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Ferrari 458 Speciale A: Cabrio of the Year

  1. A cliche is often assumed to be a bad thing. An obvious stereotype, a bit lacking in imagination, something to be relied upon when you can’t be bothered thinking of anything more creative. Except at this moment I’m fully submerged in cliche, and it feels utterly magnificent.

    Pictures: Matt Howell

    This feature was originally published in the 2014 Awards issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. It’s a red Ferrari - Rosso Corsa, to be pedantically exact - yowling with conspicuous pace through the hills above Maranello, Italy. The sun is buttery and warm across my face, even though it’s late autumn, and there’s a faint scent of woodsmoke and turned earth in the air. Local people smile, wave and encourage me to do antisocial things with the accelerator, just as you imagine they might do this close to Ferrari’s birthplace. Cliche piled upon cliche in one glorious mess of typecasting. If Ferrari were to make an advert using every hackneyed convention at its disposal, this would be it. Like I said, it feels damn fine.

  3. It’s made better because that woodsmoke is curling around the edges of a convertible Ferrari, a 458 Speciale Aperta. One of only 499 examples, as rare as the LaFerrari itself, or the 16M that preceded it, made available only to existing Ferrari collectors. It’s pretty much as it says from the mouthful of a name: Aperta simply means ‘open’ in Italian, and this is the convertible hard-top variant of the hardcore 458 Speciale.

  4. What that means is that this is a Spider with slightly more tangy venom than standard. The world’s most powerful naturally aspirated V8 engine, converting air and fuel at a rate fast enough to produce 598bhp at 9,000rpm. There’s 398lb ft of torque on offer, from an equally toppy 6,000rpm - turbodiesel this is most certainly not - and the combination allows the 458 Speciale Aperta to wrinkle tarmac with abandon as it hits 62mph in just 3.0 seconds and 124mph in nine-and-a-half. Top speed is an OCD twitch-inducing 199mph. It weighs 50kg more than the Speciale Coupe, itself some 90kg less than its standard equivalent.

  5. The weight-saving is an exercise in almost anal attention to detail, a long list of shaving and saving, paring and preserving. The engine needed new cams, higher valve lift, redesigned (shorter) inlet manifolds and different pistons to deal with the compression ratio of 14:1 (for a road car, that’s impressive), and it got posher materials to make it actually weigh 8kg less than standard. Like the coupe, the Spider gets lighter, forged wheels (12kg saved), redesigned and lightened bodywork and glass (13kg gone) and a stripped interior (goodbye glovebox) to save another 20kg. Along with other mods, it adds up to the weight of a decent-sized passenger.

  6. But the stats don’t do it justice. To be honest, the increases in paper-based metrics over the standard 458 don’t seem to warrant the bother. And yet, the Speciale Aperta feels very different to the standard Spider. Immediately. So you may have got an inkling from the extra vents and stripes on the outside, but it’s not until you drive it that you realise how special the Speciale really is. Yes, it’s docile enough through town - drop through a wormhole from 1970, and you’d fall over that a car with this much performance could be quite so easy to drive - but once you nail the throttle with the roof down on a good road, your grin will circumnavigate your entire head.

  7. First, the obvious stuff. With no roof, the sound has unfettered access to your eardrums, and it’s loud. And far from the mad dash for gears of a turbocharged motor that snatches the horizon through the windscreen in a series of meaty grabs, this naturally aspirated engine, with its 9,000rpm lungs, seems to revel in each ratio that little bit longer. Stretching and pulling that noise through the scale, burnishing the octave to a shine with volume. Delicately pluck at the big, carbon scythe on the right-hand side of the steering wheel, and the car instantly bangs home another gear and repeats the process until the road - or your bravery - runs out. The seven-speed F1 double-clutch apparently matches revs even quicker than before, though in reality you only really sense that downshifts feel a bit more aggressive, and in moments, you’ll be concentrating very hard indeed.

  8. Find a corner, and you can snap downshifts with a crack from the exhaust, stamp hard on brakes and reverse momentum in a flash. Those brakes were developed with Brembo and apparently derived from lessons learned from the LaFerrari - smaller front pads made from HY ‘hybrid’ material latching onto HT2 discs with a higher percentage of silicon than before. According to Ferrari, the Speciale Aperta stops eight per cent faster than the 458 Spider. All I know is that you can brake hard enough to feel like you’ve been doing sit-ups all day. At one point, I seriously outbraked myself, absolutely committed to the stop, and the sunglasses fell off my face. Weirdly, we did get a small measure of fade, but the car we drove was extremely new, so possibly the brakes weren’t fully bedded in. I think they probably were by the time we handed it back.

