458 vs GT3 RS

THERE is a moment, just the briefest, fleeting instant, when the GT3 RS feels obsolete.

It’s difficult to fathom how the pinnacle of Porsche’s racer-for-the-road portfolio could ever feel out of date given that its 3.8-litre engine now pumps 331kW, and when the abiding impression you’re left with after a decent drive is a sense of wonder at how these GT3 variants can just keep getting better.

But the Ferrari 458 Italia isn’t the normal updated-V8-Berlinetta. It isn’t a 360-to-430 exercise. The 458 is a paradigm shift in the way Ferrari approaches performance, and it does things that other – perhaps lesser – machines cannot.

Accordingly, after a squirt in the Ferrari, I clamber back into the RS. Synapses still tingling from the Ferrari’s outrageous pace, you twist the key and the flat-six fires with a baaaaarp and the single-mass flywheel chunters away behind you. You push the heavy clutch pedal down against its stop, move the Alcantara-covered gearlever to select first gear and get rolling.

And it’s during these first few moments that the 911 suddenly feels almost vintage after the 458. Minutes earlier the 458 was imperceptibly swapping gears in fractions of a second at the touch of a paddle, steering with such speed that it wasn’t necessary to cross your arms – and now the Porsche is asking you to move a lever. It feels slightly backward: almost like stepping from a full-carbon Bianchi racing bike onto a penny-farthing.

The disappointment – if you can call it that – doesn’t last long. Once your hands, feet and bum acclimatise to the messages that fizz through the RS’s structure and controls, it comes alive and its burgeoning personality is utterly addictive.

Only then do you begin to understand the fascinating dichotomy playing out between these two superb sports cars. Because they are just that: perhaps the two best series-production, road-going sports cars ever produced, and yet having driven them both back-to-back, and now sitting here writing about them, I’m still not sure that they should be compared to each other.

You see, Ferrari hasn’t just moved the game on in terms of performance – although taking this car out to 419kW at 9000rpm, with a kerb weight of 1485kg is pretty extreme – it has also genetically enhanced the price to $526,950. And a generously specified car like the one tested here now occupies a price-point so far removed from the GT3 RS’s $337,700, that for the same money you could have a base spec RS for track days and a cooking Carrera for everyday use.

Then again, price comparison points fade into insignificance when Porsche and Ferrari unveil their latest, naturally-aspirated machines. Regardless of price and intent, a comparison is inevitable.

The Porsche may be 88kW shy of the 458, but it does counter with a delicious specification of its own. That famous Metzger-designed flat-six now displaces 3.8 litres and runs beyond 8000rpm. Interestingly, it uses titanium rods to run at those crank speeds, whereas the 458 spins to a crazy 9000rpm with steel internals. The torque deficit isn’t as great, but the Italia’s extra displacement (4.5 litres plays 3.8) brings 540Nm to the Porsche’s 430Nm.

However, perhaps the most telling figures are the power-to- weight ratios. The 458 offers a startling 282kW/tonne, the 911 trails with 242kW/tonne.

Back to the 458 then. Styling is a personal thing, but in black the Italia is surely one of the company’s more interesting shapes. Combining distinctive mid-engined Ferrari Berlinetta traits with some stunning aerodynamic detail work, there are so many scoops, intakes and outlets that the car seems semi-porous. And, of course, those triple exhausts are a respectful nod to the F40.

But if the exterior seems futuristic, the interior goes several steps farther. It’s an environment that allows the driver to either keep both hands on the wheel at all times or, at the very least, have him reach no more than a few centimetres. It’s a complete departure from anything we’ve seen from Ferrari before and it’s notable for looking stunning, being mostly logical and, even on this early production car, very well constructed.

Then the V8 yelps into life and idles surprisingly smoothly. You pull the right lever to select first, just as you did with the old-style F1 ’boxes, but this time there’s no unseemly clunk as the gear engages and no ugly shunting as you try to drive away slowly – the new dual-clutch transmission has transformed the slow-speed manners of the smallest Ferrari. It’s now a pussycat in town.

The steering is very fast and light: almost arcade-game in its apparent detachment from the front axle. Throttle response is also very sharp, and combined with the steering and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gearshift makes the first few minutes in a 458 rather unsettling. And then you realise to drive and enjoy the 458, you have to adjust to its way of doing things, and that means managing your inputs with a greater degree of delicacy – especially the steering.

