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Wednesday 15th December 2010


DRIVEN: FERRARI 458 ITALIA

Riggers blags the keys and doesn't stop until the road does. (Well, sort of)

Prancing Horse shares Bodmin Moor car park space with, er, non-prancing horse
Prancing Horse shares Bodmin Moor car park space with, er, non-prancing horse

In the end, it was only the weather that stopped me. I had planned to take the bright yellow Ferrari 458 Italia that Ferrari North Europe had kindly lent PH for a few days all the way to Land's End, largely to make the point that this is one of those cars you want to keep driving until you run out of road.

Cold, but at least the sun is shining
Cold, but at least the sun is shining
Unfortunately, despite being the first hack to test a UK 458 on its newly fitted Pirelli Sottozero winter tyres, the news on the radio that the more westerly parts of Cornwall had only just been downgraded from a severe weather warning due to heavy snowfall brought my westbound sojourn to a halt on Bodmin Moor.

There are some things you just don't do, and wantonly taking into snowbound parts somebody else's £200k, 550bhp-plus supercar is one of them.

But even though the symbolic image of me having taken the 458 Italia as far as it could go fell victim to the wintry weather, the idea behind it remains valid. Because the Ferrari 458 Italia is a thoroughly beguiling car.

Why horses should be kept in a stable overnight
Why horses should be kept in a stable overnight
In some ways, the best thing of all about the 458 is that you'll want to keep on driving it partly because it is so easy to do so. It might not be the most romantic of ideas to suggest this - you could argue that supercars ought to be intimidating, frustrating and impractical to help make them feel 'special' - but the 458's practical, approachable nature really is crucial to its overall appeal.

This is a car that is easy to get in and out of, has decent all-round visibility, is impeccably well-behaved in traffic, and has all the luxury conveniences you'd expect of a mainstream executive saloon - including sat-nav, parking sensors and Bluetooth connectivity. Heck, it's even got a reasonable amount of luggage space in the nose.

Should have bought a proper ice scraper...
Should have bought a proper ice scraper...
Of course, all this usability would be worthless if the 458 was no more exciting to drive than a diesel E-class. Fortunately for Ferrari nothing could be further from the truth, because the 458 Italia is impossibly, pant-wettingly exciting. It's no mean feat to create a car that is as easy to use as it is exciting, but Ferrari has managed it. If the 458 Italia is Xbox Kinect, then most other supercars I've tried suddenly seem a bit PS One.

The driver-centric interior, with most major controls either on the wheel itself (or barely a hand-span away), is pretty alien at first, but you soon get used to it and the deeply driver-focused design quickly begins to make a lot of sense. Ironically though, Frank Stephenson, the man who headed up the design of the 458 and its F1-style steering wheel, is also responsible for the arch-nemesis McLaren MP4-12C - and that has a determinedly naked steering wheel.

Can someone please move that horsebox?
Can someone please move that horsebox?
The dash readouts are pleasingly versatile, too. You can choose whether to have a traditional speedometer or a large digital number readout on the right of the central rev counter (or the sat-nav or radio), while on the left you can (among other things) choose to monitor various temperatures and pressures, see the exact level of electronic assistance the various driver aids, diff, or gearbox are providing, or even monitor whether or not the brakes, tyres and engine are up to temperature (or overheating).

The only proper criticism that we can pick out is that the radio and sat-nav controls are out of the reach of your passenger - they have command only over the climate control. But this is only a problem on right-hand drive cars since, being placed on the right side of the instrument binnacle, a left-hooker's infotainment controls are within reach of both occupants. Of course, if you're the driver you may well not care, but for £170k (or £206k for our car, including £4626 of carbon fibre racing seats and a mind-hurting £12,800 for the Giallo Tristrata paintwork) you'd think Ferrari might have been able to switch things around a bit for UK cars.

Paint is £13k, but looks epic in winter sun
Paint is £13k, but looks epic in winter sun
You will, however, forget any niggles the moment you nail the throttle hard for the first time - and probably find yourself doing extremely bad things in mph terms. The 458 is just so quick to rev through to its 9000rpm red line that at first you think it's actually got quite a narrow power band. You seem to be continually reaching for the chunky steering column-mounted paddle shift - though this is hardly a chore, as the twin-clutch 'box is, depending on the setting you've chosen on the 'manettino' dial, as smooth, fast, or aggressive as you could want.

The only downside to the 458's hyper-speed revving is that the gorgeous flat-crank V8 doesn't get to sing for long enough, especially if you switch the manettino to 'sport' rather than 'race', when the exhaust bypass valves don't allow the 458 to properly clear its throat until 4000rpm.

Why the stupid grin? Oh - yes...
Why the stupid grin? Oh - yes...
But you'll forgive the reduced opportunity to enjoy the 4499cc V8's soundtrack, because it is so unbelievably quick. Ferrari's figures say 0-62mph in less than 3.4secs, and 0-124mph in 10.4sec - and they don't feel like an overestimation. It's also quite a tractable car - even in seventh gear it pulls from inside lane speeds to outside lane speeds with a noticeable shove in the small of your back.

Once you get off the multi-laners and onto more interesting roads, the 458 does quite a decent fist of impersonating a much smaller, lighter car. It's just so precise: keen to turn, agile, and adjustable in corners.

Is that rump as pretty as the nose? Not sure...
Is that rump as pretty as the nose? Not sure...
There's just not the slightest sense that you're driving a car capable of more than 200mph and with a ruddy great V8 slung between the rear wheels. Partly this is to do with the excellent forward visibility - the 458 is actually quite a wide car, though you'll only notice this when you try to park it somewhere - but mostly it's simply to do with the fact that this is a damn well-sorted car. It's a dreadful cliche to say that the 458 handles like an Elise, so I won't. Because it's better than that.

As for the winter tyres, I can't confess to being an expert on the subject as I've not tried a 458 on summer-season rubber, but the Pirelli Sottozeros certainly don't seem to compromise the 458's ride or handling in any significant way. Perhaps the ride is a smidgen tougher than other reports i've read would lead me to expect, and possibly the car would feel a little less surefooted in the most committed cornering. But you'd probably have to be going faster than is safe or sane on public roads to really notice the difference, and it's a small price to pay for that bit of extra confidence in truly slithery conditions.

Look - it's even got a decent boot!
Look - it's even got a decent boot!
Ferrari has been accused in the recent past of becoming a merchandising operation with a car company attached, but the fact that the 458 Italia is so enjoyable an experience proves beyond doubt that Maranello still builds cars with as much passion as it ever has.

What's really great news is that the Prancing Horse now comes with a serious dose of usability. Ferrari has built a car that you want to just drive and drive until you con't go any further - or at least until snow makes discretion the better part of valour. McLaren had better be on its toes with the MP4-12C, because Ferrari has set the bar extremely high...

Author: Riggers