In a world with 255-horsepower minivans, 340-hp station wagons and 400-hp Corvettes, a 400-hp Ferrari (425 in Stradale form) can't make the same claim of exclusive, exotic car performance as it did back in the 20th century. When Ferrari introduced its 360 Modena in 1999, it offered a level of performance that few cars could match, either on paper or when experienced from behind the wheel. While the car's torque figure of 275 wasn't as high as, say, a Dodge Viper or SVT Mustang, the car's lightweight chassis and superb driving characteristics left little doubt as to where it fit within the automotive pantheon of performance cars -- pretty much at the top.
The ensuing five years have given us a redesigned Viper, an all-new Lamborghini Gallardo, some serious Porsche 911 variants, not to mention a 550-hp Ford supercar. Through it all, the 360 Modena has maintained its status as a passionate and purebred Italian sports car, but what of the idea that it is still the exotic car to buy when shopping that segment? Well, it doesn't quite elicit that response anymore. But Ferrari is certainly no stranger to the ever increasing expectations of its customers and, furthermore, the company has a dominant Formula One race program from which to draw inspiration when upping the 360's game. It was this resource Ferrari turned to as it developed the F430, with a goal of addressing the 360's weaknesses while simultaneously enhancing its strengths.
Although low-rpm engine torque was one area where the 360 Modena needed a shot of adrenaline, the car's F1-style transmission was even more likely to draw criticism from users, including our own staff after a recent drive in an F1-equipped 360 Spider. There was no denying this transmission's advantage under racetrack conditions -- where rapid full-throttle upshifts and rev-matched downshifts are a boon. But since most owners (yes, even Ferrari owners) spend most of their time on public roads, the transmission should also execute clean shifts under relaxed, part-throttle conditions. Ferrari's F1 tranny has yet to offer this level of refinement, a fact made all the more unacceptable ever since Audi and BMW began offering superior electrohydraulic transmissions (on vehicles costing about one-fourth the price of the 360).
Despite these torque and transmission issues, the 360 Modena remains one of the most rewarding sports cars available. Steering response, braking capability and overall chassis dynamics continue to be benchmarks for the rest of the industry to chase -- with most competitors never quite getting there.
The heart of the F430's improvements lies within (appropriately for a midengine vehicle) the drivetrain. Ferrari started with an all-new 90-degree V8 that uses 11.3-to-1 compression, five main bearings, a flat-plane crank, a dry oil sump and four valves per cylinder. With engine displacement bumped from 3.6 liters to 4.3 liters, you would expect both horsepower and torque to rise and you would be correct. Horsepower jumps to 490 at 8,500 rpm, an increase of 23 percent. Torque grows by 25 percent, with a peak of 343 lb-ft and, thankfully, 80 percent of that is available at 3,500 rpm. Don't forget, these figures come without the use of turbo- or supercharging, though the high-compression ratio does require four knock sensors to ensure safe engine operation. Add to that the continuously variable intake and exhaust valves, the variable intake manifold and the intricacies of the world's first electronic differential for a production car and it's no wonder the F430 requires two Bosch control units to properly coordinate the car's high-tech systems.
The electronic differential, or E-Diff as Ferrari calls it, comes directly from the company's F1 racing efforts. In a clear case of racing improving the breed, Ferrari adapted this sophisticated hardware for street use. It allows the F430 to benefit from a continuously variable delivery of power between each of the rear wheels based on pedal position, steering angle, yaw rate and individual wheel speed. The E-Diff is particularly helpful in delivering maximum grip when exiting a corner under power, an improvement that Ferrari claims accounts for the 3-second drop in lap times between the 360 Modena and the F430 around the company's Fiorano test track.
With so much investment in improving the engine and rear differential, we could only hope that Ferrari would give its F1 transmission a once-over. Ferrari did, and in the process improved shift times by 20 percent under full throttle while further refining shifts under part-throttle conditions, as well as when the transmission is set to full Auto mode. The new transmission has a twin clutch design, yet it offers reduced clutch inertia, meaning quicker, smoother gear changes. Obviously the new E-Diff had to be fully integrated with the F1 transmission's control system, but F430s equipped with the classic open gate manual shifter also feature E-Diff technology.
