Driven: Ferrari 458 Spider

"It is no problem, this is Ferrari," says a young guy in a Lancia. He's an official Ferrari minder, who's appeared from nowhere to deal with a pressing problem: muggins is being arrested. Right now, an officer with a stylish looking handgun is grasping my driving licence like he's discovered the Holy Grail.

It's not even clear why I'm being held. He speaks no English and my Italian amounts to 'ciao' and 'bella, bella'. Maybe it's the dodgy number plates. Ferrari hasn't bothered fitting our 458 Spider with traditional Italian 'plates because they upset the front-end styling and 'this is Ferrari'. But his gesticulations don't point in that direction. Nor does he have a speed gun.

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.

Forty per cent of Spider's sold will be painted Rosso, but ours is yellow and magnificent. The decision to swap the fabric roof of the F430 Spider for a folding hardtop was a stroke of genius. Roof up or down, the 458 retains a purity of purpose that even gives it an edge over the coupé.

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.

It is also staggeringly fast. The Spider is just 50kg heavier than the fixed head and retains its 4.5-litre V8, complete with 562bhp and 398lb ft of torque. Ferrari claims an identical 0-60mph time of 3.4sec but top speed falls 2mph to 200mph. Engineering guru Matteo Lanzavecchia says it's 0.5sec slower around Fiorano than the coupé.

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.

Chopping off the lid has brought some compromises though. In a moment of startling honesty, Lanzavecchia admitted that the Spider's thirty per cent less stiff than the coupé. On low speed, poorly surfaced roads, you can feel it. Even with the dampers in the comically named 'bumpy road' setting, there's still enough flex in the body to send a tremor through the 'wheel and prompt a rattle from the window.

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.

Push the limit and the 458 responds with gentle understeer that can be balanced with a tweak of the throttle. According to test driver Raffaele de Simone, the electronic differential is actually more aggressive in 'Race' mode than it is when all the systems are turned off. "It's important that it's easy to feel and understand the limit of the car," he says. "We want it to be the best car for the pure driver but if I create a car for the 0.01per cent of customers who drive like me, then I have not done a good job."

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.

Lanzavecchia admits that we've almost certainly seen the end of the fabric-roofed Ferrari and it's not hard to see why. The whole structure rises and falls in just 14sec in an act of pavement theatre, and that's not its only party trick. Even with the roof up, you can lower the glass rear window to drink in the soundtrack. The only major downside is the absence of a see-through engine cover. Too much of the V8 is hidden under the hood mechanism so the 458's jewel remains hidden from view.

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.

And it's expensive, of course. The base price of £198,856 is £25,675 more than the coupé and that's before you add £5k for the matching luggage. Ferrari UK reckons most customers will spend around £250k on their car. That's huge money for a V8 Ferrari but it's unlikely to shorten the waiting lists. Ferrari reckons they'll build 1500-2000 Spider's per year, equivalent to half the 458's global sales.

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.

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (95) Join the discussion on the forum

  • mickers70 05 Oct 2011

    Nice !!

  • mantis84 05 Oct 2011

    Have to agree, the 458 (whether coupé or tin-top) looks fantastic in yellow - would be my choice when (not if) I win the lottery.

  • PhilJames 05 Oct 2011

    Why does the back end look like a 1980's space invader? The rest of the car looks way better than the 430/360.

    I think I'd still prefer it in Red though.

  • Porkie 05 Oct 2011

    Stunning. Just stunning!

  • Schnellmann 05 Oct 2011

    Might make the 458 coupe obsolete. Apart from the extra price hard to see many downsides (surely there can't be many 458 coupe owners that use them extensively on track? - I suppose you could but there are cheaper and better options for serious track use) and the upsides of it being better looking, having the option of open-air motoring and being able to hear the engine better seem pretty persuasive.

    Unfortunately has the same problem as the coupe: just too damm fast for the road (unless you live in Italy where having a Ferrari seems to be equivalent to having diplomatic immunity!)

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