Unleashed

Ferrari boosts its turbocharged V8 to 670 hp and drops it into the company’s best sports car. Hang on.

Unleashed 1
July 10, 2015

After a half-hour tearing up the roads near Maranello in a 488 GTB, I’m awestruck. I’m repeatedly surprised by the Ferrari’s staggering acceleration down straights, out of corners and, especially, in seventh gear above 100 mph, where the car seemed to pull even harder than it had a couple of gears earlier. The car’s handling and braking are beyond reproach, and easily best the talents of the 458 Italia it’s based on. In short, the 488’s speed is practically unbelievable, as is its control.

Now, however, my heart rate starts to drop. While the 488 feels much like a faster 458, its driving experience soon becomes a little too tidy, too planted, too smooth, too controlled. I’m beginning to wonder if Ferrari dialled out some of the 458’s exuberance along with its shrieking engine note, but then I glance down at the steering wheel and see the manettino points to Sport mode. I flip it to Race, stand on the gas pedal and am promptly introduced to a very different, very exuberant, more involving and even faster Ferrari.

Two weeks later, I’m still awestruck.

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AS MENTIONED, the newest Prancing Horse is not a clean-sheet design. It is instead a heavily evolved, 85-percent new edition of the 458. While many of the fundamentals are unchanged, the specifics are usually quite different.

The two cars share very similar dimensions, with the 488 being about an inch and a half longer and half an inch wider; height and wheelbase are the same. The forward section of the 488’s all-aluminum chassis varies only slightly from the 458’s, while the center section is mostly new and builds on developments in rigidity introduced on the 458 Speciale. The rear of the 488’s chassis has been completely redesigned, a necessity to accommodate the all-new turbocharged engine.

Aside from the roof, which along with the floor is carried over from the 458, the 488’s bodywork is also all new (and its body-in-white weighs about 66 pounds less). The Italia’s profile remains visible in the GTB, but as a whole the new model looks very different.

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This difference starts with the 488’s reworked haunches. Where the Italia tucked its engine air intakes discreetly into its tail, leaving its sides smooth, the GTB’s rear fenders sport enormous inlets that feed air to the intercoolers. As a result, those fenders grow both visually and dimensionally; they are taller and about three-quarters of an inch wider on each side and immediately draw the eye. The 308 GTB-inspired scallops (the 488’s name honors that car, which debuted 40 years ago) cut into the doors make the intakes appear even larger—so large that the Ferrari’s in-house designers added a “blade” to break up the gaping hole.

“It’s a balance of engineering complexity versus aesthetic beauty,” commented Ferrari’s in-house design boss Flavio Manzoni, who oversaw the GTB’s design. “Everything is connected to function. When we discovered the car would be turbocharged, we were so happy because it gave us the chance to do something new, something special on the side of the car.”

It’s a purposeful, visually striking solution, and one that gives the 488 more of a wedge shape compared to the 458. To my eyes, however, the inlets are not particularly pretty, and those on our test car were split by a jarring carbon-fiber blade. The standard treatment is body color, which looks much more harmonious. “The idea is that it’s a stepped fender,” says Manzoni, who also prefers the body-color blade.

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The 488’s nose, on the other hand, looks fantastic, its Formula 1 inspiration clear from the dual-pylon front wing to the vestigial single-seater shape of the hood’s bulge. Gone are any hints of the classic Ferrari “mouth,” which lives on in the FF, F12 and California T. Overall, the 488 feels more closely tied to the LaFerrari than any of its regular-production stablemates.

As with the side intakes, the front end’s suggestive shapes serve a functional purpose. The pylons, for example, break up and direct the oncoming airflow, while the depressions in the hood help direct airflow from outlets recessed into the rear of the bumper. (There’s more on the 488’s aero package in the accompanying side bar.)

From the back, the 488 looks both aggressive and sophisticated. The bulging fenders, central exhaust tips, prominent diffuser and fog light, and high-mounted air outlets blend to create a compelling, purposeful composition.

