After reviewing literally hundreds of exceptional vehicles, many considered the finest enthusiast offerings each automaker has to offer, I had finally found my mechanical soulmate – the limited-production 458 Speciale. I somehow became convinced that cementing myself within its spartan cabin would ensure that our love affair would never end. My plan was ingenious, assuming the hardware store still had a large bottle of Gorilla Glue on the shelf.
Simply put, there is no better way to start a weekend than with a gassed-up Rosso Corsa Ferrari 458 Speciale parked in your driveway and instructions to "Enjoy!"
Burdened with such a monumental assignment, I slithered into Speciale's driver's seat and pulled the featherweight door shut firmly behind me. My right hand inserted the key into the steering column, while my left pressed the red start/stop button on the steering wheel. After a brief mechanical whirl, a hand-assembled 4.5-liter V8 barked to life just a couple feet behind my spine. Mere seconds later, as warm oil filled its sump, the engine settled down to a raspy idle accompanied by a frenzied exhaust note.
Those seeking a street-legal racecar from Ferrari need look no further.
The Ferrari I found myself encapsulated within was launched at the 2013 Frankfurt Motor Show as a faster, more compelling version of the 458 Italia – the automaker's range-topping V8 model. Targeting uncompromising enthusiasts with a proud nod to the 360 Challenge Stradale and 430 Scuderia (its noted predecessors), the low-volume model relinquishes amenities and adds capability in pursuit of agility and speed. Those seeking a street-legal racecar from Ferrari need look no further.
To reduce mass, the cockpit of the 458 Speciale does not contain an audio system, navigation, cruise control, glovebox or armrests. The seats are covered in mesh fabric and the door panels are paper-thin carbon fiber. There is no carpet, with only coldly textured aluminum plates on the sills, kick panels and underfoot. Also gone is the center console, with its three obligatory transmission buttons now elegantly suspended on a featherweight carbon-fiber blade. The cabin is minimalist, yet it has lost none of its visual impact.
The driving position is low, but surprisingly comfortable and supportive considering that the form-fitting seats only offer minimal adjustments. Practically every operating control that the driver needs, from engine start to turn signals and high beams, is on the multi-function steering wheel – its ergonomics initially appear haphazard, but everything is logically placed for immediate access. A quick tug on the right column-mounted paddle engages first gear, and the Speciale awaits for foot pressure on the accelerator before it automatically releases the clutch and the two-seater pulls away.
With a bit of justified arrogance, this Italian relishes attention, yet all it really wants to do is run free.
To increase power over the standard Italia's 562 horsepower and 398 pound-feet of torque, the 4.5-liter V8 in the Speciale is fitted with shorter intake runners, higher-lift cams, new intake ports and modified piston geometry that boosts compression from 12.5:1 to 14.0:1 (the pressure inside the cylinders rises by a whopping 145 psi). While maximum torque remains the same, it's spread more widely across the engine's operating range and output rises to 597 horsepower. The standard seven-speed F1-inspired dual-clutch gearbox has been remapped for 20-percent quicker upshifts and downshifts are now 40-percent more rapid. Gone is the three-pipe exhaust system, replaced by a high-flow, twin-pipe setup with weight savings and improved packaging in mind.
This Ferrari has a difficult time fitting in with more mundane vehicles on the road. The issue isn't just its iconic, bright-red paint (which looks wet up close), but its implausibly clamorous exhaust note – the Speciale sounds like a track-only 458 Challenge that's escaped the paddock. Neighbors are awakened at night and dogs bark during the day as it roars by. Everyone turns their heads. With a bit of justified arrogance, this Italian relishes the attention, yet all it really wants to do is run free.
With that in mind, it's positively agonizing driving the Speciale in urban traffic, as there's so much pent-up potential that both operator and machine quickly become frustrated. To reduce stress, I switch the five-position Manettino (Wet, Sport, Race, CT off and ESC off) to Sport and press the transmission's Auto button. The Ferrari acts as if I had just tossed a Xanax into its intake, with its exhaust note subsiding and the gearbox shifting up a few gears. Tranquility is restored as I continue crawling towards more challenging roads far less traveled.
I do what any warm-blooded enthusiast would do – I mash the throttle to its stops.
Enthusiasts will recognize the Speciale from a distance. Its signature stripes are a dead giveaway, but so are its new front, side and rear fascias, all tuned to carefully balance downforce and reduce drag. While keeping the coupe planted is crucial at circuit speeds, there are active motorized flaps in the nose and at the tail that reposition above 140 mph to reduce drag. Thus unburdened, the 458 Special will run to more than 200 mph. Even its tail has been sculpted a bit taller to properly manage the wind.
Finally free of the congestion, and with nothing but empty Southern California coastal canyon roads in the windshield, I switch the Manettino to Race and toggle the gearbox to Manual mode. It takes but a second for the Ferrari to clear its throat and resume its audible barrage. I do what any warm-blooded enthusiast would do – I mash the throttle to its stops.
Without so much as a pause, the Speciale catapults forward. The acceleration is accompanied by a shrill wail that drowns out everything, including my ability to process thought. There is a brief loss of traction as the rear wheels look for grip, and then the rush continues. The transmission's lower gears are short, requiring my right fingers to work the paddle rapidly as the red sequential LEDs sitting atop the steering wheel warn of each impending redline. Some supercars are elegant, but this Ferrari is purely, thrillingly savage.
