There didn't seem to be a lot more that Ferrari could do with its V-8 berlinetta lineup. Over the past decade, the cars got better and better, further cementing Ferrari's role as the producer of the world's most desirable sports cars. The startlingly good 360 Modena began it all back in 1999, and each successive iteration of the mid-engine masterpiece from Maranello raised the bar: The 360 Challenge Stradale. The F430. The 430 Scuderia. And, most recently, the hyperfocused Scuderia Spider 16M. These cars became the backbone of Ferrari's resurgence by translating the automaker's hard-fought Formula 1 racing expertise into products that tantalized auto enthusiasts everywhere, rewarded the lucky few who owned them, and strengthened the ethereal aura around the brand. Ferrari created the gold standard in sports cars, a lineup that competitors as varied as the Ford GT, the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, the Lamborghini Gallardo, the Porsche 911 GT3, and the Aston Martin V8 Vantage sought to assail. But in the tussle for sports car supremacy, Ferrari always managed to end up at the top of the heap.
With leadership comes responsibility, but it also can bring vulnerability. When it came time to replace the F430, would Ferrari succumb to success, throw up its collective hands, and decide that a mild refresh would do? After all, if any automaker today were to unveil a car that is as good as the F430 was five years ago, the car would be declared a champion. Ferrari could easily have simply tweaked the F430, slapped on a new skin and a new nameplate, and still filled its order books for a five-year run. This plan of action must have been tempting for a small carmaker that was already busy developing a class-leading V-12 GT flagship, the 599GTB Fiorano; an all-new convertible, the California; and a midcycle repositioning of its two-plus-two, the 612 Scaglietti, not to mention running a Formula 1 racing team and supplying engines to Alfa Romeo and Maserati.
To be sure, with the 458 Italia, which goes on sale here this summer, Ferrari has not reinvented the automobile. At about 3300 pounds, the 458 is light but not particularly so. The wheelbase is a couple of inches longer than the F430's, but the overhangs are slightly shorter and the cabin is marginally longer. The car still, of course, uses an internal-combustion engine that burns gasoline at a prodigious rate, although Ferrari says that emissions rival the California's for the company's lowest ever. Yet what an engine it is. The 4.5-liter flat-crank, direct-injected V-8 (Techtonics sidebar, page 74) produces an astonishing 562 hp and 398 lb-ft of torque and redlines at a lofty 9000 rpm. By comparison, Lamborghini gets 552 hp out of its 5.2-liter V-10. The 458 Italia's V-8 is a further derivation of the F136 family of Ferrari V-8s from the F430 and the California, all of which have 104-mm bore centers and 92- or 94-mm bores. Ferrari primarily varies displacements by changing the length of the stroke.