Has the Ferrari 458 Italia got soul?
Clinically fast modern supercars lack the one critical factor that endeared us all to cars in the first place; soul. Will Dejan Jovanovic fall in love with the Ferrari 458 Italia?
I know what you want. You want eulogies and onomatopoeias, and fabled tales of a screaming V8 spinning into orbit. Or at least around Jebel Hafeet's switchbacks.
Well you can't have it, any of it.
The 458 is better than anything I can say, and no thesaurus in the world will help me find the right words to describe the goodness oozing out of every pore of Modena's greatest achievement since the town brought forth a baby called Enzo.
Driving the Ferrari 458, is like riding a unicorn into Jupiter's sunset.
It's probably how Yuri Gagarin felt on April 12, 1961. For a devout petrolhead it's eternal bliss.
Behind the wheel
Sight, smell, sound, touch and taste; these are your five senses. When every single one of those senses conjoins into an embrace of emotions — in other words, when you drive a 458 — your mind explodes in a wave of endorphins emanating deep from this Ferrari's glorious bowels. This car attacks your senses with every single one of its 562 horses and mocks whatever you thought you knew about pure driving joy.
There's no going back now. How do I top this? Where to from here? What could possibly ever match the Italia…
The 458 plugs into your central nervous system, it spikes your veins with its 98 Octane, it heightens your senses almost to the point of exhaustion… but the mass of adrenaline shovelled into your brain from the howling flat-crank 4.5-litre V8 keeps you coming back for more, more, more… It sounds like the exhaust pipes shoot straight out the sides of your head. But there's no headache, just other-worldly bliss. When you drive a 458, you don't blink. Your heart matches the engine's peak rpm of 9,000. There is no sweat, there is no doubt, nor hesitation, just ethereal coexistence. A driver and a 458 are like conjoined twins.
And that's it. Just recollecting the experience of driving this car has bled my capacity to think any more.
OK, I'm back. The thing is though, Ferrari develops its software in the ultimate proving ground of all things electronic; Formula 1. Electronics are everything in F1 — besides aero — so obviously Ferrari has the know-how.
They have 200 software engineers who just sit and write code all day. But how can code be as emotional as Ave Maria? How can a car governed mostly by current flowing through miles and miles of wire feel so alive?
Devouring highways in the 458 is almost subconscious; you forget you're driving, because you're so deeply concentrated on driving. Does that make sense? The trip meter rolls into triple digits by the time you gasp for your second breath.
Your eyelids will spasm themselves open, as there's no time to think about trifles like lubricating your pupils. Stop wasting time on blinking and pay attention to driving the car.
It's only once you take a break that you realise just what ludicrous chances you were taking back there. As the car shrugs off the smell of sweltering rubber and baking brakes, its driver can't help but shiver with adrenaline overdose. It's an epic car. It's a Ferrari like I imagined a Ferrari would be when I was a kid. I'm not a Maranello veteran by any means, having only experienced five of its modern creations, but I would bet my life's possessions on the 458 being the greatest Prancing Horse ever made.
This car should be as fast around a track with the TC on, as with it off. In the mountains, the system works to keep you away from the ravines, but you still don't pump the throttle pedal in a rear-driver with 562bhp. With smooth application you can put foot mid-corner and slingshot out of a turn with only a hint of understeer at the exit. The front end is light, even with a Vredestein space-saver in there. This means that when you squat under acceleration — mind you, squat and dive is so minimal, most people won't even detect it — the front of the car lifts and steering traction is sacrificed.
You can still apply a smidgen more steering lock and dart round the bend, which can't be said of many other cars that simply plough straight unless you lift off the throttle. With the 458, you keep feeding the power in and still you don't run out of road. That has to be the electronics working in your favour, or just the supreme balance of this chassis.
There is some body roll, I think… maybe it's the G-forces pulling me to the outside that amplify this sensation, but even if the car is actually leaning off camber, it doesn't slow the pace. It's part of the communication expertise of the 458; it finds ways to talk to you and let you know what's happening constantly.
When the rear tyres do break loose — and this is unlikely to happen unless you pump the gas violently, or lift off abruptly — the light steering requires the faintest dab of oppo. It's a bit too light in fact, as you're tempted to countersteer too much and fishtail out of a slide. With these concrete barriers lining our route today, that would be some mighty expensive fish.
And there is a but… On the public road I prefer the instantaneous response and assurance provided by steel discs, and the 458 has gigantic carbon ceramic brakes behind its 20in wheels. These are great for track work, yet around town they require a hearty shove to get anything out of them. To be fair, if Ferrari had gone with steel, brake fade would become apparent on these steep downhill twists, and at that after only half an hour of play.
Even with the durability and extreme performance of the pre-loaded carbon ceramics (the brakes get ready to anchor you down as soon as the throttle pedal is lifted), the work required is more than enough to mentally drain anybody behind the wheel of a 458. The pace in this Berlinetta is relentless, and the concentration necessary is exhausting. You need a PhD to last a flat-out day in this car, and a fair amount of driving skill too if you dare to dial the Manettino further and further clockwise.
And another thing: under heavy braking the Italia has a tendency to snake quite heavily, especially if the braking zone is at a slight radius.
This makes me think that the brake bias favours the rear a bit too much, but trail-braking deep into corners will still pay dividends with the kind of speed you can carry into the tightest of bends. Anyway, supercars are meant to be wild and hair-raising moments like that in the 458 certainly add to the car's mischievous appeal.
This is space-age technology and primal, animalistic emotions intertwined. This is a snorting, bucking stallion and it's got Shell 5W-40 flowing through its veins. It's a cyborg; it's alive, but it's not.
I think I now get what Ayrton Senna was on about after his miracle lap at Monaco '88: "I suddenly realised I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was kind of driving it by instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel, not only the tunnel under the hotel, but the whole circuit... was a tunnel. I was just going, going… more, and more, and more, and more. I was way over the limit, but still able to find even more."
Now that's humanity, that's heart. That's the 458 Italia. Somehow, Ferrari's software engineers have discovered the electronic code for soul.
Specs & ratings
By Dejan Jovanovic, wheels