SMH: It’s not as hard-edged as the coupe, but the drop-top version of Ferrari’s V8-powered 458 Italia makes for an intoxicating machine.
The small rear window of the 458 Spider may not be its most advanced technological feature, but it’s certainly one that allows a new and vastly entertaining perspective of how thrilling a Ferrari can be.
Why’s that? Because the 15cm high piece of glass slides down at the touch of a button, even when the roof is fixed in place and sheltering its occupants from wind, rain or sun.
What that open portal allows to enter the cabin is noise: the suck and roar of the repositioned engine intakes from behind the cabin and, more importantly, the barking, snarling, animalistic symphony of the 458’s 4.5-litre V8.
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Driving across the Cisa Pass between Parma and Italy’s west coast along a sinuous stretch of mountain road is to play tunes with the throttle, listening to the deep bellow at low revs, the pop and crackle as the paddle-shift transmission changes gears, and the echo of an engine pushing 9000rpm bouncing off road cuttings and the inside of tunnels.
OK, so the Spider is a convertible and it is just as effective to lower the roof to get that aural experience. But because that removable roof is now a hard top you have the option of leaving it in place and still be treated to a front row seat at the probably the world’s best automotive concerts.
None of this comes cheap, of course. Prices haven’t been released, but expect about a 14 per cent increase over the 458 Italia’s $527,000 price tag, meaning the Spider will be close to a $600,000 proposition when released in Australia mid next year. There’s already an 18 month waiting list, and Ferrari’s Australian importer expects about 50 to be delivered in 2012.
Ferrari knew it wanted the 458 Spider to have a hard top since 2004, way back before its predecessor, the 430 Spider, was even released. Years were spent working on the layout and mechanism – not an easy task given the 458 Italia coupe on which it is based has a rear mid-engine, so finding somewhere to stow the roof panel was difficult.
It’s hard to see how in the end they could have done a better job. The roof panel splits into two pieces and flips upside down into a compartment on top of the engine, under the two "flying buttress" - supports behind the cabin that now also double as rollover protection.
The whole process takes just 14 seconds and the car has to be completely stopped. Just enough time to draw a crowd outside a favourite café, you’d think.
There's no compromise to the 458’s arrowhead styling, apart perhaps from the necessary deletion of the clear panel allowing visual access to the V8 and its crackle-red injector and cam-covers.
Much of the rear has been significantly changed. Air intakes for the engine have been moved from behind the upper edge of the doors to the rear of the engine cover, making for a smoother look to the styling.
Ferrari says the new roof structure is actually 25kg lighter than the 430's fabric top, but extra underbody strengthening has added 50kg compared to the Italia.
Even so, the Spider has lost 30 per cent of the coupe’s structural rigidity without a fixed roof to hold both ends of the car together. It has been given softer suspension settings too, with Ferrari figuring that although the Spider is still a sports car, it is less likely to be taken to a race track by its owners.
If that gives the impression the Spider is less rewarding to drive than the coupe, almost the exact opposite is true.
It does, after all, retain the weapons-grade engine producing 414kW of power at 9000rpm and 540Nm of torque at 6000rpm. It weighs just 1430kg, has its mass packed close to the ground, comes with a tricky electronic differential that transmits torque intelligently through its rear wheels, and has a seven speed dual-clutch automated gearbox. That kind of hardware does not a soft car make.
The added suppleness of the Spider’s chassis helps make it a remarkably comfortable cruiser at highway speeds and even with the roof off there’s little disturbance to the air within the cabin. That little electric window also acts as a windblocker from air swirling over the windscreen and into the rear and it defaults to a partly raised position to optimise this effect.
Hit more challenging roads there’s every driving thrill you’d expect from a mid-engined, V8 Ferrari. Stunning acceleration through the gears, light but very direct steering, rapid-fire gearchanges from the dual-clutch transmission, huge amounts of grip from sticky Pirelli tyres, and vastly dependable traction to power out of corners.
If the body has lost any rigidity from having its roof removed it is not displayed via any noticeable flexing or shaking of the windscreen or dashboard. Such problems, common in many convertibles, simply don’t exist in the Spider.
Only a creaking passenger seat and a wonky, rippled vanity mirror on Drive’s test Spider were indications that even 600 grand can’t buy perfection.
The engine also pulls with great flexibility from low revs in high gears and the suspension soaks up choppy road surfaces, meaning the 458 Spider can be a pussy cat when the driver wants to dawdle, or a tiger when they want to go hard.
That’s helped by the 458’s steering wheel mounted range of electronic settings (called Manettino) for the ESC, throttle sensitivity and speed of gear-changes ranging from, the base setting for wet roads, through to a full ESC-off attack mode for race tracks.
Thanks to the hard top roof and the slightly less frenetic driving experience, the Spider doesn’t just lack compromise compared with the Italia, it might just be a better car. It’s certainly a sensational thing to drive; it’s a pity the massive price tag means it’s available to just the lucky few.