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Also attractive, and very familiar, is the 488’s cabin. At first acquaintance, it appears little changed from the 458. Look a little closer, however, and you’ll discover that almost everything beyond the steering wheel is new. The center console’s transmission controls now reside in the same bridge found on the Cal T, while the angled pods on either side of the steering wheel have been redesigned, as have the dashboard’s distinctive air outlets. The door panels and instrument panel’s infotainment screens are unique, and even the shape of the climate-control panel has been lightly modified.

THE MARQUEE DIFFERENCE between 458 and 488 resides a couple of feet behind the passenger compartment. In the interest of reducing emissions, Ferrari has developed a new family of turbocharged V8s.

Turbocharging allows small-displacement engines to make as much or more power than larger, thirstier, more polluting, normally aspirated ones. In this case, the 488’s 670-hp 3.9-liter engine, boosted to nearly 35 psi, produces around 4-percent less CO2 and consumes roughly 15-percent less fuel than the 458’s 570-hp 4.5-liter unit. While these are impressive results, they’re not the whole story; turbochargers present a significant set of challenges.

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One major issue for Ferrari’s engineers was managing the new engine’s heat. Cooling the intake charge required the aforementioned intercoolers, large air-to-air units from Alexon. In order to improve engine cooling, the car’s front-mounted water radiators grew by 20 percent, and it took some clever design and packaging to fit them without increasing the car’s drag.

Speaking of packaging, Ferrari’s engineers describe the 488 as “easy” compared with the Cal T, for which everything had to be crammed under the front hood. The mid-engine model’s comparatively spacious engine bay made things much easier, although the new engine had to remain the same size as the 458’s despite the addition of the two turbochargers and associated hardware. Impressively, the 3.9-liter powerplant is only 6mm wider than its predecessor, and it even boasts a 3mm lower center of gravity.

Drivability was another, more difficult challenge. Making enormous amounts of turbo power is easy; making a turbocharged engine respond quickly and linearly to the accelerator isn’t. Ferrari knew the F40’s on-off character and significant turbo lag wouldn’t be acceptable in the modern era.

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To improve the V8’s responsiveness, the engineers started with a twin-scroll turbocharger from IHI (which also made the turbos for the 288 GTO, F40 and Ferrari’s past and present F1 cars). A twin-scroll turbo features two separate intake paths that direct the exhaust stream from alternating pairs of cylinders to the turbine. This blends the exhaust pressure pulses together for smoother overall flow, which keeps the turbine speeds high and response quick. Equal-length, four-into-two exhaust manifolds feed the turbos.

Next, each turbo’s internal shaft was mounted on ball bearings instead of the usual bushings, reducing friction by 30 percent. The turbine and compressor were made of a lightweight titanium-aluminum alloy, which allows them to spin up 50-percent faster than identical items made of the usual Inconel. Finally, Ferrari added an abradable seal between the turbine (and compressor) and its housing. During engine break-in, the turbine grinds away any excess material, creating a seal with very tight tolerances; this non-damaging operation alone delivers a three-percent improvement in turbocharger efficiency.

Turbo engines typically deliver a wave of torque at low rpm, but Ferrari wanted a powerband more reminiscent of a normally aspirated engine, with power rising progressively with revs. Its solution, as on the California T, was Variable Boost Management, software that limits the amount of boost produced depending on rpm and gear. Thus, maximum torque of 560 lb-ft (a 40-percent improvement over the 458) arrives only in seventh gear; lower gears get less.

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With packaging and drivability checked off the list, the engineers were left with sound. This was always going to be a major hurdle, both because the 458’s shriek is such a large part of its driving experience and because turbochargers by their nature muffle the exhaust note. Nonetheless, Ferrari wanted a “sharp and loud” sound, with the spirit if not the volume of earlier cars, which led to careful tuning of the engine’s acoustics via the intake and exhaust systems. The V8’s traditional flat-plane crank and those equal-length exhaust headers play a significant role, as well.

