When looking for exotic sports car thrills on public roads in the summer, it simply doesn't get any better than the Ferrari 458 Spider. How nice, too, that Italy's summer has gone on and on this year – it thoughtfully didn't end until the evening after our epic drive through the Apennine mountains. Our mostly sun-drenched route started at around 500 feet above sea level in Maranello, climbing to near 3,200 feet over Passo della Cisa, finishing the outbound portion on a deserted sandy beach in northernmost Tuscany. Then, instead of taking the suggested direct route back along the three-lane autostrade, we chose to retrace our steps over Passo della Cisa on the amazing S 62 two-lane highway where Enzo Ferrari competed in his very first road race back in 1919. It was a very appropriate 300 miles in paradise.
The all-aluminum 2012 Ferrari 458 Spider is built primarily at the Scaglietti facility in Modena, and the rakish drophead is scheduled to arrive in North America by mid-February carrying a base price of $257,000. Rather surprisingly, our mountain hop reveals that the Spider possesses perhaps an even better sum of its parts than does the $225,000-ish much-ballyhooed fixed-roof Italia. Certainly, either body configuration fairly thrashes anything the old F430 lineup was ever capable of.
To be fair, when compared side by side with the coupe, the Spider weighs some 110 pounds more at 3,384 lbs., and its overall structure is said to be 30 percent less rigid. Regardless, just as we have shamed the Italia's estimated 3.3-second run from 0-60 by recording our own 3.0-second zap, the Spider loses practically nothing to the coupe, and we're quite sure of being able to punch through to a 3.1-second time despite cheeky Ferrari estimates of "<3.3".
In regards to those all-important power and torque figures, the Spider repeats the numbers seen on the Italia: 570 horsepower maxing out at the 9,000-rpm redline and 398 pound-feet of torque peaking at 6,000 rpm. Compared to the F430 it replaces, the 458 models produce 18-percent more power at 500 more rpm and 16-percent more torque at 750 additional rpm. All of this screaming performance – and it is screaming at 9,000 revs – comes with a 27-percent improvement in fuel efficiency and likewise improved levels of CO2 emissions from the dual-phase direct-injected F136 FB 90-degree 4.5-liter V8 (as compared to the F136 E 4.3-liter in the 430). If you can stomach driving the Spider as sensibly as you might drive a Ford Fusion, a full 22.7-gallon tank could conceivably take you 401.5 miles – at which point, pigs will definitely fly by flapping their trotters and your driving enthusiast's credibility will be unceremoniously and permanently revoked. [It took us about three quarters of a tank to get over and down to the beach and then a similar amount to get back.]
Getting the roof up or down on the 458 Spider takes a hands-free 14 seconds. The Webasto-supplied aluminum lid is based on a Ferrari design, the research for which started way back in 2004 when the California was in development. While the mechanism idea dates back to 2005's 575M Superamerica, the roof itself separates into two pieces as it rolls over backwards to store compactly upside-down right over the engine. The rear-hinged, one-piece aluminum tonneau cover puts on the biggest show, as it bolts upright and takes the two flying buttresses with it. Whether it's closed or open, you can also play with the rear glass that can be raised or lowered to whatever degree you wish. What we like best is that the 458's open top doesn't compromise the car's exterior proportions, an aesthetic trick that cannot be said to be the case for the overlarge haunches of the California. To us, the Spider actually manages to look better than the Italia.
We absolutely dig the solid rear deck that doesn't gratuitously put the red-headed V8 on display. There's something very heritage-correct about this look, no matter the angle. And this approach actually makes the 458 Spider look dramatically different from the 458 Italia, something we appreciate given that this sort of difference is rare between body variants of the same car. When the Spider is left open – as it was for almost our entire day – the buttresses are also quite the nostalgic touch.
What we like best, certainly, is that an open 458 is always going to be a louder 458. The tunnel hunting and accompanying unnecessary downshifts in which we indulged were shamelessly orgasmic. The good ol' flat-plane crank cry of the 9,000-rpm V8 has been specifically engineered – we are unshakably sure now – to make the surrounding countryside know that a Ferrari is in the house. In fact, it's even better now that there are a few hundred more rpms at one's disposal. The extra revs allowed us to stretch out all seven gears of the F1 dual-clutch transmission and the redline now comes at the right time – we always felt that the old F430's 8,500 rpm redline arrived too soon for our inner ear's rhythms.
