Crackling Performance

Thanks to 488 Pista power, the F8 Spider fizzes with energy.

Photo: Crackling Performance 1
September 3, 2020

Ferrari pitches the new F8 Spider, its thoroughly facelifted replacement for the 488 Spider, as combining the usability of its predecessor with the performance of the track-ready 488 Pista. So when I drop into the F8’s low, firm sports seats, I’m not surprised to discover plush leather, carpet, and a glovebox, along with a few subtle updates, including a smaller-diameter steering wheel and a lightly revised dashboard. Little seems to have changed when cruising down the road, either, which makes sense as the F8’s chassis settings remain essentially identical to the 488’s.

That’s not the case when I squeeze the accelerator, because the new Spider’s 3.9-liter twin-turbocharged V8 has been weaponized to Pista specification. Displacement remains unchanged but 50 percent of the engine internals are claimed new, including titanium con-rods, the crankshaft and flywheel, plus titanium-aluminum turbocharger turbine wheels and Inconel exhaust manifolds derived from the 488 Challenge race car. The result is an extra 50 hp over the 670-hp unit in the 488, for a heady 720 hp all told, a 2.9-second 0-62 mph sprint, and a rousing 212-mph top speed—a dead heat, by complete coincidence, with the McLaren 720S Spider.

The V8 is further endowed with the synapse-rapid responses gifted by its exotic internals and the staggering 40 pounds they shave from the engine’s weight, the equivalent of someone removing a heavy suitcase from under the rear tonneau cover. It’s not like this four-time International Engine of the Year winner ever wanted for energy, and it’s still paired with the world’s greatest seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, which changes gears like its shift paddles are triggers.

Photo: Crackling Performance 2

I had already experienced this sizzling performance with the F8 Tributo, but the F8 Spider could be something different. For one thing, it might be the last ever non-hybrid Ferrari V8, though it wouldn’t be too surprising to see a Pista-style variant or some run-out special grab that glory. For another, with the exception of the limited-production, $2.2-million LaFerrari Aperta, this is the most powerful convertible Ferrari has ever built.

Just over 50 percent of U.S. F8 buyers are expected to opt for the Spider, and by Ferrari’s own data they’re quite different to coupe owners: They cover more miles, often with someone in the passenger seat, drive less aggressively, and are less likely to visit a racetrack. This all reinforces the notion of a Ferrari convertible as a softer proposition than a coupe, less worthy dynamically, perhaps something for purists to pass over.

In reality, threading the F8 Spider through just a few turns reveals these preferences say more about customer usage than tangible differences in feel between it and the Tributo. The Spider delivers body control and grip that lets it carve hard through corners with a Zen-like state of calm and composure. Its steering is wicked-fast and super-accurate. The paddleshifters and pedals respond like I’m tapping at them with a reflex hammer. And, to top it all off, it still has the deliciously throttle-steerable on-limit handling that defines the best mid-engined V8 Ferraris. Adding wind in your hair and more engine noise only amplifies the experience.

Photo: Crackling Performance 3

While the F8 builds on the 488, which was launched in 2015, its platform dates back one generation more, to the 458 that arrived in 2010. It was the 458 Spider that introduced the folding hardtop to the mid-engined supercar segment, in 2011, and little has changed since. The tonneau cover has been altered a bit to tie in with the F8’s updated design and aerodynamics, but the two-piece roof itself remains unchanged from the 488 and differs only from the 458 by virtue of a more powerful hydraulic pump. That pump is why the roof can open or close in 14 seconds at up to 28 mph, whereas the 458 driver had to pull over and stop. This flexibility means you’re more likely to drop the roof when the mood spontaneously takes you.

To do so, just press a button between the seats. The tonneau cover hinges back, opens wide, then swallows the roof after it’s flipped gracefully through 180 degrees and the two aluminum panels are properly stacked, one atop the other. The process is mesmerically smooth and, while far from silent, much more subdued than Ferrari’s old fabric hoods, and certainly non-intrusive. Roof down, it’s still easy to chat with a passenger deep into speeds only sensible on the track. Roof up, the Spider seems just as refined as the coupe.