Although the new engine gets all the headlines, the rest of the 488’s mechanicals and electronics have been reworked. A few examples: The magnetorheological dampers now feature new, low-friction piston rods, along with three new sensors feeding information to a revised software setup. The brakes have been updated with LaFerrari-derived calipers—which reduce unsprung weight by a total of six pounds and brake-fluid temperature by nearly 70° F—and a faster-acting ABS system. The gearbox features new gearing and faster shifting; the latter is roughly on par with the 458 Speciale. Second-generation Side Slip Control integrates the dampers into its existing control of the F1-Trac traction control and electronic differential, for a 16-percent improvement in longitudinal acceleration out of corners.

BACK ON THE ROAD in Race mode, I have to quickly recalibrate my actions. Sharper throttle response means the car snaps forward with newfound, eye-opening vigor. The rear end is suddenly mobile; oversteer looms, and the Ferrari feels much more responsive and alive. Gearshifts, previously so smooth, crack off with a whack. The exhaust note grows a harder edge—or am I just imagining it as the scenery blurs by even faster than before?

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Whatever the case, this is not a subtle difference: Less than 15 seconds in, my passenger comments, “It feels like a different car.” It certainly does, and it’s enthralling—but in one unfortunate way, the 488 is no 458.

After spending some time with the California T [“Character Study,” FORZA #143], I concluded that the quieter turbocharged engine was a good match for that refined, every-day GT. The quieter turbocharged 488 doesn’t win me over, as there’s just too much of a disconnect between the car’s breathtaking performance and its comparatively mellow engine note. The GTB doesn’t sound bad—its mellifluous howl and turbo sound track are rich and refined—but it ultimately leaves me unsatisfied.

Would this aural letdown keep me from buying a 488? Hell, no. Besides, the new tune makes the 488 a far more comfortable companion over the course of a day than the 458. In a similar vein, while the GTB’s turbocharged engine doesn’t respond as quickly as Italia’s normally aspirated unit, it’s noticeably more responsive than the Cal T’s. In addition, any tiny delay between planting my foot and the car leaping forward occurs only at low rpm. With the turbos on the boil there’s no disconnect, just a massive surge of power.

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I never thought the 458 needed more grunt, and the 488 certainly doesn’t. It’s wonderfully, crazily fast, and it distributes all 670 ponies effortlessly. As in the Italia, the GTB’s electronic aids invisibly elevate the driver’s game, leaving me feeling like Kimi Raikkonen on a good day. At the same time, the newest Ferrari offers more feedback than its predecessor, and this natural, unassisted feeling is rare in such a complex, computer-controlled machine. Steering weight and feel are more Speciale than Italia, which adds to the involvement.

The 488’s superb brakes offer better stopping power and feel than the Italia’s, but the new car’s most impressive attribute is the amazing suppleness of its suspension. It’s not a question of ride quality (which is even better than the perfectly comfortable Italia’s) but of the way the car completely ignores broken road surfaces. The revised dampers absorb bumps like nothing else I’ve experienced. Instead of bouncing up and down over the local ruined tarmac, the 488 goes up but then simply returns to level, no rebound necessary. A nasty stretch of craters that would leave a normal car both hopping around and spinning its drive wheels can be taken flat-out in the Ferrari. Vertical movement isn’t a factor, as mentioned, and the rear tires somehow keep pushing the car forward, seamlessly, faster and faster.

This isn’t entirely new behavior, as the 458 Italia also smoothes out bumpy roads with impunity. Make that near impunity, because the 488 performs the trick much better.

That’s really the moral of this story: If you like the way the 458 drives, you’re going to love the 488. The GTB accelerates, brakes and turns harder—and is more communicative—than the standard-setting Italia, yet is also more refined. It’s even a half-second faster around Fiorano than the Speciale. Yes, I wish its volume better matched its performance, but that performance is so extraordinary, so thrilling, it almost seems petty to complain. Drive one and you’ll understand: The 488 GTB is a masterpiece.

Also from Issue 144

  • Turbocharger tech
  • 550 Barchetta vs 575M Superamerica
  • 500 TRC
  • Francois Sicard interview
  • F1: We're #2!
  • FORZA Tifosi Challenge: Examining the cars
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