10

Ferrari's last-word 458 brings unparalleled poise and purpose

Find Used Ferrari 458 Speciale 2013-2015 review deals
Offers from our trusted partners on this car and its predecessors...
Used car deals
From £104,995
Sell your car
In partnership with
Powered by

The mid-engined Ferrari supercar has reached a turning point, it strikes us – and there may never be a better one for purist thrill-seekers than the one you see here.

The 458 Italia, now four years old, represented a bold rearrangement of Ferrari’s whole model philosophy when it was launched.

There's a genuine family feel to the Speciale. Drive a 360CS, a 430 Scuderia and this, and you can tell they're all cut from the same cloth

The arrival of the California meant that the mid-engined V8 model would no longer have to be the affordable, entry-level Ferrari. In more ways than one, it could move up in the world.

If the Ferrari 458’s dynamic brilliance had to be attributed to any one factor – and it remains an outstanding, class-leading supercar in our eyes – that’d be it.

Next year comes a ‘458M’, for want of the official name: a mid-life refresh that’ll bring with it a new turbocharged engine.

We’ve recorded what turbos have done to BMW M cars, AMG Mercs, Porsche 911s and more in this modern performance car era – and seldom do we universally approve.

Which is why right now may be a definitive moment in the development of the mid-engined Ferrari concept: a zenith in some ways, perhaps.

The car to mark it could hardly be more aptly named or purposefully constructed.

Advertisement
Back to top

DESIGN & STYLING

Ferrari badging

Ferrari’s current lineage of special-series mid-engined V8s began in the early 1990s. Starting in 1992, Ferrari made just over 100 examples of the 348 Speciale, which had more power, shorter gearing, a wider rear track and stickier tyres.

In 1999, Ferrari produced the limited-run F355 Fiorano and followed it in 2003 with the 360 Challenge Stradale. The 430 Scuderia was the Speciale’s immediate forebear, unveiled in 2007 and made into a drop-top Spider 16M the year after.

The engine is on display beneath a lightweight Lexan cover – the sort you probably shouldn't lean on heavily

In simplistic terms, the road to the Speciale can be summed up in four words: more power, less weight.

There are other, more detailed changes, too, obviously, but those are the cornerstones around which everything else is shaped.

Power first, then. The normally aspirated, flat-plane crank V8 retains its 4497cc swept capacity but receives new cam geometry with higher valve lift, shorter inlet manifolds and different pistons providing a higher compression ratio.

Internal friction has been reduced, too, through the use of uprated materials and the upshot is 597bhp (up from 562bhp) generated at the engine’s 9000rpm limit. Torque is the same, at 398lb ft, still delivered at 6000rpm.

The engine is mated to a seven-speed, dual-clutch gearbox whose upshifts, we were told at the launch of such gearboxes, are all but instant. That’s still true, but Ferrari has improved the response time to a pull on the lever and made the engine rev-match more quickly on downshifts to reduce the time that those take.

The engine’s changes shave 8kg from the car’s overall weight – the exhaust is all aluminium and the intake is carbonfibre. Those 8kg form part of a claimed 90kg total saving that was replicated to the kilo on our scales: at 1395kg now, versus 1485kg for a 458 Italia when we tested it four years ago.

Of this 90kg, 12kg is contributed by lighter, forged wheels, 13kg comes from bodywork and window changes (lighter glass all round and Lexan for the engine cover), and 20kg comes from the cabin, which we’ll come to in a moment. 

There are two flaps on the Speciale’s front valance, one either side of the prancing horse badge in its centre. Below 106mph these flaps remain closed, which diverts air towards the radiators. Above that speed, the radiators get quite enough cool air, thanks very much, so the flaps open, which reduces drag.

Then, above 137mph, they move again, lowering to shift downforce to the rear of the car, in turn adjusting the balance 20 per cent rearward in order to promote high-speed cornering stability.

At the rear, meanwhile, there is a new diffuser (the exhausts have been rerouted to make the most of its central section). Movable flaps in the diffuser adjust, but this time they are dependent not only on speed but also on steering angle and throttle or brake position.

When lowered, the flaps stall the path of air into the diffuser and improve the Cd by 0.03. When raised, the diffuser adds downforce as it should.

Bodywork changes, though, also bring some aerodynamic improvements, you’ll not be surprised to hear, with lessons applied from the LaFerrari and FXX programmes. In the front valance and under the rear diffuser, there are flaps that open at speed to reduce drag and improve downforce.

