Outrun: the Ferrari 458 Spider drive [review]

By topgear, 04 December 2011

The sun is still just a vague rumour on the horizon promoted by a gently lightening sky when I am told I am ugly. “We’re bringing a model,” explains Ed-in-Chief Charlie Turner with the low and patient tone of a man with big feet stepping lightly around a minefield of ego.

“It’s a beautiful convertible Ferrari, driven on some of the best roads in Perugia. It should be a bit of a fantasy. And, let’s face it, any fantasy that relies too heavily on imagery of you is likely to be the kind of mental image that requires counselling. Possibly surgical counselling. No offence.”

“None taken,” I reply lightly, immediately taking colossal offence. “See you in a bit. I’ve just got to dig out my summer BALACLAVA and I’ll be right with you.”

STORY Tom Ford  
PHOTOS Lee Brimble

What makes it slightly worse is that he’s absolutely right. The new Ferrari 458 Spider is poised, gleaming, about 10 feet away - and it is everything you could wish.

Clean. Lithe. Purposeful. And red. Bright Ferrari red. The kind of poster I used to have on my bedroom wall as a teenager before breasts mounted a concerted effort to annex the entire real estate.

The immediate joy of the chop-top 458 is that it has managed a very complicated piece of aesthetic management: although this is the first time Ferrari has attempted a folding hardtop on one of its mid-engined cars - the front-engined California CC having already been released a while back - it has been almost completely successful.

The Spider looks as interesting and sinewy as the Coupe. No enormous roof-swallowing bottom here, a reassuring lack of junk in the literal trunk.

The engine, visible before under a transparent panel, may now be sequestered somewhere under the rear clamshell, and a few extra vents are bare compromise, but, roof up or down, this is one good-looking car.

In pretty much any colour, which is always a good litmus of successful design.

Inside, it’s pretty much the same as the Coupe, with generous headroom roof-up even for taller drivers, a decent seating position, major controls all on the steering wheel, buttery leather smeared liberally over all the bits not fashioned from carbonfibre.

It’s very sports-luxe, and although its slightly overdone at times - there’s a lot going on with the germinating vents on the dash - there’s nothing quite like it. And then there’s the extra button. The one for the roof.

As with the exterior styling, this bit is a nicely elegant surprise. Pluck a single rocker switch on the centre console and the rear deck lifts up and back, the panel above your head splits along a line about two-thirds of the way down, and the roof itself rotates backwards, to be sandwiched once more by the rear section.

It takes 14secs to open (or close, and only when standing still), and has the clean-and-tidy economy of movement that you don’t usually find when you have to cram a large roof into a small space.

It helps that the roof panels leave the almost-vestigial back window in place - becoming a wind-stop in the process - as well as the large and imposing rear buttresses, but it works, and it works well. Sort of a super-targa.

It is at this point that you turn on the ignition, thumb the big, red, starter button on the left-hand side of the steering wheel, and remember why God saw fit to bless humanity with the Ferrari V8.

Without a roof in the way, and with a retuned exhaust system to better make use of the lack of interruption between exhaust and ear, the 458 Spider sounds like an F1 car with its balls dropped.

It purrs into life with a velvety rumble that sounds like a slightly fast idle - no chugging - and a couple of quick blips see the revs snap to attention and fall away with the speed you can only associate with natural aspiration.

Pull the right-hand paddle for first from the 7spd DSG ‘box and drift away, notably without any of the jerkiness or transmission shunt we used to get from the old Ferrari F1 robotised sequentials.

By 50km/h, we’re in fifth gear, the ‘box having sussed its way into the longest ratio it can manage with 540Nm of torque and in auto mode, the better to contain potentially ravenous amounts of CO2.

You’d think this would be a bit weird, but the gearbox is so slick it really doesn’t matter - and means that the Spider is also exceptionally quiet if you just float about in auto.

It doesn’t last long. In fact, it lasts roughly as long as it takes to get to the on-ramp of the autostrada, at which point I flick the five-position manettino to CST Off, drop five gears and give the throttle pedal every last ounce of force I can manage.

Now, the manettino operates the various performance modes of the traction control and differential variously known as: Wet, Sport, Race, CST Off and a final mode badged ESC Off which translates roughly as ‘Thank you, and goodnight.’

Race gives fast-attack changes, a more aggressive F1-Trac differential and a lessening of traction control, CST Off even more so. I should have stayed in Race.

The engine note shears past 7,500rpm on its way to banshee 9,000, there’s a flirtation with the rev-limiter before I grab another gear and fishtail down the on-ramp, the full 570hp handshake. Bloody hell. Not gone soft, then.

The 458 Spider is - as near as makes no difference - as fast as the Coupe. It may be a bare tenth slower to 100km/h and ‘only’ manage 318km/h versus the Coupe’s 325, but you won’t care.