Performance is pretty startling. Don’t think for a minute that the peak output point of 9000rpm leaves this car lacking in the mid-range, because it hauls from 2500rpm in one great wall of noise and those seven ratios are so closely stacked, and the gearshift so fast, that the impression is of one long, sustained, ballistic rush of acceleration.

The chassis’ electrical systems are truly amazing. At first you push gently on the long-travel throttle, waiting for the point when the e-Diff begins to lock and push the car into oversteer. But with the manettino in ‘Sport’ mode, the differential and traction control work almost imperceptibly – to the point that you’re quickly burying the throttle with increasing anger, just to see what happens. The answer, on dry asphalt, is grip and grip. Plus grip. Traction is superb.

The ride is busy with the dampers on the firmer setting, but you can improve this by knocking them back to ‘bumpy road’ mode, but even then the 458 is less supple than the RS, which I didn’t expect. The car has good wheel travel, though, and rarely gets deflected.

What emerges from the 458 is a driver-vehicle relationship unlike any other. You drive the car with your wrists; making small, neat inputs. You lean on the electronics to transfer as much of that 419kW to the road as possible and you almost forget about the gearshift because it’s so damn efficient. You cover ground at an extraordinary rate, you snigger at the ebullience of the engine and you admire, greatly admire, the technical brilliance of Ferrari’s achievement.

And, at first, the precocious genius of the 458 does hang heavy over the RS. As I said, it just feels antiquated and unnecessarily demanding by comparison. At first.

The gearshift is so heavy, the steering much slower and the engine, despite being superbly responsive, doesn’t fling the car at the horizon the way the Ferrari’s V8 does. There’s somehow slightly more inertia in the package, which is odd given its 115kg weight advantage. Like all 911s, you need to gel with the latest RS – work with it, not against it.

When you do, what emerges is one of the great analogue driving experiences: this is very much Porsche’s vinyl to Ferrari’s MP3. That slower steering rack greets the driver through a thin-rimmed wheel and the way it writhes and wriggles in your hands might actually be the clearest representation of the differences between the two cars.

The Porsche is obsessed with involving the driver, it just wants you to take charge and feel everything, whereas the Ferrari is much more concerned with technical excellence, with deploying its fearsome potential to the surface at all times.

Through a series of tight, technical sections, there’s no doubt that the Ferrari is marginally quicker, its front axle holds a slightly tighter line (even on normal Michelin rubber compared with the Porsche’s Cup tyres) and its traction is remarkable. But the RS is more effervescent; you feel its mass moving around, you have to manage the power more actively and it sends some glorious messages back through seat, pedals and wheel. The noise is telling, too. For all the 458’s volume and shriek, it offers a slightly synthesised shout; the 911 is more natural.

By now you’ll have picked up on the vast differences in the way these two go about their business. The Porsche is infinitely more demanding of the driver. All it takes is a second- gear turn, approached by a fifth-gear straight to expose the vast gap that exists between the two experiences they offer. In the Ferrari you simply choose your line, avoid any notably bumpy sections in the braking zone, thump the left pedal, feel those huge 398mm carbon-ceramic Brembos come to life, flick the left paddle three times and turn-in. Easy as A-B-C.

Not so in the Porsche. Again, you pick your braking zone to avoid bumps, even though the Porsche is actually deflected less by them because it’s a little softer. But each gearchange requires a perfect combination of shifting, steering and heel ’n’ toe if you’re to avoid agitating the rear axle.

You have to manage the mass more carefully, too. Hit the brakes hard (smaller at 380mm, but with a more consistent pedal response) and the nose dives under deceleration, but release them too quickly and it rises too suddenly, unloading the front axle and bringing a whole world of pain called understeer. In short, the driver has a much bigger influence on the quality of the RS’s behaviour. Does that make it the better car? That depends on your point-of-view.

The 458 is a superior technical statement and its spread of abilities shades the 911’s. You could use the 458 every day, the gearbox is brilliant and the cabin is ideal for long distances. What it doesn’t deliver is as pure a driving experience as the RS.

Some will find the 911 too difficult, too demanding, but its judgement of hardcore adrenalin rush and surprisingly useable machine isn’t that far behind the 458’s. This one even has sat-nav, iPod input and folding seats. It’s just not as refined as the Ferrari.

No, I prefer to summarise them thus. If you told me I had to drive one of this pair every day for the next 12 months, I’d take the 458. It’s a stunning achievement. But if you told me I could only drive one car, for one hour, I would choose the latest GT3 RS. It’s a rush and it reminds me what driving is all about.

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