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Bang on target! - First drive: Ferrari 458 Italia

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The Ferrari 458 Italia: does it live up to the hype? In a word, yes...

A new Ferrari. Not only that, it's the latest in the line of mid-engined V8s which means it will be a Ferrari of the compact, potentially usable and conceivably affordable sort (although certainly not by me). So it's red, very fast, very loud at times, very Italian.
 
There's an argument for saying that such a car's arrival will automatically be greeted with rapture by those in tune with its being, so an objective report is superfluous. But would you want to read seven hundred words of eulogy, of  the latest in aural metaphors, of reverential-yet-knowing superlatives? Of course you wouldn't.
 
Besides, no Ferrari is perfect. Were it so, it would instantly be less lovable. It would be like a Honda NSX in surround sound. Be in no doubt, though, that today's Ferrari company creates the imperfections very diligently, unlike Ferrari of the past whose cars' imperfections arose through a lack of, well, perfecting. Never has Latin passion, brio, cuore sportivo been less spontaneous. Ferrari knows very well what it is and what its buyers want.
 
Thus is the scene set for the new Ferrari 458 Italia. This is no reskin of the already pretty terrific F430; rather it's an entirely new car, with just the bare casting of the V8 engine block bearing a resemblance to the predecessor. This now-4.5-liter engine has gained new, direct-injection cylinder heads, the higher compression ratio that this makes possible and the ability to rev to 9000rpm, at which speed the power peaks with 570bhp if the Ferrari is flying along the road with air rammed into its intakes, 565bhp if there's a test-bed involved.
 
The aluminum structure has its sheet metal, its extrusions and its castings bonded now as well as welded and riveted, the aluminum panels are as little as 1mm thick in the case of the bonnet. Don't let anyone sit on it, however attractive. Next, the gearbox, now built by Getrag instead of Graziano and containing double clutches and seven forward gears. There's no conventional manual alternative any more. The rear suspension has an extra link to control toe-in, rendering calmer and more predictable the responses now intensified by steering 30 per cent quicker in ratio than the F430's. A slight lengthening of the wheelbase also helps, although overall the 458 and F430 are close on size.
 
So far, so fine. But for a Ferrari really to trigger the juices of lust, it must look wonderful. This is a quality which has eluded the newish California, and neither is the 599 a visual masterpiece, but the 458 is a stunning-looking machine. Every line is aerodynamically functional, every aperture serves a purpose. There are no ugly add-on spoilers yet the shape generates a third of a ton of downforce at full chat.
 
Inside, too, all is clean and tidy. The most-used switches are all built into the steering wheel, including the indicators which poses a problem when you're signaling to exit a tight roundabout (meet Imperfection No1). Solid aluminum pods either side of the wheel house controls for the TFT screen displays that flank the tachometer: on the right, a 'photographic' speedo, or a sat-nav screen, or audio displays; on the left, minor gauges, or car settings, or an indication as to whether engine, brakes and tires are too cold, too hot or just right if you're about to indulge in some track action.
 
For me, first, it's the road. It starts with a trickle through the streets of Maranello, in which the new gearbox proves several hundred per cent better than the old F1-shift unit should you be lazy enough to use the automatic mode. No more pauses and surges, it just works.
 
But that is not what a Ferrari is for. In the hills now, and manual mode elicits shifts as quick as you like, even in the gentle-ish Sport setting selected via the steering wheel's manettino. Far from an accelerative pause during upshifts, the 458 actually experiences a momentary accelerative push thanks to the effect of the flywheel's inertia as the higher gear pulls the revs down.
 
And it sounds utterly fantastic, the low-revs induction snort overwhelmed by the opening of by-pass valves as speed and load rises. Now the gases blast through the two outer tailpipes as well as the central one and a searing howl, like that of a historic Formula One grid, echoes across the valleys.
 
Yet there's a lot of low-end torque here too, making the 458 ludicrously easy to drive quickly. Adaptive magnetorheological dampers allow a remarkably absorbent ride in their softer setting, allowing you to get the power down on a bumpy road and flick the 458 through bend after bend as you revel in the  most telepathic steering a Ferrari has had in years. Set the manettino to Race and the dampers firm up, but you can separately switch them back if the terrain so demands.
 
With its electronic torque-biasing differential and hyper-intelligent stability systems this is a forgiving, flattering car. But it's also a visceral one. Driven hard, using the power, it changes gear with a mechanical definition – almost a thump, sometimes – because Ferrari has deliberately roughed-up the shift quality to make it feel more physical: Imperfection No2, but a slightly lovable one.
 
On the Fiorano test track, finally, the 458 demands Race mode to avoid too much reining-in of exuberance. Thus set, it flies round with just enough driftability to make you feel quite fantastic, shrieking and popping through each gearshift. Switch the traction control off and powerslides are yours, but now the E-Diff is working harder to help you. I could have switched all the electronics off, but I might then have crashed.
 
One more imperfection. The bonnet's safety catch trigger is a bizarrely floppy piece of orange rubber, for no obvious reason. There. Objectivity delivered. A eulogy too, it seems.

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