“You need to find the nearest biosphere.”
Odd, but appropriate advice from a colleague of mine when I told him that I was waiting for delivery of a 2011 Ferrari 458 Italia -- right in the middle of a stretch of rainy, 40-degree December weather. Not exactly the ideal conditions for evaluating a $230,275 supercar capable of reaching speeds in excess of 200 mph. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any domed cities located anywhere near Manhattan, so I did the next best thing and took it to a racetrack.
The way I saw it, despite the warm-weather Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires that the car was wearing, the slippery conditions would highlight the dynamics of Ferrari’s latest mid-engine V8 at much lower speeds than my meager driving abilities would have to contend with under ideal conditions. It was as good of a justification as I could come up with on short notice, plus, no cops.
Ostensibly, the Italia replaces the F430 in Ferrari’s lineup, but saying so is giving it the short shrift. The mid-engine V8 coupe is built on an all-new aluminum chassis wrapped in some of the most beautiful bodywork ever crafted from that same material. Styling elements can be traced to a number of previous prancing horses, but none have ever exhibited the graceful, complex curves that this one does.
Every element is as functional as it is form-fitting. The rear quarters alone could inspire poetry. The overall impression is that the Italia was sculpted by the team at Pininfarina -- Ferrari’s longtime design house of choice -- as they were standing in a wind tunnel eating whipped cream. The first time I saw it in photos it took my breath away. Seeing it in person, my entire body froze.
Lucky for me the Italia comes with an onboard resuscitator in the form of a 562 hp 4.5-liter V8. Featuring direct fuel injection and greatly reduced internal friction compared to the motor in the F430 that it was derived from, it has the highest power to displacement ratio of any normally-aspirated, production eight-cylinder engine…ever, and can more or less make the same claim for its 398 lb-ft of torque. An ethereal 9,000 rpm redline makes the former possible.
Still resisting the siren song of all-wheel-drive that so many sports car builders have succumbed to in recent years, as with all Ferraris, the Italia sends its power to the rear wheels only. Here it does so through a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox so smooth in its operation that you can play it like an accordion using the paddles mounted behind the steering wheel. (Don’t embarrass yourself at the dealer asking about a traditional stick, from here on out new Ferrari models don’t come with one.)
Those paddles are made easy to operate by the elimination of any other stalks mounted on the column. Instead, controls for everything from the bright headlights to the wipers have been moved to the front of the steering wheel, and the turn signal switch has been reimagined as a pair of spoke-mounted thumb buttons.
Cruise control? Che cos'è? (Translation: “what is that?”).
The rest of the interior is a mix of Italian elegance and technology that finally reboots the look of the Ferrari cabin for the 21st century. The driver’s surround is an asymmetrical collection of pods encompassing air vents and knobs that wraps around an instrument cluster comprised of two thin-film transistor monitors and an analog tachometer positioned at dead center. The screen on the right handles speedometer, navigation and audio displays, while the one on the left is for the car’s advanced on-board computer system.
Fooling around with the online configurator for the Italia is almost as much fun as driving it. The materials for nearly every surface in the cabin can be individually chosen from a selection of leathers, alcantara and carbon fiber, if you don’t mind waiting a couple of years to have yours delivered. Sometimes, settling for one off of the lot is a good idea.
Negatives? If you want me to be a spoil sport, the pedals are offset too close to the center of the car for my taste, but, since this hearkens back to Ferraris of old, it's more of a tradition -- like expensive service visits. I could live without both. I also found the radio reception to be so poor that you'd probably have to pull up next to a broadcast tower just to enjoy static, which makes using the gas pedal all the more important. A trunk that’s 50 percent larger than the one in the Mazda MX-5 Miata doesn’t exactly make up for any of this, but is a surprising thing to find between the headlights.
Snuggle into the bucket seat -- you have a selection of four to choose from and the carbon fiber racing buckets come in small, medium or large -- turn the key (yes!) and hit the big red “Engine Start” button on the steering wheel to both channel the spirit of Ferrari V8s past and put them all to shame.
At this point, the Italia fully proves its worth. The staccato bark of the flat-plane crank engine blasting out of its triple exhaust pipes then settling into a skippy idle that begs to play pit lane. Pull the right paddle for first gear -- or drive if the transmission is in automatic mode – and you’re off with little drama. Like any modern, sophisticated supercar there’s really nothing shocking about driving the Italia at moderate speeds. Flat foot the throttle, however, and the mood changes quickly.
I drove a Formula One car recently. Granted, it was an old one, but I’m not exactly in a position to complain. One of the things I took away from the experience was the lack of violent, kick-you-in-the-pants acceleration when you slam on the throttle, despite the car’s ability to take off like you drove it out of an airplane and into a wormhole. It just gathered speed and scooped me along with it, and the Italia feels very much the same.
The engine never falters as it races toward its lofty redline, which seems so far out of reach until you make it there for the first time: 7,000, 8,000, 8,500 rpm; as you pass each level you find yourself on a new plane of automotive existence until achieving the nirvana of bathing in its hypnotic harmony for an ever so brief moment before shifting up and doing it again.
Inevitably a turn will present itself to ruin the fun, but it doesn’t. The standard, carbon ceramic brakes provide a thrill ride of their own. Fade-free, and with a pedal that’s as responsive as your calf muscles, they will stop the car straight and true even in the slippery stuff, the transmission banging down through the gears to add a bit of engine braking to the mix.
Crank the wheel hard at this point and you’ll reverse the Italia’s ends. Only a twitch of the wrist is necessary to navigate most turns. The steering is that responsive. So is the little red knob on the front of the wheel.
Called the mannetino, it controls the Italia’s magnetorheological suspension and stability and traction control systems, which are the direct result of hundreds of millions of dollars spent in Formula One racing. There are settings for Normal, Sport, Race, Kind of Off and Completely Off that coordinate all of these systems with an electronic differential that constantly distributes torque between the rear wheels.
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Race is the eye-opener of the bunch, and allows the tires to slip and the rear to rotate just enough to put you in the perfect position to get the power to the pavement and rocket down the following straight to the next corner to do it again. In the slow-motion atmosphere of a drenched track, it lets you dance the car through the curves like it wrote “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” never clamping down hard when you get too close to the line, just seamlessly making things right before you go over it. Even Ferrari’s test drivers say they can drive the car faster with it on, than off, and there is no higher praise from the ultra A-type people who do this sort of thing for a living.
The Italia’s body actively works to help you go faster, too. Those big gaping holes on either side of the headlights allow air to travel through the car, reducing lift on the front end and keeping the tires planted to the road. Go faster and the whisker-like spoilers in the nose flex downward to deflect the atmosphere underneath the car, along its smooth underbelly and through the planks of the rear diffuser, simultaneously lowering drag and increasing downforce. A process so effective it was banned in Formula One racing.
A few laps like this and you’ll want to take note of that screen on the left, which can be set to track the temperature of the tires, engine and suspension, and lets you know when it's time to stop and cool down. When you finally give in, or run low on gas and need to go for a fill up, simply switch to Normal mode and head out. Those magnetic dampers can handle even the most torn up road surfaces, making the trip home nearly as enjoyable as your time on the track.
Here’s hoping the weather will be better next time.
2011 Ferrari 458 Italia
Base Price: $230,275
Type: 2-passenger, rear-wheel-drive, 2-door coupe
Engine: 4.5L V8
Power: 562 hp, 398 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
MPG: 12 mpg city/18 hwy
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.