Jez Spinks finds the hardcore version of Ferrari's already-superb 458 Italia close to perfection
V8 supercars have a different meaning in Europe, especially in Italy where the Ferrari 458 Speciale is the latest product from the Maranello-based brand that can’t help making its eight-cylinder sports cars go faster and faster.
The Speciale is to the 458 Italia what the Challenge Stradale was to the 360, and more recently the Scuderia was to the F430: a quicker, meaner berlinetta designed for St Devote rather than St Tropez.
A common industry approach to extracting more performance from an existing model is to give the engine more power and stiffen the suspension. Such changes are far too basic for Ferrari.
The Speciale – pronounced “spetch-arley” if you want to sound properly Italian, though I prefer “spesh-e-arlee” – does get a power lift to 445kW, though that’s less than a five per cent increase from the Italia’s output.
What the 4.5-litre V8 delivers now is torque more evenly spread throughout the rev range – achieved through redesigned engine components and a stratospheric 14:1 compression ratio.
As Ferrari’s motorsport-inspired V8 road car, the Speciale has also been stripped to almost its bare essentials to reduce mass.
As with the Challenge Stradale and Scuderia before it, the Speciale features lighter, RTM (resin transfer moulding) bumpers, thinner side glass and a Lexan (polycarbonate resin thermoplastic) rear window.
There are lighter, forged-alloy wheels; leather and plastics of the Italia have been replaced by Alcantara and carbonfibre; there are no luxuries such as cruise control or audio system; racing-style bucket seats are made of carbonfibre and layered in a special breathable microfibre.
It all adds up to a kerb weight lowered by a significant 90kg.
And sit the hardtop 458s side by side and you’ll spot more aggressive body treatment on the Speciale that includes both fixed and moveable aerodynamic parts.
The fixed parts are turning vanes at the front corners, shark fins at the side and a more pronounced rear spoiler – all working to increase downforce.
Moving parts start with two vertical flaps in the middle of the lower bumper section. They remain closed at ‘low’ speeds to push air into the radiators for engine cooling, but open above 170km/h to allow more air into the radiator to reduce drag, while a horizontal flap immediately below lowers from 220km/h to force more air under the car for extra suction.
The rear diffuser also incorporates moveable flaps, which either rise to help cornering speed (more downforce) or lower to help straightline speed (less drag).
The results are pretty incredible: half a second quicker than the Italia from stationary to 100km/h (3.0sec); a top speed of 325km/h; faster around the company’s Fiorano test track than the old Enzo supercar.
In our first hour or so in the car you could sense the Speciale was a car not interested in going slow. The feistier transmission can make for jerky low-speed progress and freeway travel isn’t the 458 Speciale’s forte, either. With no cruise control, sticking rigidly to the inexplicably low, 100km/h limit of the four-lane M1 freeway towards Geelong required excessive attention to the digital speedo.
The seven-speed dual-clutch transmission isn’t geared for fuel economy – thankfully! – and the V8 is ticking over 2800rpm. The car at this stage feels as if it is straining at the leash.
Reduced sound deadening means the cabin is far from quiet, with tyre roar especially penetrative.
Drowning it out with a good album isn’t a realistic option, either. Even if you take the optional ($5430) audio with Bluetooth streaming, the sound from the two lightweight speakers in the doors is awfully tinny.
At this point it’s important to remember the car’s intended focus. Ferrari says those who buy cars like the Speciale (and its predecessors) are its most demanding customers, its most hardcore loyalists, and they’re willing to forgo creature comforts for speed.
And who wants Triple J when you can tune into Maranello FM?
Find the open road and the 458’s unassisted V8 sitting behind you snarls, barks or howls depending on how aggressive you are with the throttle.
And the harder you drive the Speciale the more you’ll discover its staggering abilities.
That also means using the now-familiar manettino switch on the steering wheel.
The Sport setting is a good mode for first acclimatising to the Speciale, where all the electronic systems are clearly active without being unpleasantly intrusive as you start to explore the roadholding.
