latest automotive news, best new and used cars, find a new car 2522a_4581-550x309 Supercars To Go, Second Place: Ferrari 458 Italia Ferrari

It costs $233,509, and it’s genuinely worth the money. That’s the first thing I want you to know about the Ferrari 458 Italia. The second thing is that, once again, I’m driving the wrong 458 for the job.

Ferrari supplied RoadTrack with the 458 Speciale for Performance Car Of The Year. This no-radio, flat-carbon-fiber-interior-door-panels, bloody-ear-exhaust variant was an absolute revelation around a track or down a fast two-lane. Yet nobody wanted to actually drive it on the freeway until I showed up and volunteered to do it. I promptly used it in an attempt to pick up a Cobalt-SS-Supercharged-driving nineteen-year-old girl with a Boogie Nights star tattoo visible under the hem of her too-short shorts. Yes, there’s a picture of the interaction, but no, I don’t think TTAC’s management will let me put it up.

The Speciale was a force of nature, an Italian combination of a 308GTB and the first side of Ritual De Lo Habitual. To wring one all the way to fifth gear on a rural road was to become utterly absorbed in the violent noise and scenery-blurring power the 458 Speciale could summon at a fraction of a second’s notice. Yet it was too focused to win the hearts of my fellow road test editors, and my heart had already been lost to the Dodge Viper TA 2.0. (Which brings the Viper-mention ratio in these articles to: three of five. More than once it was suggested that a standard 458 Italia would have fared better in the voting, and I agree with that sentiment even more now than I did at the time.

Fast-forward to late November in Oklahoma, and I’m thinking that the opposite situation has occurred. On Toly Artunoff’s personal playground, on this fast and loose vintage SCCA course, the Speciale would be simply untouchable. Instead, we have the standard 458 Italia, which is less so.

Not that the Italia doesn’t have plenty of the right stuff. It weighs about as much as a Chevrolet Cruze LT but makes 570 horsepower from a direct-injected 4.5L V8. Remember the original Honda S2000 and its claims to displacement-per-liter supremacy? L, as the kids say, OL. It has a dual-clutch transmission that appears to possess no imperfections whatsoever. You cannot confuse or befuddle it no matter what you do, no matter which mode you pick. Want to run it at nine-tenths around the track in “Race” full-auto mode? It will impersonate a Williams Formula One CVT with its hyper-vigilant supply of power to the rear wheels, wobbling the needle ever-so-slightly from well past the “8” mark down to between the six and seven again and again, magically turning this powerful but peaky gasoline engine into a Saturn V booster stage.

In driving rain, with a terrified fifty-year-old woman pedaling the brake and accelerator like a mad church organist? It will flawlessly keep the motor out of peak torque or power, anticipating each herky-jerky shove of a pedal with a shift so prescient a Guild Navigator can’t actually see the Ferrari on-track. (I am so sorry for that.) Never has a rear-wheel-drive sports car been this safe and usable in wet conditions.

Yes, the manettino might have started off as a hideously tacky attempt to tie the perfected F1 cars of the Schumacher era to the decidedly imperfect road cars, but now it works so well that I could tell, with my eyes closed, which mode the 458 was in within seconds of pulling out onto the track. Even the most committed driver really only needs to turn it to “Race”, unless you need to trade the potential of a half-second gain in lap time for the near-certainty of a corrected mistake somewhere in that lap.

You can shift the 458 yourself using the column-mounted paddles, and I occasionally did, but you’d be just as fast letting the car make your decisions for you. It’s never wrong. The idea that a transmission this brilliant is standard equipment in a Ferrari makes me chuckle, because I remember what Ferraris used to be like. Even the 430 comes off like an old Dino compared to this.

Did I mention how spacious it is? Well, it is — six-foot-five drivers can wear a helmet without difficulty. It has as much room as the Audi R8. The seating position feels like it’s on top of the front axle, making the car itself effectively tiny, like a Bugeye Sprite with an extra foot of space between the seats. All drivers of all sizes seem able to fit comfortably. With the power adjustment of the Italia (but not the Speciale) it’s possible for a 4’11” woman to drive the car quickly and confidently. There’s nothing “intuitive” about the controls because they’re very different from what you get in a Lexus ES350 or a Ford Fiesta but once you figure them out it’s no trouble to operate everything from the stereo to the climate control, which also works surprisingly well. After a few days in the car, I was completely Ferrari-competent. Moreover, if you think the steering-wheel-mounted turn signal switches, which work like those in a BMW motorcycle, are silly, wait until you drive a Huracan, which has the same turn-signal operation mechanism as my 1986 Kawasaki Ninja.

The same amount of difference in joy and tossability between the LP560-4 and LP550-2 Gallardos is repeated here, in the Ferrari’s favor. Never has a car this fast with this drivetrain configuration been this easy to drive. After three laps you’re tossing it around like a Miata that just happens to be doing 40-60mph more on every straight. The brakes are heroic. You can do stupid things with it like stomp the power in the middle of the corner and it rewards you with a brilliant slide instead of an unpredictable spin. It just keeps encouraging you to go faster and faster, the steering wheel’s thick rim seemingly connected directly to the road, the engine whooping its very un-American-sounding twin-four-cylinder aria between gears as if it had a KERS system on boost in place of a flywheel.

What else? Visibility is stellar to the front and acceptable to the back. The ABS seems to cycle faster than what you’d get in a Corvette. It has a starter button on the wheel, while the Gallardo has an old-school twist key. From what I’ve heard, they don’t break much, even under the rigors of supercar-rental life. It’s possible to trail-brake the thing out of shape but you really need to try and even then the front end can be used to catch it like a Viper (DING!) or Mustang.

It’s better than the Gallardo in every single way possible except, perhaps, looks. I can’t get used to the proportions or the snout of the thing. Is it too much to ask to return to the era of good-looking mid-engined Ferraris? Still, I’d rather be stretching out in the Ferrari’s fishbowl than cramping in the Lamborghini’s stylish cabin.

If you can afford one, buy it. If you can afford the Speciale, buy that one instead. This is a new high-water mark in mid-engined street cars. And yet… it’s not the winner, is it?

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