New Car Reviews

Viva Italia: Ferrari 458 Italia

I ruefully said goodbye to the Ferrari 458 Italia in Row U, Section 6, of an underground parking garage in Portsmouth, England, an ignominious close to a journey that had begun in Maranello, Italy, and culminated with a thrilling dash up the hill at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in West Sussex: four days and four countries of driving bliss. I said goodbye to the incarnadine beauty and marched straight out to the hotel. It was like choosing not to look at a dear one lying in an open casket, preferring instead to remember the good times and all the grace. Having soared too close to the sun during the past four days, I now went forth without wings.

On the previous Monday, I was starting a routine week when the call came to get on a plane that very afternoon. Clearing customs in Bologna, Italy, fewer than eighteen hours later, I walked through the airport lobby and nodded at a man holding a Ferrari placard. He drove me past a Parmesan cheese factory and some balsamic vinegar producers on the way to Ferrari headquarters in Maranello. Here, I met photographer Paul Barshon, and we were off. Needing to share the new Italia with another reporter en route, we set out in a Ferrari California, the retractable-top spider. Following behind the Italia let me familiarize myself with the control layout that the two cars more or less share. As we tooled along the autostrada, I saw how Italy’s membership in the EU has caused the nation to get serious about traffic enforcement; we kept to a reasonable 75 mph, and the engine only snarled when we occasionally hurried around another vehicle. With the radio playing classic rock, it wasn’t so different from crossing Indiana. But before reaching Turin, we headed north-northwest, aiming the prancing horse on the hood for a point between the Matterhorn and Mount Blanc.

Heavy rain fell as we climbed away from the Italian city of Aosta, and clouds hewed to the ridgelines in Great St. Bernard Pass, which was still thawing out at the end of June; meltwaters hurried down to the Po River and thence to the Adriatic Sea. (Meltwaters beyond the summit flow to the Rhône.) The customs house was unmanned-another result of European unification-and we drove into Switzerland, passing through the Great St. Bernard Hospice, with buildings on both sides of the narrow E27. Nearly a millennium ago, Bernard of Menthon, archdeacon of Aosta, founded this place of rest and refuge for travelers, who previously had been prey to brigands. By the seventeenth century, a special type of mountain rescue dog had been put to work, taking the name of the place. We glimpsed a pair of the beasts along the road, presumably in training. We also greeted some young French cyclists who’d climbed to 8000 feet above sea level without appearing to breathe hard until they saw the Italia and the California together.

After oversleeping the next morning, Wednesday, I munched a chocolate pastry, drank half a cup of coffee, and guaranteed the front desk clerk that I hadn’t violated the minibar. Then we loaded photography cases into the deep well between the front wheels of the Italia, which would be ours for most of the remaining distance to Goodwood. The sun shone brightly, and people already bustled up and down the street in the resort town of Megève. (We had only been in the southwestern corner of Switzerland for two hours the previous evening before crossing another unmanned frontier, this one with France.) Sliding into the cockpit trimmed in voluptuous red and black leather, I touched off the direct-injected 4.5-liter V-8. The exhaust note resounded entrancingly off the buildings and slopes. Today’s journey would be independent, following an improvised route, starting on a high-country road. Not far along it, we stopped at a handmade sign that proclaimed the availability of goat cheese. I listened to clanking cowbells and twittering birds, meanwhile trying out lines in my notebook to describe the robust sonorities that issued alternately, depending on the driving mode, from the Italia’s three tailpipes. For example: how it would sound if Lady Gaga were deposited into a UFC cage match.

Soon afterward the road curved hard, and we beheld the vastness of Mount Blanc, a great Moby Dick of a mountain, endlessly white and imposing. We continued over a divide and entered Albertville, host city of the 1992 Winter Olympics. It was time for fuel. Compared with its predecessor, the F430, the Italia is 13 percent more efficient. Fuel tank capacity is reduced for weight savings, yet overall range increases. We put 17.2 gallons of sans plomb 98 into the car for a startling €95 ($116) and endured the cashier’s equally startling taunt: She preferred Corvette to Cavallino. Horses for courses, as the Brits say.

