Creating an encore to the Ferrari 458 Italia is like trying to blow U2 off a stadium stage: It’s one tough act to follow.
But rocketing the new 458 Speciale around Ferrari’s historic Fiorano track in Maranello, Italy, it’s clear that company engineers have a $298,000 triumph on their hands. They’ve taken one of the world’s most heart-pounding sports cars, and rammed fiery shots of adrenaline and technology down its finely tuned throat.
That technology includes the most powerful V-8 of any roadgoing Ferrari in history: 596 hp from just 4.5 liters of displacement, up from 562 in the Italia. In terms of horsepower to engine size, that’s also the mightiest naturally aspirated engine in the history of production cars, at nearly 133 horsepower per liter. That monstrous output is aided by an insane 14:1 compression ratio, the highest of any V-8 in the world.
Like previous special-edition, mid-engine Ferrari berlinetta coupes, like the 360 Challenge Stradale and 430 Scuderia, the Speciale is the hardest of the hardcore. It’s a stripped-down, muscled-up shriekfest, its brain bursting with dirty little secrets from Ferrari’s Formula One playbook. This is not a Ferrari for South Beach poseurs or NFL bonus babies. Ferrari calls the car a training tool — with a learning curve, but still safe and approachable — for serious drivers who want to challenge and improve their skills. Company executives estimate that 50 percent of Speciale buyers are racetrack regulars.
With a slender curb weight of just 3,075 lbs., nearly 200 fewer than the Italia, the Speciale doesn’t even have a standard audio system. Yet owners can choose a telemetry system that records race laps on USB, with a teaching-tool app for detailed analysis of every lap and driving technique.
Measured against the old 360 Stradale and 430 Scuderia, the Speciale also represents a more extreme advance in performance over its standard version.
Ferrari actually calls the new braking system Extreme Design: The carbon-ceramic binders are taken directly from the new, roughly $1.3 million LaFerrari supercar. Those brakes, defying the bigger-is-better trend, are actually smaller up front than those on the Italia. Yet exotic calipers, high-silicon discs and hybrid-material braking pads reduce stopping distances and eliminate fade in the most brutal conditions.
Like its Italia cousin, the Speciale is also hotter looking than the coldly functional 430, with its V-8 displayed under glass and hubba-hubba curves that remain grounded in serious function. New active aerodynamics include vertical and horizontal flaps in the dramatic front fascia that variously open or pivot as speed and air pressure increase, boosting downforce and reducing drag. An enlarged rear spoiler licks up at a saucy angle, like Miley Cyrus’ protruding tongue, only sexier. An angry-looking black diffuser and a movable electronic flap below help the Ferrari slice through the air while staying pinned to the asphalt.
An optional blue-and-white paint stripe, inspired by Ferrari’s vintage North American Racing Team (NART), splits the car front-to-rear. That stripe seems a must-have, if only to remind people that you paid $60,000 extra for the Speciale.
I drive the Speciale onto the Fiorano circuit with an equally special co-pilot: Marc Gené, the Ferrari test driver and winner of the 24 Hours of LeMans with both Audi and Peugeot. As I acclimate to the still-slippery morning surface, the Speciale’s body-smushing forces — 0-62 mph acceleration in 3.0 seconds, and up to 1.33 g’s of lateral tire grip — also get warmed up, aided by specially developed, 20-inch Michelin Pilot Sport Cup2 tires on forged wheels. Yet the Ferrari’s stopping power is already in full force, as is my tendency toward gut-checking late braking: “I wasn’t sure we were going to make that one corner,” Gené says with a wink. “But those brakes are amazing.”
As a former F1 driver, Gené is intimately involved with Ferrari’s ongoing technology transfer from F1. The Speciale’s all-star roster includes the smartest, fastest versions yet of F1-Trac traction control, the F1 dual-clutch, seven-speed automatic transmission and the remarkable e-Diff electronic differential, the latter locking and unlocking in milliseconds to apportion traction to rear wheels.
It’s a technical mouthful, sure, but it makes the 458 Speciale a sports car that seems to meld, magically, with its drivers’ every thought and command. Yet the Ferrari never comes off — as, for example, a BMW M5 or Nissan GT-R — as a dumbed-down, automated robot that even your grandmother could drive fast. By design, it takes a trained hand to maximize the Speciale’s systems and performance.
Departing the track and tearing through the Emilia-Romagna region — home not just of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Pagani and Ducati, but Italian goodies from Reggiano Parmigiano cheese to Prosciutto di Parma and Modena’s famous balsamic vinegars — I fairly gorge on the Speciale.
Revised magnetic shocks update their magnetic field every millisecond. Brush the carbon-fiber paddle shifters, and new gears burst to life seemingly before your fingers stop twitching: Upshifts are 20 percent faster than in the 430 Scuderia, with downshifts 44 percent quicker.
As ever, the car’s nerve center is the Manettino: What sounds like a newfangled pasta shape is actually a red metal lever on the hex-shaped, carbon-fiber clad steering wheel that adjusts every imaginable performance parameter.
Ferrari is especially proud of the new Side Slip Angle control, which forges an algorithmic conspiracy between the suspension, steering, F1-Trac and e-Diff. That system mostly works behind the scenes, as discreetly and mysteriously as Oswald’s fictional accomplice on the Grassy Knoll. Yet it delivers tangible effects, recognizing and rewarding driving skill. The real-time system opens the performance envelope as long as a driver remains in control, allowing him or her to aggressively pursue driving Nirvana — including surprising dollops of tire-spinning, tail-sliding oversteer. The system then maximizes every shred of power through individual rear wheels, while reducing steering activity by 14 percent. This Ferrari catapults from corners demonstrably quicker than the Italia, with fewer nervous corrections of the steering wheel.
I give in to the system’s temptations to naughtiness on a roundabout on the way back to Ferrari HQ in Maranello: Spanking into first gear and squeezing the throttle, I make the Speciale pirouette like a skater through the roundabout, as a pair of Italian teenagers hoot approval from the side of the road.
Ferrari also lavished attention on the Speciale’s engine sound, which alternately caresses and assaults your eardrums like eight Italian tenors after a lungful of Walter White’s blue meth. Sound-deadening carpets are jettisoned in favor of thin sheets of composite; a carbon-fiber intake system boosts both sound quality and engine performance. The cabin is loud, the ride fairly stiff, even during the rare times when I’m happy just burbling along the Italian autostrada. Should you dare, top speed is 202 mph, unchanged from the Italia.
For all its technology, all those digital zeros and ones coursing through its veins, the 458 Speciale oozes charm like a Mediterranean gigolo. The Ferrari feels not like a cold engineering exercise, but a living, breathing thing, bursting with soul and sensation.
There may be faster sports cars. There are certainly more expensive sports cars, including the LaFerrari on the horizon at roughly four times the Speciale’s price. The new Corvette Stingray is likely unbeatable for its roughly $65,000 price, but fanboys can stop right there: The Vette isn’t in the same universe as this Ferrari in terms of exterior and interior design, technology, sound and emotional performance. Sure, from an everyday financial perspective, the Ferrari may not be worth more than four times the Corvette’s price. Now, ask the man who can actually afford the Speciale if he’d trade it for four Corvettes, or eight Mustangs. Supercars have their own laws of math, in which two-plus-two does not equal Ford.
In a few weeks, I’ll drive the nearly $1-million Porsche 918 Spyder Hybrid, and maybe I’ll change my mind. But at this moment, the 458 Speciale strikes me as the world’s best sports car. Nothing I’ve driven combines such bravura performance, character, sound and technology, and wraps it in such an exotic, desirable package — complete with a pretty blue-and-white bow.