Ferrari 458 Italia

I left Maranello on an evening in October 2004 in total confusion.

The joy of discovering that Ferrari had set a new benchmark with the then-new F430 – nothing less than the best car I’d ever driven – was tempered by the presence of a fishing rod on the back seat. The rod, a gift from Ferrari, marked my decision to return to live in Australia; though the realisation that I might never again visit the most famous car factory in the world wrenched my guts. Fishing, even with a gun carbonfibre Camor rod, could not compensate for a life devoid of Ferrari.

Five years later, in gloomy, damp November, I’m back in Maranello for the launch of the 458 Italia, the F430’s successor and the first genuinely new mid-engined V8 Ferrari since the 360 Modena of ’99. And I’m coping with the reality that if the F430 reached a new pinnacle for mid-engine sports cars, today’s 458 simply rewrites those rules.

On a blank sheet, Ferrari has combined all the knowledge, experience and innovation, developed over the decades, in a road car so talented that it is an extreme sports car – the naturally-aspirated V8 soars to 9000rpm – yet even more capable than the softer California GT in dealing with the dramas of daily driving.

Don’t doubt the 458’s extraordinary level of performance. In test driver Dario Benuzzi’s capable hands, the new car sets a Fiorano pace to match the benchmark 1min 25sec of the virtually race-ready 430 Scuderia. Believe it or not, that is as fast as the Enzo supercar. The V12’s superior power-to-weight ratio – 355kW per tonne versus 286 – amazingly is offset by the superior dynamic controls, brakes and suspension of the new 458. Which, by the way, is on regular Michelin road rubber and quieter, far more civilised and comfortable than either of the once hyper-performance Ferraris. The inevitable 458 Scuderia will surely smash the Enzo’s Fiorano time.

The numbers, like a standing 400 metres in 11.3secs and zero to 200km/h in only 10.4secs, are outrageous, yet what makes the 458 so memorable – a near automotive miracle – is the quickened responses of all the key driving elements. Logical, since technical director Roberto Fedeli says this was the primary target for the new car. A day on the same mountain roads used by the development test drivers, plus a few hot laps of Fiorano, and I’m convinced there is a level of engineering maturity, integration and refinement to the 458 that no other Ferrari (perhaps no other car) has approached.

From the moment I thread the car out of Fiorano and along Via Gilles Villeneuve and left turn into Via Dino Ferrari (Maranello understands the Italian marque’s heritage), it’s obvious that the steering, brakes, throttle and transmission are so much faster in their responses than the 430 – the 458 feels like a race car. Yet there is nothing harsh or nervous about the driving experience, more a calm communication that comes from the predictability of the dynamics and the controls, a sense that everything is working together to guarantee electrifying excitement combined with real finesse. Perhaps the best example is the super-quick steering.

The 458’s 11.9:1 rack compares to the 430’s 16.9:1 to reduce turns lock-to-lock to just two, a full turn less than its predecessor. You can maintain a 10-to-2 grip on the wheel in second-gear hairpins and know exactly where you’re positioning the car. Tiny steering inputs deliver instant results, creating a staggering level of confidence and true precision, no kickback and, best of all, no edginess.

At 220km/h (the best I saw), the aerodynamics (140kg of downforce at 200km/h) and the new multi-link suspension (developed for both the California and 458) mean stability is brilliant.

Speed doesn’t build in the 458, the engine just delivers from 1500rpm all the way to the 9000rpm redline (up 500rpm), which is also the point of the 425kW peak power. A 20 percent increase in torque over the F430 – to 540Nm at 6000rpm with 432Nm on tap at 3250rpm – also helps. Reducing internal friction and

improving efficiency plays a role. Mostly, however, it’s a greater understanding of the engine’s ECU capability, enabling a different management tune for each gear, that’s responsible for the instant, super-sensitive throttle responses. (From January production, the California inherits a similar ECU.) It’s not just added power: fuel consumption has been cut by 13 percent for a combined 13.3L/100km, though reducing the fuel tank from 95 litres to 86 seems misguided on a car of this potential.

Remember when carbon-ceramic brakes were noisy and grabby? (The Lambo Gallardo LP560-4 is the perfect example.) Not so on the 458; the standard six-piston front, four-piston rear Brembos are docile and smooth on public roads, fade-free and astonishingly strong on track with perfect pedal responses that are immediate and progressive across a diminutive travel. A subtle change in the curing process of the carbon disc surface helps, as does electronically controlled pre-loading of the brakes, which detects and analyses the speed with which you remove your foot from the accelerator to position the pads closer to the calipers in high-alert mode. These brakes cut the F430’s 200km/h-to-zero distance of 140m to just 128m.

