Sunday 29 November 2009

First Drive: Ferrari 458 Italia

Ferrari 458 Italia

The new Ferrari 458 Italia has supermodel looks, but what’s it like to drive?

The Ferrari 458 Italia is the car tuned by seven-time Formula One champion Michael Schumacher.

The German, regarded by some as the greatest driver of all time, spent roughly 40 hours behind the wheel of the new Ferrari 458 Italia, feeding his unique insights to the engineers based on his considerable experience in car set-up.

Ferrari 458 Italia

That’s no guarantee of success for the latest supercar to wear the legendary Prancing Horse badge, but it’s not a bad start.

Neither is the first impression you get when you see the 458 in the flesh. It looks sensational – more stealth fighter than road car. It’s a cleaner design than the F430. Ferrari 458 Italia

The big air intakes that dominated the flanks of the F430 have been replaced by more discreet vents on the car’s window sills and under the rear wings.

The vertical daytime running lights add another dash of theatre, while the cluster of three exhaust pipes at the rear looks like a jet’s afterburner. Ferrari 458 Italia

Step inside and the Ferrari 458 Italia is equally impressive. Other manufacturers like to talk about a driver-oriented, cockpit-feel, but this car delivers. In fact, the passenger is almost cut out of the picture altogether.

There is no conventional centre stack. Instead, there are two screens either side of the giant tacho in the instrument panel. The one on the left has the read-out for the vehicle set-up and (too small) digital speedo, while the one on the right has the sat-nav and audio (there’s no CD player, instead you get a red Ferrari iPod and docking station). Ferrari 458 Italia

The only buttons within easy reach of the passenger are the air-con controls and the three buttons on the centre console – the launch control, reverse gear selector and auto transmission setting. Ferrari 458 Italia

In contrast, almost every system in the car is at the fingertips of the driver. There are no indicator stalks, the blinkers are activated by buttons on the steering wheel, as are the headlights and windscreen wipers. It seems a little odd at first, but works well. The driver can also select a softer suspension setting via another button on the wheel, while the trademark “Manettino” switch allows you to choose from five different set-ups.

The rest of the cabin is traditional leather-lined luxury, including supportive racing seats, with great side and thigh support.

Start the Ferrari 458 Italia up, blip the throttle and the intoxicating sound of a thoroughbred V8 fills the cabin.

The Italia’s 425kW V8 sounds surprisingly tame and refined when you’re driving sedately around town. But as with most sports cars these days, the Ferrari has an exhaust bypass flap that opens up as the revs rise. The harder you push the 458, the better it sounds, all the way to an ear-splitting 9000rpm.

But the noise is only a small part of the fun. The acceleration is mind-boggling. Ferrari says the 458 reaches 100km/h in 3.4secs and 200km/h in 10.4secs. After a day driving the car on the track and the open road, we found no reason to doubt those figures.

Some of the credit for the blistering acceleration goes to the Ferrari’s seven-speed dual clutch automatic transmission. The maker decided not to develop a manual transmission for the 458 because it says the dual-clutch delivers noticeably better performance while using less fuel.

The shifts in the Ferrari 458 Italia are razor-sharp and intuitive, with the car downshifting automatically each time you hit the awesome ceramic brakes. Each downshift is accompanied by a wonderful-sounding blip of the throttle, whether you change gears by the paddleshifts or let the 458 do it for you. The car also gargles and spits when you come off the throttle.

A flick of the Manettino really transforms the car from luxury grand tourer to race-car. The Manettino adjusts the car’s suspension, throttle sensitivity, gear shift patterns, brake feel and suspension settings. It also adjusts the sensitivity of the various driver aids, including the traction control, stability control and electronic diff, which distributes torque between the rear wheels to increase drive out of corners.

The suspension and steering are the final pieces in the jigsaw and neither disappoints. As always, we’ll reserve judgment on the ride until we get the car on local roads, but it was impressively well-controlled and comfortable on patchy road surfaces. The strangely named “bumpy road” setting also works well. It’s only available on the sportier settings and it’s designed to improve the tyres contact with the road on rough surfaces.

The setting softens the dampers so the car is less prone to skip about over corrugations.

The Ferrari 458 Italia’s grip was phenomenal, even when driven enthusiastically on wet roads, while body roll was hardly noticeable through corners. The car’s exceptional handling encourages you to push harder at each corner, while the steering is incredibly sharp and direct, adding to the overall feeling of supreme surefootedness.

It may be hideously expensive and unashamedly politically incorrect, but the Ferrari 458 Italia is one truly impressive machine.


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