First Drives

11 November 2013

First drive: the Ferrari 458 Speciale

We love the Ferrari 458 Italia. Is this even better? Paul Horrell reports

Paul Horrell
Car image

Those look like fast stripes…

Oh yes. This is the 458 Speciale, successor to the 360 Challenge Stradale and 430 Scuderia, two of Ferrari's best – and stripiest – cars ever. It's not a limited edition and not a replacement for the 458 Italia. It's an additional, more hardcore 458.

Is it as fast as it looks?

How about 0-100 in three seconds dead? It's rocketed along by a 4.5-litre naturally-aspirated V8 that makes an astounding 605bhp. It can corner at 1.33g, where an Enzo managed a not-piffling 1.1g. It's caressed onto the road by about 210kg of downforce at 200kph.

How do they do that?

A weight cut, for a start: it loses 90kg thanks to a some even more rinky-dink alloys in the all-aluminium structure, a lighter roof, lighter intake system (carbon-fibre airbox), more skeletal wheels, thinner glass and a plastic rear window. In the cabin, it's all low-fat trim and no carpets.

Next up, some truly nifty aero. At the tail, the spoiler is re-shaped, raised and moved back. This works hand-in-hand with the gaping lower diffuser, a triple-channel tunnel – the exhaust had to be re-shaped to make room for it. The diffuser causes drag though, so at 225kph three motorised flaps open down into the channels, stalling it and cutting the drag back. As soon as you turn the wheel, you need your downforce again, so the flaps pop shut.

Meanwhile, also at 225kph, a passive vane in the nose opens to restore the front-rear balance. Oh and there are 'turning vanes' at the nose and fins over the sills ahead of the rear wheels, both further improving downforce, though only by a few kilos. They, like the stripes, probably add mostly psychological speed.

And more power demands more cooling. But instead of making the radiators bigger (and heavier), there are new extractor openings in the front bonnet. It starts to look like a proper racer.

The dampers are a new generation of adaptive magneto-rheological items, with re-programming to match. The springs are stiffer, the whole suspension recalibrated. And the tyres are a new generation of Michelin, grippy beyond belief in the hot and dry, without losing out to the standard 458 items in the wet and cold.

And it's a Ferrari, so I'm guessing there's something going on in the engine department?

Indeed. The Speciale's elaborations over the regular 458 engine, already one of the sharpest mechanisms in motordom, concentrate on high-rev power. The roof is raised to 9000rpm, and there are higher-lift cams, new pistons, shorter inlet tracts and new exhaust. But because the compression is now a staggering 14 to one, mid-rev torque didn't suffer. The howl of this assembly as it revs to the sky is something to make your day. Or year.

I'm getting the picture. It's not just about the stripes.

No, but they're lovely stripes. Run your finger across them and you don't feel the join. They magically float in the Speciale's impossibly smooth pool of paint.

The way TopGear has it, the 458 Italia is already at the top of its game. Can this really be better?

Sorry, we’re going to have to keep you hanging on a moment. There's one more technical killer app. It's called side-slip angle control, or SSC. Basically it works out how much you're oversteering, and if you're doing the right steering correction it'll allow the rear wheels to keep spinning up. Normal skid-control systems inevitably cut the power by that stage. But the SSC talks to the e-diff, and tells it to lock, catapulting you down the straight a perfect combination of speed and smoky drama. But if you haven't countersteered enough or you're using far too much throttle, it'll reign the car back in.

Have electronics really taken over drifting, the last bastion of DIY driving?

This is not a car that lacks soul. For a start, the engine could quicken the dead. It fizzes with instant reactions, sings for joy and head-butts its 9000rpm red-line. The mid-range torque might not match a McLaren 12C or 911 Turbo, but the engine's always-on attentiveness and sounds make up for it. The twin-clutch transmission has also been put on high alert, with faster shifts than the already swift calibration of the 458 Italia.

It's supposed to be a semi-track car isn't it? Does it feel happy there?

In its element. It turns into corners flat and hard, and avoids understeer like there's a unstretchable filament connecting the nose to the centre of the bend's radius. The front and rear stay perfectly in balance, and there's an immense amount of feel coming up through your seat. After the apex, pour on the power and the back tyres accept huge loads. There's a lovely sense of security, as the transition from slip to grip is gentle and well-telegraphed. You feel confident.

So you pile on some more power. And here comes that side-slip control. It doesn't feel strange or artificial as you poke the car into increasingly comical angles. It simply makes the car feel supernaturally benign. This is with the traction control off but the lifesaving DSC (ESP) still on. And it makes you feel like a hero. It's like having a driving coach at your side, an angel at your shoulder. Go to far and it sweeps you up, but gently and subtly.

So it's banging-hard on the road?

Nope. Even though the springs are a little more taut, the new damping compensates and keeps the ride amazingly fluent. There's less of the brittle banging over broken roads that the standard 458 Italia sometimes feels. It fact it's closer to the compliance of the McLaren 12C.

Ferrari has stuck with its sharp and quick steering. You need to stay on top of it, because the Speciale does follow cambers a bit. But in sharp bends this quick rack means you can take advantage of the astounding agility.

And all the time everything is so sharp and full of information. Even at regular road speeds, the Speciale bursts with life. Find a place to push faster and the quickness and truth of this car is just fabulous.

So why would anyone buy a regular 458 any more, when the Speciale is better to drive, but no harsher?

Well, it costs Rs 2.10 crore (before taxes), which is not to be sneezed at. That said, this price does include, like all Ferraris these days, all your servicing for seven years.

Any other drawbacks?

At brisk road speed the exhaust makes conversation pretty difficult in here. It'd get tiring on a run.

Hang on. It's a track-day car too. Most tracks have strict noise limits. Won't this so-called track car get itself banned?

Ferrari knows this, and is developing a special exhaust that's quieter than the standard one. It can be fitted by dealers. It won't be cheap.

So they made it loud to sound like a racing car, but if you want to drive it like a racing car you have to pay more money to make it less loud…

Something like that. But trust us, it's one small piece of silliness in what is otherwise a transcendently wonderful car.

(Words: Paul Horrell, Pictures: Rowan Horncastle)

Tags: ferrari, 458, 458 italia, 458 speciale

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