What of Ferrari’s decision to fit all 458s with a seven-speed Getrag dual-clutch gearbox? Sacrilege, or following the course of natural demand? Regrettable perhaps, for it means the end of the lovely open-gate manual Ferrari. But before you condemn the decision you should know that the new ’box is far, far better than the clunky, lurchy old single-clutch tranny in auto mode. It’s also smoother and more fluent than even the California, which shares essentially the same gearbox though with a shorter final drive ratio – 5.14 versus 4.444 – and taller first and seventh ratios.

The lower gearing means the 458 will run to within a couple of hundred revs of the redline at its 325km/h top speed. Paddleshifts are lightning-fast, almost clinically efficient in the way they reduce Fiorano laps times. A manual shift is simply too slow in an era of low-3sec 0-100km/h times. I doubt, after trying the 458, you’ll miss the manual for more than a nanosecond. Press the ‘auto’ button on the console and the electronics take over, snapping off fast shifts or smoothly slurring between ratios in slow traffic. Picking up reverse is just as easy. It’s taken more than a decade, but Ferrari now has the paddleshift gearbox brilliantly sorted.

Ironic, then, that the California – the ‘soft’ V8 – adds an all-new Graziano six-speed manual gearbox to the options list in January. There are no plans for a manual 458, though Fedeli admits, “we could do it.” Up in the hills, I’m enjoying the prompt responses, the benefits of the other technologies, and finding my way round the cabin. The view through the deep screen and over the low cowl that’s flanked by delicate pontoon-ish fenders, is superb. You sit surprisingly high on hard buckets – the optional sports seats are set 20mm lower – and there’s plenty of space. The steering wheel offers more controls than ever, even pushbutton turn indicators which eliminate the stalk control, an idea borrowed from the Enzo. A 10,000rpm tacho is in the centre, as it should be, flanked on the right by a screen that can display a number of different features: one of three speedos, radio information or the GPS map. To the left of the wheel is the VDA (Vehicle Dynamic Assistance) centre which displays the varied settings for all the 458’s electronic chassis and differential programs (and lap times), each tailored to a specific setting on the steering wheel’s manettino.

A pictogram of the car shows when the engine, brakes and tyres are warmed up and ready for hot lapping. When they appear blue on the screen, they are not. When they’re green, it’s track time. When red, your tyres are probably stuffed. Not yet available but coming soon to the options list, one of the screens will show a much needed reverse-camera view.

Set the manettino to Sport or Race mode, pull back on the right-hand paddle, and the fun multiplies. Hit the throttle hard between 2500 and 3000rpm and the exhaust leaps from a low background murmur to a boomy, bass-heavy beat. It’s the natural complement to the metallic tone of the V8 as it races towards the magic 9000rpm mark.

Try a small throttle opening at the same revs, and the engine reveals its flat-crank design, sounding like two simultaneous and coarse, high-revving fours, rather than a booming V8. The 458 needs plenty of revs to sound the way a Ferrari is expected to sound.

The gearbox will upshift for you at 9000rpm unless you turn off the traction and stability controls. Brake hard into a corner and the ’box seems to know you are going to decelerate before you even lift your right foot, and seamlessly belts down a gear or two before you even start steering into the bend. Hands always on the wheel, all you have to do is concentrate on the road.

The engine and gearbox combine intuitively, so that the 458 always seems to be in the right gear, with exactly the right power delivery. There is never any obvious throttle cutting, no buzzing to indicate brake intervention, just fantastic traction and thrust out of corners from an E-diff3 that works so well with the stability control. The suspension uses magnetic dampers – from Delphi, which also supplies HSV – to smooth out the lumps. Mark the ride as another 458 virtue.

The 458 makes it all seem so easy, yet there is real driver involvement; no suggestion this is merely a mobile PlayStation. Never have automotive technologies been so brilliantly melded together in a road car. Predictably, Ferrari will charge 10 percent more for the 458. Expect $580K plus on-roads; yes, a massive ask, but it separates the luscious new V8 from the now entry-level and decidedly awkward-looking $472K California.

The McLaren MP4-12C will need to be some car to deserve mention in the same sentence as the 458.

What chance a comparison to take me back to Maranello in 2011?

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