The 458 is the first in Ferraris range that wont be offered with a manual transmission. This is because the fumblings of the driver would just slow things down. The seven-speed gearbox, made by Getrag, has two clutches so it can shift seamlessly and in the blink of an eye. It used to be that if you opted for an automatic gearbox in a Ferrari it would be at the expense of performance — now its the other way round.
All very well, but who is driving the car — you or the electronics? And will the next generation of Ferrari be controlled from your iPhone? At the end of the companys technical briefing I was presented with a pile of literature as thick as the Tokyo telephone directory. I got halfway through; most drivers, I suspect, will read even less.
Switch off the electronics, though, and the 458 comes to life. Its 562bhp, normally aspirated V8 engine (the F430 it replaces was rated at 483bhp) is a mighty thing. The fact that it is inches behind your head under a glass cowling brings you into intimate closeness. Apply the power and the sound works its way from your shoulder blades to the small of your back.
From standstill to 62mph takes 3.4sec — quicker than obvious rivals such as the Porsche 911 GT2 and the Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4 — and the car wont stop accelerating until it exceeds 200mph. Remember when the Millennium Falcon entered hyperspace and the stars rushed backwards? Then you know the sensation.
All this raises an interesting question: Ferrari has made the 458 so good, it is in danger of eclipsing its more expensive models. The 599 and the 612, Ferraris V12 muscle cars, cant keep up. Even the celebrated Enzo (only 400 of the £425,000 cars were built) is no quicker round the Fiorano test track (time for both cars: 1min 25sec).
Its worth taking a moment, then, to consider why Ferrari would risk what seems a marketing gaffe. The answer is that it is looking anxiously in its rear-view mirror at upstart manufacturers who are determined to overtake it in the horsepower race. Take, for example, the Ferrari F355, the 458s ancestor, hailed as the greatest car in the world — ever by one J Clarkson. It boasted 380bhp a decade ago. Today, youll find 420bhp under the bonnet of BMWs M3.
No sooner had Ferrari taken the wraps off the 458 a few weeks ago than Mercedes revealed the 563bhp SLS — more power (just) for the same money and with eye-catching gullwing doors — and hovering in the wings is the McLaren MP4-12C.
I suppose we should be grateful that so many designers and technicians are labouring away so drivers can live in rev heaven, but where will it end? Audi has pointed the way by shoehorning a frankly ridiculous 572bhp V10 into the RS6 Avant — an estate car, for heavens sake.
Perhaps that is why the 458 draws more than ever on Ferraris racing heritage. Michael Schumacher took part in the development testing, and Ferrari has imported a host of ideas from Formula One that rivals will struggle to match. For example, as soon as the driver lifts their foot from the throttle, the brake pads move into contact with the discs, waiting for pressure to be applied, cutting down on braking delay.
The growing threat from other manufacturers may also explain why Ferrari invited a handful of specialist magazines to drive the 458 at its launch, perhaps hoping for generous publicity before the mainstream press arrived to cast a critical eye on the car.
It shouldnt have worried. The 458 can stand scrutiny and hold its own against the competition, despite its gimmickry. So should you buy one with that spare £160,000? Yes, because it is a very good car. And even though its the cheapest model in Ferraris range, it will never be common. Next to giants such as Volkswagen, Ferrari is still a low-volume manufacturer — even more so since the recession — and only a few hundred 458s will come to the UK. In fact, licensing of the Ferrari brand for caps, jackets, theme parks and the like is now worth more than car sales.
So, go ahead and be seduced by the 458. Its better than a yacht in Portofino or a ski lodge in the Alps. Plus, youll be helping the environment by giving a home to a rare and important species.
Ferrari 458 Italia
Engine 4499cc, V8
Power 562bhp @ 9000rpm
Transmission Seven-speed double-clutch automatic
Top speed 202mph
Acceleration 0-62mph: 3.4sec
Price £160,000 (estimated)
Release date Next spring