The Ferrari F430 cost £117,500 and had 483bhp - yet at launch it was Ferrari's entry-level machine

Looking at the sheer power, performance and complexity of the astonishing new Ferrari F430, you do wonder when, or indeed if, it will ever come to an end, this seemingly insatiable quest for bigger, better and barmier cars that we suffer from nowadays. As from next February the F430 will become Ferrari’s cheapest and least-well-endowed car. Yet at £117,500 and with 483bhp you could hardly call it an entry-level machine. It will, for example, out-accelerate and have more power than the once mighty F40 which, not much more than a decade ago, was famous for being Ferrari’s fastest-ever road car.

But maybe Ferrari needed to up its game, needed to react, if only to avoid being made to look, well, a bit like Eddie Jordan does in F1 nowadays. Think about it: at the moment we live in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it world in which our automobiles must become faster and better by the hour if they are to sustain our attention. And nowhere is the rate of progress more ferocious than in the arena of supercars.

Hence we now have a production Ford that will easily top 200mph (the GT), a range of Lamborghinis that has redefined the genre over recent years and countless rivals from Porsche, BMW and Mercedes (not to mention McLaren, Pagani or Bugatti), all of which have seriously ruffled Ferrari lately.

So perhaps it’s just pure logic that the all-new baby Ferrari is, in fact, a monster; a road-rocket of a supercar if ever there was one. Just how fast is it? How does three seconds quicker than a 360 Modena around Ferrari’s own short track at Fiorano grab you? Or three seconds faster from 0-125mph-0. Or, if you want the figures in their purest form: 0-60mph in 3.9sec, 0-100mph in under nine seconds, zero to one kilometre in 21.6sec and at least 196mph flat out.

Not that any such numbers can prepare you for what the F430 feels like when you let rip in it for the very first time. This is a car that will leave you breathless and giddy should you find the right piece of road on which to open the throttle wide and hold it there for more than 10 seconds; a car that’s so vivid in character you can’t help but be knocked sideways by it to begin with. Yet it’s also a car that is way, way better than its predecessor in every conceivable dynamic dimension. Given how highly the 360 Modena was regarded both by its owners and its critics, this is no small achievement.

According to its creators the F430 is at least 70 per cent new compared with the 360. It has a new engine, a new F1 gearbox, a new diff and a brand-new chassis. And although the styling is obviously reminiscent of the 360M’s, in reality it’s pretty much a ground-up design. Only the bonnet, doors and roof are carried over; the rest, even the door mirrors, is all new and largely the work of Pininfarina, overseen by Ferrari’s eminently likable design chief Frank Stephenson.

‘It’s scary to see the evolution of almost everything on earth today,’ says Jean Todt over lunch when talking about the first all-new Ferrari road car to have been launched under his leadership at Maranello. Grand prix team chief Todt took over the day-to-day running of all things Ferrari (including the road cars) when Luca di Montezemolo went to assume greater things within Italian industry earlier this year; and he was answering the inevitable ‘where will it all end’ question which cropped up a few times that day.

‘Look, in 1996 in F1 we had 600bhp from an engine that weighed 140kg,’ says Todt. ‘Now we have almost 900bhp from an engine that weighs about 90kg. Our road cars have developed at a similar level in the same period. Yet with modern driver aids this is okay because now everyone can use the performance.’ (So long as they have a spare 120 big ones with which to buy a supercar, Jean.)

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However, if they have, then the F430 really is quite some place in which to put that kind of money. We’ll come to the more intimate aspects of the way it drives in a while, but first let’s savour some of the car’s technical details.

Like its brand-new V8 engine. The F430 is a distant descendent of the 308 GT4 of the ’70s, but it would not be until the 1989 348tb that the engine was arranged in a north-south configuration, with the gearbox mounted end-on towards the centre of the car. This time there’s a new block of 4308cc (hence the name F430) and, as intimated, more power and torque than a 308 owner could ever have imagined possible.

Quite clearly Ferrari does not like the fact that its age-old rival up the road in Sant’Agata has produced a car with more muscle than the 360 Modena yet at a similar size and price. The result is that Ferrari decided the old block had had its day because it could not produce enough power reliably. In its place is a thunderous new 483bhp flat-crank version of the V8 that appears in the Maserati Coupé.

The relationship between the Maserati and Ferrari engines is distant to say the least and Ferrari now claims that the two units are, in fact, not related at all. Yet when Maserati introduced its new V8 some years ago we were told quite clearly that it would form the basis of the next Ferrari V8, so you can’t have it both ways folks. Fact is, they are produced on the same line and use the same basic cylinder block and share what Ferrari describes only as ‘industrial commonality’.

