The manettino is in Sport, the default mode. You enter a very tight left-hander a bit too fast, and the front wheels crab a bit. Let's try the next position, Race mode, which widens the stability control net to allow more oversteer. All of the manettino settings have been reengineered, and the "little hand" now controls an even more complex array of dynamic parameters than in the F430, including the F1-Trac traction control; stability control; ABS; and the E-Diff3. All you really need worry about is which of the five available settings to twist the little red knob to: the low-traction one in slippery conditions; Sport for everyday driving; and Race when you're feeling a bit randy. The final two manettino positions, CT-off and CST-off, are best reserved for track use. CT-off, according to Ferrari, "allows oversteer right to the edge of the car's limits," while CST-off deactivates both traction and stability control for hero drivers.
Truth is, it's easy to feel like a hero in the 458 Italia no matter where the manettino is pointing. On the climb through the Apennine foothills south of Maranello, the 458 Italia reveals a level of performance and driving pleasure that is extraordinary. First, the steering is exceedingly well-tuned: Light effort but perfectly weighted. Perfectly precise. Perfectly communicative. Pivoting the 458 through a hairpin corner will make you grin, shout, or do both. You know exactly where you're placing the car at all times. It takes only the most minute steering input to produce a corresponding movement in the front wheels. It's hard to overstate the level of driver confidence that the 458's supercommunicative steering provides.
The 458 Italia's structural rigidity, brilliantly tuned suspension (control arms in front, multilink setup at the rear), and fantastic brakes also play a part in allowing a competent driver to storm along narrow, undulating two-lane mountain roads with a nonchalance that borders on insane. The engine and the gearbox work together so intuitively that it's very difficult to find yourself without exactly the right amount of power on tap, no matter your speed, your gear, or your steering angle. Even in automatic mode, the transmission holds the gears to redline. Approach a corner, and the gearbox seems to know that you are going to decelerate before you even lift your foot from the gas pedal, seamlessly slamming down a gear or two before you even start steering into the curve. The responsiveness from the engine at all points in the rev band, and the way the exhaust cycles from one tonal quality to another, are major touch points in the Ferrari experience. Under normal driving conditions (is there such a thing in a Ferrari?), bypass valves in the mufflers close, but when you dip into the throttle, the engine's ECU opens the valves and switches the exhaust gases to the two outer tailpipes, for a rich, big, boomy bass beat. Delicious.
The 458's competence unsurprisingly extends to the racetrack. At Ferrari's Fiorano circuit, test driver De Simone is a supreme master. In his hands, the 458 has the grace of a ballerina and the power of an Olympic sprinter, even as De Simone describes each corner to his passenger, adding the endearing "-ah" suffix to each English noun. But even a hapless journalist whose previous Fiorano forays have been ego bruisers finds the 458 to, once again, make him feel like a hero.
We, admittedly, did not expect the 458 Italia to raise the bar significantly, but after our first drive, we can confidently tell you that Ferrari did not succumb, or compromise, or ride on past glories. Instead, it innovated, it rethought, and it continued to adapt lessons from the racetrack to the street. In so doing, Ferrari has positioned the 458 very effectively against an onslaught of new competitors trying to dethrone it, specifically the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG and the upcoming McLaren MP4-12C. Yes, the latest Ferrari is that good.