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First drive: Ferrari’s 661bhp 488 Spider

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Wow. They didn’t hang around with this one.

Nope. Barely three months since we first got our hands on the GTB, here comes the 488 Spider. A generation ago, you’d wait ages for a new Ferrari, and the gap between coupe and convertible would be 18 months. Now they’re like buses.

Interesting comparison. How many twin-turbo, 661bhp buses have you heard of?

The point is Ferrari is very business-like these days. It knows that it needs to keep the new product flowing fast. The flotation on the US stock market is under way (the IPO values Ferrari at approximately $10bn) which means the company is being scrutinised by merciless high-end financiers and needs to stake out the lush territory somewhere between luxury and technology for maximum investment potential. Then there’s the fact that new invariably equals good at this end of the market. Not to mention that the sales split between Spider and GTB is almost 50/50. In fact, in the UK 54 per cent of 458 Italias sold were convertibles. In other words, it’s important.

And we thought this was about fast, beautiful cars.

It is, although there’s easily as much science as there is passione these days. Ferrari claims the 488 Spider was developed around its retractable hard top (RHT), a slender two-panel item that weighs 25kg less than a regular soft-top, creates that extra sense of security and rigidity, hides away in 14 seconds, and crucially doesn’t saddle the car with an arse the size of a small country. Ferrari insists that its coupe and convertible clients are quite distinct, and there’s some guff about being able to breathe in ‘nature’s heady aromas’.

Well nature’s heady aromas will have to move fast to keep up with a committed 488 Spider driver – as with the GTB, 62mph is done in 3.0 seconds dead, 124mph in 8.7, and the top speed, should you be absorbing the especially fragrant smells of the German autobahn, is 203mph. Not the car for Donald Trump, then, or anyone else of risky or bouffant coiffure.

What we really want to know – especially now it’s been decapitated – is does it sound like a proper Ferrari?

Well, now that the dust has settled on the GTB, this particular pair of ears can report that the Spider emits a noise somewhere in the same postcode as epic if not quite party central. Anyone who’s been lucky enough to drive a 288 GTO or F40 will tell you that turbochargers don’t necessarily stymie a Ferrari’s sound. The Spider starts off with an unexpectedly baritone rumble that swells to a noise you imagine Brian Blessed must have made shortly after chewing through that new-born’s umbilical cord. The technical reason for the Spider’s fruity sonics is a combination of equal-length tubing on the exhaust headers, its flat-plane crank, and some assiduous harmonic tinkering. But the fact is nobody wants a Ferrari that doesn’t sound like a proper Ferrari. Including Ferrari.

So it’s good, then?

Yep. It’s different to a 458 Italia, and definitively not as visceral. But you really would have to be a tedious wonk to grumble about it. By any objective measure, it makes a ruddy fabulous noise, it’ll peel the paint off tunnel walls, and it’s obviously louder with the roof stashed.

Good. Now what about the rest of it?

Also… different. Chief test driver Raffaele de Simone politely asks that we all put the 458 Speciale out of our minds. That was then etc. Like the GTB, the Spider is a monumentally fast car, but accessing it is as much about exploiting its 560lb ft reservoir of torque as it is tapping up its 661bhp. Ferrari’s variable torque geometry effectively mimics the delivery of a normally aspirated engine, dishing up progressively more grunt in higher gears, but while it simply vaporises the straight bits between the corners on our ultra-twisty test route, it does it in a way that prompts some mental recalibration.

To put it another way, I don’t remember short-shifting through the gearbox quite as often in previous mid-engined V8 Fezzas, as opposed to homing in on the red line like a loon. It still warps forward with enough pace to wobble your eyeballs, and its throttle response of 0.8 seconds – while a tenth slower than the 458’s – points to an almost absolute total lack of turbo lag.

And the chassis?

It’s magnificent. Ferrari claims the 488 is 23 per cent stiffer than the 458 Spider, and the car’s E-diff, F1-trac, and ESP work in blissful harmony. The side slip angle control system that debuted in the 458 Speciale gets a v2.0 upgrade. It takes the pulse of the car’s electronic chassis software – which now includes the active dampers – enabling it to blast out of corners with an almost comical mix of poise and flamboyance. Its magnetorheological damping system also gets a reboot, and the 488 Spider’s ride is sublimely good as a result (our car was on Michelins, but Pirellis or Bridgestones are also available – all bespoke for the 488, the difference between them undetectable to all but the experts).

Frankly, it’s difficult to think of another car that has such an expertly judged balance of handling and ride. McLaren’s 650S is arguably even cleverer and gets very close, but the 488 is friendlier on the limit. The latest generation carbon ceramic brakes are derived from the LaFerrari’s; they’re powerful enough to turn loose cabin objects into ballistic missiles but lack feel on initial application. De Simone describes them as ‘almost living things… the system learns what you need and they develop more feel’. I almost believe him.

Anything else?

The 488 Spider’s body is effectively an ode to aerodynamics, the highlights including the central Aero Pillar at the front, a rear diffuser with variable flaps, and the same brilliantly elegant blown spoiler as on the GTB. The upshot is a load of downforce without drag. The 488 Spider is pretty on the inside, too. The cockpit evolves the 458’s multi-function wheel and driver-centric instrument and multi-media set-up, and refines the central control bridge. Bits of the media display still baffle your tech-weary correspondent, but the build quality is absolutely outstanding.

Ferrari’s new shareholders will be delighted.

This is a company at the top of its game, a master of both the invisible new software and the heart-pumping hardware. Purists won’t readily park the memory of the high-revving genius of the 458 Speciale, a car that will go down in history as one of the greats, maybe even the greatest normally aspirated V8 ever. But forced induction doesn’t get much better than this, and most Ferraris are at their sensory best roof off. At a thumping £204,400, you’d hope so.

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