Fast Forward

The 458 Italia is much quicker than its predecessor, and not just in the way you’d expect.

Fast Forward 1
November 30, 2010

A quick warning to F430 owners: Do not drive a 458 Italia. Seriously—don’t do it. You own one of the greatest sports cars of the last few decades, but if you get behind the wheel of a 458, you’re going to find out just how far Ferrari has moved the game forward with its newest mid-engine V8 model. And then, unfortunately, your car will never feel the same again.

It’s no surprise that the Italia accelerates quicker and corners harder than its predecessor, but it’s almost shocking just how far the 458 pushes the performance envelope. Consider its 4.5-liter engine. With 570 horsepower and 398 lb-ft of torque, this V8 pumps out a whopping 75 hp and 55 lb-ft more than the 4.3-liter mill found in the F430. That’s a game changer in anyone’s book.

But power is not the whole story. In some ways, it’s not much of the story. To my surprise, this stellar engine is not the star of the 458 Italia show—and I never thought I’d say that about a Ferrari.

Fast Forward 2

THE ITALIA EXPERIENCE STARTS when you first walk up to it. The 360 Modena shook up the supercar design world in its day, and the F430 was an excellent update on that theme, but the 458 takes things a step further than either of these cars by making the mid-engine V8 Ferrari look truly fast.

Pictures don’t do the real-life Italia justice, both in how low and how much like a jet fighter it looks. The car’s vestigial rear deck, combined with the sculpted bodywork that swoops and dives around it, gives the rear end a much meaner look than the F430’s. The single, partially exposed taillight on each side adds to this aggressive sense of purpose, as do the multi-step diffuser, mesh air outlets and striking triple-exhaust layout.

Up front, the 458 looks lower-slung than the F430, as well as nicely angular and aerodynamic. It also looks a bit like an angry insect, thanks in part to the oversized running-light/turn-signal clusters that march almost to the top of the front fenders.

Fast Forward 3

The Italia’s sides reveal more aerodynamic trickery at work. The smooth aluminum flows and flexes in every direction, while a sharp blade extends the flat underbody out from beneath the doors. The fascinating play of light across these surfaces makes its easy to completely miss the air intakes tucked up into the corner of the greenhouse.

The lightweight doors swing open easily, revealing the 458’s new-think cockpit. Almost everything has changed, from the seats to the door panels to the air vents which look like they belong on top of a building, yet it still feels very much Ferrari. Contrasting yellow stitching helps keep this car’s all-black interior from being too dark, while the Alcantara “carpet” adds an even more sophisticated feel to the already high-tech surroundings.

The most significant interior change is the steering wheel. Ferrari has done away with stalks on the steering column, moving those controls to the wheel’s hub. The layout takes some getting used to, but for the most part works very well. For example, placing the turn signals next to your thumbs—click once to start, once to stop—is sheer genius.

Fast Forward 4

It’s not perfect, though. The tiny high-beam button, which is tucked under the left cross-spoke, doesn’t illuminate with the headlights, making it almost impossible to find in the dark. Using the small pod of stereo, navigation and phone controls requires an ever-changing series of clicks, nudges and rotations, as well as a fair bit of time staring at the screen to the right of the tachometer. (A pair of small rockers on the back of the steering wheel do control some of the basics, like volume.)

There are no challenges to using the really important items, of course. The wheel rim fits my hand perfectly. The pedals are dead ahead. The shift paddles are comfortably placed and easy to actuate with a single finger. And then there’s the bright-red Start button, just begging to be pushed.

THE V8 WAKES WITH A RAUCOUS BARK, and I steer the Italia onto the open road of the Southern California desert. Said road is mostly flat and deserted, which gives me an excellent opportunity to experience the 458’s straight-line speed.

Fast Forward 5

The engine performs as brilliantly as its specifications would suggest, pulling like a proverbial locomotive from just shy of 5,000 rpm all the way to its soft rev limiter at 9,000. It’s one long seamlessly expanding rush of power—the 430 Scuderia’s distinct “steps” in high-rpm output are nowhere to be found—that slings the Italia toward the horizon with breathtaking ease.