IT’S TOO WET to go topless when I first strike out, so instead I lower the vertical, heated pane of glass behind the seats—a neat feature that lets air swirl refreshingly into the cabin while avoiding the cacophonous bluster of dropping the side windows. Not only is this another trick the Tributo can’t match with its (admittedly very cool) F40-style slatted Lexan rear screen, it also affords a clear view of following traffic, which the Tributo distorts like a hall of mirrors. Legroom feels equally generous, and this is not always the case with folding roofs, which require real estate to stow.

Photo: Crackling Performance 4

But there are always trade-offs with convertibles, and the F8 can’t dodge them all. So there might be a window behind your head, but there’s no longer one highlighting that jewel of a V8 engine, just attractive twin fairings that lead into a rear deck officially likened to a manta ray.

The Spider also carries an extra 154 pounds over the Tributo. Part of the extra mass comes from the heavier roof with its complex mechanism, part from additional underbody reinforcements introduced for the 488, which helped stiffen the 458-based structure some 23 percent. There were just 110 pounds between the 488 GTB and Spider, the greater gulf between F8 models explained by the Tributo’s lightweight engine cover. (All this said, the F8 Spider is 44 pounds lighter than a 488 Spider.)

Weight won’t be on your mind when behind the wheel of the F8 Spider. In dynamic terms compared to the Tributo, there’s perhaps a little extra wheel patter, particularly roof-down—while the suspension hardware is identical, the adaptive damper software has been reprogrammed to account for the added pounds—but that’s it.

Photo: Crackling Performance 5

The purity and responsiveness of this benchmark chassis remain very much intact. The Spider feels low and planted and on its nose as I turn, the front tires (Michelin Pilot Super Sports on my test car, though stickier Cup 2 rubber is optional) shrugging off even overly ambitious entry speeds while the rear end calmly and quickly follows. It still rides pliantly, especially with the “Bumpy Road” suspension setting engaged for a little extra comfort.

More than anything, it’s how the F8 Spider crackles with energy and moves down the road as a cohesive whole that’s truly compelling. Even the most delicate fingertip movements and subtle pressure on the pedals yield palpable response from the brakes, the differential, and, above all, the upgraded engine.

It’s not quite a case of dropping an exact Pista drivetrain into a 488 chassis. For instance, full-bore gear shifts don’t have the Pista’s aggressive snap—a small nod to refinement where the Pista goes all-out for every last tenth of lap time—and the fitment of a gasoline particulate filter mandated by emissions regulations introduces a ticky thrum at idle and a gruffer V8 soundtrack.

Photo: Crackling Performance 6

The F154 unit nonetheless remains the world’s best turbocharged engine, one capable of the astonishing fury its numbers suggest—but it’s Ferrari’s mastery of the delivery that justifies the standing ovation. Instead of normal turbo compromises like lag, mush, and the performance anti-climax of throwing in the towel at 5,000 rpm, this V8 serves up its 568 lb-ft of torque progressively, rather than dumped in one hit, and pulls hard up to 8,000 rpm with a truly frenzied final rush of speed to get all 720 hp out of the bottle.

And those softer gear shifts? They’re so shockingly incisive that, if you’ve stepped out of anything but a Pista you’ll wonder what I’ve been drinking. During gentler driving, shifting is slick and refined, a perfect match for the Spider’s wide breadth of ability.

So much performance, and particularly such accessible torque, requires a delicate touch in the wet, but Wet mode offers benignly docile manners. When the road dries, a quick thumb-flick of the manettino ups the ante past Sport to Race mode. Not only does this make the F8 Spider fizz even more, it’s also when Ferrari’s latest evolution of Side Slip Angle Control and Dynamic Enhancer kick in, and the staggering levels of performance that could so easily be a liability on the street become exploitable—and mostly without the driver knowing the electronics are still doing some hand-holding. Plus, there’s always more aggressive CT Off and ESC Off for the brave.

Photo: Crackling Performance 7

With a powertrain and chassis that can adapt so quickly to your mood and the weather, it feels all the more appropriate to package the F8 in a Spider body. Buy the still hugely appealing Portofino if you want a more traditional kind of Ferrari convertible at a significantly lower price and with more space, but if you want the real deal, the F8 Spider is absolutely the one.

Photo: Crackling Performance 8

Also from Issue 185

  • Nembo Spider
  • 212 E
  • Flashback: Enzo
  • Market Update: Coronavirus
  • 25 Years of Goodwood
  • A Wet Day at Fiorano
  • F1: Rejuvenation
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