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Summary: Life in Italy is built around four "F"s: Food, Fashion, Football and Ferrari. Denied the pleasures of the gourmet by gravity and embonpoint, a sartorial disaster area and with a predilection for oval balls, Italy would seem to be off my international sourcing list.

Well, maybe just one exception; the fourth "F".

The new 458 Spider is familiar as a close relative of the 458 Italia but without its hard top. It is a spectacular car. The front stays largely untouched, but the rear has been given a few touches to work with the car's new aerodynamic set-up, particularly in the optimization of airflow towards the cooling ducts, oil cooler and gearbox. Inside, Ferrari changed engine mapping and suspension damping, as well as re-tuning the engine sound to ensure optimal performance capabilities without compromising the ride of the car.

Ferrari believe that the typical driver of the Spider, as compared with the driver of the coupe customer, have a "sporty but not aggressive driving style" who will use the car more often and more frequently with a passenger. Also, the spider is claimed to be 110 pounds heavier than the coupe, and its structure is not quite as stiff, despite reinforced sills and the structural buttresses that the car is built round. If this is meant to sell the cars as less sporty, it fails miserably on two counts: it isn't and they tell us that they designed the Spider on "the side of excitement rather than safety." I wrote that bit down at the briefing.

Safe it certainly is (they build world champion F1 cars) but the excitement bit comes in shed-loads! This is to cars what a bustier is to Spanx; they do the same job but generate entirely different emotions. (If you don't know the difference, consider buying a pickup truck.)

Ferrari has been dickering with the idea of the retracting hardtop for a while and produced a few viz., the Superamerica. They have come up with an incredibly neat new way of doing it; it is lighter than a cloth top and takes just 14 seconds to retract. A small piece of the roof at the trailing edge separates and disappears vertically behind the seats and is concealed by the main roof panel - all disappearing under a hard, rear-hinged tonneau cover. This leaves a small power-operated rear window located between two of big structural buttresses that double as integrated rollover protection.

As to looks, that is a matter of taste. The front end, although leavened with a rather obvious necklace of LED lights about the headlights and a somewhat flat and unexciting nose, is more than usually important in the aerodynamics of the car. That same reason dictates the aluminum rear engine-cover formed by plastic deformation technique (aircraft technology) to a very precise shape. It acts a cover, venturi-type air intake and integral wing to add down-force. They are the way they are because they need to be. Unfortunately this means there can be no glass panel to show off the fire-breathing 4.5-litre V8, but you can do plenty of showing off on the road.

It pumps out 570 horsepower at 9,000 rpm and 400 lb/ft of torque at 6,000 rpm through a seven-speed dual clutch transmission and electronic differential. This all flings the Spider from 0-100 kph (62 mph) in fewer than 3.4 seconds onward to a top speed of 318 kph (198 mph).

More impressive still is the software tweaking done to the steering. Its turn-in behavior is immediate and certain. It probably is not possible but it is so quick that it seems to respond before you make demands on it. Switching the car into Race mode, one of the variety of set-ups for the car from the safe sport mode, to the all-bets-off, every-aid-off mode, and with the very high-ratio lock on the steering wheel, the 458 straightened out the hairpins in the rush down the Ligurian mountains and challenged belief as to what it really could do. Huge and vicious carbon-ceramic disc brakes come as standard and are perfectly capable of stopping anything a driver can start.

What is certain is that most owners, and I, will never find out where those limits are.

Couple all that with the seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission that snaps off shifts so efficiently and quicker than you can think, and the Spider delivers a quite extraordinary drive.

The driver has all the fun in this car and it is all controlled from the slightly square shaped F1 style steering wheel. The size of a soup plate, it is densely populated with buttons designed so that the driver can keep focused ahead.

The air vents and buttons are all within easy reach of the driver but the dictates of easy ergonomics has led to an odd design, with clumps of controls bulging out of the dashboard.

Ferraris are red; Ferrari red. I don't care what you try to convince me of, you cannot improve on that. However, their engineers, no artists, have modified the exhaust system with baffles and valves to suit the convertible and it is an unbelievable sound. Burble along gently and there is a thrum and a gentle shudder of bridled power. However, the days of dropping a gear to get a more aggressive bark are history. Just push your right foot on the throttle and the engine responds with a dizzying variety of fugues from the exhausts. In addition, blasting off the mark in race mode using the paddle-shift is pure aural ecstasy!

Only some 1,500 a year of these remarkable machines will be produced a year. Be quick; it is.

Copyright: Arab News 2011 All rights reserved.

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Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Date:Nov 16, 2011
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