2014 Ferrari 458 Speciale Review

BOLOGNA, ITALY -- I’ve spent the afternoon roaring up and down a series of switchbacks scything through the rolling hills of Emilia-Romagna. The view out my windshield – postcard blue sky and picturesquely dilapidated farmhouses dotting improbably green pastures – looks like a Baroque Carracci landscape. Lunch was homemade tagliatelle at a roadside trattoria, and I’m heading to what promises to be a three-hour, 10,000-calorie dinner in Maranello. Frankly, I’d be having a hell of a time even if I were behind the wheel of a pipsqueak Fiat Panda. As it happens, I’m driving a Ferrari. And not just any Ferrari, but a 458. And not just any 458, but a brand-new 2014 Ferrari 458 Speciale .

The 2014 Ferrari 458 Speciale follows Ferrari’s recent history of developing sharper-edged, higher-performance variants of its front-line sports cars. Thus, the 360 Modena spawned the Challenge Stradale, and the F430 spawned the F430 Scuderia. It’s reasonable to jump to the conclusion that the Speciale is the latest and most exotic entry in a long line of wings-and-things, wheels-and-tires upgrades created by cynical automakers to goose profits. In fact, the Speciale is a, well, special vehicle that unveils a raft of innovative technology, ranging from patented aerodynamic aids to a state-of-the-art stability control system. “It is not the ‘plus’ version of the 458,” Ferrari CEO Amedeo Felisa insists. “The aim is not simply going faster. It is giving amusement and emotion to drivers who aren’t really driving on the limit.”

When the 458 Italia debuted four years ago, it was hailed as the finest V-8-powered sports car Ferrari had produced in generations. The 2014 Ferrari 458 Speciale is the 458 with the volume cranked up to eleven – more powerful, more dynamic, more expensive, more exclusive. Although numbers don’t tell the whole story, they’re a useful starting point. A Lexan rear window, thinner glass and lots of carbon-fiber cut 198 pounds. Meanwhile, with 597 hp – up 35 from the Italia – the Speciale leaps from 0 to 62 in 3.0 seconds en route to a top speed of 202 miles per hour. (The original 458 – the Normale? – manages the sprint in “only” 3.4 seconds.) The new car also laps the Ferrari test track in Fiorano 1.5 seconds faster than the old one. Better still, it can knock out competitive times lap after lap without shredding tires or destroying brake pads – a major benefit considering that nearly half of all Speciale owners are expected to occasionally track their cars.

The interior of the 2014 Ferrari 458 Speciale follows the architecture of the Italia – elegant but purposeful – with a few minor modifications. The glovebox and carpets are deleted, Sabelt race seats featuring carbon-fiber shells are standard and there’s enough Alcantara to cover a garage door. Still, the eyes and then the fingers are drawn irresistibly to the perfectly sculpted steering wheel, which holds plenty of buttons, none of them controlling mundane functions such as audio volume or cruise control. At the lower right, housed in a carbon-fiber insert, is the red lever of the Manettino that controls the five performance settings. At the lower left is a scarlet Engine Start button. When I punch it, the engine coughs to life like a formidable monster clearing its throat after being wakened from a deep sleep.

Ferrari has its own wind tunnels, and its chassis are second to none. But ever since Enzo Ferrari put his name on the 166, the engine department has been first among equals in Maranello. Ferrari engineers will talk happily for hours about reprofiled pistons and combustion chambers, higher valve lift and other tweaks necessary to support the 4.5-liter V-8’s staggering compression ratio of 14:1. The bottom line, though, is 133 hp per liter, which Ferrari calls a record for a normally aspirated production-car engine. The ferocity of the exhaust note seems to grow exponentially every few hundred revs, and I would have spun the engine until a rod flew out the block if the rev-limiter hadn’t kicked in at 9200 rpm.

Of course, the engine upgrades follow a typical template for increasing power. Where the Speciale breaks new ground is on the aerodynamic front. The most visible aids are two sets of Formula 1-inspired turning vanes – one on the outside edges of the front bumpers and the other on the skirts just ahead of the rear wheels – and a Kamm-style tail and lovely rear spoiler that evoke the Ferrari prototypes of the early- to mid-1960s. (A rear wing was rejected because engineers consider them kludges and, as Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo declares after helicoptering in to Fiorano from nearby Bologna, “I find them vulgar.”) But the cleverest and most effective aero aids are the ones you can’t see.

At the front is a patented system of active aerodynamics. Air-pressure forces a pair of horizontal flaps above the splitter to open at speeds greater than 106 mph to reduce drag. When speeds climb past 137 mph, a vertical flap beneath the splitter lowers to balance front and rear downforce. Speaking of downforce, a rear diffuser nestled between a pair of bad-ass exhaust pipes produces a bunch – too much, in fact, to achieve terminal velocity. So at higher speeds, when the car is headed in a straight line, an electronically controlled motor lowers another set of flaps to stall the diffuser, in F1 parlance, thereby reducing drag as well as downforce.

The third element in the Speciale’s troika of new technology is the most sophisticated stability-control system I’ve ever experienced. Naturally, it employs the usual tools in the stability-control toolbox – the ability to cut engine power, apply brake pressure and lock and unlock the electronic differential. But instead of simply tracking variables such as wheelspin, throttle position and steering angle, the Speciale benefits from sophisticated algorithms that also calculate the deviation from the “target” line through a corner. In the Race and CT Off modes, the so-called Side Slip Angle Control allows the car to get remarkably sideways if the computer “believes” the driver still has things under control.

While jabbing the throttle to slide the Speciale around second-gear corners, I felt the engine reducing power to keep me out of trouble. But in faster corners, the system worked so seamlessly that I could almost convince myself that I was a hero driver doing all the work even though the e-diff was almost surely doing some of the heavy lifting. The stability control system dovetails neatly with steering calibrated to be significantly quicker and more responsive than the Italia’s. The idea, Felisa explains, is to give amateurs the thrill of driving on the limit even when, in most cases, they’re barely scratching the surface of the car’s considerable potential.

Still, this sort of performance comes with some compromise. For example, despite the magnetic dampers, the car gives its occupants a pounding. Granted, this is hardly a showstopper since most owners will already have several other cars – in many cases several other Ferraris – in their stable. But tentatively priced at $298,000, the Speciale represents a $58,000 premium over the Italia, which is pretty damn spectacular in normale form. Nevertheless, Ferrari projects that 20 percent of all 458 buyers will opt for the Speciale. Which just goes to show that, in the world of exotic sports cars, nothing succeeds like excess.

2014 Ferrari 458 Speciale

Base Price: $298,000
As Tested: $298,000 (est.)
Powertrain
Engine: 4.5-liter DOHC 32-valve V-8
Horsepower: 597 hp @ 9000 rpm
Torque: 398 lb-ft @ 6000 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Drive: Rear-wheel
Measurements
L x W x H: 178.2 in x 76.3 in x 47.8 in
Curb Weight: 3,076 lb

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