Sky's the Limit

By removing the 458’s roof, Ferrari made its best car even better.

Photo: Sky's the Limit 1
December 2, 2011

Northern Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region is home to Maranello, where Ferraris are designed, developed and built, so it’s no surprise the area is also home to some fantastic driving roads. The glass-smooth asphalt ahead of me swoops like a roller coaster, winding its way through woods and fields, up and down hills—a perfect venue to test the new 458 Spider.

With no cars behind me, I stop in the middle of the road. Keeping my foot on the brake, I flick the steering wheel-mounted manettino to Race mode, press the Launch Control button in the center console and floor the throttle. The 4.5-liter V8 revs to around 3,500 rpm and hangs there. I then sidestep the brake.

A split-second of silence is followed by a bellow from the engine and a screech from the rear tires. The Spider leaps forward, its V8 engine pulling ferociously all the way to 9,000 rpm. The gearbox automatically upshifts into second and the V8 continues its urgent bellow with no apparent interruption. When the tachometer again hits 9,000 rpm, the process repeats. Then repeats again.

Photo: Sky's the Limit 2

The Spider accelerates as strongly as its 570-hp specification would suggest, and the first corner arrives very quickly. Happily, the Ferrari’s massive carbon-ceramic brakes are more than up to the challenge of reining in all that speed. When I stand on the left pedal, the Spider slows so quickly it practically leaves me dangling from the seat belt. The brake pedal is firm and offers plenty of feel; it’s easy to get exactly the amount of braking I want.

In the meantime, I pull on the left-hand shift paddle a few times to drop back down through the gears. It’s such an intuitive action I barely think about it, but I am still rewarded at each seamless cog swap with a flurry of revs and a wicked cackle from the exhaust.

Things don’t go so smoothly when I turn into the corner, however. It’s been several months since I’ve driven a 458, and I’ve forgotten just how unlike a “normal” car Ferrari’s latest mid-engine V8 is—specifically, how it changes directions faster than anything I’ve driven this side of a go-kart. So when I turn the steering wheel perhaps an inch too far, I quickly find myself halfway into the opposite lane. I then lurch through the next few turns trying to refamiliarize myself with the extraordinarily fast steering and ultra-sensitive throttle response.

Photo: Sky's the Limit 3

Once I’ve properly recalibrated my inputs to the Spider’s reactions, it all comes together. The precise, wonderfully weighted steering doesn’t offer an overabundance of information about what the front tires are doing, yet it only takes a few corners to trust the Spider’s front end implicitly, to appreciate the millimeter-by-millimeter correlation between turning the steering wheel and the car turning in response, and to have faith in the rubber’s apparently limitless grip.

The Spider’s back end is a different story. It occasionally moves around under very heavy braking, and it’s always ready to swing wide if I get on the power too early. That said, these movements are neither scary nor overly dramatic—any oversteer not caught with a quick flick of the wheel will be reined in by the electronic driver’s aids. And then the Ferrari launches out of the corner as if shot from a canon.

Before driving the Spider, I had wondered if the 458’s handling would suffer as a result of its top-ectomy. After all, the open-air car is heavier, and its chassis 30-percent less stiff, than the fixed-roof Italia. Clearly, I needn’t have worried, and as one Ferrari engineer quipped, “At this level of chassis stiffness, it doesn’t matter.” Beyond the obvious performance attributes—lightning-fast turn-in, minimal body roll, impressive lateral g’s—the Spider also has the Italia’s amazing ability to shrug off bumps, tearing over them as if it was flattening the tarmac beneath its tires. Even ridges big enough to bounce me out of my seat don’t unduly upset the Spider. If its cowl shakes during those moments, I don’t notice.

Photo: Sky's the Limit 4

However, all these particulars don’t really get at the heart of the Spider experience. The roaring engine, seamless gear changes, fantastic speeds and instant responses combine to reduce the outside world into two parts: the tarmac ahead and everything else. It’s an almost hypnotic experience, one where my entire being feels focused on being smoother, on braking later and accelerating sooner. And the Ferrari just goes faster and faster, leaving a crackling wall of sound in its wake. But the best is yet to come.

Everything I’ve relayed so far could just as easily apply to the 458 coupe. (I used to call it a berlinetta, but the Ferrari engineers and marketers refer to it as a coupe—who am I to argue?) But while I love the Italia’s almost supernatural speed and handling [“Fast Forward,” FORZA #107], I always wanted to feel more connected to the driving experience. Because the Italia is clearly doing more of the hard work than the driver, and because it offers such subtle feedback, the car has a way of holding you at arm’s length. Surprisingly, that’s not the case with the Spider.