Finally, there are new Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres in a unique compound – rather a sticky one, we suspect – plus new calibration for the adaptive dampers. The carbon-ceramic brake discs also use a new compound.

INTERIOR

Ferrari 458 Speciale interior

Our test car didn’t do justice to the sparseness of the Speciale in standard form, on account of £1700 worth of optional Alcantara upholstery fitted.

So, take a long hard look at the pared-down cabin pictured here, and then imagine bare aluminium where the soft-touch cloth is on the wheelarch sections and around the centre console.

The Speciale swaps the Italia's glovebox for a kneepad

This is one of the most uncompromising cockpits that you’re ever likely to come across in an Italian exotic – and that’s exactly how it should be. There are open-topped lightweight sports cars and dedicated sprint machines more opulently appointed than this.

The seat shells and interior door panels are carbonfibre, and there are some wonderful examples of fresh detail design in the new interior door handles and the blade-like console of buttons for the transmission and launch control.

Ferrari’s purpose-driven redesign even takes in the seat fabric, which is lighter and more breathable than on a standard Italia.

You don’t get a glovebox in a 458 Speciale – in its place is a kneepad for your terrified passenger. The car’s peripheral control consoles to the right and left of the steering wheel have been cut down, because they could be: there’s no sat-nav or in-car entertainment, unless you pay to have them put back in.

Obviously, there’s no Bluetooth as standard, either, although you do get air-conditioned climate control.

What matters is that the driving position is excellent and the seats are comfy and quite wide but supportive, too. The steering wheel is as button-littered as ever, and the indicator, wiper and headlight controls are sited unintuitively – but your fingers and thumbs acclimatise before too long.

For just under £6000, you can fit your Speciale with a factory Ferrari Telemetry set-up, which is fully integrated with the car’s multimedia system. Our test car didn’t have it, so we can’t tell you how well it works. But we can tell you what it does.

Working through the satellite navigation system, the telemetry set-up will learn whichever circuit you’re driving on and, after a set of complete laps, can supply you with lap times, corner speeds, braking, acceleration and gearshift points onboard.

A virtual engineer function is alleged to analyse sector performance and “assist drivers in improving their track experience”. The data can also be exported to an iPad or laptop for more detailed analysis via a dedicated Ferrari Telemetry app.

Other track-day-suitable cost options you might complement your Speciale with include four-point harnesses (£2112), a roll bar (£2208) and exterior cameras for relaying and recording live video (£3360).

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

The 597bhp Ferrari 458 Speciale

A tenth of a second to 60mph. Two-tenths to 100mph. Two-tenths over a standing quarter mile. Less than a second to 150mph.

These are the differences between the Speciale and a standard 458 Italia on bald acceleration. On their own, they seem too little to justify Ferrari’s effort – not to mention what upgrading to a Speciale from a 458 could cost a typical Ferrari owner.

Peak power is produced at a lofty 9000rpm; peak torque is hit at 6000rpm

True enough, the Speciale isn’t the most explosive sprinter you could spend £200k on, but it doesn’t matter in the slightest: it’s close enough. The Speciale is quicker than a Porsche 911 Turbo S from 80mph upwards, without resorting to forced induction.

And because this is an atmospheric engine – nothing less than the most energy-dense naturally aspirated engine in any road-legal car in the world, according to Ferrari – the quantity of the power that it makes is exceeded in staggering brilliance only by the astonishing way in which it makes it.

You’d be made to wear ear defenders if your day job exposed you to the sabre-sharp scream of this car’s V8 above 8000rpm. You’d also need a quiet room in which to lie down.

Below 4000rpm, there’s relatively little urgency to the way that the car picks up speed. But above 6500rpm, the intermingling of gathering pace and noise is automotive drama at its most vivid. It’s spine-tinglingly exciting – and that, to us, is job number one for a car such as this.

It’s sublimely involving, too, on account of the Speciale’s other-worldly throttle response, which could rival that of an electric sports car. Gearshift times have been improved by as much as 44 per cent, according to Ferrari.

In Race mode, they’re as quick as in any paddle-operated gearbox save a proper pnuematic sequential competition transmission.

The upshot is that the Speciale’s powertrain does precisely what you want it to do precisely when you want it, in precise and instant proportion to the magnitude of your input.

When you’re not absolutely ‘on it’, that kind of responsiveness can seem overbearing, but the car is not too highly strung to bumble along gently and smoothly enough at low revs if you want, either. Gently, smoothly – but never quietly.

