By Steven Cole Smith
4:25 PM EDT, October 28, 2011
Not for a second will I complain about the usual diet of Hyundais and Hondas and half-ton pickup trucks that those of us who get to test new cars are typically fed, but once in a while, getting a taste of a Bentley, a Lamborghini or Aston Martin gives us a peek into how the other half drives.
Other half? More like the half-percent who can afford vehicles that cost as much or more than a nice house. Case in point: The 2012 Ferrari 458 Spider, the top-down version of the benchmark 458 Italia, which, after its 2010 debut, sent colleagues into tongue-tied fits of superlatives: Car and Driver said the Italia is "perhaps the closest man has come to creating an animal." But they meant that in a good way.
When the Italia made its auto-show debut in 2009, the company promised a convertible version soon, but it has taken longer than expected. Ferrari didn't just chop the top and replace it with a cloth roof — it engineered a remarkable two-panel top that, at the touch of a button, folds into two parts, goes from horizontal to vertical, and slips into a small space just behind the seats, and in front of the engine. With the top up, the Spider is essentially a hardtop, but after just 14 seconds of button-pushing, it's a convertible.
This is the sort of feature that, just a dozen years ago, Ferrari might have been able to engineer but not successfully execute for the long-term. Unhappy owners might have had unpleasant instances of tops frozen in mid-fold, a situation rectified only by a Ferrari-trained mechanic who charges more for his time than your average neurosurgeon. Years ago, when Ferrari introduced the innovative dual-clutch, electronically-controlled transmission that acts like an automatic but shifts like a manual, I was stuck for an embarrassing five minutes in a busy intersection when the transmission refused to engage a gear — any gear, forward or reverse — until it suddenly began working. Ferrari has now added reliability to the features it develops; that seven-speed transmission that now comes on the Italia and Spider (no manual is available) is perhaps the world's best, and performed perfectly during our brief test. Similarly, I don't anticipate problems with the roof, either.
Of course, when you are charging upwards of a quarter-million per car, reliability should not be optional. Recent Ferrari models, and the 458 Spider is included, are docile and dependable enough to be driven daily, but cheerfully double as all-out racecars on the weekend, should owners be so inclined.
Like the Italia, the Spider is powered by the 4.5-liter V-8 that manages to make 562 horsepower without turbocharging or supercharging. Its exhaust note is symphonic. Perhaps the only downside of the Spider is that there isn't room for the clear panel the Italia has over the engine compartment, showing off the powertrain like a jewelry case.
Inside, the ultra-thin seats are surprisingly comfortable. Instruments and controls are complex and aircraft-like, but logically configured. There's a decent amount of storage space available in the front and the back, certainly enough for a weekend's worth of luggage.
On the road, the Spider feels big and wide, absolutely filling your lane on the highway. Steering is light and very quick. You can dial in suspension settings electronically and on the softest, the Spider's ride is reasonably smooth on even rough roads. Be aware, though, that you are on display, like a rolling one-car Shriner's parade that draws gawkers, and presumably traffic cops, like a magnet. Ferrari claims a top speed of 198 mph, which we did not certify.
The 458 Spider will go on sale shortly, likely beginning at just under $260,000, but will be available in such limited numbers at first that finding one for even that price will be tough — which will give us mere mortals time to pick some new Powerball lottery numbers.
And now, we return you to Hyundais, Hondas and half-ton pickups, and no, I'm still not complaining. Driving a car like the Spider is a lot of responsibility.
2012 Ferrari 458 Spider
Base price: $257,000 (estimated)
Price as tested: $270,000 (estimated)
EPA rating: 12 mpg city, 18 mpg highway (estimated)
Engine: 4.5-liter, 562-horsepower V-8
Transmission: Seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic
Length: 178.2 inches
Wheelbase: 104.3 inches
Parting shot: The Ferrari 458 Italia hardtop set a new standard for sports cars, and now with a retractable roof, the 458 Spider takes it one (expensive) step further.
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