The culmination of so many advanced systems can be seen in yet another F1-inspired piece of equipment on the F430, the manettino, a rotating switch on the steering wheel that instantly changes the F430's driving dynamics based on driver needs. The manettino's location and appearance, along with the wheel-mounted engine start button, give the steering wheel a truly track-ready look. The five settings on the wheel include Ice, Low Grip, Sport, Race and CST. Each setting is designed for varying driving circumstances, with Sport being the default position, Ice being the most conservative and CST (for Control Stability and Traction) being the most aggressive, since it disables all driver aids except ABS and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution. We're happy to report that, despite the gimmick potential of such a device, the manettino really does alter the F430's behavior with instantly recognizable changes in suspension tuning, transmission behavior and traction/stability control settings. For instance, when switching from Sport to Race, there was a noticeable change in ride quality, along with lower traction/stability control intervention when rotating the F430 with throttle inputs (a process made much easier due to the engine's increased torque).
As with the 360, the F430 utilizes an aluminum space frame wrapped in aluminum body panels. Obvious changes between the 360 and F430 include the reshaped rear wheel arches with taller air vents, expanded front air vents beneath the narrow, vertically stacked headlights and larger 19-inch wheels. The rear styling shows clear Enzo influences in the protruding taillamps that now ride on the upper edge of the rear deck. Ferrari claims that much of the styling changes were driven by wind tunnel testing, with a resulting 50-percent increase in downforce over the 360, or 616 pounds at 186 mph. Despite this increase, the F430's total coefficient of drag remains at .33 Cd, equal to the 360's.
When compared to the outgoing model, chassis flex on the F430 has been reduced by 20 percent in terms of torsional rigidity and 8 percent in terms of bending resistance. Chassis weight has increased by about 10 percent, but the car's improvements in passive safety protection are substantial. Front-, rear- and side-impact testing have confirmed that the F430 is superior to the 360 in each of those areas, with side-impact protection surpassing all requirements without the use of side airbags. Ride and handling characteristics are controlled by an aluminum double-wishbone suspension, and braking duty is performed by cross-drilled rotors squeezed by four-pot Brembo calipers. An optional carbon-ceramic brake system, as used on the Enzo Ferrari, is available on the F430. Beyond the larger diameter (14.2 inch) carbon-ceramic brake calipers are six-pot front calipers with varying piston diameters to maximize braking performance. We did notice a somewhat "gritty" feel to the pedal under light braking pressure, but overall feedback, and certainly ultimate stopping power, was among the best we've tried. Further, Ferrari claims that these brakes are good for over 350 high-speed laps at its Fiorano test facility.
How do all these changes affect the F430's driving dynamics when compared to the already impressive 360? As suggested by the above improvements, the car behaves much like its predecessor...only better. The biggest changes come in the area of power delivery, both because of the increased torque and because the F1 transmission is vastly improved. Not only are the shifts less prone to "head toss" under part-throttle conditions, but the transmission is better at figuring out which gear to pick when left in Auto mode. For instance, when setting the manettino to its Race setting and lifting off the throttle, the transmission would often drop two gears (depending on vehicle speed) in anticipation of slowing for a turn. It would also hold gears longer before upshifting, just as the best Audi and BMW systems do. Combine this with the engine's wider power band and the F430 proved much easier to drive rapidly, whether in Auto mode or when shifted manually.
It was particularly rewarding to be able to rotate the car when exiting low-speed turns, even with the transmission in second gear (don't try that with a 360 Modena). When set to Sport mode, the electronic nannies allow for a bit of rotation before cutting engine power. Set the manettino to Race and you can readily slide the F430 before its various sensors and electronic control modules intrude on the fun -- think Corvette's "Competition Driving" mode with additional leeway.
Beyond its substantial drivetrain refinements, we're happy to report that even existing 360 Modena strengths, such as steering response, chassis dynamics and exhaust note, are better on the F430. We would have bet our best driving gloves that Ferrari couldn't improve on the 360's combination of perfect steering and nimble handling, but we'd be driving bare-handed. Add in the car's throatier exhaust rumble and it's clear that even the things we liked about the 360 weren't yet topped out.
Inside the F430 is an updated cabin, highlighted by a new gauge cluster with a large tachometer, similar to the 575's design. Our test car was outfitted with the lightweight carbon-fiber race seats and four-point seatbelt harnesses (the harnesses won't be available on U.S.-sold models). We appreciated the extra lateral support while driving around the Fiorano test facility, but most customers will likely prefer the standard seats, which are still very supportive and make for an easier entry/exit procedure. Ferrari understands the importance of personalization among its target market, so the company offers a wide range of options on the F430, including 12 colors of leather, an upgraded audio system, custom-tailored luggage and even Bluetooth connectivity.
Yes, in a world of 255-hp minivans, 340-hp station wagons and 400-hp Corvettes, the demands and expectations of a modern Ferrari are greater than they used to be. Thankfully, Ferrari's bread-and-butter, midengine V8 model is also greater than it used to be, and by far the best version yet.