First Drive Review
Maranello smothers the 458 Italia with some very exotic taste
We’re of the mind that all Ferraris are speciale. Yes, even the California. We take this observation to be self-evident and universal, a fact of life that even Lamborghini owners, Red Bull Racing fans, and Prius drivers accept and appreciate. But spend a meaningful amount of time in the industrial burg of Maranello, and you’ll come to the disturbing realization that its denizens are cool toward Ferrari’s red-hot Italian sports cars. Pedestrians stare straight ahead as a barely disguised LaFerraritrundles past. At the hallowed Fiorano test track, an illuminated “Gas Off” sign orders us to lift on the straight because a Ferrari at full bore is too loud for the neighbors to bear.
Those who breathe the same air as flat-plane V-8s and fall asleep to the sweet songs of V-12s have been desensitized. To these cynics, Ferrari’s new 458 Speciale is merely a louder and quicker take on the 458 Italia that has been terrorizing this town for half a decade. Around Maranello, the 458 Speciale is as spine tingling as an F-150 is in Dearborn.
The Special Sauce Is Software
Too bad, because the 458 Speciale is yet another Italian masterpiece, one loaded with improvements that you wouldn’t have thought possible or necessary if you’ve driven the 458 Italia. The Speciale shifts faster, turns in quicker, and stops shorter. Thanks to an additional 35 horsepower and 200 fewer pounds, it is swifter than the car on which it’s based, in a straight line and around a track. Best of all, Ferrari has improved on the 458’s sublime chassis with a fresh dose of clever technology and engineering. This car amplifies your skills, strokes your ego, and stimulates your pleasure center, all while possessing limits high enough to humble any driver.
The Speciale’s secret sauce is a piece of software: side-slip control, an algorithm developed in tandem with the LaFerrari to determine the car’s slip angle in real time, set a target slip angle based on your driving style, and adjust the agility or stability accordingly. SSC alters the Speciale’s temperament by way of the electronically controlled rear differential (E-Diff) and traction control (F1-Trac). The computers reduce the differential locking torque during understeer to liven up the handling. On oversteer, the diff unlocks and F1-Trac cuts engine power to keep the rear end from overtaking the front. The beauty of the program is that it’s working even when you’re not exploring the extremes of those scenarios—plowing toward the outside of the corner or wildly drifting around a bend. SSC boasts the nuance and finesse to adjust your path when you enter a corner at a neutral tack and below the limit of the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber. As we feel our way around Fiorano in a three-lap tease, the 458 Speciale gracefully rotates even when we’re well off the pros’ pace.
This car is much more than ones and zeros, though. The Speciale cranks up the crazy with a 4.5-liter V-8 that now makes 597 horsepower at its 9000-rpm peak. (The regular car packs 562 horsepower; both cars make the same 398 lb-ft of torque.) The increased power is made possible by a sky-high 14.0:1 compression ratio, revised combustion chambers, new pistons, shorter intake runners, reshaped intake ports, and higher lift on the exhaust and intake valves, along with a new carbon-fiber manifold and airbox.
Pinning the throttle brings sensory overload akin to that of a Vegas gaming floor. Five LEDs at the top of the steering wheel flick to life as you near redline, the engine’s wail drowns out the world around you, and the concept of time disappears. Ferrari quotes shift times so quick we find them hard to believe, and yet watching the tach, listening to the revs drop, and feeling the subtle push of the seven-speed dual-clutch swapping cogs leaves little room for insincerity. Helped by a shorter final-drive ratio, the Speciale should easily crack three seconds on the run from 0 to 60 mph and post a sub-11-second quarter-mile time.
Ferrari’s growing obsession with active and passive aerodynamics is on full display here. Spring-loaded doors on either side of the prancing horse on the front air dam are pushed open above 105 mph, reducing the flow through the radiators and directing air across the grilles and through the turning vanes at each corner. A horizontal flap just forward of the chrome steed sends air under the car to tilt the downforce balance toward the rear axle at high speeds.
At the back, the Italia’s three central exhaust pipes have been replaced with a more conventional layout: two doughnut-sized outlets spread apart and placed higher in the bumper. This accommodates a taller underbody diffuser that works in tandem with a longer and taller rear spoiler to generate downforce. It also makes room for the drag-reduction system, which is comprised of three motor-controlled flaps that drop from the diffuser tray to cut drag at the expense of downforce. Their operation is controlled by a logic that monitors your aggression, speed, and lateral acceleration to determine when the flaps should be opened or closed, although they’ll always be extended in their drag-reducing position to hit the estimated top speed of 202 mph.
Sharper reflexes come by way of quicker steering, 25-percent-stiffer springs, slightly softer anti-roll bars, retuned magnetorheological dampers, and updated carbon-ceramic brakes. The Speciale skipped across lumpy Italian roads in the hills outside Maranello but never gave up its connection to the pavement. The ability to make a car this stiff feel so unfazed by such bad roads qualifies as a miracle in our religion. Always obeying minute corrections, this 458 is as confident on the street as it is on the track.
The cabin drives home the car’s hard-core intentions with yards of faux suede (roughly half the weight of leather), carbon-fiber door panels, exposed bolt heads, and—as another nod to the LaFerrari—pushbutton transmission controls that are now mounted on a carbon-fiber phalange jutting out of the center tunnel. There’s an optional “advanced telemetry system” that records to a USB stick or passes information to an iPad app for a co-driver to analyze in real time. Our test car was equipped with four-point harnesses, optional in Europe but verboten in America. Just as well, because the webbing chafes at your shoulders and being strapped down means a tollbooth or pretty much anything in the passenger seat is out of reach.
After a few hours of seat time in the 458 Speciale, we’re struggling to understand how anyone can give this car the cold shoulder. Then it strikes us: Ignoring and even loathing Ferrari must be a coping mechanism for Maranello residents who are constantly surrounded by these rare machines yet have never driven one. There can be no other explanation. Because those who are fortunate enough to pilot a Ferrari know just how speciale the cars are. Especially this one.