You can't fault Ferrari's passion for detail, but sometimes you just want to get on with things. So, while an exhaustive technical briefing on the new 458 Italia is all well and good – the highlight is the assembled experts enthusing about how the car “reduces windage” – it's with some relief that I finally slot in the ignition key and fire it up.
Now at this point you may be expecting phrases like “erupts” or “bursts into life,” but they'd be entirely inappropriate because, er, it doesn't. Probably for efficiency reasons or noise regulations, the 458 simply catches before quickly settling into a smooth, calm idle. It'll get you noticed, but it's no hell raiser.
Worried? Me too. But like most modern performance cars, the 458 has trick exhaust bypass flaps, so let's just hope that its tone will be more entertaining with revs.
Still, we've got seven hours to play with the 458, so before setting off we take 15 minutes to study its external details. This is entirely subjective, but I think the latest Ferrari looks sensational – not pretty, but modern, sleek, exciting and different. There are hints of Enzo, particularly in the rear wheel arches and short rear overhang, and aspects of the Pininfarina-designed P4/5 one-off in the high-rising front arches and prominent twin rear lights. Yet it looks completely fresh. The jump between the F430 and this is much greater than the step from 360 Modena to F430.
In styling, that is; for the rest, we have to move off. And it only takes a few feet to register the first significant dynamic step change over the 458's predecessor. The steering is much quicker – two turns from lock to lock, in fact, and that despite a very reasonable turning circle. Too quick? Maybe. More miles and turns will tell.
The next thought is how well the gearbox works. Like the California, the 458 uses a dual-clutch, 7-speed gearbox (DCT), albeit with different ratios, and in the very ordinary role of maneuvering the 458 in traffic, it's much more civilized than the F430's single-clutch F1 transmission.
There is some sadness, though, for DCT is the only gearbox to be offered on the 458. Is this goodbye to the iconic open-gated manual Ferrari? It certainly looks that way.
Free of traffic and up in the hills, I'm keen to explore whether a twin-clutch 'box can deliver the sense of occasion and drama expected of a 200mph-plus Ferrari. Arch-rival Lamborghini doesn't think so, believing that seamless changes aren't what its customers want. To an extent, it is a personal choice, and depends on whether you feel the jolt you get with a super-fast single-clutch transmission – such as that fitted to the 430 Scuderia – to be a highlight or a shortcoming.
The 458's DCT is much smoother and faster than the F1 'box, and yet, in my opinion, it feels no less mechanical. Plus, if I don't have the option of changing gears myself, I'd rather have a system that does it as accurately as possible.
The gearbox is also well matched to the engine character, not only in its speed of reaction but also its exactness. Upon leaving the casting, the 458's aluminum engine block is identical to that used in the California, but from that point on the two diverge – not least because the 458's engine is stroked to 4.5 liters (instead of 4.3), but also because it revs significantly higher. To 9000rpm, in fact, where, with the benefit of “dynamic supercharging,” it produces 562hp. Or 125hp per liter, from a naturally aspirated engine.
When you think that is a jump of 70hp over the regular F430, you get some idea of the step up in performance, but to truly understand you need to consider where the power (and torque) is produced. From 3500rpm the 458's engine is already producing as much torque as the F430's and, at 6500rpm, has eclipsed its peak power.
Making the engine rev so fast and cleanly, while retaining flexibility, is where the aforementioned “windage” comes in. Fitting two scavenge pumps prevents oil from splashing between the central and external crank throws and reduces the pressure in the sump. The result is more torque (especially at low revs) for no additional fuel. Such detailed changes, along with the high-pressure direct injection, mean that despite the power increase, the 458 uses less fuel and emits less CO2 than an F430.
If all that makes the latest Ferrari sound worryingly worthy, don't panic. While the smoothness it exhibits at idle is maintained right through the rev range, it is anything but clinical or soulless. Even at 9000rpm it produces 332lb-ft (from a peak of 398lb-ft at 6000rpm), meaning the rate at which the crank speed is accelerating hardly diminishes. And, over the last 2000rpm, the energy and vigor is massively addictive.As is the noise. Any concerns over the timid idle soon vanish, replaced by at least four families en route who've abandoned lunch to see and hear the 458. Some are filming, others cheering; no one is complaining. The note is not only ridiculously loud but also varied and with that shrillness unique to a Ferrari V8.
