By James Wong
Some things in life don’t need any explanation. They are, quite often, usually great things. For instance, a dog can be nothing else but a dog. It will walk on fours, occasionally on twos if it is hungry, and it will lick you until you are drenched. Its existence, quite simply, cannot be disputed. And therefore, its greatness derives from its seeming ownership of the entire known intellect of the term ‘dog’.
Much like a dog, there is also a sports car. There are many types of sports cars, but what is one that defines the genre, which require no explanation when you see one? Whether you spot a prancing horse on the bonnet or hear it from a mile away, you know instantly – a Ferrari is the sports car. What it is definitely can’t be disputed. Which is important these days when you can call a Porsche an SUV and an Aston Martin a four-door saloon.
So when I took the Ferrari 458 for a couple of days, I knew I finally understood what it meant to drive A Sports Car.
From 4.5-litres, the 458 generates about 560hp and 540Nm of torque. That horsepower figure is staggering, but the torque even more so, especially when there is no forced induction involved. And remember, this is an entry-level mid-engined Ferrari, the cheapest you can buy. Although we are quite sure in Ferrari-speak, entry-level doesn’t mean the same as what we think.
If you think about those numbers, they are really quite scary. Pretty unruly, don’t you think, if they are all going to the rear wheels only? But the 458 has defied logic and made a car that can make all that power and torque manageable, and even exploitable.
Fire up the ignition and you know you are in for a treat. The engine idles savagely and betrays more vibration than you’d be comfortable with, the latter of which seeming to seep away once warmth has enveloped the internals. At this point I should probably explain about the 458’s interior: it is unconventional in almost every conceivable way. I needed to watch a YouTube video of a chap walking around the car and showing me where all the buttons were before I could even figure out how to move off from the parking lot.
For instance, reverse gear is in the form of a button in the centre console. Turn signals are buttons on the steering wheel, at the 9 and 3 o’clock. The armrests on the sides are where you’d pull a lever to open the doors, while the power window switches are located in the centre console, again. The radio, satnav and media can only be controlled by the driver (for right-hand drive models, at least), so the passenger just sits and screams while you drive. Basically, everything is where you aren’t really used to finding them. The tremendous thing is, you will get used to all of it in 10 minutes. No, really. It’s that intuitive.
However, there are foibles in the interior. The knees hit the bottom of the steering wheel, even though I’ve adjusted the wheel to its highest setting and the seats to the lowest. The brake pedal is also placed too closely to the throttle pedal, so it’s uncomfortably easy to be braking and yet accelerating at the same time. Otherwise, the seating position is near perfect and visibility excellent – I think this is one of the easiest supercars to drive. The thin B- and C-pillars help.
Setting off, if you’re feeling particularly attention-seeking, Race mode is the one you want. It lets the exhaust flaps open earlier, so you get a loud blare of V8 just below 3,000rpm. However, the car is slightly irritated if it revs beyond that when it is cold, so maybe Sport mode would do just fine first. Sport should be renamed Normal because it feels like a Normal mode in any other car – shuffling of gears to the highest possible for fuel efficiency and generally being inoffensive. But then, there is no Normal in the 458. The next ‘step’ below Sport is Wet, which give the electronics full reign to nanny the car. It’s as if the Ferrari engineers knew having a Normal mode just wouldn’t cut it. Just as well, then, because the tractability of the engine at low revolutions is plainly staggering. It maintains rapid progress despite staying in the lower end of the tachometer, making the car feel lightly turbocharged. Maybe it’s the low weight of the car, or low-inertia internals. But whatever it is, it is brilliant.
If the daily tractability of the engine is impressive, you may think that Ferrari traded its traditionally ballistic top-end for it. But yet again, the 458 defies logic here. Up to its redline of 9,500rpm, the engine revs as quickly as your heartbeat tries to catch on. But while the engine is already a winner in its own right, the terrific 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox sets the car apart. All the power in the world cannot beat a well-sorted combination marrying engine and gearbox to create a stupendous drivetrain. In this car, the responses of the gearbox, from the tap of the paddle shift to the actual shift, are synaptic. It is so quick that the engine almost struggles to catch up. It is hard to imagine, but it is real.
The gearbox is at its best at higher revs though. Below 4,000rpm, understandably, it does not blip the throttle, although it will happily be efficient for you and increase the fuel range of the car mercifully. There is absolutely no complaint there – this is probably the best dual-clutch gearbox I have ever tried.
Because the engine and gearbox responds so quickly, many of the driver’s faults are masked and quickly whisked away. If you are late to downshift into a corner, the gearbox will get to the gear you need even in the tightest of situations. If you thought you should have been in a lower gear upon exit, the engine’s breadth of torque ensures that this small mistake never upsets you.
Consequently, getting the tail to wiggle out is also easy. The throttle pedal is quite sensitive, so any input should be tempered with caution, at least for the first few attempts at driving the 458. Although, if the car does go sideways, it is supremely controllable, as I found out while getting around a deserted road. Staying in Race mode will allow a measure of ESP to keep stupidity from killing you (or crashing a beautiful car), so you do get adjustability with a safety net.
When you’ve had your fun and just want to cruise home, the 458 obliges. The suspension has a ‘bumpy road’ mode that smoothens the imperfections on the road, and in my opinion is the best setting for Singaporean roads. Shame then that you always have to switch it on whenever you start the car again. The gearbox’s auto mode on the 458 is also great for wafting, although it’s best to leave it to yourself if you want to have a full-on experience driving the 458. The fuel economy varies wildly depending on your right foot, but the range does increase encouragingly if you go easy on the throttle.
The interior is also a great place to be while you’re pootling. The leather feels high quality, the design futuristic (mind you, the car is now almost 5 years old!) and the vastness of space commendable. You get great headroom and legroom, and passengers have been very impressed by the car’s friendliness to carrying people (it’s time to glare at a Lamborghini). However, even though the car is only a year old, rattles and creaks have started to develop. Nothing major, but I can’t help but wonder how symphonic the interior will be with age.
I haven’t even talked about the design, but you know what I’ll say. I’ll only add that my favourite line is the one that sweeps from the glasshouse into the engine bay, ending at the rear spoiler in elegance. It draws depth to the design, creating all sorts of lighting delights that will draw your eyes to examine its beauty. Every single aspect of this car has been thought through thoroughly, that much is certain.
The common thought that stayed with me throughout the few days is this: is this the perfect sports car? There is a whole lot that is illogical about this car, but therein lies its brilliance – it defies convention, not to merely mock it, but to show that it is possible to have everything with no compromise. Barring the unknowns of long-term ownership and the proposition of actually maintaining a Ferrari, this is without a doubt in the running for perfection. Never has irrationality been so good.