Ferrari 458 Speciale

Mystique and Machine

"No supercar - not a Pagani, not a Lamborghini, not even a McLaren - inspires as much trust as Ferrari's 458 Speciale," said David.

Have you ever wondered why Ferraris are so special? Why, with all the supercars we exalt, is it always those with the Prancing Horse that enthrall us most? How is it that with all the science going into the development of modern automobiles, Ferrari still manages to make it look like art? Why does a 458 Speciale steer more sharply than other supercars and its engine scream like no other V8, its throttle more hyperactive than a Rottweiler on crystal meth?

Legend would have it that it's Ferrari's racing heritage, those record 16 Formula One constructor's championships, the seven wins at the prestigious Targa Florio or the company's many victories at Florida's 12 hours of Sebring. This would be the romantic's myth, apropos since Enzo Ferrari himself saw racing as his company's true calling, the road cars little more than funding for his precious Formula One team.

It certainly makes for great mystique, this deification of man and machine. But I think the evolution of Ferrari's DNA is both simpler and more immediate than the lore would have us believe. As with all evolution - be it man or machine - Ferraris have simply adapted to the challenges of nature. And nature around Maranello means hundreds - make that thousands - of hairpins all so very treacherous that necessity really has been the mother of Ferrari's invention.

There's Strada Provinciale 26 with its road signs that advertise 19 tornanti - hairpins - no mention made whether said documentation of treachery is invitational or cautionary, but each requiring all the braking power the 458 Speciale's carbon ceramic discs can muster. Farther on, I run into Strada Statale 12, a road so diabolically twisty that it absolutely demands minimal body roll, each fling to the left preceded by two to the right.

Then there's SP30, again with the tornanti, but this time accompanied with enough heaves and humps to do a motocross track proud. Anything lacking the most sophisticated of damping - cue the Speciale's wonderfully adaptable magneto-rheological shocks, which, Ferrari's engineers assure me, can react in just a millisecond - would be bounding up and down like a pogo stick.

Thus have the roads surrounding Maranello endeared the 458 Speciale with steering that is quite nearly telepathic. For one thing, it is all but impossible to make the end of the Ferrari lose its limpet-like grip on the road. Lord knows I tried, trail-braking w-a-a-a-y deep into hairpins with drop-offs so radical that exacting precision was demanded, or tossing the blood-red Speciale into repeated esses with an abruptness not recommended in the Alain Prost manual for smooth, fast driving. Railing around 180-degree switchbacks at the very limit of adhesion, nothing could upset the 458's front P245/35ZR20 Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2's tenacious union. Ferrari's engineers took great pains to explain how the Speciale's new electronic side slip angle control and its partner in crime, the electronically controlled rear differential, minimize the car's slip angle - the technical term for the difference between the turn of the steering wheel and the direction the car is actually going. I have no idea what they were talking about - I could detect no such slip.

Other technological trickery, of course, abounds. There's an advanced telemetry system than can record all this hooning about and balancing the Speciale's ability to change direction at lower speeds are some computer-controlled aerodynamic aids - front and rear - that add down force at speeds above 220 kilometers an hour. As impressively quick as the 458's steering can be, Ferrari has not sacrificed high-speed stability. And the Speciale's carbon ceramic brakes, which not only help reduce curb weight by 90 kilograms compared with the 458 Italia, also provide excellent slow speed modulation while generating an incredible amount of brake force.

If the vast majority of Ferrari owners were ever to be honest with themselves, this single-minded dedication to cornering adhesion and braking g's would seem trivial. It's far easier to impress the hoi polloi with the zing of the 458's newly fortified 4.5 liter V8 now boasting 597 brake horsepower thanks to bigger bump camshafts and an incredible 14.0:1 compression ratio, or the Prancing Horses adhered to the Speciale's exterior. But what really separates the 458 Speciale from every other supercar I have ever driven is not the badge on the bonnet, its Pininfarina-penned sensuous shape or even the aforementioned crackle of that sonorous flat-plane-crank V8.

Verdict
No, what separates the 458 Speciale from every other supercar I have ever driven is the trust one has in the connection of man and machine, of steering wheel and direction change, and, when you're really pushing it, of grip between front tire and tarmac. No supercar - not a Pagani, not a Lamborghini, not even a McLaren - inspires as much of that trust as Ferrari's 458 Speciale.

Pros: Incredible front end grip, zingy engine, sensuous looks
Cons: Stiff suspension, a little noisy, you can look a bit of a wank if you do nothing but parade a Speciale
Rivals: Porsche 911 Turbo S, Audi R8, Lamborghini Huracan, McLaren 650S
Engine: 4.5L naturally-aspirated V8, 597 hp, 540 Nm
Transmission: 7-speed dual clutch manumatic
Performance: 0-100 km/h: 3.0 sec, 11.8 L /100 km Top speed: >325 km/h
Chassis: 1,395 kg

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