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First drive: Sharpening Ferrari’s best-handling knife

Our test driver finds the new 458 Speciale, above in Ferrari red, naturally, is perhaps the best handling car in the world, with a flat nose that inhales corners.

Michael Bettencourt/The Globe and Mail

Overall Rating
For thrill seekers with frequent flier/driver points at their local track, this is a hot-looking tool to carve down lap times and increase driving fun.
Looks Rating
Showy, but undeniably gorgeous, with active aerodynamics that activate front and rear in progressive stages at 170 kilometres an hour and at 220 km/h.
Interior Rating
Interior lightened by 20 kilograms, but not totally stripped out, though missing carpet and glovebox are noticeably absent.
Ride Rating
A serious performance machine, ride comfort is absent off the list of priorities, with track and twisty back road agility at the top.
Safety Rating
Active safety is great in terms of braking and manoeuvrability, especially with the new track-friendlier stability control, but 605 hp is oh so tempting.
Green Rating
No exotic sports car is green, but the vehicle is light weight and an available low-emissions package with stop/start helps to provide somewhat reasonable fuel economy.

During previous trips to Ferrari headquarters, I not only watched and heard prototype sports cars screaming around the legendary curves of the Fiorano track, I felt them. And now the opportunity had come to drive one myself, behind the wheel of the new 458 Speciale, perhaps the best handling car in the world. In the warm sunshine, I had goosebumps.

The night before, Ferrari took our group of automotive writers to the track. We huddled in a paddock area that replicates a true Formula One setup, where a gleaming Speciale under spotlights awaited its clinical examination. The 458 Speciale is the latest version of the 458 Italia coupe, and the successor to earlier 360 Challenge Stradale and 430 Scuderia models. Matteo Lanzaveccia, who did engineering work out of the Toronto-area race outfit Multimatic in 2000 when it became the only Canadian team to win their class at the 24 Hours of LeMans, is today the Speciale's head of development. He described how the naturally-aspirated V8 pumps out a Euro-rated 605 horsepower at 9000 rpm, by raising the redline and compression ratio to 14:1, while lightening yet strengthening internal mechanicals using Formula One-derived processes.

Next, we were escorted to the Galleria del Vento, a building marked by a sign with the omnipresent prancing horse logo. Enrico Cardile, head of aerodynamics, explained that the design priority was to produce stability at all speeds around the track. The new front end features two vertical flaps that open at 170 km/h to reduce drag by forcing more air under the car, while a horizontal flap opens at 220 km/h to increase downforce. In the rear, a new electrically activated diffuser decreases downforce when it's not wanted on the straights.

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Finally, at the Ferrari foundry, Vittorio Dini, deputy head of the powertrain division, boasted that the engine achieves more horsepower (135) per litre than any non-turbocharged production car in the world. The company cut curb weight by 90 kg, using lighter engine pistons, installing thinner glass and a plastic rear window, even jettisoning the glove box and carpeting. Bottom line, the Speciale is faster than the Italia everywhere: in a straight line (0-100 km/h in three seconds, versus 3.4), in corners (cornering capability increased to 1.33g), and most importantly, around Fiorano.

At the track in the morning, half the allotted cars for our group were designated for the track, the other half for local roads, and we would be switching later. I was appointed the road route first, with a co-driver.

On the winding roads surrounding the Ferrari factory, the Speciale's pronounced front nose inhaled corners, its steering responding as quickly as the Italia's, its body flatter through the sharp bends. That zany 9,000 revolutions-per-minute redline is realistically available only in first gear on the streets – at least if you value your licence. Even at 7,000 rpm, I braked into mountain curves with knuckle-whitening intensity.

On straighter sections of road, the Speciale buzzed with pent-up energy while generating a glorious Ferrari V-8 wail, louder and less refined than the Italia's due to the removal of sound-deadening material such as interior carpets to cut weight.

Back at Fiorano, head test driver Raffa De Simone took me out for two recognizance laps, one to point out the correct line, the other as a tail-out demonstration of the Speciale's prowess. Once in the driver's seat, I started cautiously, with the manettino dial set to Race mode. That designation denotes peak performance in most sports cars, but in the Speciale it is only halfway up the five-setting performance continuum.

With only three laps permitted, I decided there was little time for tentativeness. The steering wheel lit up with incremental bars as that 9,000 rpm limit approached. With my eyes glued to the windshield, the g-forces hammered my body under heavy braking, the carbon-ceramic discs pitching me forward so forcefully that I slowed down way too much after turning.

By Lap 3 though, I'd overcome the tendency for early braking and with the longest straight on the track looming, I went for it. As we entered the sharp corner following the straightaway, de Simone warned: "Brake. Brake! Brake!!" The Speciale's new sideslip angle control (SSC) helped compensate for me having braked too late. It analyzed which end of the car was close to sliding, compared it to the steering angle and other metrics, then finely transmitted power to either wheel for balance.

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Perhaps not by accident, the passenger seat remained empty for a second three-lap session. The time around, Fiorano proved much smoother, faster and more entertaining. Having switched the manettino to tail-wagging C/T Off mode, once I reached the apex, just a little dab of extra throttle broke out the rear end ever so slightly. The SSC, tires, traction settings and mid-engine handling balance allowed me to fine-tune the line with my right foot – for precision, yes, but mainly for fun. Glorious fun.

The Ferrari 458 Speciale arrives in Canada in March. Goosebumps await.

Tech Specs

2014 Ferrari 458 Speciale

Type: Compact exotic sports car

Base price: (est.) $295,000 (U.S.)

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Engine: 4.5-litre 9,000-rpm V-8

Horsepower/torque: 605 hp/398 lb-ft

Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic

Drive: Rear-wheel

0-100 km/h: 3.0 seconds

Top speed: 325 km/h

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): (est.) 11.8 litres/100 km (NEDC), premium gas

Alternatives: Aston Martin V12 Vantage S, Audi R8 V10 Plus, Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera, Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Black Series, Porsche 911 GT2

Special to The Globe and Mail


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