By Dan Neil, Tribune Newspapers
3:53 PM EST, February 18, 2010
Yet it's not snowflakes I see drifting into Ferrari's brick courtyard on the Via Abetone, the Temple Mount in this, the Jerusalem of Red Cars. Instead, I see confetti-like news clippings from Corriere della Sera, telling of an American journalist who plunged a Ferrari 458 Italia into a snowy mountain suckhole.
I kid you not, young lovers. As I turn the red enamel key in the ignition, and the V-8's devils begin to dance on the drumhead — KeWhe-drummmmmmmmmm — I am concerned.
Alas, the timing is what it is. I have a chance to drive Ferrari's newest mid-engine V-8 Berlinetta, a car that's quicker than the legendary Enzo (less than 3.4 seconds to 60 mph), with 72 more horsepower than the mind-frying F430 and a top speed in excess of 202 mph. A car with a wicked, scything aerodynamic shape, a bloody knife like never haunted Lady Macbeth.
And so the table is set: pounding snow, icy roads and a 562-hp, mid-engine reptile on stone-cold tires. An Italian hurt locker.
And yet, surprise, the 458 Italia rocks winter. Here's why.
Aesthetics: The sight of this slinky scarlet sports car against a white background is stunning, eidetic, heart-clutching and unforgettable. Epic is not too strong a word.
The technology governing the car's driving dynamics is astounding. With the 458 Italia, Ferrari has further integrated the control logic of its electronic differential, the E-Diff, with the world's smartest and most supple traction control, F1-Trac. It allows drivers to put down the power harder and earlier coming out of a corner. According to Ferrari, out-of-corner acceleration is up 32 percent from that of previous models.
That's grand on a warm, dry asphalt track like Ferrari's Fiorano facility (1.9 miles), where the 458 Italia laps as fast (1 minute, 25 seconds) as the Enzo. And yet, the tears-of-joy moment comes on a snowy country lane, when I nip into a slick hairpin. The stability system chatters a bit, the world pivots. As I unwind the wheel and open the throttle, the car scavenges every thousandth of a percent of available grip under the wheels, converting it to chest-pinning thrust.
On 20-inch, 35-series tires in the snow? That's just eerie. As I wheel the Ferrari through the pig country of Emilia Romagna, I have several elucidating moments when I realize that, in other exotics, I would probably be spatchcocked and smoldering around a tree.
Steering: With a ratio that's two turns lock-to-lock, the 458's steering — beautifully weighted, light and direct and glass-transparent — is also freaky quick. When the car steps out, as it does when I punch the throttle in third gear on the Autostrada at about 120 mph, it's the merest flick of the wheel to correct. This thing dispenses more forgiveness than the Diocese of Las Vegas.
Also, with the 458 Italia, Ferrari has moved the turn indicator switches, the wiper and headlamp controls to the steering wheel. These controls are, in a word, brilliant, intuitive and ergonomic, and so much better than conventional stalks on the column I'm surprised no one thought of it sooner.
Brakes: 15-inch carbon-ceramic front binders are standard on the 458 Italia, abetted by Ferrari's prefill braking system (the millisecond the driver lifts off the throttle, the brake system is hydraulically precharged to improve response). The 458 decelerates from 62 mph to a dead stop in a little more than 30 yards. These brakes would stop a charging mastodon.
Aerodynamics: The unholy look of the Ferrari — the broad and low, angry shape, a straining singularity trapped in a red silk stocking — is a very precisely engineered mechanism for moving air. In front, the two grille openings provide cooling for engine radiators; but at higher speeds, the radiators don't need as much airflow and so Ferrari (and styling house Pininfarina) created aero-elastic winglets that bend at speed to create more down force.
Also, at the leading edges of the front fenders are thin evacuators that, as they vent air from the lower intakes, disrupt laminar airflow on the car's nose, again reducing lift.
Under ordinary circumstances, these writhing currents of air around the car would be invisible. But the falling snow acts like smoke in a wind tunnel, allowing me to see the aero in action. As I pound the gears and peg the rev limiter on the Autostrada (150, 160, 170 mph ...) I look ahead to see a kind of snowy diverging shock wave. In the rearview mirror I see a swirling vortex.
The sound: There are many fascinating things about this engine, a 4.5-liter, flat-crank, dry-sump V-8 outputting a delirious 562 hp and soaring to 9,000 rpm. It boasts the highest specific horsepower and torque of any naturally aspirated production engine (125 hp and 113 pound-feet per liter). It appears to be made by the same people who made God's wristwatch.
But it's the sound — comprehensive, overwhelming, soul-shattering — that I cannot believe, as it folds back on me against the velvety muteness of the falling snow.
For all its revs, the 458's sound pitch is a lycanthropic howl that would make the supernatural "Twilight" teenagers soil themselves.
With the launch-control system engaged, the 458 can accelerate from a standstill to 124 mph in 10.4 seconds. The effect on the human body is like biting into your neighborhood electrical substation.
But you'd expect the latest Ferrari hypercar to be fast, wouldn't you?
What you wouldn't expect is the car's overall timbre of frictionless sophistication and refinement. This thing is at least as much computer as car. The departed Enzo Ferrari would get in the 458, take it for a lap, get out and keel over from the shock.
Gone are the adrenaline chinchillas running up and down your spine. The 458 Italia is spooky fast without the haunting of mortality. Insurance adjusters will feel differently.
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