RIDE & HANDLING

Ferrari 458 Speciale cornering

When we drove the 430 Scuderia in 2007, Ferrari had things very much its own way. There was the Lamborghini Gallardo, of course – and equally loud and intoxicating it was, too – but with four-wheel drive and a V10 engine, it couldn’t match the 430’s responses.

Today, however, things are different, because in addition to the Lamborghini Huracán – in its first iteration and which we’ve not yet driven in this country – there is the small matter of McLaren and its 650S.

Side Slip Control allows you to make long, tidy, controlled powerslides and feel like the credit's all yours. Smart

The 650S is a series-production car rather than a limited-run special, but when it comes to road driving, the Ferrari 458 Speciale gets a run for its money. It steers with the lightness and directness that we’ve come to expect from one of Maranello’s cars – too much quickness, in fact, for some of our testers.

And while the adaptive dampers have two modes – a normal setting and a firmer one as you move through to the manettino’s angrier settings – neither is as compliant as the one in the 650S. Does that matter? Between race tracks, it might.

That’s not to say that the Speciale is harsh. (At least, not in its ride. In its cabin refinement, it’s little more dignified than a Radical RXC. At 70mph, there is 78dB of background hum. Flat out in third, there is a deafening 95dB.) But when it comes to both ride isolation and body control, in its softer mode the Speciale gives a touch away to the McLaren.

But you might presume that there would be a pay-off for the harshness and the lightness, and it appears as soon as the right road – or, better still, the appropriate race track or handling circuit – appears.

Here the Speciale has all of the terrific traits that the 458 Italia shows, but amplified by what feels like about two-thirds. It is supremely well balanced and, furthermore, more keenly adjustable than any rival, and its brakes are unburstable.

It’s aggressively quick in the way that it changes direction at and beyond the limit, but it manages to be more faithful than a 458 Italia while doing so. One of the terrific things about a 458 Italia is that it lets drivers indulge themselves near the limit. The Speciale does the same, and more. Braking performance is superb in the dry and turn-in is sharp.

If you turn in off the brakes, there can be a slight touch of understeer, but because the mechanical limited-slip differential’s degree of lock-up is electronically controlled, it’s not a ‘pushy’ car. Instead, it is an extremely sharp one, with quick, light steering.

Mid-corner is where things become terrific. In Race or TC (traction control off) modes, Ferrari’s Side Slip Control system takes control of the limited-slip diff’s operation, supplying enough lock to push the car sideways.

Too much slip and it eases off, spinning an inside wheel instead. Too little slip and it locks to increase the heroics.

Turn off the stability control and the Speciale is quick to push into oversteer but faithful once it lets go. Intoxicatingly so, in fact. Lightweight track specials or a Porsche 911 GT3 aside, there’s nothing else quite like it.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Ferrari 458 Speciale

With options as fitted to our test car, the Speciale is a £250,000 machine. And it returns 6.2mpg on a test track.

We suspect that neither will matter one iota. But if it makes you feel better, 430 Scuderias hold their value well and it’s possible to warrant some parts of a Ferrari for up to 12 years.

It'd be useful to be able to specify Bluetooth without a stereo, just for basic phone or music functionality

You can't go far wrong when it comes to specifying your 458 Speciale, but be careful with the options.

They get very expensive and you might not see back the premium if you opt for a lot of them.

A seven-year servicing package, four-year, unlimited mileage warranty and one-year tracker package are standard.

VERDICT

5 star Ferrari 458 Speciale

The Ferrari 458 Speciale is a car with which we could pick fault. It’s little more civilised than an Ariel Atom or Radical.

It’s an imposing drive; at times, a bit too direct and responsive. It’s a relatively easy target for cheaper performance cars on straight-line punch. But frankly, so what? The Speciale wins you over because it’s such a pure, uncorrupted driver’s car.

A spine-tingler. Worthy of five stars even if we mildly prefer Porsche's 911 GT3

Like all great performance cars, it feels over-provisioned for sheer grip and agility, communicates effusively and challenges you to get on its level or find the limit of your own in the process. It’s sensational in its handling and extravagant in its commitment to the pursuit of speed and thrill.

A Porsche 911 GT3 is almost as incredible to drive, more habitable and half the price. Track-biased cars with roofs don't get better.

But in so many ways, the 458 Speciale is simply unequalled – and we wonder if Maranello will turn out anything quite like it ever again.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Ferrari 458 Speciale 2013-2015 First drives