Because the noise doesn’t so much filter its way in through the medium of your ears, but explode bomb-like in the centre of your head, splashing white-hot sonic shrapnel against the back of your eyes.

It’s so loud and penetrating it stings. And the rear view still falls away like the perspective from that camera they put on the back of the Space Shuttle.

On the motorway, it all settles back into a cruise, but there’s been a brief snap of anger from the 458 Spider, and I’m a little shocked by it. Lodged a tiny fishbone of doubt in the throat of confidence. I thought it might be… well… a bit less toothy.

Two hours later and equanimity is restored, the Spider is quiet and refined company on a motorway, even roof down and speed up.

Italy waves and sticks up its thumbs in appreciation - one man even going so far as to applaud our passing. And he wasn’t being ironic, either. We go in search of twistier roads. And the model. Of course, the model.

We rendezvous in an unassuming car park at the base of a lunging mountain road. And we wait.

Eventually a car turns up and a blonde woman unfolds herself from within. Literally unfolds. She is striking in the same way as being punched repeatedly in the face with something heavy is striking.

One of those girls who seem to have been bred in low gravity, with extra-long limbs that see her quite comfortably cresting six feet. Without heels.

As we jump into the car and head off to take photographs, I swear I have never paid so much attention to the road in my entire life.

At this point it might be useful to know that, when nervous, I talk. When nervous around beautiful women, I also have a strange and irritating habit of becoming excessively camp. I have no idea why I do this.

When faced with a long drive with Cristina, our ridiculously beautiful model, I’m glad she can’t speak very good English, because I’m mortified about the nonsensical stream of utter Graham Norton bollocks that seems to flow endlessly from my own mouth.

Even though I’m convinced she pretty much has no idea what I’m saying, she laughs in all the right places and smiles enough to break your heart clean in two. Somehow, this is worse.

Flailing desperately for something - anything - under which to stifle my increasing embarrassment, I do the only thing I really know how to. I start showing off.

And this is where the 458 convertible really becomes a thing of utter beauty.

Because unless your passenger is already incredibly inured to fast and noisy cars, the Spider will make them gasp in wonder.

This is a Ferrari that makes you look good, in every sense. It doesn’t require massive amounts of feral aggression to get it to do quite startling things, and doesn’t require you to be a racing driver to gain liberal amounts of satisfaction from the experience.

The steering is quick and accurate, needing only a twirl and a half of lock even for hairpin bends, the body control superb and supple.

Yes, you can get the wheel and windscreen to shimmy when you hit a series of lumps at speeds - especially the small nuggetty blips that line the nearside of the Italian roadway - but generally it’s solid enough for the remit and, again, pretty much as per the Coupe experience.

The brakes - optional CCM carbon-ceramics in this case - stop with an easy, powerful regularity that inspires total confidence, and threaded all through the experience is the noise. The joyful wail of a Ferrari V8 doing what it loves to do.

Wind whips, noise clamours, the car flicks and weaves around the roads. The Spider becomes a pleasant little alchemist of sensation, spins a web filled with immediate, simple joy.

We used to have to compromise heavily for access to a convertible sky. Were forced to lose feel at the fingertips to gain decibels at earlobes and a broader sense of freedom. Not so much now.

It is - without being mind-bending - very, very fast. But it has such a deceptive and flowing cross-country pace that you’ll probably travel more quickly than you realise.

Some cars leave you awed by their ability to get somewhere insanely quickly; this one leaves you revelling in the journey itself.

Mind you, for all the ability, there’s still a fair bit of slidey nonsense available in the later iterations of the manettino, and if you go too fast, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will forget Humpty and just turn up with a spade and a bin bag.

Hard to feel vulnerable in this car, though. It all seems a little bit dreamy. For a bit, I even forget that anyone is sat beside me, and really hit a rhythm. When we reach the bottom, I turn to Cristina, finding her only slightly white. I ask her if she’s ok, and she answers in lilting Italian-inflected English.

“I… ‘ave… a… Smart car. It is… it is… not like this.”

I laugh softly, and fall in love just a little bit. But not with the girl. As I look back and prepare to pull away, blue lights flash in the rear-view mirror, and my stomach flips.

Behind me is a police car. A police sportscar, and I have a sense of horribly mounting dread that he’s just followed me down a mountain while I was trying to impress a girl who blatantly now thinks I’m nuts.

Not speaking any Italian, I ask Cristina to intercede on my behalf. As she sashays over to the carabinieri car and occupies their full attention, I… sort of… leave.

Not the most gallant of actions, I have to admit, but fair’s fair. Cristina may be sweet. But the 458 Spider has turned out to be more my kind of supermodel.

And I’m sure my wife would agree.

The carabinieri has arrived, and Tom Ford has sacrificed his passenger in order to escape unnoticed. Time for Sam Philip to explain why this particular traffic stop isn’t as routine as it seems. Click below for the full story…

TopGear rides along with the Carabinieri in the Lotus Evora S

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