Maranello, Italy -- Ferrari does it again. The 458 Italia raises the bar for mid-engine exotic sports cars to new heights.
I’ve just driven the 458 Italia, the latest in Ferrari’s lineup of mid-engine V-8 sports cars. These are the cars that, in the modern era, have cemented Ferrari’s status as maker of the most desirable sports cars in the world. The 458 succeeds the F430 Scuderia, which followed the 360 Modena, which came after the F355. Before that we had the 308/328/348 series, but it’s really the 360 Modena that, a decade ago, really put Ferrari back on the map.
Some Ferrari fans didn’t care much for the styling of either the 360 Modena or the F430 Scuderia. Even as they conceded that the cars drove brilliantly, they pined for the classically clean lines of the F355. For them, the 458 Italia’s debut at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show in September must have been a red-letter day, because this Pininfarina design is drop-dead gorgeous. Did you think it looked good on the show stand, or in the published photographs you have seen in print or on the Web? Wait until you see the car on the street. It will not just turn your head, it will make your head spin around like a top.
The 458 is wide, low, lean, lithe, and luscious. The rear view is the most compelling, with the car’s triple exhaust pipes, the visible diffusers and venturi ducts, the silver prancing horse above the license plate, and the simple but evocative round taillights at the far upper corners. Unlike the F430, with its excessively slashed body sides, the 458 has clean body sides and relatively modest ducting. The pinpoint bi-xenon headlights and the LED eyebrows that spring back from them are delicate in appearance yet delightful to the eye. It’s all quite yummy, and that’s even before you take a gander through the rear glass and behold the redheaded Ferrari V-8 on display.
Ah, yes, the Ferrari V-8. It’s the latest evolution of the F136-series V-8s that serve in the F430 and more recently in the California roadster. In the 458, the engine is known specifically as the F136FB, and it’s mated exclusively to a seven-speed dual-clutch automated gearbox. What?!? No six-speed manual? That’s right: virtually no one has been buying them from Ferrari and so the 458 is the first-ever Ferrari that does not offer a manual transmission. The dual-clutch gearbox is the same one offered in the California but here, of course, it’s geared much differently for a much sportier characteristic.
We doubt that you will much notice or care. The dual-clutch gearbox is incredibly fast, smooth, and responsive. There is none of the lurching and gasping that afflicted Ferrari’s F1 automated-manual gearboxes for so long. You can press the big “AUTO” button on the center console and let the electronics take care of everything for you: the gearbox will snap off shifts faster and with less fuss than it took me to type the word “fuss.”
The V-8 itself is a remarkable technological and performance achievement. Ferrari V-12s? Who needs ’em? Not with a V-8 that revs, longingly, to an incredible 9000 rpm. Check out the other stats: 562 horsepower and 399 lb-ft of torque out of 4.5 naturally aspirated liters; a 12.5:1 compression ratio; dry-sump lubrication; four scavenger pumps to collect oil via dedicated oil-recovery ducts; and surface treatments for friction parts like the piston skirts, camshafts, and tappets that would do a diamond-cutter proud. And did we mention the 9000-rpm redline?
Wait, there’s more technology: a sophisticated electronic differential. The first application of magnetic-fluid dampers in a V-8 Ferrari (supplied by Delphi, these first appeared in Cadillacs and Corvettes and debuted at Ferrari in 2006 in the 599GTB Fiorano GT). Standard carbon-ceramic brake pads. An all-aluminum spaceframe body structure, clad in a super-thin aluminum body shell that is both super-rigid and super-light: the roof, hood, and door skins are made of a new alloy that is a scant 1.0 mm thick. Electronically controlled pre-loading of the brakes which detect and analyze the speed with which you remove your foot from the accelerator pedal so as to position the brake calipers in high-alert mode. And an extremely sophisticated attention to aerodynamics that resulted in a car that still looks good rather than like a caricature: the flexible front winglets in the lower air dams, flanking the front prancing horse, deflect downward by as much as 20 mm at speeds starting at 125 mph for increased downforce. The small vents just inboard of the headlights suck in air that is ejected through the vents just ahead of the front wheels; this also creates downforce. The ducts at the C-pillars direct air to the engine itself, while the ducts ahead of the rear wheels are sucking air into the engine compartment. The very clean body sides are designed to direct air into the rear diffusers, which conceal two radiators: one to cool the clutch, on the left; and one to cool the gearbox, on the right.