-million homes," Nygard said. "Some of these people have $100,000 chairs. And the more high-end the property, the more difficult the owner can be."

Any major manufacturer, several top car executives said, can expect a total outlay of well over $1 million for the week's presentation.

"McLaren can clearly justify the return on investment from attending Monterey Car Week," said the brand's J.P. Canton. "This is one of the few events we can invite the entire brand family out to enjoy with us."

Rolls-Royce's director of communications, Richard Carter, said the company has found lavish settings such as their 17 Mile Drive villa, which the company has rented two years in a row, sets the stage for the cars they're introducing.

"Our customers are comfortable here," Carter said, waving his hand across the patio toward the greens at Pebble. "This is how they live. So they'll stop by, have a glass of Champagne, talk Rolls-Royce and maybe see a car and say, 'Right, I'll have one of those.' We'll take orders for 25 to 30 cars during the week."

Ferrari executives wouldn't discuss the capital outlay involved in transforming the humble Shell station into Casa Ferrari. But selling 25 to 30 of the 488s would go a long way to defraying the cost. The sedan version on hand in Carmel Highlands has an MSRP of $245,000. The coupe version, to be unveiled this Fall, will retail at about $275,000.

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