PEOPLE who say you cannot teach an old dog new tricks have not spent any time with the Ferrari 458 Italia. It's a car that absolutely forces you to think again. And again.
The latest Ferrari frontrunner is a supercar with a capital S, yet also refined and luxurious and easy - yes, easy - to drive. It's so easy and so good that it has changed this old dog from a Porsche lover into a major-league Ferrari fan.
You know the question about cars for lottery wins? Well, until this week my answer was always the same - the fastest Porsche in the business, probably a 911 GT2 RS. Not now.
The only real challenger to the 458, if there is one, is the all-new McLaren MP4-12C that's coming to Australia later this year.
What can you say about a car that costs a minimum - yes, minimum - of $526,950 and competes for attention with big boy toys like boats and holiday houses and not much else unless you're talking about helicopters and private planes? The 458 Italia is massively costly, even in the rare air at the top end of the sports car business.
There are other go-fast two-seaters that cost more, including the ridiculously expensive Bugatti Veyron that cannot come to Australia - no right-side steering despite a $1.2 million showroom sticker - but few that deliver the same sort of bang- for-your-buck return. The Ferrari is genuinely hand built at Maranello in Italy using huge lashing s of the most exotic and costly materials, dominated by aluminium and carbon fibre, and the Australian specification includes carbon-ceramic brakes and even an SUV-style rear-view camera.
The final finishing also means choices in everything from seat sizes to leather treatments and all the rest. The 458 is stupidly costly compared to a Hyundai i20 that can also deliver you to the shops and work without fuss or trouble, or even a jet-quick, track-focussed Nissan GT-R. But when I hear that 458 customers typically spend $180,000 on extras, any value discussion evaporates. With this car, if you can then you do.
Lots of rubbish is sprouted about F1 technology in road cars, but the 458 has heaps. There are active aero parts that change shape at speed, a V8 engine with 419 kiloWatts and 540 Newton-metres of torque from just 4.5 litres, an F1-style seven-speed paddle-shift gearbox, a competition- focussed differential and magnetically-adjusted race-style suspensi on. Even the steering wheel is high-tech - and the home for the wiper and turn-signal switches - with F1-style lights to signal the need for an upchange.
The 458 is gorgeous. Simple as that. The Pininfarina design house has created a shape that is both elegant and effective, and the cabin is both driver-focussed and luxurious. Older Ferraris were awful inside and required all sorts of contortions to drive, while some of the recent efforts - the Enzo and even the new FF - challenged conventional ideas on beauty. Not the 458. It's both a looker and a worker.
How do you really know when even the cashed-up Euro NCAP organisation cannot buy a 458 for its independent crash testing? Not that Ferrari would sell a car to have it destroyed ... On the crash-avoidance scale it rates incredibly highly, thanks to great brakes, superb steering and massive cornering grip, and what other driver is going to want to get tangled in the drama, paperwork and insurance claims of a crash?
I don't drive the Ferrari all that far, or all that fast, but it's not necessary. In less than six hours on familiar roads in and around Sydney the 458 wins me over completely. The first 500 metres proves the Italians have tamed the beast inside the 458 but left it on a short leash for the times .. well, you know.
It will trickle happily in traffic, has surprisingly supple suspension - at least, using the 'bumpy road' setting that's totally appropriate for these patchy and potholed streets - and is equipped with comfy seats, great aircon and a wonderful soundtrack from its blaring exhaust.
I lash out a couple of times to sample the claimed 3.4-second sprint to 100km/h, but not the 325km/h - that's 202 miles-an-hour - top speed, and also hussle through some corners and give the brakes a bit of a punish. But the 458 is never remotely troubled and switches straight back from F1 fast to Hyundai humble in a flash.
I admit there are some moments in the Harbour Tunnel, with the cruise control locked below the legal limit, that I tickle the seven-speed twin-clutch gearbox just to hear the wonderful music the car makes. I am also absorbed by the luxury, enjoy the technology and feel of the wheel, and feel flat-out scared as I edge through a two-small parking garage.
There is no sign of the 'small man' signals I expect, but perhaps that's because the car is yellow and not look-at-me Ferrari red. The 458 reminds me so much of my best mate, Mark. He's one of those blokes who is wonderfully mannered, relaxed, refined, smart and great company, but quite capable of making the difference - in your favour - if things really turn nasty. In the Italia you can be cruising happily at 60km/h in stop-start traffic knowing - hoping?- that if the road ahead unravelled into a grand prix track the car would be just as good. No, it would be far, far, far better and better than even the most talented non-race drivers. The 458 is a car you can love. And I do.
An utterly brilliant drive and a landmark car. The only reason it doesn't get a perfect score - yet - is its price and an upcoming run in a McLaren MP4-12C. Then we'll know ...
FERRARI 458 ITALIA
Price: from $526,950
Safety: Not tested by NCAP
Engine: 4.5-litre, V8 petrol, 419kW/540Nm
Body: two-door coupe
Transmission: seven-speed dual-clutch manual, rear-wheel drive
Thirst: 13.3L/100km, CO2 307g/km
"Would you? Of course you would."
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Thirst: Not available
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