Either way it doesn’t matter about the origins or heritage of the F430’s new powerplant, because it’s a screamer of an engine whichever way you cut it. There might only be four valves per cylinder this time (as there are in the Maserati) instead of five (as there were in the 360) but it’ll still rev to 8600rpm (fractionally lower than the 360) while time producing way more torque – 343lb ft compared with 275lb ft of old.

The F430’s ultra-trick variable-valve-timing system is also lifted straight from the Enzo’s V12, and as ever there is dry-sump lubrication, a very high compression ratio (11.3:1) and an enormous electronic brain running the show in the form of not one but two Bosch Motronic ME7 ECUs. It also has a variable airflow plenum chamber. No wonder it has a whopping 21 per cent more power than the 360 – though still not quite enough to beat the Lamborghini Gallardo, which has 492bhp.

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Ferrari is understandably very proud of the fact that it was the first F1 team to introduce a paddle-shift gearbox some 15 years ago, and that pride – and know-how – clearly has a key influence on its road cars today. Worldwide, 80 per cent of all Ferraris sold have F1 gearboxes, though in the UK it’s nearer 50/50 at the moment. The British punter, it seems, is either old fashioned or knows something no one else does. In truth it’s a bit of both because, certainly as far as the 360 F1 was concerned, clutch durability was an issue, as was the shift action itself.

Not any more according to Ferrari. The new gearbox is now accessed via a smaller twin-plate clutch that’s said to be much more durable and ‘more comfortable’ in use. Shift time is down to 150 milliseconds in race configuration, and although the first five ratios are the same as the 360’s, sixth is longer and the final drive is shorter, meaning the F430 is considerably longer geared overall than its predecessor (mainly because the extra torque can pull the taller gears).

Race configuration? This is where it gets properly interesting in the world of the F430. On the bottom-right of the steering wheel is a rotating button with five settings – snow, slippy, sport, race and disengage – all of which tune straight into the heart of what is probably this car’s most trick feature: its E-diff. As with the F1 gearbox, this is another area in which the competition department has had a major influence on road-car design. Essentially the E-diff is an electronic differential which you can alter the settings of according to the driving conditions. Or you can turn it off completely (disengage), in which case it acts like a conventional limited-slip diff with a fairly tight setting. This is nothing new of course – you’ve been able to do similar things on Subaru Imprezas and Mitsubishi Evos for some while now – but the ease with which you can swap between the settings and the effect this has on the car’s behaviour really does need to be experienced to be believed. Ferrari claims the E-diff is far more than just a traction control device and, on this occasion, they’re being absolutely accurate with the facts.

Seeing as how the 360 pioneered the use of aluminium for its chassis it’s no surprise that the F430 continues the trend, though this time there are electronic ‘Skyhook’ dampers and lighter wishbones that are far more sophisticated than anything previously fitted to a V8 Ferrari.The bigger news chassis-wise concerns the brakes, however, which are steel as standard but carbon-ceramic if you’re prepared to part with, wait for it, a further nine grand plus VAT. The carbon discs aren’t that much more powerful than the steel versions on a specific stop, says Ferrari, but they do add 350 laps worth of track life to the car and, says Autocar, look gorgeous nestling behind the new 19in wheels.

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The power-steering system is also completely new, as is the aerodynamic package. The F430 is no cleaner through the air than its predecessor per se (it has the same 0.33 Cd figure), but thanks to the addition of four big diffusers at the rear, a new front spoiler, bigger air intakes at the sides and an entirely new underfloor section, in practice it’s said to have 50 per cent less lift than the 360.

Ferrari also claims the chassis is 20 per cent stiffer overall and can stand up to a thump of 40mph at the front and 50mph at the back without sustaining serious damage (the 360 began to fold at 34mph front and 30mph rear, as myself and our Mr Goodwin once discovered some years ago…). Inevitably, because of these increases in safety the kerbweight has gone up some 60kg to 1450kg, but the more important power-to-weight and torque-to-weight figures are still well up on those of the 360.

Unlike most other brand-new and as yet unsampled cars we come across, there is no one specific feature that strikes you when you clamber across the F430’s new quasi-racing seat and slide behind the wheel. Except, maybe, the smell: Ferraris always have a smell – a wondrous mix of leather and maybe a hint of ultra-expensive new carpet – and the F430’s is as strong as any of them.

And once ensconced you quickly begin to drink in the details: the obviously F1-derived steering wheel; the charismatic round eyeball vents, in this instance enveloped by swathes of carbonfibre which lend the cockpit a deliciously focused atmosphere; the enormous yellow rev counter smack in the centre of the dash; and the sheer support on offer from the winged seats. This car, you start to think, feels like a racing car inside. It’s an impression which the red starter button – marked ‘engine’ and situated on the bottom-left of the steering wheel – can only serve to bolster. Starter buttons are normally raspberried by this magazine. But not when they are on the steering wheel. Attached to a Ferrari F430.

