Supercar Summit: Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, Lamborghini Gallardo, Audi R8, Porsche 911, McLaren MP4-12C, and Ferrari 458 Italia

Dave Kinney
Greg Pajo John Wycherley

1. Ferrari 458 Italia
Fuses competence and emotion in a pacesetting package.

Front-engine Ferraris traditionally form the core of the brand, but ever since the 288GTO and the F40, it has been the mid-engine models that epitomize the technological pinnacle of a given era. Like red wine, Ferraris come in good and less desirable vintages. Whereas the 328, the Mondial, and the 348 were not exactly grand crus, the F355 Challenge, the Enzo, and the 430 Scuderia were rated 10 out of 10 by most connoisseurs. Enter the 458, which pushes the high-tech envelope even further. Its hyperquick steering, riveting brakes, trick F1 E-diff, groundbreaking ergonomics, faster-than-lightning dual-clutch automatic, and direct-injected, 562-hp, 4.5-liter V-8 convene in a sports car that leaves you breathless with exhaustion and satisfaction and lusting for an encore. Although it is loaded with high-tech items, the 458 is a surprisingly accessible driving machine. In essence, there are only three buttons to keep an eye on. The manettino adjusts the car's attitude from tiptoe (wet) to no-holds-barred (CST OFF); the red button starts the engine; and the black button selects a softer damper setting for those crash-bang-wallop two-lanes. In Race mode, you get the best of all worlds: sledgehammer upshifts, instant throttle response, Velcro-strap grip, and enough power oversteer to change your passenger's complexion from bronze to ashen. Bonus features include spine-tingling sound, the fastest steering this side of a go-kart, all controls within reach of your fingertips, enough cabin space to swing a full-grown tiger, and enough grunt to boggle the mind. What you don't get are smooth clutch action during takeoff, on hills, and in stop-and-go traffic -- and anything that resembles a complete equipment list. Spending $70K on extras means that the Ferrari salesperson wasn't even trying. But the Italia is worth every penny; it holds its value better than the competition and will soon also be available in Spider (2011) and Challenge form (2012). At the end of day two, when the time had come to dispatch the keys for the return drive to Peterborough, the 458 was again more popular than the MP4. After all, it is not only very fast and highly competent, it also hits you deep down, where desire breeds.

On the track: Am I dreaming, or are the tire walls moving closer with every lap? Am I blind, or did I really see an indicated 140 mph at the end of the long front straight? Am I mad, or is this really my first-ever fourth-gear slide?

On the road: Very close to the MP4, but in the final analysis the Ferrari is marginally sharper, purer, more focused, and less restrained. It also sounds intoxicatingly good -- but perhaps not all day long.

Ferrari 458 Italia
Base price $230,675

32-valve DOHC V-8
Displacement 4.5 liters (275 cu in)
Power 562 hp @ 9000 rpm
Torque 398 lb-ft @ 6000 rpm
Transmission 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Drive Rear-wheel

Hydraulically assisted
Suspension, front Control arms, coil springs
Suspension, rear Multilink, coil springs
Brakes Vented carbon-ceramic discs, ABS
Tires Michelin Pilot Sport PS2
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 3439 lb
Weight dist. 42/58%
Fuel mileage 13/18 mpg (est.)
0-62 mph 3.4 sec
Top speed 202 mph

Best lap
01:28.30 min
Top speed in lap
139.67 mph

So the Ferrari wins -- even though a McLaren driver in a different MP4-12C test car bettered our lap time by 0.7 second two days later. But lap times are never the sole decider, nor is track performance. What really makes your heart chambers pulsate is how a car behaves on the road. On everyday terrain, it was a close race between Italy and England but not quite a dead heat. Although the top two rivals are almost equally quick, the 458 emerges as the more multifaceted and, in some areas, more talented car. But the McLaren is about as hot on its heels as Lewis Hamilton often is to Fernando Alonso, and when you consider that the MP4 architecture is planned to act as the backbone for three model ranges with nine different variants, there's no doubt that the die will be cast a few more times. As far as three of the four other contestants go, you can get 90 percent of the flavor at 60 percent of the cost by checking out the lower portions of that model's price list, where the R8 4.2, the 911 Carrera GTS, and the Gallardo LP560-4 are arguably better values than their top-of-the-line counterparts.

Test Results
Rockingham Motor Speedway
International Super Sports Car Circuit

1.94 miles

Mercedes really needs to get with the program when it comes to tires. A high performance car needs Maximum Performance Summer Tires like the Goodyear Asymmetricals, Continental Extreme Contact DW's, or Michelin Pilot Super Sports, or Bridgestone Potenza S-04s. It makes reviewing Mercedes products a fruitless endeavor.P.S. If you need ideas for an article, try testing a vehicle with all of these tires along with the factory rubber and give your readers a real sense of how important tires are to performance, even among the best.

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