The V-8 features a continuously variable valvetrain and produces 570 hp, helping the Italia fire from 0 to 60 mph in 3.0 seconds. And roads in this part of the Rhône-Alpes afforded the opportunity to fire at will. A seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox manages the output as fluidly as Pablo Casals used to modulate the Bach cello suites. To make these instantaneous shifts, my fingertips were positioned on the huge paddle shifters. Heading for a hairpin turn at 110 mph elicited yelps of “Bloody hell!” and “Formula 1!” The exhaust boomed apoplectically through the outer pair of pipes, harrumphed sullenly on downshifts, and crooned with delight when the throttle was picked up in the apex. The enormous carbon-ceramic brake rotors with six-piston front and four-piston rear calipers easily quashed forward momentum, and the screeching that was a factor around town in Albertville wasn’t noticeable here. The Italia stayed remarkably flat under the hardest cornering I dared attempt, and the fat tires on twenty-inch wheels offered an excess of grip.

The preplanned route that had been doled out back in Maranello called for our leaving the Alps and passing through Bourg-en-Bresse. In 1884, the American writer Henry James published A Little Tour in France, in which he labeled Bourg as “a town quelconque,” that is, “ordinary.” So we changed our heading for Annecy, at the northern end of the similarly named lake. Coming up the western shore, we watched a hang glider float high above. One of the Italia’s virtues is its tall and, I dare say, Honda-like windshield, which affords excellent visibility and avoids the common flaw of capturing irksome reflections from the dashboard. Without a gear lever or transmission tunnel, there’s ample knee- and elbowroom, and the overall level of comfort is noteworthy. The same is true for the quality of the interior trim. Every surface is exquisite to the touch. The instrument panel offers a jumbo tachometer withan integrated gear indicator, and this unit is flanked by multifunction displays that earn major kudos for Ferrari, being both attractive and effective. The dual-zone air-conditioning worked perfectly, too. My only complaint concerned the fiddling required to enter a destination into the nav system.

We glanced at sunbathers on the lakeside beaches and pleasure boats on the water’s surface. When we stopped at a fruit stand in Saint-Jorioz, an employee who gave her name as Silvina delivered her curvaceousness onto the Italia’s delicate aluminum forequarters, vamping for the lens. When we stopped in Sevrier, the chief of the three-man police department, Manuel Calatraba, wielded his camera phone, saying, “For my collection.” But in Annecy itself, another policeman compelled us to affix the front number plate, which had been in the cargo hold. How else would the speed cameras track us? The plate subsequently blew off, I ran over it, and it went back into the cargo hold. Touché, Clouseau!

I will never be able to reconstruct the exact route that led us to Château de Varey in the afternoon, but finding this thirteenth-century castle, we turned uphill and moments later penetrated the narrow entry archway. “Ferrari!” exclaimed a boy in the courtyard, who couldn’t have looked more surprised if a flying saucer had set down. A couple dozen youngsters immediately assembled, not to mention a few of their teachers, who informed us we’d arrived at a summer school for kids with learning disabilities. I set the electronic parking brake, positioned my right foot, and stamped out a counting lesson: 7000, 8000, 9000! The kids’ gleaming eyes displayed clear comprehension. After each étudiant had sat in the front seat for a photo, we departed.

About the French, who are reputedly so disagreeable, I must say that I found nothing but geniality. Take René Hachez, our chef that evening in the medieval city of Troyes. In old times, the protective wall around this town’s churches and residential buildings took the form of a Champagne cork. (If that’s not perversely playful, then Louis Blériot wasn’t the first to fly across the English Channel.) We traipsed from our hotel to the small and exclusive dining room in the Hôtel la Maison des Rhodes. A short, blocky man with a broad smile, Hachez is a superb cook and major hambone. “Here is my favorite bottled water,” he said, uncorking a sparkling blanc de blancs. A one-man band, he goes marketing for fresh produce in the morning and takes away the plates after 10 p.m. Once we’d enjoyed olives, foie gras, and cheese pie with salad, he served the duck with roasted potatoes and mixed vegetables. While I savored the first mouthful of
the entrée, Hachez reentered the room with a small-bore rifle and said, “If you want more duck, you just tell me.” Dessert, his own apple tart, first was presented in the pan and then, moments later, upside down on a plate. Of course, it was topped with homemade vanilla ice cream.

