2011 Ferrari 458 Italia Review

The 458 shames its predecessors with a new level of performance and surprising civility

2011 Ferrari 458 Italia Review

A warning: If you are reading this and you own a Ferrari, you probably enjoy driving it very much. Unless you also have $250,000 ready to spend, don’t go drive the new 458 Italia. Because if you do, you won’t like your car anymore.

FAST FACTS

1. Powered by a 4.5-liter V8, the 458 Italia makes 563-hp at 9000 rpm and 398 ft-lbs of torque at 6000 rpm, enabling a 0-60 mph time of 3.3 seconds.

2. The 458 moves away from Ferrari’s fast but jerky F1 transmission, for a new dual-clutch unit.

3. Pricing for the 458 starts at $225,000.

For years, Ferrari ownership has been about compromise. A Ferrari is purposeful, racing-bred technology made to work well on the street, but it comes at a price, both literally and figuratively. Ferraris are expensive to own and maintain, and for that reason, many people only use them selectively to carve canyons on weekends and at racetracks.

Even worse, many owners simply drive them to the mall and back, stopping at Starbucks to show off real excess to people who think $4 coffee is a luxury. Besides the obvious expense of owning and operating such a machine, there are a few other drawbacks.

PAST FERRARIS SEEM CRUDE BY COMPARISON

Yes, the paddle-shifted F1 Gearbox can shift in 100 milliseconds, but we’ve seen smoother clutch operation from drunk 16 year-olds who’ve stolen their fathers Corvette. The radio, sourced from Blaupunkt, is completely indecipherable and sounds like it was assembled at Best Buy. The so-called Navigation system, optional with the 430 Scuderia, is completely useless. The air conditioning doesn’t blow cold when it’s hot outside, but works great in the dead of winter. As for Spider models, the top is slow to operate, prone to breaking, and expensive to fix. And often, so many Ferraris simply won’t start when asked.

Young kids, dreaming of owning such a beautiful and powerful machine, will tell you that they don’t care about all those nuisances, and would happily drive a Ferrari year round, no matter the drawbacks. But those who can actually afford them nearly universally say they make terrible daily drivers, which is why they always commute to work in a car with the letters AMG, M, or S, and a series of numbers on the trunklid.

The 458 Italia is the exception.

It surprises exactly no one that the 458 is significantly faster than the F430 it replaces. With 563 horsepower (up 53 from 510) screaming from the 4.5-liter mid-mounted V8, it rips off the sprint to sixty in 3.3 seconds using its advanced launch control, on its way to a 202 mph top speed. It’s 200 pounds lighter than the Scuderia. It laps Ferrari’s test track at Fiorano only 0.1 seconds slower than the Enzo. It’s even more fuel efficient, with a 12/18-mpg (city/highway) EPA rating.

What is surprising is everything else.

The 7-speed Dual-Clutch transmission, hated by purists who would rather row their own, is best in class, so much so that this writer, for the first time, would choose it over a stick, given the option. It changes cogs, literally, in the blink of an eye, which is great when wringing the V8 to its lofty 9000 rpm redline, eager to extract every tenth on the track.

But more importantly, when left in automatic mode for around-town cruising, it feels like a real automatic. No more jerky launches, no more awkwardly-timed shifts. If gently accelerating around-town, the transmission will imperceptibly kick its way up to 7th by the time you hit 45 mph. Mash the gas from that pace and it will skip gears 6,5,4 and 3, and go straight to 2, sending the engine screaming towards redline and the CST (that’s traction control) working double-time to keep the rears gripping.

COCKPIT DESIGN BRINGS EVERYTHING ONTO THE STEERING WHEEL

The interior, though, is truly the revelation. Straddling the large, centered tachometer are two LCD screens with multiple functions each. On the right there’s the analog (looking) speedometer, radio functions, and navigation. On the left is all the car’s telemetry, from tire, oil, and hydraulic pressure to lateral G’s at the track. Once the proper menu has been selected, buttons on the steering wheel toggle radio stations and options. Even better? They actually work. The radio sounds good, the air conditioning blows cold even in the heat of Las Vegas traffic, and once properly explained, the navigation system is as easy to deal with as in “normal” cars.

Stalks have been eliminated completely from the steering column, and nearly all their functions have been moved to the steering wheel itself, most notably, the blinkers. It takes some getting used to, especially the “click on, click off” nature, but it adds a unique flavor to the 458 and saves weight. With Ferrari, every ounce counts. Except in the 612.

Also covering the face of the steering wheel are the high-beam controls, horn buttons, manettino switch to control traction/launch modes, and the “bumpy road” button, which softens the magnetically controlled suspension instantly for short bursts of bumpy roads – and works flawlessly.

Driver’s will also note there is no traditional parking brake in the 458. When the ignition key is shut off with the transmission in Neutral, the car automatically goes into “Park” mode, and stays there until a gear is selected on restart. To park with the engine running, simply press the “P” on the center tunnel and the car will hold until a new gear is selected. So, no E-brake turns, but less clutter in the cabin? We’ll take it.

Despite the fact that the 458 is both smaller and lighter than the 430 it replaces, interior space is noticeably on the rise. As a both tall and large driver (6’2” and 245 lbs), the 458 is among the most comfortable exotics I’ve driven, on par with the benchmark Audi R8 and light years ahead of anything by Lamborghini. The optional carbon-backed seats are both comfortable and supportive, with just the right amount of bolstering. As one would expect for a quarter-million dollar car, fit and finish is perfect. And the trunk is nearly twice the size of the outgoing F430. In fact, it’s big enough to fit a person in there, literally. He said it was hot.

A TRULY EXOTIC DRIVING EXPERIENCE

The actual experience of driving the 458 is sublime. The car pivots around corners like there’s a stake driven through the dead center of the car on a track. Steering feel is both light and full of feedback. Throttle and brake response are both as fast as you can think. Shifts have happened already.

The 458’s variable-geometry exhaust baffles make just the right sound for the right occasion. Unlike the F430’s exhaust, which sounds almost manufactured, the 458 remains very quiet when cruising at light throttle, making conversations with a passenger or over Bluetooth very easy. Dip into the fun pedal, and baffles open in succession, exorcising 563 demonic horses through the triple, F40-throwback pipes as if they were attached to cables, pulling your cheeks tighter as the smile grows and becomes locked in place on your face.

THE VERDICT

The 458 Italia is incredible. In one generation, it’s managed to improve on all the things we’ve come to expect from Ferrari, and fix all of the drawbacks as well. It’s the first Ferrari we’ve ever driven that we’d truly consider using as a daily driver, depreciation and all. It’s rendered every single mid-engined Ferrari that came before it, completely obsolete.

No one will know that better than the proud owner of a 360 Modena or F430 when they take a 458 for a ride, “just to see what it’s like.”

You’ve been warned.

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