It might simply be the open roof and the newfound hint of breeze that flows into the cockpit, or it might have something to do with the Spider being a far less rigid platform than the Italia. But whatever the reason, the convertible feels more natural, more organic, than the coupe, and as a result the Spider is the more involving car to drive.

Photo: Sky's the Limit 5

IT’S IRONIC, THEN, that Ferrari considers the Spider a lesser performer than the Italia. The convertible is of course heavier (by 110 pounds) and a little slower (by 0.1 second to 60 mph and 4 mph in top speed) than the coupe, but the real difference, says Ferrari, is the customer.

You’d expect buyers of mid-engine V8 Ferraris to be pretty hard core, but that’s not exactly the case. According to Ferrari, most convertible buyers have a “sporty but not aggressive driving style” and desire “driving emotions.” Most of them use their car every day, and almost always with the top down.

Coupe buyers, on the other hand, are in search of maximum performance. They have an “exuberant” driving style and love to push their car to its limits. About 20 percent of them drive their cars on the track, and about 60 percent of Italias are used as weekend thrill machines.

Photo: Sky's the Limit 6

With this customer split in mind, Ferrari has differentiated the two models. Recently, it reworked the coupe with revised programming for the magnetorheological shock absorbers and new calibrations for the gearbox and F1-Trac system. Those last two alterations work only when the car is in Race mode, and reportedly make the Italia one second a lap faster around Ferrari’s Fiorano test track in this setting. (The car’s ultimate lap time isn’t any quicker; a professional driver with all the electronics turned off is still faster.) All Italias built after September 2011 have the new software, and earlier cars can be updated for free by an authorized dealer.

All that said, the Italia and Spider are in reality as closely related as you would expect. The two cars share their engine, seven-speed dual-clutch F1 gearbox, Ediff3 electronic differential, carbon-ceramic brakes, aluminum wheels and suspension components—even the spring rates are identical. The Italia and Spider’s aluminum chassis are identical save for the obvious—and some additional reinforcements for the open car—and the convertible wears most of the coupe’s aluminum bodywork, including its nose, hood, front fenders, doors and rear fascia.

Now the differences. The convertible’s windshield has been raked back a couple of degrees and the rear deck has been competely redesigned. The Italia’s sweeping engine cover has been replaced by a pair of buttresses flanking a mostly flat center section, and its engine-air intakes, mounted just behind the side windows, have disappeared—the Spider’s V8 breathes through inlets underneath the rearmost portion of the deck. Also new is a taller kick-up at the rear of the decklid; Ferrari calls this integrated spoiler a nolder.

Photo: Sky's the Limit 7

The biggest change, of course, is the Spider’s novel aluminum folding roof. Ferrari wanted a hardtop for the usual reasons of improved comfort and security but didn’t want the usual drawbacks, such as increased weight, lost interior or storage space and the need for side windows or a separate windblocker.

The company began working on its retractable hardtop in the mid-2000s. Several concepts were explored—one had the top drop down behind the seats, another used a version of the Superamerica’s rotating roof—before the current system was finalized in 2006. The chosen solution is both simple and elegant, and its carefully choreographed dance when lowering the two-panel top consists of five basic steps:

The forward part of the rear deck flips up on its trailing edge.
Photo: Sky's the Limit 8

The rear window lowers.

The roof’s two panels separate, flip backward and fold into a well.

The rear deck closes.

Photo: Sky's the Limit 9

The rear window raises partway, to the position Ferrari deemed an ideal balance between aerodynamic efficiency and cockpit buffeting.

Impressively, the 458 Spider’s hardtop weighs 55 pounds less than the F430 Spider’s soft top. The only downside to the 458’s retractable roof is that, when lowered, it covers 70 percent of the top of the engine—which is why Ferrari did away with the rear-deck window found on the 360 and F430 Spiders.

WHILE NOT BEING ABLE TO SEE the engine is disappointing, the Spider’s overall design doesn’t suffer much. The new car’s rear deck is a testament to time spent in the wind tunnel—it’s scooped and scalloped just so to direct outside air over, around and into the car. New vents help to extract heat from the engine bay. The flowing buttresses (Ferrari engineers are quick to point out they are not roll bars but “structural B-pillars”) rise smoothly from the deck; oddly enough, their tops are covered by small pieces of interior leather when the roof is lowered.