  9. There’s other stuff, too. The lack of a roof means that you hear the gearbox as it meshes gears - a brief, white-noise crash - and you can smell the carbon-ceramic of the brakes after a few hard stops. Hot metal and vaporised material. It’s immersive in a way that the coupe isn’t quite, although over a really bad road you might detect a slight shimmer of body movement you don’t get with the hard-top. It’s not enough to put you off: we certainly ran down some of the worst roads I’ve ever seen, and although the 458 should have been all over the place, it managed to keep composure. That’s undoubtedly due to the Frequency-Shaped SCM-E dampers, this time equipped with twin solenoids and new software that modifies the magnetic field in the magnetorheological dampers every millisecond. Incredibly clever stuff that translates into an impressive ride - and if the bespoke Michelins are on the road, they’re gripping and making you faster.

  10. And gripping is something the Speciale does very well indeed, allowing you to play devastating tunes with that epic engine. Choose Race or CT Off from the manettino dial on the steering wheel, and Ferrari’s Side Slip Angle Control works out how much sideways you can handle, and adjusts to suit. Basically, it looks at what you’re doing, compares it with its reference data, and then torque-vectors between the two driven wheels using the e-diff. It makes heroes out of the average, and legends out of heroes. Mostly, though, the brilliant thing is that it just makes you feel like you did it yourself.

  11. All the time, the car is feeding back, so there’s no feeling of fakery or of insulation. To sound like a pretentious software engineer, or possibly a Ferrari press release, this doesn’t feel like it has the electronics as a barrier, more an enabling technology. On one series of lovely, wide, second-gear Italian hairpins, on a dry road with third-gear squirts between them, the Speciale Aperta howled between like it was bungeed to the top of the hill. Accelerate, brake, turn, slide. Eat, sleep, race, repeat. It’s rhythmic, and the change- up LEDs on the top circumference of the steering wheel become all the disco lights you ever want to see.

  12. Again, there’s a feeling of balance and of parity between all of the elements that make up this machine - it fits together on a very basic level, leaving you free to enjoy the experience. It’s a 458, but more so. The steering is so well geared that the nose never dives for an apex, just naturally follows your eyes, feeds towards the corner. The car sets, and then you can layer in the power, feeling the lateral g build, until you sweep out of the other side with just a tweak of opposite lock. In fact, it’s only when you switch it fully off that you realise how hard the bytes have been working - the back end comes around much more quickly, and will go all the way if you let it - though the mark of a well-balanced car in the first place is that it doesn’t do so viciously. Amazing stuff in a mid-engined supercar.

  13. The genius of it, more than anything, is that the Speciale Aperta feels like it really revels in what it’s doing. To let that engine rev, to really hammer the brakes, turn in hard and brace your neck against the onslaught of forces, that’s what this car is for. The world becomes a greeny-grey blur, more peripheral than anything else, your entire focus on scanning the road ahead. No wonder the Speciale looks a bit raptor-ish: when you get a little bit of red mist, the road just appears as prey.

  14. There are a couple of things that grate. Surprising to say that, but it’s true. First, there are a couple of plaques in the cabin which feel really tacky. One just says LIMITED EDITION and looks like the kind of thing you get with a set of supposedly rare coins bought from the back of a Sunday supplement, and the other announces the V8’s Engine of the Year awards. I also think that the more aerodynamically efficient rear end, with its twin exhausts either side of a blocky swathe of diffuser, is less elegant than the standard car’s triple-pipe arrangement. I know it’s for a measurable performance benefit, but it’s just not quite as pleasing.

  15. There’s another sadness to the Speciale Aperta as well, and it’s bittersweet. While parked on the side of the road staring at the car in the pictures, I could hear another sports car hammering down the same road. Not surprising really, seeing as these are Ferrari’s test-driving routes. The car that eventually appeared was a white 458 covered in black gaffer tape and moving at an absolutely feral pace. As it went past, it whooshed, huffed and crackled - a good noise, but without doubt a turbocharged signature.

  16. It’s no particular secret that Ferrari is looking at smaller-capacity turbocharged engines for the next-generation 458, and although the car was obviously a rocket, and sounded fabulous, it didn’t sound the same. I looked up at where the 458 T mule had disappeared off to, thought about giving chase, and then headed in the opposite direction instead. Back up into the hills, roof- off, desperate for one last blast.

  17. That drive confirmed everything I suspected about this 458. That it’s singular and superb and utterly magnificent. It’s easily Top Gear magazine’s Cabriolet of the Year for 2014, even though it’s expensive and with a limited run. The removable roof simply adds another dimension to an already multi-faceted supercar, making it better, not worse. It doesn’t feel like a convertible roof for the sake of people seeing you, more like a way of letting the world develop and enhance your experience of the car. Smell the brakes, feel the rush of air, be assaulted by the engine note. In fact, to drive this car in the blazing sun - the smells of the countryside whipping into the cabin and the Speciale’s engine bouncing merrily around the hills above Maranello - is nothing short of magical. Which is tinged with a great sadness, because next year, with the advent of that new generation of turbocharged 458s, this glorious Ferrari experience will pull one final trick. It’s going to disappear.

  18. More pictures of the Ferrari 458 Speciale Aperta

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