How do you improve on the Ferrari 458 Italia? It’s an answer that’s eluded all of Ferrari’s competitors over the last four years, so now Maranello has had a go itself with this: the 458 Speciale. Except, even Ferrari won’t say it’s better than an Italia.
As CEO Amadeo Felisa tells CAR: ‘It is not to improve on the 458, but to offer a different concept for a different kind of customer.’
The Speciale, then, is a more hardcore take on the 458, a car that follows in the footsteps of the 360 Challenge Stradale and 430 Scuderia. Ferrari expects more customers, in fact, to come from those cars than from a 458 Italia, and to spend a much greater amount of time on racetracks.
What’s so different about a Speciale?
You’ll notice the changes to the bodywork, first. There’s a new bonnet and front wing vents to aid cooling – the radiator is no larger – while the front bumper is all new and filled with active-aero trickery – two flaps either side of the silver Prancing Horse logo are pushed open at 105mph to channel air around the Speciale and increase downforce, while, at 137mph, a larger flap beneath them is pushed open to channel air under the car, sucking it more aggressively to the ground. At the rear there’s a steeper spoiler, plus an all-new diffuser, again with active aero, the three vents this time being activated electrically.
Ferrari has taken 90kg out of the Speciale’s kerbweight, partly with lightweight RTM bumpers, a Lexan rear window, thinner side glass and forged 20in alloys. It’s most noticeable inside, though, where the carpets and even the glovebox have disappeared, and you’ll find carbonfibre door cards and snug-fitting sports seats trimmed with technical fabric centres.
How much more powerful is the Speciale than the Italia?
Not much. The naturally aspirated V8 is unchanged at 4.5 litres, but it’s been tuned with shorter inlet tracts, lighter pistons, higher valve lift and a new crankshaft, plus there are carbonfibre inlet plenums and a revised exhaust too. The result is 597bhp at 9000rpm, but that’s just 34bhp more than the Italia and torque remains identical at 398lb ft.
Combined with the weight savings, though, plus stickier tyres, improved aero and beefier brakes, the performance figures tell a different story: the 0-62mph dash drops from ‘sub 3.4sec’ to 3.0sec dead, and the Speciale will hit 124mph in 9.1sec, some 1.3sec quicker than the Italia. It'll also lap Ferrari's test track faster than the Enzo.
What’s the Speciale like to drive?
It’s brilliant but, as you’d perhaps expect, not without compromise. There’s far more road noise than you'll experience in an Italia, for instance, the ride is much stiffer – though still impressively compliant in the new adaptive dampers’ ‘bumpy road’ setting – and the even more aggressive throttle mapping can make the low-speed stuff a bit shunty. I also think the Italia sounds better, somehow more full-bodied and vivid – the Speciale has a gruff idle, and it’s coarser at higher revs.
But Speciale customers are apparently a hardy bunch, and this should matter little. Drive it hard and the Speciale really comes alive. The steering is still madly, madly quick, but there's more feel, plus there’s far less body roll, and, although there is a little understeer to manage, there’s less of it. Much of this is down to the stickier Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres, but the same doesn’t necessarily apply to the rears: give it full throttle from a standing start in the dry and the Speciale will light up its tyres in first, second and third gear. Add throttle early in second- and third-gear corners and you’ll paint lines all the way down the road, building speed at a ferocious rate as you do so. It’s fast and frantic and some people might find it a little OTT – a 911 GT3, for instance, absolutely monsters the Speciale for traction, though it does also come with tyres that don't work in the wet.
Ferrari has somehow made the super-quick dual-clutch gearbox respond even more swiftly to inputs on the steering-column-mounted paddles. It’s a couple of years since I’ve driven an Italia, and I can’t say I noticed a huge difference in the upshifts, but the swifter downshifts are more obvious, unbelievable as that may sound – the transition between rpms in each gear feels even more positive. Good as the 911 GT3's PDK is, it’s not a patch on this.
There’s no doubt that the 458 Speciale is a dynamic leap forward over the Italia – there’s extra performance, better braking, less roll, and even more lurid possibilities with the rear-drive chassis. On track or for a committed drive over a favourite road, it’s unquestionably better.
But the compromises mean that Italia owners shouldn’t necessarily feel desperate to trade up, especially if you’re looking for a car to use on a regular basis and not just for the ten-tenths stuff. The Italia, after all, is already a fabulously accomplished car that leaves you yearning for very little more. The Speciale is, well, extremely special, but I’m going to be a wuss here and say that, if it were my money, I’d buy an Italia.