Complementing the engine’s urgent sophistication is the 458’s seven-speed, dual-clutch gearbox. It’s the same one found in the California, aside from different gear ratios and an E-Diff3 electronic differential. It shifts faster than the single-clutch F1-Superfast2 transmission found in the 430 Scuderia—there’s essentially no interruption in power—yet is much smoother and more refined. The Superfast2’s neck-snapping full-throttle upshifts are gone, replaced with a gentle jerk.

Relatedly, while the 458 is impressively fast, it’s not as furious as you might expect. The V8 has a deeper, richer and more mature voice than its higher-pitched predecessors, a tone that pairs well with the car’s overall flavor of effortless speed. The baritone song fills but does not overwhelm the cockpit, even during flat-out driving.

Fast Forward 6

I soon reach my destination, a glass-smooth ribbon of long sweepers, short straights and hairpins that heads straight up the side of a mountain. Aside from the boulders lining every bend and the 105° temperature, it looks like the perfect place to really push the car. So I do, clicking the steering wheel-mounted manettino from Sport mode to Race and attacking the bends.

Well, that’s not entirely accurate. The car may have been willing, but, at first, I wasn’t. Like the F430, the 458 combines light steering effort with little front-end feel, and it takes some time for my confidence to build. So, my first impressions are of the car’s fantastically precise steering and cat-quick reflexes; the Italia simply goes where I point it, with no hesitation or slack.

With the front end sticking like a leech, I start pushing harder. And whoops—how fast did I just take that turn? The 458 doesn’t bombard its driver with information, which initially makes me feel like I’m travelling slower than I really am. Adding to this slight sense of isolation is how calm and collected the car feels underneath me. There’s no sign of understeer or oversteer, only a hint here of the rear end moving around under very hard braking and a touch there of the electronics and differential doing their jobs.

Fast Forward 7

The Italia seizes every opportunity to go that little bit more quickly—through every bend, over every crest, down every straight—and it’s not long before I realize that I’m driving faster on the street than I’ve ever done before. I’m going so fast that I have to remind myself to breathe. For its part, the 458 feels just as composed, competent and safe as it did some 10, 20 or 30 mph slower.

The suspension keeps everything tidy and composed. The optional sport seats hold me firmly in place. The brakes are fantastic, from their pedal feel to their massive stopping power (and they’re better than those on the Scuderia, my previous benchmark). The engine roars away happily, delivering its endless wave of torque. The transmission shifts instantly when I tug on the paddles, the exhaust crackling and popping maniacally during downshifts.

Somewhere along this stretch of winding road, I bond with the Italia like I’ve connected with few cars before. This comes as a real surprise, since I’ve always preferred cars that are a bit raw, a bit demanding, and that’s not the case here. Instead, the 458 thrills by being so astonishingly fast yet so easy to drive. And that is the real Italia story.

Fast Forward 8

HERE’S THE KICKER: All that mountain-side mania is nicely balanced by the 458’s real-world abilities. I drove this example more than 700 miles, and, aside from the firmness of the sport seats, was perfectly comfortable the entire time.

On the freeway, when cruising along in top gear, I didn’t hear the engine or exhaust, just a whisper of tire and wind noise. When things got bumpy, a quick push of the suspension button on the steering wheel softened the ride noticeably. (The “rough road” setting was ostensibly designed to improve performance by keeping the wheels in contact with choppy pavement, but it performs quite well as a comfort setting.) The stereo sounds fine, too.

The 458 works well around town, negotiating impressively steep driveways without scraping, and letting me lug the engine below 2,000 rpm without complaint. However, the extremely sensitive gas pedal sometimes makes it difficult to cruise around smoothly without lurching. And once, after a half-hour of continuous stop-and-go traffic, the car started bucking a bit off the line. Everything went back to normal as soon as I was rolling again, and, in hindsight, I should have put the transmission in neutral when sitting still for extended periods. Whatever the case, I would happily drive an Italia every day—and everywhere—if given the opportunity.