There is a lovely sonic difference here, too, brought about by the air intakes and resonance bits being relocated to the rear of the body versus the 458 Italia's setup that positions them closer to the cockpit. Now, we adore the coupe, but a full day of tearing over hill and dale in that fixed roof carnival can sometimes leave us reaching for the earplugs, our ears ringing gloriously, but ringing nonetheless. In the Spider, things never really reach this point; the V8 vocals simply have the Goldilocks "just right" thing knocked when the roof is stowed. And when we wanted more of the soundtrack whenever we had the roof closed, all we had to do was open the rear glass, which also acts as a wind stopper when the top is open.
The 458 franchise gets away with column-mounted paddles for the seven-speed DCT mainly because the carbon-fiber paddles are nice and long, but also because the steering lock-to-lock is a tight and nicely weighted 2.0 turns. We never felt as though we were hunting and pecking in the hairpins. Hard cornering is also helped out by the great lumps of torque available in third or fourth gear, allowing us to hold a gear without concern for losing time coming out of the curves.
There are so many freakin' gorgeous curves on the S 62 that the dynamics technology aboard the Ferrari must work full time to ensure our stay in the pilot's seat is an optimal one. This isn't a problem – every single image we had in our head of what we wanted to do with the Spider in the hastily approaching next moment was borne out to a tee in a manner unlike any other road car like this that we have driven. The McLaren MP4-12C, Porsche 911 GT2, and Lamborghini Gallardo LP570-4, all of them come extremely close to threatening the accolades we're dishing out, and at times, they pull dead even with the Ferrari. But to quote Nigel in Spinal Tap, the 458's set just goes to eleven.
Like former president Bill Clinton during his college years, we only "experimented" with the higher velocity end of the speedometer. On our way to the two-lane squiggly bits, we did have to drive in a big, wide straight line for about 15 miles. Yes, the roof was shut for this part and we found wind noise only to be a couple decibels north of the Italia.
During the lunch break, Ferrari's tech guys also walked us through the step-by-step for Launch Control. On our return leg back over the Apennines, we stopped on a straight section or two to partake. Left foot on the brake, switch the manettino to Race, make sure the gearbox is in manual mode and not auto, engage first gear with the right paddle, then press the Launch Control button on the center console until you hear a repeated beep. Floor the gas pedal, let the revs hold a few seconds at 3,000 rpm and let go of the brake pedal. You're off and the time-space warp starts immediately, all 9,000 revs sounding incredibly sweet with the Spider's roof tucked away. See what we mean in the Short Cut video below.
With the 458 Italia set to a more pounding Race calibration for gearshifts and higher-threshold traction control parameters thanks to the manettino switch to the right on the steering wheel (this began with cars built from September 2011), the Spider feels great, with a lessened abruptness that gets us around just as quickly. According to Ferrari engineers at the event, while the springs are a straight carryover in terms of stiffness, the magnetorheological dampers are set to be a smidge less buff than on the pre-September 458 Italia. Wishbones stay up front, while the rear gets finer handling through a compact multi-link design. The setup for our mountain two-lane blast was nothing short of ideal. The standard Pirelli P Zero tires – 235/35 ZR20 (88Y) up front and 295/35 ZR20 (105Y) in back – stayed eager all day long, working in sync with the onboard ride and handling technologies beautifully.
The Ferrari's high dynamic limits can be safely approached in part because of the 458 Spider's carbon ceramic brake discs (measuring 15.7 inches front and 14.2 inches in back). Throughout hundreds of miles of heavy use, they only fleetingly made squeaking sounds or transmitted a gritty feel. As the S 62 is perhaps the most CCM-worthy road on the planet, however, it was the sheer eternal stopping power the brakes bought us that makes them required equipment. A pat on the back is in order for making this equipment available on all Ferraris.
As we thundered along ensconced in our Spider's delicious leather seats, slaloming through the Apennines at will, it's hard to ignore that this car's visibility forward and to the sides is perhaps the best in this end of the market. We could see everything whenever we needed to, and that's so important when the landscape can be so easily blurred. The rear buttresses do block over-the-shoulder viewing in true supercar fashion, but we got used to it and so shall you.
Essentially, if you haven't picked up on this yet, we could have driven this 458 Spider for 24 solid hours with a fantasy endurance race playing in our head.
Over 500 folks in the global lucky sperm club have pre-paid for their orders already. We are not generally open-top desperados, but, trust us – buy the folding hardtop Spider instead of the Italia coupe if you must choose. If you don't have to pick one – if you can keep your Italia and also garage the Spider – well, you'll have to sleep knowing that we sort of hate you through our green eyes of immense envy.