Some supercars are elegant, but this Ferrari is purely, thrillingly savage.
According to Ferrari, the Speciale is 200 pounds lighter than the standard Italia. Some of this weight loss is attributed to the aforementioned removal of passenger amenities, but the model also sports gorgeously thin forged wheels, a lighter roof, a carbon-fiber intake, thinner glass and a plastic rear window.
In the city and on the highway, the Speciale's lack of insulation and lighter construction understandably translates to a much more audible driving experience. The engine wails, the wind rushes and the tires howl. Every noise is transferred directly into the passenger compartment seemingly unfiltered. While this can grind at the senses over time, none of the cacophony is unwelcome in the canyons or on the track, when the clamor signifies additional agility and faster speeds.
Ferrari has partnered with Michelin to wrap ultra-sticky Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires around each 20-inch wheel (245/35ZR20 front and 305/30ZR20 rear). They work with the Speciale's stiffened springs and standard adaptive magnetorheological dampers to deliver hallucinatory levels of lateral grip that seem to best anything else I have ever driven on public roads. The mid-engine vehicle feels absolutely neutral, rotating around an invisible pin in the center of the chassis, with only the slightest hint of easily corrected understeer. It sticks tenaciously to the pavement, yet its attitude can be easily managed with the throttle.
The Speciale will hang out its tail and power out of each corner with the gracefulness of a jet boat on a glassy lake.
There is more to its cornering prowess, too, with the magic arriving in the form of electronic chassis management that Ferrari calls Side-Slip Control (SSC). The system uses a complex set of algorithms to determine if the driver is seeking agility or stability, and it manages the electronically controlled locking differential accordingly. What this means in real-world driving is that the Speciale will hang out its tail and power out of each corner with the gracefulness of a jet boat on a glassy lake. The driver must possess real skill to use SSC to its fullest, but add talent and the results are positively Biblical.
Mounted inside each wheel is a massive carbon-ceramic drilled brake rotor clamped by a multi-piston Brembo caliper. Initially, the oversized pads need a bit of heat to operate optimally, but once at temperature, they are very easy to modulate and there's no hint of fade. As is often the case with exotics, the Speciale has more braking capability than grip, but the anti-lock braking threshold is surprisingly high, the chassis tracks straight and stopping distances are remarkably short.
I'm a manual transmission junkie, yet this Ferrari's dual-clutch gearbox has started to win me over for all the right reasons. Diving into a corner, the DCT will drop one, two and then three ratios quicker than you can belt out a two-word profanity. Its lightning-quick shifts are much more rapid and smoother than any human could replicate, allowing the driver to flirt with any specific gear for a few fleeting seconds just to extract a couple more miles-per-hour before catching the next cog. For the first time in print, I will call a dual-clutch gearbox in manual mode emotionally rewarding.
For the first time in print, I will call a dual-clutch gearbox in manual mode emotionally rewarding.
Corner after corner, I weave the Ferrari along the wandering asphalt with its signature exhaust note wailing off the canyon walls. The steering is telepathically communicative, with a very quick ratio, requiring only the slightest movement to alter trajectory. Even in the tightest of corners, my hands never leave the wheel and my arms never cross. The accuracy is spot-on, so putting an errant wheel off the line is nearly impossible – the tires only cross the painted yellow stripes as I slow to make ample room for avid cyclists (who offer smiles, not curses, as the Ferrari's exhaust note rushes over them).
This two-seater is equally as capable on the straights, even when the pavement is less than optimal. Ferrari offers a comfort mode with its electronic dampers (termed "Bumpy Road"), but it didn't prove necessary, even when soaring over broken concrete, cracks or seams. The chassis is drum tight, and even though body roll is almost imperceptible, the wheels absorb everything without a crash transmitted to the passengers. Never once did I bottom out or scrape its front splitter, regardless of how challenging the sections were.
Through it all, the digital oil and water temperature gauges hardly moved around their faces. But after a couple hours of constant Jedi-like focus, I was physically and mentally drained. Few vehicles accelerate with such immediacy, turn-in with equal quickness and decelerate with as much might – all while encouraging the driver to push harder. Driving the 458 Speciale through a familiar canyon at speed is more wondrous than your prom, wedding night and birth of your first child combined. Consider that an understatement.
A single drive proves that its astronomical pricing is completely justified.
It is difficult to not be infatuated with the 458 Speciale. As the world of supercars accepts all-wheel drive and hybrid powertrains as its norm, the Speciale is old-school traditional – there is nothing else with a naturally aspirated powerplant and rear-wheel drive that can touch its specific output, track performance, on-road driving dynamics or sexy appearance. It will never be accused of hiding behind the Prancing Horse on its nose, and a single drive proves that its astronomical pricing is completely justified.
Sadly, Home Depot was uncharacteristically out of Gorilla Glue, forcing me to climb out of the driver's seat and hand over the keys when Ferrari came calling just a few minutes later. But, I've learned my lesson and ordered a small bottle for a future rendezvous. Next time, I'm not giving it up.