Ferrari has produced some fantastically memorable open-top V8 sports cars since it peeled back the metalwork from the 308 GTB, but the outgoing 458 Spider was a thunderous best-yet effort. Its shadow has only lengthened since we learnt that its replacement would have to have turbochargers mated to a slightly smaller flat-plane crank 90-degree V.
Maranello’s concern, practically bullet pointed in powerpoint, is that Spider buyers may be even more sensitive to the stifling effects of turbines than the GTB’s audience. ‘Open-air hedonists’ Ferrari calls its devotees, and the 458’s engine note and rampant drama were clearly ticked top of their feedback forms.
Personally, I’m with them; I drove the Spider all too briefly two years ago, on a breathless summer evening which turned to night and then day again before I finally emerged from it a happy husk, dried out and baked through by the double-heated breeze and swirling 9000rpm undercurrent.
If the subjective chest-swelling aura of the new 3.9-litre V8 lump is in question, its objective productivity is not. The 458 was already hugely fast, and its output has been improved by 100bhp - a large number utterly eclipsed of course by the 560lb ft of peak twist gleaned by forced induction, and carefully metered out by a Variable Torque Management system depending on the gear ratio. The drivetrain, complete with its quicker shifting seven-speed double-clutch ’box, is a direct carryover from the GTB; the architecture around it, though, is not.
Clearly, there’s the roof. This is much the same retractable hard top that the 458 wore, meaning it essentially peels off and backflips into a slender compartment behind your head. It still takes 14 seconds, and despite the massive windbreak effect it must briefly produce, it’ll operate up to speeds of 30mph. The requirements of its stowage means there’s no peekaboo engine porthole, although Ferrari repeats the claim that it is so lacking in extraneous bulk that a cloth alternative - i.e. the one they fitted to the F430 Spider - works out about 25kg heavier.
The weight of the new roof though is less significant than the impact of its removal as a load-bearing element on the car’s space frame. Unlike its direct rival, the McLaren 650S Spider, the 488 has no carbonfibre tub to stick everything too; instead Ferrari has again had to bolster it the old fashioned way - with additional structural reinforcement at either end - and with a reworking of the aluminum alloys used in the chassis. The latter helps save weight; the former does not, and is predominately the reason for a 50kg weight penalty versus the GTB; the same difference previously experienced by 458 Spider owners compared with the Italia.
The 488’s cabin, essentially the same as the coupe, isn’t much of a departure from its predecessor either. The sleek dashboard remains intensely driver-focused - your attention rarely moves beyond the oversized rev counter and the Manettino dial on the steering wheel. Several things have moved with the times: keyless start means the starter switch is now a effectively an on/off button, while the infotainment system has become functional at last with extra processing grunt and a menu rethink.
The seats, their positioning, the view out and the general milieu are all nigh on perfect. The Spider puts a lot of bodywork directly around you, but the ideal exposure to the air is never in question: windows up, it’ll playfully ruffles the fringe; windows down, it looks doubly sensational and practically insists you drop a louche limb onto the door.
That’s for later though. Firing up the engine for the first time is too tense an event not to have your arms well inside the vehicle. Can you tell it’s turbocharged? Of course you can. The engine’s huge sound might be broken-glass sharp and less afflicted by the late rev asphyxia than the California, but there’s no mistaking the sluice gate of a spooling turbine when you’re underway, and unshielded from it. And were you deaf, you’d still know because the V8 is so absurdly generous at middling revs. Where the 458 was nimble and responsive low crank speeds, its replacement is baldly rapid, surging forward as though its wheels had suddenly encountered grease paper.
It is not like the coupe, all delivered in one great gassy belch. The 488’s torque curve is a series of steep inclines rather than one monotonous plateau, tailored to increase with each ascending gear. The idea is to avoid a tidal swell of twist, and keep your right foot and mindset fixated on the idea of building revs, as you would with a naturally aspirated V8. It’s all very clever, not least in how organic it feels, and the benefit to the Spider - a model always intended to offer plenty of useability - is plainly felt in the ability to coolly dispatch slower moving traffic and generally sidle about town briskly.
Considering it shares the GTB’s spring rates (claimed by Ferrari to be equal to those of the outgoing 458 Speciale) the drop top is a pleasure at such speeds. Increased suppleness was key to the 458 Spider’s success, and it remains a defining aspect of its replacement; the SCM 3 magnetorheological damping system enhanced with new piston rods and a quicker ECU, and clearly tuned to take ride comfort advantage from the same torsional stiffness that Ferrari quotes for the coupe.
The dampers retain their bumpy road mode, but we didn’t require it in Italy - and given the state of some of the roads encountered along the way, that’s a glowing affirmation of the car’s ability to soak up quite serious bumps. Its undoing, much as before, is not in wheel control, but in the platform’s inability to completely stifle the aftershock of such impacts; the Spider succumbing to the telltale shiver of stress exiting vertically through the structure when it cannot be absorbed by a proper roof.
Truthfully it is a marginal infraction on most driving, only really becoming noticeable when you make a mental comparison to the class-leading rigidity of the 650S Spider. Elsewhere, it is the similarities which bring the McLaren to mind. At speed, the newfound torque is something of a double-edged sword, making the 488 (like its rival) so phenomenally fast at 4000-6000rpm that it’s possible to short shift and still find yourself at anti-social speeds.
Not an awful problem you might thing given the responsiveness of a unit practically immune to turbo lag, and one that announces itself with a baritone gurgle from 3000rpm. But there’s less of an incentive to work the engine into its final frenzy, and less high-pitched, last-gasp crackle when you get there. Which isn’t an indictment of the speed - far from it. The 3.9-litre V8 produces all 660bhp from 6000rpm to limiter just before 8000rpm, meaning its power never drops off when the revs fall between gear changes.
That makes it blistering in the same way a 650S Spider feels otherworldly and is the reason why the 488 is nearly half a second quicker to 62mph than its predecessor, which only yielded 560bhp in the final throes of 9000rpm. Quicker though is not a synonym for better. Hitting the Spider’s hard limiter is enlivening and electric and prodigiously impressive - but it is not as hair-raising or as wildly mechanical as the clear-throated gargle of the 458.
Fortunately, this has a habit of becoming a straight line concern - because in the bends, much like the GTB, the Spider has a way of keeping you utterly fixated with what’s going on underneath you. The chassis is superb: still virtually immune to understeer at the front, pliant and pliable everywhere, and with a steering rack that manages to be direct, light and communicative all at the same time. Its ability to move through a huge, steadying phase of grip, and then be levered progressively out of it, is phenomenal. Most noticeable for the mild-mannered and ultimately amenable sense of control that definitely shouldn’t apply to 660bhp issuing from its centre.
This is a different car to the 458 Spider, as the GTB was different to the Italia. Removing the roof isn’t quite the hedonists glut-fest it was before, because - no matter how hard it tries - the engine is not quite the spectacle that Ferrari previously dropped into the limelight.
But the car around it is undeniably better. A delight to drive both fast and slow, it hardly stops enthralling you. The most important feature of this, like its predecessor, was a serious reluctance to get out of the thing - even after a spectacularly long day. That ought to be the benchmark for any modern supercar, and it is heartening once again to see Ferrari setting it.