x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Less roof, more fun: first drive of the Ferrari 458 Spider

Without a fixed roof, the Ferrari 458 Spider is a more exciting and all-around car than the coupé version, finds a starstruck Kevin Hackett.

Slip into Race mode and the revs in the Ferrari 458 Spider jump and the engine roars; in Auto mode, it can be civilised and docile.
Slip into Race mode and the revs in the Ferrari 458 Spider jump and the engine roars; in Auto mode, it can be civilised and docile.

Let's get something out of the way: Ferrari's 458 Italia is one of the true greats; a supercar that has changed the way all others are judged. It's one of the best driving machines ever produced and, in my humble opinion, is the finest ever to leave the Maranello factory. Even if you're not completely sold on the 458's looks, the way it drives is incomparable and it makes Ferrari's previous output, as good as they undoubtedly were, seem like they never happened.

Four years ago, somebody at Lamborghini haughtily told me "Ferrari is sleeping, they are not a concern". Only Ferrari turned out to be far from asleep and the 458 Italia was a huge wake-up call for all the rest. It's now the car against which all others are judged. That an open-topped 458 is now with us is no surprise and we all know that a Scuderia variant will be along in the near future because that's the way it works. The previous mid-engined V8 Ferrari, the F430, in Scuderia form, had many hacks like myself wondering how the company could possibly top it but the standard 458 has already done so. It's an incredible achievement. But could a Spider model undo that hard work?

It seems like only days since the 458 Spider was uncovered at the Frankfurt Motor Show, yet here I am, on a glorious Italian morning, mentally preparing myself for trying it out myself on some of the country's finest, twistiest mountain roads. And boy, does it look lovely. Whereas most coupés tend to lose some of their magic when they lose their roofs, this ingenious folding aluminium item has enabled the 458 to still look like it should, but we'll come back to that later.

Apart from the physical appearance of a convertible often leaving a nasty taste in the mouth, the driving can be seriously disappointing because of two factors: the amount of extra weight courtesy of added metal to help strengthen the car's structure can blunt performance and the inherent flexibility of the body once its roof has been removed can make a decent sports car feel like it's been fashioned from jelly if you drive it on anything but a perfectly smooth road. When Alfa Romeo turned the gorgeous Brera into the Spyder, the result was a wobbling catastrophe.

Ferrari has promised that the 458 Spider is different, and who am I to question that? The company is on a roll, producing a range of cars that all look different and offer different experiences behind the wheel, without losing any of that essential DNA. Only these days, the cars are incredibly reliable and, when Ferrari says the 458 Spider is a car that can and will be used every day, there's nobody sniggering any more.

Ever wondered why Ferrari and Alfa Romeo call their drop tops "Spiders" and "Spyders"? I have no clue why one uses an "I" and the other a "Y" but the story goes that, back in the 1950s, when sports cars used to roar through Italian villages with their roofs down, the local kids would run after them shouting "Speeder! Speeder!" And it stuck. That's one of the things I adore about Italy: the passion that seemingly everyone has for fast cars and the importance history has in almost everything they do. I've made up my mind, I'm retiring here.

The driving route looks tantalising. Roughly 400km of twisting hairpin goodness combined with a decent stretch of autostrada and precious few speed cameras. And tunnels. Lots of tunnels. Outside the hotel there are a dozen cars and my name is on a red one.

I open the driver's door and pour my frame into the Spider's cosseting leather seat. It's a rather nice place to spend time, even if you're at a standstill, but today is all about driving and the 458's cabin architecture leaves no doubt as to who's important - and it isn't the passenger. The dashboard layout is pretty much identical to the coupé, which means an extremely driver-focused environment. In fact, everything about the 458 puts the driver first, which in itself is rare these days.

The fit and finish is light years ahead of previous Ferrari quality, even on our preproduction test cars, which furthers the sense that they're built to be used every day. And, to be honest, if you owned a 458 you'd look for any possible excuse to use it rather than leave it in the garage. With that in mind I power down the roof (which takes just 14 seconds) and press the steering wheel-mounted red starter button.

The resulting sound is something to savour. One of the most nape-tingling exhaust notes on the planet is now well within earshot thanks to their being no roof but, even if the sun's too strong, you can always leave it up and lower the rear window for the full sonic experience. Today, though, the temperatures are mild and life is good.

Having spent some quality time in the coupé very recently, everything is familiar. Which means that, as soon as we're clear of the surrounding urban area and heading for the hills, I can get straight on it. Switching the manettino on the steering wheel to Race mode, the revs jump and the noise shatters the peace and quiet. But we're in Italy and a sports car's engine is music to the ears of the locals, who sit outside their houses cheering us on. They've had this every day for three weeks and nobody minds.

Over some low-speed roads where the tarmac has seen better days, there is the merest hint of body flex but, once I'm on the power, this dissipates into a sense of complete control. Ferrari says the Spider is softer than its coupé sibling but, from where I'm sitting, there's no difference. And that's the best possible news for someone like me.

With a staccato wail that positively encourages full-bore downshifts whenever possible, this 570hp V8 engine is a masterpiece. The redline doesn't come until a heady 9,000rpm, so there's plenty of willingness to go very quickly indeed - something I'm only too happy to revel in on these empty switchbacks. The clever electronic stability control allows a bit of slip when powering out of corners, sending the rear end shimmying for a second before regaining composure and, even though I know the computers are keeping everything tidy, I still feel totally in control. I feel completely involved in every single thing this car does.

My passenger, Qatar-based journalist and proud Welshman James McCarthy, finds himself prone to whooping like an over-excited American, uttering unrepeatable phrases as the Spider briefly relinquishes its massive levels of lateral grip and the rear tyres hang on for dear life. It's a huge shot of adrenaline, even for a passenger.

As we trundle through sleepy villages, I switch the F1 DSG transmission into Auto mode and the fearsome brute becomes civilised, docile and as easy to navigate as a big Jaguar. The suspension, which has been reworked and differs from the coupé, soaks up some pretty horrific bumps with aplomb and there's no spine jarring stiffness to unsettle car or occupants. And that exhaust, while always shouty when pressing on, is quiet when it needs to be. It's a car for all occasions, with a Jekyll and Hyde split personality; it's an astonishing achievement.

That folding metal roof took Ferrari's engineers into uncharted territory. The company claims it's the first fitted to a mid-engined supercar and, when you consider that the big V8 nestles right behind the cabin, it is a feat of engineering too. It's 25kg lighter than the fabric one fitted to the F430 and has just two moving sections. It neatly slots itself into a gap between the seats and the engine, taking up just 100L of space when folded. There's even room for a small shelf just behind the seats that Ferrari claims is big enough to house a (presumably empty) golf bag. I do wish car companies would stop using golf bags as yardsticks when it comes to space but there's expensive leather luggage designed to fit in the gap, with the 458 Spider logo, naturally.

Unusually for me, I can find precious little to criticise here. The instrument binnacle still looks daft and the passenger footwell is awkwardly shaped, but that's about it. The Spider, in Europe, costs about Dh150,000 more than the coupé and it's worth every single fil. I can't think of a single compelling reason to choose a coupé over the Spider and that's as high as my praise gets. I'm considering auctioning a kidney to kick-start my fundraising - I won't rest until there's one of these parked outside my Tuscany villa. One day, mark my words.