““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Ferrari 458 Spider
If there is such a thing as an Everyman's Ferrari, you're looking at it. The newly introduced 458 Spider caters to a segment whose taste for open-air driving can carry the stigma of lesser machinery hampered with the weight penalty and compromised structural rigidity of a vanishing roof.
Ferrari admits that the 458 Spider is 30 percent less rigid and 110 pounds heavier than the fixed-head 458 Italia coupé. However, having driven the Spider for 200 miles in Italy (on everything from arrow-straight autostrada to mountain roads as tangled as a bowl of spaghetti), I can surmise only that the coupé is a bank vault and far stiffer than it need be for most of us.
Without question, the 458 Spider deserves the chrome stallion badges it wears and is more than rigid enough for most drivers. In fact, Ferrari says it's 50 percent stiffer than the 360 Spider of the early 2000s. Not content with just decapitating the 458 to let in the sunshine, wind and local aromas, Ferrari also modified the engine's breathing to further raise the intensity of the combusto-mechanical soundtrack that is key to a supercar droptop's appeal.
Folding and stowing the hardtop roof of a mid-rear-engine sports car is no small challenge, and this is the first one to pull it off. The task is complicated by the need to surmount bulky packaging and the issues of side rear windows, passive safety/roll hoops and an effective windstop behind the occupants–all while retaining killer styling with the top up or down, and suitably blistering performance.
Some enthusiasts will decry the elimination of the glass engine cover of previous Ferrari mid-rear V8s, but the geometry of the Spider is such that had the only element of the car's decking not contributing to the roof contortions been glazed, it would have revealed little more than the intake-air plumbing en route to the real sculpture–the red crackle-finish metalwork now concealed under the main, aft-hinged cover for the folding roof system. The stowed hard roof occupies 100 liters of space in the Spider, versus up to 300 liters for an equivalent folded soft top, Ferrari says, noting that a soft top would also have weighed 55 pounds more than the Spider's folding hardtop.
For more tuneful engine noise with the roof down, the nostrils of the V8's air intake are mounted far aft on the Spider, just ahead of the nolder that marks the end of the upper decking. (On the coupé, snorkels bring air back to the filters from the middle of the car.) Ahead of those nostrils on the Spider are cooling grilles that serve as an escape route not just for heat but for more channels of magnificent engine din. Modified exhaust baffling further contributes to the Spider's voice.
As tunnels approached, my inner child (the kid who long ago rigged his bike with playing cards to pluck its spokes) could not be denied. The route took me through plenty of them, and a routine played out each time their acoustic confines drew closer: hold back to open a suitable gap ahead, then floor it in second for a mad-quick foray to the 9000-rpm redline, creating a crescendo of mechanical mayhem as great gulps of intake air, spinning metal and the rising clamor of furious combustion and expulsion combine into one ever-louder scream.
This entirely rational exuberance contrasted with my demeanor as I observed the snail's-pace speed limit through mountain villages. The enduring memory there was a classic Italian matriarch, wrinkled husband shuffling along in trail, walking toward us with a weary gait that suggested a long, modest and honest life of hard work and devotion to family. She stopped in her tracks, straightened, both arms outstretched toward our giallo Spider, and watched this enduring symbol of her homeland slip past, all the while her lips clearly saying, "Bella, bella, bella."
Clear of the villages, I unleashed the Spider on the intervening mountain roads, which beckoned with countless hairpins, swooping ups and downs and plunging overlooks, and it occurred to me that you haven't driven a Ferrari until you've driven it on its native roads. The Spider may not be as ingot-like as the Italia, but it is unquestionably plenty rigid, as evidenced by the tenacity with which it negotiated the curves and less-than-perfect surface of these mountain roads.
In fact, the suspension was far happier managing the dynamics of the ride at a spirited clip on a twisty and unmanicured road than while crawling along at village pace. At speed and under pressure, the car handled superbly no matter what I or the road threw at it. Dawdling through a village, by contrast, it seemed a tad bewildered by poor road surface, as if distracted by such humdrum duty and unsure how to react. So it is with thoroughbreds–they're born to run, not saunter–and the magneto-rheological suspension's preference for being driven with gusto under challenging conditions is exactly what Ferrari's engineers tuned it for.
The F430's F1 transmission was quick in its day, but its day has passed, and the 458's dual-clutch paddle-shift seven-speed transmission moves between gears with the blinding speed and authority that this new generation of transmission has already brought to lesser cars. On the 458 it drives an electronic differential, and the springs contribute 78 percent of total stiffness (leaving 22 percent to the anti-roll bars) versus 60/40 springs/roll bars on the F430. The 458's carbon ceramic brakes have immense power; and the steering has reduced steering-wheel movement for a given agility versus the F430. The ever-eager naturally aspirated V8 never disappoints as it churns out 125 hp per liter. This is a spectacular, crisp and relentless powerplant, with 80 percent of its maximum torque available at 3000 rpm.
Just as with the F430 I borrowed for this magazine in 2007, whose noise attracted a polite word from our village cop in New Jersey, it was the 458's vocals that got us pulled over on the edge of a village in Italy. My driving companion, a fellow car scribe, was at the wheel at the time, proceeding at modest velocity but generous revs shortly before we were stopped. The policeman spoke no English, we no Italian, and we might still be there had not two Ferrari people shown up out of nowhere in a tiny Lancia. Some time later, after much talking and gesticulating among the three, one of the Ferrari folks sauntered over to us and nonchalantly assured us, "Is no problem. Is Ferrari," which neatly summarized how much clout the marque wields in its locale.
In the clearer-conscience department, Ferrari says the 458 Spider produces 20 percent lower emissions than the F430 Spider it replaces–this despite the new car's having 562 hp versus the old car's 483. A new electronic variable-capacity A/C compressor contributes to this improved fuel economy.
The 458 Spider weighs 110 pounds more than the 458 Italia coupé. With 562 hp on tap and the realities of operating the car on public roads, this just doesn't matter, and if it were my choice the Spider would be a no-brainer over the coupé. The U.S. market buys 60 Spiders for every 40 coupés, according to Ferrari, noting that coupé owners tend to have an "exuberant driving style and love maximum braking, fast cornering and lateral acceleration; they drive alone and for short trips on motorways and challenging B roads; 20 percent attend track events; and 70 percent use the car during weekends." Spider owners typically have a "sporty but not aggressive driving style and love the sound of the engine with the top down, and they give their cars 50 percent more daily usage than coupé owners, mostly with the top down, on urban and extra-urban roads, with a partner."
Some 40 percent of 458s are ordered in red, and another 30 percent are yellow or black. Five Schedoni custom bags (three for the nose and one to go behind each seat) are optional and worth having for traveling.
For the vast majority of us, the 458 Spider is a no-compromise open-top car, and a vanishing roof will always beat a windows-down coupé for savoring the aromas, bluster and exposure of the great outdoors. This one just happens to be a real, no-apologies Ferrari as well.