You can turn off the F1-Trac traction control alone or turn off stability control completely with other modes, but on the road the Race setting is our pick.
This allows the driver to play around with the Ferrari’s rear end a bit more, and start to tap into one of the Speciale’s exclusive tech weapons: Side Slip angle Control (SSC).
SSC monitors the position of the steering wheel, car and throttle pedal and runs a clever algorithm to predict the cornering attitude – and then calculates how much torque to send to the rear wheels via the F1 Trac system, which then manages the torque between the rear wheels through the electronic differential (E-diff).
The super-wide and super-sticky tailor-made Michelin tyres – designed to do a flat-out F1-style qualifying lap before delivering consistent multi-lap performance – means you’ll want a racetrack to fully test the system. It’s there you’ll discover a car capable of 1.33g lateral acceleration.
The bond between car and driver is sensational regardless of driving scenario, the 458 Speciale responding obediently, precisely and rapidly to your inputs via the steering wheel, accelerator or brake pedal.
Weight distribution is divided 42/58 per cent and the lightness of the Speciale’s front end is marked as it darts deftly left and right with mere flicks of the Alcantara-clad, hexagonal-shaped steering wheel if you’re attacking a sequence of long-vision S-bends.
The steering itself is flawless: razor sharp in speed, meaty in weight, deadeye accurate, and communicative without allowing road surface nasties to corrupt the helm.
Throttle response can be modulated millimetrically whether you’re in Sport or Race modes, though the latter brings brilliantly blipped, angry downshifts that are so perfectly timed on winding roads that we eventually abandoned manually pulling the paddleshift levers.
When we did, the position of the levers – mounted to the column not the wheel – meant you could occasionally be found groping for empty air instead of a paddle.
Upshifts are also ferociously quick, the transmission thumping through the gears under aggressive acceleration – the Speciale not having its power delievery even momentarily interrupted but simply surging with each change.
Carbon ceramic brakes are standard on the Speciale. They squeaked occasionally when we worked them their hardest, but the immense feel and stopping power never dissipated – daring you to go later and later on the brake pedal.
For Australian roads, there’s another important button to select from the steering wheel that aims to mimic the one Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikonnen use.
Pressing the button featuring a shock absorber symbol adjusts the suspension, accompanied by a ‘Bumpy Road’ message that pops up on the instrument dial.
This brings a greater degree of flex to the dampers and enhanced compliance vital to maintaining driver confidence on our country roads.
In fact there’s little point using the stiffer set-up for anything but the circuit because in the standard mode the ride is also a revelation in terms of liveable, everyday comfort.
Of course, if you want a 458 with a higher level of luxury and comfort, the Italia is still your best bet (though many Speciale owners will own another Ferrari of some form anyway).
And choosing the Ferrari 458 Speciale wouldn’t be a financial decision because, at $550,000, it costs only about $25,000 more than the Italia. (Though believe it or not those stripes that help visually distinguish the Speciale from an Italia are a $19,000 option – because they’re not mere stickers but we’re told part of an elaborate, multi-layered coating process.)
You’ll note we’ve given the car only 7.0/10 in our sub-category rating for price and features, but without affecting the overall score. Some of those options prices are scary, while the Australian government’s outrageous luxury car tax kills the value equation for pretty much any car north of $100K. It’s also true you can have a McLaren 650S with similar performance for about $110K less, though many a supercar buyer will tell you a Ferrari badge is priceless. In our view, the Ferrari will also reward with the greater visceral experience overall.
Ferrari says about half of the buyers who do opt for the Speciale will indeed take it to the racetrack, and that’s a relief – because this is a sports car that deserves to be driven as its engineers and designers intended.
Back in 2008, I had wondered how the 430 Scuderia I had then thrashed around Fiorano could be beaten as a personal Ferrari V8 experience. No more.
This is a very special car indeed.
Images by Mitchell Oke and David Zalstein.