On its launch in 2010, the Ferrari 458 Italia sports car was hailed for the strides it made over its F430 predecessor – new and more rigid chassis, super-fast steering, dual-clutch gearbox, bendy aero at the front, all of this highly significant and desirable.
Yet today the 458 is prized for what remained largely similar: its naturally aspirated V8. We didn’t know at the time, but in 2015 the F136 V8 would gulp its last plenum full of fresh air in a Ferrari, before being superseded by the 488 GTB’s turbocharged V8 – another great engine, just not one capable of spinning to 9000rpm like a mid-mounted Catherine Wheel.
As such the 458 represents a crossroads in the history of mid-engined V8 Ferraris and, arguably, stands as the sweetest of the lot: all the usability and dynamic finesse of a modern mid-engined Prancing Horse, and one that packages the peak of naturally aspirated V8 Ferrari engines – arguably all V8 engines – between its shapely hips.
In fact, the naturally aspirated V8 isn’t just key to how the 458 drives, but also the purity of those sublime looks. That’s particularly the case with the elegantly waisted hips that cascade into the rear deck, creating a discreet little air inlet as they intersect with the D-pillar. The later 488 GTB had to add width to package the cooling and large air intakes necessary to feed its new turbos, and what it gained in aggression it lost in cleanliness.
That engine though… the 458 could’ve been more Picasso than Pininfarina and we’d still have swooned. All-aluminium with a 90-degree vee, direct injection and sky-high 12.5:1 compression ratio, its crackle-red intake plenums showcased beneath the rear screen like trophies in a cabinet, and cam covers tucked way down below, so compact is this motor.
Just 200cc larger than the 430’s 4.3-litre V8, the 458 Italia makes 562bhp at a scorching 9000rpm, with 398lb ft at 6000rpm, gains of 79bhp and 55lb ft respectively, which are significant considering there’s no turbo boost to be cranked. A flat-plane crankshaft gives the idle a guard-dog growl, and while that isn’t particularly exotic, there’s gravitas to the bassy rumbling.
The real payoff is this engine’s extraordinary, shrieking response, particularly between 4500rpm and 9000rpm, the latter 1000rpm or so higher than the modern turbocharged engines can stretch. Twitch your toe and the throttle bristles with response, and when you keep it pinned it soars and screams almost as though the rev needle might loop-the-loop.
The 458 followed the 430 Scuderia in being offered only with an automatic transmission, but this was a new dual-clutch unit. Even the old automated manual was super-quick in the end, but the dual-clutch combined the engaging pop of those shifts with even more speed and sophistication. Some might grumble that a manual would involve its driver more, but the tight precision of the DCT is a perfect match for the V8’s lip-smacking response and intrinsic to the excitement of driving a 458.
What makes the Ferrari 458 Italia so appealing isn’t just its performance, though, it’s the accessibility of that performance. I don’t mean accessible as in lacking in drama, rather in how resolved the 458 is, with suspension, braking, steering and powertrain all expertly balanced. The 458 rides with a lovely supple gait, its compact dimensions make it unintimidating to place on the road, and the true magic lies in the playful balance of its handling.
It takes a while to acclimatise to the super-quick steering, which dives at corners like a terrier for ankles (and whose wheel is littered with buttons – no wiper or indicator stalks here) but you learn to trust in a front end that feels low, wide and planted, and a rear that’s happily adjusted on the throttle – few cars are as benign yet as powerful and playful as a 458.
I was there when the 458 Italia soundly beat the more powerful if less vital-feeling McLaren MP4-12C in magazine tests exactly a decade ago. That is now reflected in the two car’s values: while the 12C can be yours for around £70,000, 458 values have risen from a low of a little over £100,000 just a few years ago to more than £120,000 today. The brilliant 458 Spider, which introduced a nifty and relatively lightweight folding hardtop, is typically available from £135,000.
You could, of course, push the boat out for the hardcore 458 Speciale, another dyed-in-the-wool modern classic, but its focus and hot-headed temperament sacrifice some of the Italia’s rounded appeal, and besides, the cheapest we could find was listed at £225,000. Yes, they’ll surely prove the sounder long-term investment, but it’s the 458 Italia that’s better value and, arguably, the better all-round car.
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