The 458 Italia is the replacement for the F430. Although the basic ingredients are the same the 458 is to baby Ferrari’s what the jet engine was to civil aviation – a quantum leap.
On paper the scale of the difference is less than obvious but the 4.5-litre direct injection V8 is related to that in California, rather than the 430, and produces more power (562bhp) and revs to 9000rpm. For the first time in a baby Ferrari there is no open gate manual option. All the power is sent to the rear wheels through a seven-speed twin-clutch gearbox.
They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder but I’ve yet to meet a beholder who finds the 458 unattractive, it’s true that some angles are better than others but that’s like saying Jennifer Aniston is more beautiful from some angles than others – it’s all relative. The 458 has a distinctive cab-forward look and lots of aero trickery built into the design and of course the triple exhausts reminiscent of the F40, except that there is no turbo wastegate feeding the middle one.After going through the modern supercar starting procedure (inserting the key, foot on brake, pull back on both paddles to select neutral, search around the cabin for the start button) the anti-social flat plane crank V8 yelps into life while passing mothers with their small children jump out of the way. The large yellow analogue rev counter takes pride of place in the centre of your field of view, flanked by two TFT multi-function displays. That’s right, it has a computer generated speedo. While not strictly relevant, it also has an electric park brake, which sets the 458’s digital arcade game scene nicely.
The steering wheel is now more complicated than the one Michael Schumacher used in his company car which he drove to the 2001 F1 world championship, after all, he didn’t have indicators, wipers and headlights! Apart from the overly complicated steering wheel, which becomes even more complicated if you try to operate it while on the move, the cabin is nothing short of brilliant. The quality of the materials and the special feeling you get from just sitting inside this machine is deeply enjoyable.
A light click of the right hand paddle and the double clutch transmission is at your service. The first surprise arrives soon after leaving the car park. Even on the small throttle openings and without touching any of the shouty-sporty buttons it becomes apparent that the 458 doesn’t do stealth. Like most modern performance cars, the 458 has trick exhaust by-pass flaps, but they seem to be hyperactive in the 458. If you’re planning on sneaking around having an affair or moonlighting as an undercover agent this is not your car of choice. At first it had me looking down at the dials wondering if all was well, but as I pulled out of the next junction and blended in with the hum-drum morning traffic in a bright yellow Ferrari 458 with contrasting roof and shouty exhaust, I realised that when you sign a cheque for £200k ($300k) this is as normal as life gets.
I guess this shouldn’t have been a surprise because driving a Ferrari always involves some theatre, people look at you, you pretend not to look at them while keeping an eye on the oil pressure gauge and warning lights, you’re not quite sure if anyone is hiding in the enormous blind spot over your shoulder and the engine always seems to be spinning at more than 3000 rpm just in case someone pulls up next to you in a Lamborghini and needs to be put in their place – it’s mental.
I figured that if I was going to attract unwanted attention driving slowly I might as well drive quickly and have fun in the process. It doesn’t take long to realise that the steering is in the same hyperactive state as the exhaust. At two turns lock-to-lock it’s super responsive at slow speed and boarding on edgy at high speed.
With Sport mode engaged on the Manettino (also mounted on the steering wheel) the next revelation is how well the gearbox works, especially in automatic mode. Exiting stage-left from a multi-lane roundabout, I squeeze the throttle to around 50% in order to put some distance between me and the commuters. The gearbox uses the torque of the engine and effortlessly shuffles through the gears in double quick time.
It’s rare to get this far into a Ferrari test drive and not yet mention the engine, but such is the scale of the changes to the ergonomics and gearbox that it’s only now that the engine raises its head above the pulpit. Clear of the built up area and greeted by a black diagonal sign on the horizon the direct injection masterpiece surges toward the stratospheric red line until the trick gearbox seamlessly pulls another ratio and the engine is made to work hard once again.
It sounds obvious but with every generation of mid-engine V8 Ferrari seems to take what is already a magnificent power plant and improve it by a noticeable amount, completely at odds with the laws of diminishing returns. I remember my first drive in a Ferrari 360, a model that bridged the gap between the old and new world Ferraris. It had primitive traction control, a long open gate manual gearbox and a steering wheel that only did two things, turn the front wheels and beep the horn. I remember it mostly because of the screaming engine which displaced 3.6L just like the contemporary Porsche 911 but was utterly and unmistakeably in a different league. The F430 added torque to the demented scream of the F360 and the 458 adds more of everything.
The performance is the only thing more dramatic than the sound track. With peak output arriving at 9000rpm you’d expect a temperamental and gutless race engine but it has plenty to give from less than 3000rpm, aided but those seven closely stacked ratios.
But it’s at the top of the rev range that the 458 stands head and shoulders above every other naturally aspirated production engine in the world. The acceleration is so addictive and so hard that in order to preserve my license I had to limit full bore attacks on the redline to 2nd and 3rd gear before calling upon the services of the carbon ceramic brakes. Swiftly pulling back on the left side paddle a few times and repeating the process, over and over again, to etch the feeling permanently into my brain.
One of the biggest sensory changes over the old car is the confidence you get in 458’s front end. It’s not simply a matter of more outright grip but more consistency. By controlling the camber angles, Ferrari has been able to increase roll stiffness and run faster steering. It takes a little getting used, but soon enough I find myself intuitively applying the correct amount of lock and rarely having to reposition my hands on the wheel. It is also now possible to decouple the suspension settings from the engine settings which is a blessing on UK roads.
It’s in the corners on well sighted B-roads that the combination of engine, gearbox, steering and suspension combine to give a driving experience like no other. I have chosen my words “like no other” carefully, for as much as I admire the sheer pace and, any gear any time, attitude of the 458 Italia it has the ability to turn a B-road blast into a time attack tarmac rally stage where the scenery blurs and the surreal speed, sound and g-forces overtake reality. The same road in a 911 GT3 is quite different because you need to leave mental capacity and time to plan ahead, select the appropriate gear and match engine speed as well as judging the road speed before committing the front end to a trajectory that is at odds with its rearward weight distribution. Only then can you gently pick up the throttle, waiting for the signals from the steering that all is well before using its prodigious grip to fire you down the next section of road.
Make no mistake, while all this happens the 458 Italia is disappearing into the next postcode.In the presence of the 458 almost all cars feel out dated. I adore the 458 Italia, it is a wired and buzzing assault on the senses and probably the most complete car on sale today but at anything above 8/10th you don’t drive as much as “play” it.
An now for a bit off fun, let’s see what our mate, Mr Clarkson thinks of the Ferrari 458 Italia.