If there is a downside, it is that on the road there are precious few opportunities to use all of the 458's performance. Even in Italy. If you're lucky you'll see all of second gear, and occasionally third, but such is the extent of the rev range and force of 562hp that by then you're really traveling.
It's rained overnight and while autumnal leaves may look pretty, they do nothing for adhesion. But the 458 runs the latest version of the Ferrari's E-Diff, now controlled by the same ECU as the traction control, for a faster response. And this car provides its driver with much more confidence in the front end than the F430 ever did.
More than the styling or engine, it is this element that represents the biggest gain. This is not simply a matter of there being more outright grip; there's more consistency and better communication.
The engineers explain that while the front of the car feels most different, this is mainly down to improvements in the multi-link rear suspension. By better controlling the camber angle and wheel center movement, Ferrari has been able to increase roll stiffness and run faster, more precise steering.
And what of that quicker steering? It takes a little getting used to, but only in that it feels foreign to make such small movements. But because the response is linear and immediate, you soon find yourself intuitively applying the correct amount of lock in a single application.
Later, when I get the opportunity to try the 458 at Fiorano (it laps as quickly as the Scuderia, apparently), the steering does an excellent job of communicating when the grip is running out.
Later still, when Ferrari CEO Amedeo Felisa asks what I think of the car, it's the steering he's most interested in, and specifically, how it compares with that of a Lotus Evora. The 458's helm isn't as chatty as the Lotus', and it's ultimately not as "feelsome," but it is more precise and suffers less kickback.
The bottom line, though, is that not only does it work but it's also enjoyable to use. So much so that you can drive the 458 in mixed conditions and still enjoy yourself, without fear of a trip into the scenery. Leave the manettino switch in low-grip or normal settings and the electronics will keep things tidy; switch to race and it lets the back slide a little wide under power. But it is testament to the predictability, steering accuracy and throttle response that the last two modes (“traction off” and “you're on your own”) aren't completely off the menu.
Whether on track or road, the 458 is an entertaining and competent sports car, but also a relatively comfortable one. With the California, Ferrari went after a slightly different type of customer, offering a broader, more focused GT.
I was expecting this to allow the company to go even more extreme with its sports cars, but while there is no questioning the 458's performance or excitement, it is surprisingly refined. Road and wind noise are very acceptable, and the ride is calm. As with the 430 Scuderia, it is possible to decouple the suspension settings from the manettino groupings, so you can have the dampers in their most compliant mode while still retaining the fastest gearshifts.
Do so and the 458 copes with even very bumpy roads easily, but even in the firmer settings the ride is far from jittery. This is probably helped by an aluminum spaceframe chassis that's 20 percent stiffer than the F430's.
All of which leaves a Ferrari that you could genuinely use for longer-distance trips, especially given the interior. Ferrari has never had a problem with the cow-count, although sometimes the ancillary switches have left a little to be desired. But in the 458 the cabin has a consistent quality (including two TFT color screens), plus some genuine innovation. Ferrari has done away with the indicator stalks, putting the signals, light and wiper controls on the steering wheel. Not everyone will like it, but I think it works well.
The pedals are slightly offset, but fine to use. And while the standard seats are good, I'd go for the optional race seats, which are more supportive and lower, without being any less comfortable or significantly compromising visibility.
I'm painting a very positive picture here. So much so that you'd be forgiven for concluding that the 458 Italia increases windage instead of reducing it. But here's the thing: I drove the 458 solidly for five hours and came away hugely impressed. It responded to my two big doubts (the gearbox and steering) in the best possible way: by putting a smile on my face.
Some may have been expecting more from the 458, hoping that a brand renowned for adopting new technology might herald a sea change in the way we think about sports cars. It doesn't do that.
But in the detail, there is a lot that is new about the 458 and as a product it is much, much more complete than its predecessor. Others may question the price – expected to creep up to $260,000 – especially next to Porsche's 911 GT3. But that is a different car, more analogue and pared back.
In comparison, the 458 Italia goes further and accomplishes more. It is a truly exceptional achievement.