It’s morning. Everything is perfect. The sun has crested. It’s pleasantly warm, and I’ve just climbed behind the wheel of a Ferrari. Could it possibly get any better? Yes, when said Ferrari is a 458 Spider with miles of Italian mountain roads and open highways ahead of me.
This, the fifth generation of topless mid-engine Ferraris has taken an evolutionary leap forward by ditching its conventional soft top in favor of a retractable hardtop. No small feat considering the assembly completely tucks away behind the seats. In fact, it’s the first-ever top of this kind for a mid-engine car. Something Ferrari engineers have been laboring over for several years. Short of keeping the folding soft top, the company looked at several options including the Superamerica’s single rotating roof; a stacked, multi-panel lid and even a Targa top. They finally arrived with an ideal configuration, and it doesn’t compromise the 458’s slippery aerodynamics with the top down. A two-piece roof with a small, vertical rear section behind the seats, followed by the main section, which lies upside down horizontally, and hidden by a rear-hinged tonneau cover. Part origami artist and part contortionist, it all folds into an incredibly small space. Equally impressive is that the complete unit is 55 pounds lighter than the soft top. The whole transformation from coupe to spider takes just 14 seconds.
The roof integrates seamlessly with the car’s Pininfarina-penned lines thanks to the two large buttresses, an iconic styling cue of past models such as the Targa-style GTS versions of the 308 and 328, and even more reminiscent of the Dino GTS. As a result, the Spider possesses a sort of heritage-correct look I really admire. Along with stiffer sills, the covered pillars also increase structural rigidity, in addition to providing ample rollover protection. No need for heavy rollover pop-ups. The only drawback? Since the roof assembly covers nearly 70 percent of the engine compartment you can no longer gaze at the 4.5-liter V8 and its Rosso red cam covers. It’s a trade-off I’ll accept. Just knowing it’s there is good enough.
I’ve always thought of retractable hardtops as being less charming, lacking that certain ingredient of character inherent with the classy appearance of a fabric top. My feelings have changed. Top up or down, the 458 is incredibly striking, and there’s certainly no loss of charm or character.
Truth be told, the Spider looks even better than the hardtop 458, itself one of the most beautiful cars on the road. It’s also the most thrilling, offering a visceral driving experience unlike any car I’ve ever driven. For open-air sensory-overload excitement, it simply doesn’t get any better.
Running across the Apennines via the amazing S 62 (same road where in 1919 Enzo Ferrari competed in his very first road race), the Spider entered each turn with the sure-footed finesse and agility of a cat, and exited with the raw ferocity of a lion, and doing so without worrying about ending up backwards in a ditch, or worse. With the steering-wheel-mounted manettino set in Sport or even Race mode, the combination of the electronically controlled E-diff 3 and the F1-trac traction control teases you to push its limits, as if saying “Come on. Is that all you got?” It’s a feeling that inspires confidence, allowing you to take outrageous liberties with respect to speed, braking and cornering, and while maintaining an exquisite composure. Switch the manettino to CT Off or ESC Off, the Spider’s most extreme settings, and all bets are off. Here, you need to tread a bit more cautiously or at least be a lot more certain of the car’s limits as well as your own. On the flip side, the Spider can provide a very supple ride when placed in the least aggressive driver settings, even on the most demanding or imperfect roads. Ideal for just running around town or after a long day in the twisties.
The only thing better than driving a 458 is the sound of a 458 while driving with its roof down. Making quick work of its brilliant seven-speed dual-clutch F1 gearbox is like playing a finely tuned instrument, which I love since it’s really the only instrument I can play. Upshifts are simply angelic, a heavenly, harmonious sound that simply cannot be replicated. Incidentally, I believe the car is fitted with a radio, probably a very nice one. Just can’t say for sure.
Apart from relocating the engine intakes and exhaust pipes, now positioned at the bumper, the Spider features the identical insanely high-revving 4.5-liter V8 as the hardtop, so specs remain the same with an impressive 562 hp and 398 lb-ft of torque, 80 percent of which is available at just over 3000 rpm. As we’ve reported with the Italia, the engine is nothing short of a masterpiece, so much so an international jury of 76 automotive journalists from 36 countries bestowed it with the award for Best Performance Engine. Did we mention the Italia also won World Performance Car of the Year?
Thanks to the sturdier design of its all-aluminum chassis, the Spider is 10 percent more rigid than the outgoing model, further bridging the performance gap to the coupe. While still 30 percent less stiff than the Italia with purposely softer dampers (just by a touch), the Spider shows little sign of compromise. The steering is just as sharp and the suspension equally poised. The throttle mapping is also a tad gentler for what Ferrari says is more aligned with what the typical Spider owner prefers.
With all the beefing up of the chassis, the Spider is surprisingly only 110 pounds heavier than the coupe, which means there’s very little performance difference. Though we think it can do better, Ferrari says the Spider can sprint from 0-62 in just 3.4 seconds, identical to the coupe. And given the streamline aerodynamics with the top up, maximum speed is just 4 mph slower at just under the 200 mark. So close in fact, lapping Fiorano is just a half second behind the Italia. Unless you’re Fernando Alonso, most will never feel the difference.
Overall, the Spider features an ideal balance of performance, style and ridiculous capability. In addition to applauding its asphalt-ripping acceleration, unbelievable handling and eye-socket-popping brakes (whose carbon ceramics never seemed to fade throughout the 300-plus-mile-drive), I have to give props to Ferrari for the comfort within the tailored cabin. Not once did I feel the need to get out and stretch my overly tall frame. Surprising for most rocket sleds. Somehow engineers figured out how to scare up another inch of legroom. Thank you. Plus, in addition to ample storage up front, the efficient packaging of the roof leaves room behind the seats for a luggage shelf suitable for a Ferrari-badged golf bag. Incidentally, Ferrari offers optional 458 Spider signature luggage for up front too. While we spent most of the drive enjoying the open-air experience, we did close up for a highway stretch providing a comfortably quiet, squeak-free environment. Should you miss the music from out back one needs only to press a button to adjust the small rear window, which also serves as a wind deflector with the top down.
The Spider is really a car with two distinct personalities. Unlike the 430 Spider, the new car can role-play when it wants to, as an incredibly sporting coupe or sexy roadster. Historically, the Spider outsells the coupe (3:2 in the U.S.), and I suspect the 458 Spider will push those percentages even higher, attracting the attention of even the most steadfastly loyal coupe owners. You’ve got ’til February to make up your mind.
2012 Ferrari 458 Spider
Longitudinal mid-rear-mounted engine, rear-wheel drive
4.5-liter, V8, dohc, 32-valve
Seven-speed F1 dual-clutch automated manual
Double wishbone, coil springs, driver-adjustable adaptive dampers, multi-link rear
Vented carbon-ceramic discs, ABS
Length/Width/Height (in.): 178.2/76.3/47.7
Curb Weight: 3,152 lb.
MSRP: $157,000 (est.)
Peak Power: 562 hp @ 9000 rpm
Peak Torque: 398 lb-ft @ 3000 rpm
0-62 mph: 3.4 sec.
Top Speed: 199 mph