You have to admire the theatre of the Italians, and of Ferrari especially. Otherwise you’d have no option but to cringe and run away once you discover what happens when, finally, you press the button and the engine fires. There is, whether you like it or not, an enormous burst of revs (as if departing anywhere in a bright red Ferrari F430 would ever fail to get you noticed), after which the V8 descends from its dramatic 3500rpm entrance to a slightly less noisy 1000rpm idle. Already, just from the way this car smells and feels when you twirl the wheel in the car park, you suspect that a new era in supercar achievement may be about to unfold right before your eyes.

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The PR man from Ferrari who has just handed me the keys waves goodbye through a gritted smile, mouthing the word ‘enjoy’ above all the engine noise. You have two hours with this car. Later, you will drive it for three laps around their beloved Fiorano track, and a little later again you may be allowed more miles on the road. Maybe. If there’s time. On the way out of the gate a man in an immaculate suit waves casually as we make our way outside, where people on the pavement also wave and point, only this time with a fair bit more enthusiasm.

Three thoughts immediately spring to mind as we rumble out of the town of Maranello, headed for hills on which they test these things to destruction day and night. One: how unbelievably smooth the ride is compared with the 360’s. Two: how much more refined and calm the gearchanges are on the F1 gearbox, especially in automatic mode. Three: that the pedals are, if anything, even more offset towards the centre of the car than I remember. Why can’t Ferrari get this right when people like MG (TF) and Honda (NSX) can?

It’s hard to describe the noise made by any true-blue supercar without resorting to a dreadful series of clichés, but the F430’s signature is without doubt one of the best of them all. It doesn’t possess quite the depth of sound of a Lamborghini Murciélago’s V12 perhaps, nor the purpose of a big-block American V8, but as 3000 revs become 4000, then five, six, seven and eight, the noise increases in both volume and quality. And, damn it, your adrenaline really does start to flow, no matter how corny that may sound on paper.

When we finally get out of Maranello and I engage the rev limiter in third for the first time photographer Papior and I just look at each other and laugh. ‘I feel dizzy but it’s kind of nice,’ says Papior. And I knew exactly what he meant.

At the same time you also notice not just the extra muscle from the exhaust but the significantly greater shove from the engine, particularly low down. To get a 360 to really go you had to stir it beyond 4000rpm and preferably keep it above 5000rpm for maximum results. The F430 has so much more guts below 4000rpm you don’t have to kiss the limiter in each gear to induce serious acceleration, although when you do the results are even more monstrous. A lot more monstrous.

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The F430 is so quick it has become one of those rare cars in which you need to pick your moment very carefully before opening the throttle fully; a car that can eat straights so rapidly you have to be extremely mature about where and when you deploy full acceleration.

A little later, up in the hills above Maranello, the F430 gradually begins to reveal more of its dynamic repertoire – and it’s a pretty mind-boggling experience all in all. Its steering is so light yet so incisive I found it impossible not to get carried away through the corner where we took these photos. Its suspension was also beautifully – and I do mean beautifully – composed over every surface it was asked to deal with. And the brakes: well, the brakes are just incredible. As we discovered somewhat dramatically, they have huge feel, great progression before the anti-lock intervenes and massive power under the full-panic stop that was required when we encountered a battered old Lancia Thema in the middle of the road with its door open, just round a blind corner, its female owner up in the field above picking flowers.

On the way back to Ferrari to hand the F430 back to its owners I kept wondering what you could improve on this car. The list was short but not empty. Although much better than the 360’s, I still think full-bore upshifts should be smoother from the F1 gearbox – if you don’t back off between shifts there’s still a slight shudder as the next gear goes in. Also, the way the engine reacts with a nasty jerk when you come out of a wide throttle opening doesn’t feel quite right; it’s as if – sometimes but not always – the fuel cuts off too soon and there’s a corresponding jolt through the drivetrain. Oh yes, and I’m not sure the new reverse button down on the centre console is a step forward: it’s better than the nasty T-bar thing they had before, but not if the button sticks every other time you go to use it, as it did in this car.

Back at Fiorano the Ferrari people were keen to know what we thought. And it was hard not to be enthusiastic. Normally you try to keep a straight face, if only to keep them guessing so they bother to read the story. This time it was impossible.

This car is fantastic. Not, perhaps, as good on the track as it is on the road, as I discovered an hour later. But remember, despite the way it goes and sounds and looks, this is not a racing car. It’s a road car. Very probably the best road car Ferrari has ever built. Who cares where it will all end when the result is a machine as good as this?

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