DRIVEN: FERRARI 458 SPIDER
Topless, the Italia coupe is even more arresting...
The most likely explanation concerns the Ferrari's acoustics. I've just climbed a hill in second and third gear, letting the V8 scream to 9000rpm. At full chat the 458 is comically, cartoonishly loud. Parked at the top of the hill, our officer must have reached a simple conclusion: a Ferrari barking so loudly must have been travelling stratospherically fast. Our minder grabs his mobile phone and calls a magic number. There's a bit of banter in Italian before the officer meekly hands back my licence. "It is no problem, this is Ferrari." We're free and with seven hours left in the day.
It's not a simple design. The demands of downforce and cooling call for an army of scoops and fins, but the multifarious details merge into an elegant, cohesive whole. Those evocative speedster humps, which double as roll bars, also help avoid the awkward, flat-backed proportions of so many coupé-cabriolets. I think this is a genuinely beautiful Ferrari in a way that the 360 and 430 could never be.
Ferrari reckons it's identified key differences between the coupé and Spider buyer. Coupé boy is likely to head to the track and travel alone, while Spider man will head to the coast with an attractive lady friend. Philosophically, it's therefore been developed to sit between the comfy slip-ons of the California and the Sparco boots of the 458 coupé. It's a pair of suede Piloti's.
Tease the throttle and there's a distinct 'pop' from the exhaust as the pistons get to work. Ferrari's moved the air intakes from the side of the car to the rear and reworked the exhaust to suit the demands of topless titillation. Part throttle gives you a baritone roar, while full throttle takes it up an octave. So rapid is the response that you can oscillate between the two in an instant. At 5am on a London backstreet it would be obnoxious, but out here in Italian hills it's nothing less than sensational and made all the more immediate by the absence of a roof.
Pick up speed, though, and the frequency of the body movements is more in tune with the dampers. Now it all makes sense. Although the dampers have been retuned for the Spider, the spring rates are the same as the coupé and its character is intact. In other cars, the rabid steering response would be unsettling, but not the 458. It turns on its nose in an instant and displays agility reminiscent of the original Lotus Elise. Suddenly the whole car feels so much smaller, darting from corner to corner with a twitch of your wrists and a flick of the paddle-shift 'box. It's so composed and capable and yet brilliantly entertaining.
On these mountain roads, it makes most sense to leave the manettino in 'Race' and manually switch between the two damping modes according to the road conditions. 'Race' optimises the gearbox and engine for performance, but retains the safety net of electronic help if you run out of talent. 'Sport' feels a bit half-hearted, while 'Wet' is best reserved for the town. This manettino is also the key to the 458's split personality. Raise the roof, select 'Wet' and the Ferrari is happy to pose as a comfortable commuter. The ride is excellent for such a focused car and the absence of wind noise at high speed is hugely impressive.
Other faults are hard to find. The vertically gifted will most likely find they sit too high in the standard seats, although the problem can be solved by ordering sports seats. Some of the ergonomics are also a bit comedic. If you're using the sat nav, the speedo's much too small; it's easier to open the engine cover than the (spacious) boot and the button to open the glovebox is hidden on the centre console where you'd expect a handbrake.
It'd be wrong to dismiss the Spider as the poser's choice. It's so much better than that. If you're a (wealthy) track day fan, then the coupé remains the purer driving experience, but the Spider has its own appeal. Driving top down with the V8 singing at 9000rpm is one of life's seminal experiences. Unless that is, you find the local Polizia at the top of the hill.