Will losing its roof turn this all time great into a bit of a softie?
2012 Ferrari 458 Spider, V8-cylinder, petrol, seven-speed F1 dual-clutch sequential manual transmission
We all saw this one coming, unlike the Ferrari FF. Ferrari’s second launch of 2011 is no less important, though, because any variant of the ultra desirable Ferrari 458 Italia is going to be an exciting event. The 458 has, quite literally, redefined how a supercar should drive and I’ve been lucky enough to spend quality time with two of them. The first experience was good enough but the second, when I had a car to myself for four whole days, left me absolutely smitten. There’s nothing out there to touch it for sheer enjoyment behind the wheel – everything about it feels utterly perfect.
So, will losing its roof turn this all time great into a bit of a softie? Ferrari claims it is, indeed, more soft than its tin-topped brother, and this is a bit of a worry. Prices for Australia are yet to be fixed but in the UK this thing retails for roughly £25,000 more than the coupe and that’s a big chunk of change in anyone’s language. But still the company is confident that it will comfortably outsell the 458 Italia so there’s a lot riding on this.
The launch venue is, predictably, Italy and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. The mountain roads surrounding Bologna are some of the finest I’ve ever experienced and the chosen route is approximately 400km of twisting hairpin heaven combined with a decent amount of motorways with, fortuitously, lots and lots of tunnels. Tunnels and Ferraris are almost always a perfect combination and the 458 Italia sounds good enough to eat even with a roof. Without it, well I may just dissolve in a puddle of my own drool.
First up, let’s take a look at it. The Spider loses more than its roof – it also does without the Italia moniker and if you’ve ever wondered why certain Italian companies refer to their convertibles as “Spiders”, the story goes that, in the 1940s and 1950s, excited children would shout at drivers of open-top sports cars, “Speeder! Speeder!” as they roared their way through towns and villages. Speeder became Spider, sometimes spelt with an I, sometimes with a Y. And the 458 is quite the speeder, with a maximum speed of 318km/h – just 7km/h down from the Italia. With the roof lowered I doubt anyone would notice.
The Italia’s gorgeous profile has remained largely intact thanks to the Spider not being a true convertible. Instead, an aluminium roof section made up of just two moving parts has been designed. Taking just 14 seconds to operate, it’s an incredibly clever solution to an age-old problem. These folding metal roofs normally take up a fair bit of space when folded and there isn’t much room for them in mid-engined supercars. So what Ferrari’s engineers have done is really quite clever. The roof raises and folds almost vertically to slot neatly between the rear bulkhead and the engine, taking up just 100 litres of space. There wasn’t any luggage space anyway, so the only sacrifice has been the clear Perspex engine cover, which is hardly a deal breaker, and they’ve managed to incorporate a neat storage shelf behind the seats, which is big enough to fit an overnight bag onto (or, as Ferrari would prefer, some tailor made leather luggage).
Two flying buttresses give the Spider almost identical lines to the coupe and they negate the requirement for rollover hoops but initial impressions are more of a Targa arrangement than a full convertible. Hopefully when on the move there’ll be more of an impression of top-down motoring. Elsewhere it’s business as usual, with a delightful, driver-focused cabin that is scarcely different to the normal 458, the only difference being a couple of extra switches: one to operate the roof and another to select a softer suspension setting. Ferrari says the suspension has been specially tuned to offer a more cossetting ride than the coupe, to better suit the car for a more relaxed experience. So let’s see if they’ve ruined a masterpiece.
I press the wheel-mounted red starter button and the resulting sound is stunning. One of the most nape-tingling exhaust notes on the planet is now well within earshot thanks to the lack of a roof. The fact that everything is familiar means that, as soon as we’re clear of the surrounding urban area and heading for the hills, I can get straight on it. Switching the manetino on the steering wheel to Race mode, the revs jump and the noise shatters the peace and quiet of the beautiful countryside but here in Italy a sports car’s engine is music to the ears of the locals, who sit outside their houses waving and cheering us on. They’ve had this every day for the past few weeks and nobody minds one bit.
Over some low speed roads where the tarmac has obviously seen better days, there is just the merest hint of structural flex but once I’m on the power this disappears into a feeling of complete control. For all Ferrari’s claims that the Spider is softer than its coupe sibling, from where I’m sitting there’s no difference whatsoever. And that’s definitely a very good thing.
With a shrill staccato wail that positively encourages full-bore downshifts whenever possible, this 419kW V8 engine is stunning. The redline doesn’t come until a heady 9,000rpm so there’s plenty of willingness to go very, very quickly – something I’m only too happy to revel in on these empty switchback roads. The clever electronic stability control allows a bit of slip when powering out of corners, sending the rear end shimmying for a second before regaining composure and, even though I know the computers are keeping everything tidy, I still feel totally in control, as if the car is telepathically connected to my brain. I feel completely involved in every single thing this car does, even though I’m well aware that its abilities far outweigh my own.
My passenger finds himself prone to whooping like an over excited American, uttering unrepeatable phrases as the Spider briefly relinquishes its massive levels of lateral grip and the rear tyres hang on for dear life. It’s a huge shot of adrenaline, whether you’re a driver or just along for the ride.
As we approach the sleepy villages, I switch the F1 DSG transmission (in my opinion the best one available anywhere right now) into Auto mode and this fearsome brute becomes civilised, docile and as easy to drive as a big Jag. The suspension, true to Ferrari’s word, soaks up some pretty horrific bumps with aplomb and there’s no spine jarring stiffness to unsettle either car or occupants. And that exhaust, while always loud when pressing on, is quiet when it needs to be. It’s a car for all occasions with a Jekyll and Hyde split personality and it’s utterly exquisite.
That folding metal roof happens to be 25kg lighter than the fabric one fitted to the F430 and the whole car weighs just 100kg more than the coupe. The damage this does to the car’s performance stats is minimal, with just one tenth of a second added to its 0-100km/h time. It’ll reach that speed in 3.4 seconds and the V8 feels like it’ll keep on accelerating forever. And as for the noise, well, words fail me – not ideal for a writer but trust me, it’s truly inspiring.
After the twisty bits comes the autostrada. It’s here that the 458’s razor sharp steering becomes a little problematic because the responsiveness that serves it so well on challenging corners makes it a bit of a handful when driving at high speed in a straight line. The throttle response, too, is so instantaneous that you can’t relax because the slightest variation in your inputs is acted upon with a savagery that could do with toning down for this kind of driving. But these foibles are banished to the back of my mind as I power the Spider through tunnel after long tunnel. My passenger’s face is a picture as the V8’s screams are bounced off the walls and, when we’re joined by another Spider driven by an equally appreciative journo, the resulting racket makes AC/DC sound like Enya. Goosebumps all round.
There’s very little to criticise here. The instrument binnacle still looks a bit daft and the passenger foot-well is awkwardly shaped but that’s about it. In fact I can’t think of a single compelling reason to choose a coupe over the Spider and that’s as high as praise gets. It doesn’t feel the slightest bit compromised when compared to the Italia – on the contrary, it’s every bit the driver’s car and, as such, places it in Ferrari’s hall of fame. If you have the means, I suggest you place your order straight away. You won’t regret it, I assure you.