We drove through northern France on Thursday, briefly visiting the old Reims racing circuit before loading three Ferraris (a 599GTO had come along as a kind of weird-uncle escort) into a Eurostar train carriage. “Business or pleasure?” asked the British customs agent at the tunnel’s mouth. That was a hard one. The Italia offered such comfortable seating and pleasant cruising, there was no question of displeasure. During the subsequent crossing beneath the English Channel, I barely sensed any motion. Meanwhile, my mind still searched for a way of describing the Italia’s sound. For example: a category F3 tornado, capable of toppling a train, being forced through a trombone.

We entered the Land of Brown Sauce for the express purpose of introducing the Italia to the massive crowd at Goodwood. (Ferrari realizes about eleven percent of worldwide sales in the U.K.) One of the announcers on Friday morning said, “This event is effectively the British motor show.” It’s truly uncanny. Everything from Jim Clark’s Indy-winning Lotus-Ford 38 — driven by our host, Lord March — to Michael Waltrip’s NAPA Auto Parts Toyota went up the 1.1-mile hill, hoping to qualify in the Fast 20 and run for highest honors on Sunday. About 0.8 mile along the course, there’s a serious kink at an obstacle known as the Flintwall. Fenway Park has the Green Monster, Goodwood has the Flintwall. But for those doughty Englishmen who endured cold-water bathing at boarding school, this barricade of cobblestones and fossilized sea animals might as well be a SAFER barrier like those on American speedways. Professing the whole experience an eye-opener, Waltrip, waiting to embark on his second run, described how he’d made it up the course without knowing at all where he was going in the 800-hp stock car. “When I took off from the starting line, I started looking for that wall,” he said.

Appropriately enough, the Italia was entered in the Supercar run. During the midafternoon, when it was getting on to cream tea time, I joined Pat Blakeney inside the cockpit of a right-hand-drive version from Ferrari’s British press fleet. We chitchatted while everything from a Tesla Roadster to a Koenigsegg Trevita preceded us. Blakeney manages the Thruxton Motorsport Centre in Hampshire and races formula cars. Lining up to start, he had a good reason to change the setting on the manettino, the “little hand” on the steering wheel, and selected the Italia’s launch control. As long as he kept his right foot down, each automatic upshift would occur at redline without any human dithering. Receiving the signal, we roared away. Turn Three, before the Pheasantry Grandstand, required some serious downshifting and braking, but Blakeney simply blasted around the Flintwall. After 58 seconds, we crossed the finish line. I divulged that I was still tingling, and he divulged that I wasn’t alone.

After a good dollop of the Italia, I can assert that (a) it makes nearly every previous mid-engine Ferrari look a bit dowdy, (b) you wouldn’t want the sport seats if you plan to do anything besides track driving, and (c) Ferrari has achieved something path-breaking here. It’s a very accommodating car with exceptional ergonomics and evocative performance. I wouldn’t have used the term “everyday Ferrari,” but Blakeney did. I relished each moment of driving it, although my sloppy entrance into that roundabout on the return to the Portsmouth hotel remains regrettable. Memo to the irate bloke driving the Vauxhall Insignia: With left-hand drive in an Italia, in not-so-merry old England, rearward vision through the engine exhaust screen is terrible. Yet your maledictions didn’t mar my day. I had thirty minutes remaining with Ferrari incarnate.

Ferrari 458 Italia

BASE PRICE: $230,275

ENGINE: 32-valve DOHC V-8
DISPLACEMENT: 4.5 liters (275 cu in)
HORSEPOWER: 562 hp @ 9000 rpm
TORQUE: 398 lb-ft @ 6000 rpm
TRANSMISSION: TYPE 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
DRIVE: Rear-wheel

STEERING: Power rack-and-pinion
SUSPENSION, FRONT: Control arms, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR: Multilink, coil springs
BRAKES: Vented carbon-ceramic discs, ABS
TIRES: Michelin Pilot Sport K1
TIRE SIZE F, R: 235/35YR-20, 295/35YR-20

L x W x H: 178.2 x 76.3 x 47.8 in
WHEELBASE: 104.3 in
TRACK F/R: 65.8/63.2 in
WEIGHT: 3274 lb
FUEL MILEAGE: 13/18 mpg (est.)
0-60 MPH: 3.0 sec
1/4-MILE: 10.9 sec @ 134 mph