Photo: Sky's the Limit 10

Seen in profile with the top down, the 458 Spider comes across as a modernized Dino 246 GTS. With its top up, the car looks like a proper berlinetta (sorry, coupe), perhaps an updated F355, due to that flattened, window-less rear deck. The 458 Italia is more handsome, but the Spider has a nicely purposeful look all its own.

There’s little difference between the Italia and the Spider inside the cockpit; the modernist dash, steering wheel, door panels and seats are carried over unchanged. The only new items are a pair of buttons on the center console which control the rear widow and the top.

The roof in my test car was covered with the standard fabric, which, in the context of the rest of the leather-lined cockpit, is at best underwhelming. (The optional leather is top-notch, a definite must-have.) Even less impressive are a pair of fist-size holes in the fabric, through which the underside of the roof is visible. While the holes are both out of the way (they are located behind the seats at the far corners of the roof) and functionally necessary to allow the roof to separate into its two constituent panels, they are nonetheless a letdown in the otherwise sophisticated interior, and no doubt allow extra noise into the cockpit when the roof is raised.

Photo: Sky's the Limit 11

I have to admit, though, that I didn’t even look at the inside of the roof until the end of my day with the car. I was too eager to drive it.

I’VE ALREADY EXPLORED what the 458 Spider is like to drive at speed. So what’s it like when used for more mundane tasks? For lack of a better description, perfectly accommodating.

Cruising along the meandering two-lane roads that connect the small towns of the region, the Spider feels much like the Italia. It’s quiet (as long as I keep the revs low), it’s comfortable (especially if I press the Rough Road button on the steering wheel, which puts the shocks on their softest setting) and the dual-clutch gearbox serenely clicks off low-rpm shifts (if left in Automatic mode, however, the ’box is overly eager to climb up to seventh gear). At these modest speeds, there’s no wind noise or buffeting; I might as well be sitting still.

Photo: Sky's the Limit 12

At higher speeds, the cockpit’s open-air serenity remains. Normal conversation is possible to nearly 120 mph, and while the wind noise becomes too loud to shout over at around 160 mph, buffeting remains a non-issue. The only air movement I feel is some gentle ruffling of the hair on top of my head. It’s a truly astonishing display of aerodynamic efficiency, one equalled only by the speed at which my co-driver’s hat is sucked out of the car when he accidentally raises its brim above the level of the windshield header.

Another trait of Spider buyers, according to Ferrari, is that they love the sound of the engine with the roof open. The 4.5-liter V8’s rich, baritone howl is nicely enhanced by the missing roof, as you’d expect, but there’s an additional bonus: Due to its air intakes being located at the back of the car, as well as a specially designed exhaust, the 458 Spider doesn’t have the omnipresent engine noise that can become tiresome after a few hours in an F430 Spider. The 458’s engine note isn’t as thrilling as the earlier car’s, but, top down, the 458 Spider is truly all-day comfortable.

Late in the day, heading back towards Maranello on the highway, I pull over and raise the roof. Once back on the road, the Italia is significantly quieter, if not as quiet as an Italia. On the other hand, it suddenly feels a bit claustrophobic. Opening the side windows and rear window help in this regard, allowing excellent air flow through the cabin and unmuting the engine note, but the magic I’d enjoyed all day simply isn’t there. About 10 miles later, I pull off the road to drop the top, and finish the drive with a smile on my face.

SO WILL THE SPIDER, with its virtually indistinguishable performance and hard-top appeal, cannibalize Italia sales? Probably not. Ferrari expects sales to break down along the 50/50 coupe/convertible lines of previous V8-powered models. In addition to having different desires, coupe and convertible buyers are very loyal to their chosen configuration: 80 percent of coupes and 65 percent of convertibles are purchased by repeat owners.

But for those buyers on the fence, or those coupe lovers who don’t plan on going to the racetrack, I’d recommend the Spider. Sure, I’m a convertible lover, but, like a stereotypical coupe buyer, my preferred driving style is more exuberant than sporty, and the Spider definitely delivers the goods in that area. And, as I stated earlier, it is simply the more involving car to drive.

One year ago, I wrote that the 458 Italia was the best Ferrari I had driven. One year on, however, that accolade now goes to the 458 Spider.

Also from Issue 115

  • This supercharged 308 packs 384 horsepower
  • The SA Aperta redefines the GTO experience
  • Creating a factory-fresh Spyder California
  • Ferrari finishes the ALMS season with a win
  • Ferrari scores a pair of podium finishes
  • 250 GTOs invade Pebble Beach
  • Legends: The 250 GTO
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