Fast Forward 9

With the 458, Ferrari has truly reinvented its V8-powered sports car. While the Italia shares the basic construction, layout and all-around mission of the F430, it simply blows its predecessor into the weeds with a stunning combination of outright speed, fantastic handling and untouchable composure, with no corresponding loss of real-world usability. Actually, thanks to its impressive ride comfort, it’s more usable. There’s no other way to say it: The 458 Italia is the best Ferrari I’ve driven.

SIDEBAR: ON TRACK WITH THE 458

AFTER TWO DAYS IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA with a 458 Italia, I had nothing but praise for Ferrari’s latest mid-engine V8. However, I didn’t know how it would feel on the racetrack. Would it be too refined, perhaps too remote, to be really enjoyable, particularly compared to a more visceral machine like the 430 Scuderia? I wondered, but had no way to find out.

A few days later, Mark Paddack, sales director of nearby Ferrari of San Francisco, called to invite me to drive both a 458 and a 430 Scuderia at Thunderhill Raceway Park. “We do track events for our customers all the time, but this one’s special,” he said. “We’ve got the cars and some of the instructors from the Ferrari Driving Experience.”

Fast Forward 10

Based at the Mont-Tremblant racetrack in Quebec, Canada, the Ferrari Driving Experience (FDE) offers two-day Basic and Advanced driving courses for Ferrari owners. Rather than using their own cars, however, participants use FDE’s: two 599 HGTEs, two Californias, four 430 Scuderias and four 458 Italias. While Ferrari of San Francisco’s one-day event wouldn’t offer the full FDE experience, with 12 cars and just 15 participants it wasn’t an opportunity to be missed.

On track, the 430 Scuderia was just like I remembered: raw, razor-sharp and immediate. In second-gear turns, the car slid and bucked under acceleration as I wrestled it straight. The frenetic V8’s howl battered at my ears, and I felt every ridge in the pavement though both seat and steering wheel—sensory overload in the best possible way.

Next up was the 458, which was, as expected, quieter, more refined and comparatively numb-feeling. It pulled much harder but wasn’t as much fun, in part because it was fitted with the standard seats, which didn’t provide much support. Plus, just like on the street, I didn’t really feel connected to the action.

Fast Forward 11

My outlook changed during my second session, when I decided to pay less attention to how the 458 felt and more to what it was doing. That’s when the Italia wowed me. It blasted out of second-gear corners, ones that left the Scuderia slithering, without a backward glance. It leaned more than the Scuderia but required fewer adjustments at the wheel. Without the Scuderia’s sturm und drang, I could concentrate more on things like the proper line and braking points. And the 458 could brake much later than the Scuderia, despite weighing more and wearing “normal” street tires instead of the 430’s extra-sticky rubber.

All this meant that I was significantly faster in the 458 than in the Scuderia. When I was driving a Scuderia behind an instructor who was also in a Scuderia, I often found myself eight or ten car lengths back. But when I was in a 458 chasing a Scuderia, I could close to two lengths. And over one sharp crest where the Scuderia bottomed out, the 458 remained unfazed, allowing me to challenge for the lead.

I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. All of the other participants I talked with were also struck by how composed and easy-to-drive the 458 was compared to the 430. Even the instructors were impressed; said one, “Put any of us in an Italia, and we’re gonna be faster around the track.”

Fast Forward 12

In the end, I decided I liked the 458 better than the Scuderia at Thunderhill. The Scuderia pushed all the right buttons and remains a thrilling track car, but the Italia’s speed advantage and composure simply won me over.

“I tell my customers that there’s a point you have to push through with the Italia in order to really ‘get’ the car,” Ferrari of San Francisco’s Paddack said. “It’s like breaking the sound barrier; once you do it, things are never the same again. And the chance to do just that is what’s so great about days like this.”

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