According to Ferrari, its sports car buyers are split into two very different camps.
The average buyer of the Ferrari 458 coupe likes to drive alone and fast, might take in the odd track event and revels in pushing his brakes, engine and suspension to the limit (or so he tells his friends).
The likely buyer of the 2012 Ferrari 458 Spider, on the other hand, is a much more sociable animal. He prefers to cruise at lower speeds, spends as much time as possible with the roof down, is more likely to use his car as a daily ride, and likes to take someone along to enjoy it.
Which is why, with the introduction of the new 458 Spider, Ferrari has made a conscious effort to create a slightly softer 458. Yep, it uses slightly different suspension tuning and a reprogrammed stability control system, but it's no second-class Ferrari. It's still aimed at the Ferrari faithful, while newcomers remain served by the even softer, front-engine California.
Spider Now Means Hardtop
The 458 does have one thing in common with the California: a folding hardtop. Ferrari figured that a folding hardtop was a surefire way to get one over on its supercar rivals even if building the world's first midengine hard-shell origami cabrio wasn't going to be easy.
Folding hardtops tend to be bulky, and an early idea of slipping the vertically folded top behind the rear seats as in a Mazda Miata was abandoned. It was discovered that it would have eaten into space in the engine bay, the wheel arches and fuel tank area, and would also mean losing the useful storage shelf behind the seats.
Instead, Ferrari revisited the 575 Superamerica, which had a hardtop that flipped 180 degrees to lie flat on the rear deck like a dead squirrel baking in the sun. The 458 Spider's top, though, is much more sophisticated. Its two panels are all hidden away neatly under the flip-up tonneau cover and there are no ugly roll bars. The aluminum chassis is so strong that the stumpy bases of the B-pillar, which form part of the stylish humps on the rear deck, are enough to support the car in a rollover crash on their own.
Top Is Quick as Long as You're Not Moving
Laying the top horizontally rather than vertically may have been better for space, but it does mean that you can no longer see the V8's red-crackle induction plenums. And unlike most power tops today, the 458's lid requires you to be absolutely stationary before the motors will whirr into action. Once they're moving, it takes 14 seconds to open or close the roof.
There are no catches to undo, just a simple switch in the center console between the seats. Two switches, in fact. The second one raises and lowers the pane of glass behind the seats that acts as the rear window with the roof up, and a wind deflector when the roof's down, an idea pinched from the BMW 6 Series.
Hours of computer modeling and wind tunnel work calculated the optimum position for the deflector at about 2 inches high, but you can raise it higher if you want.
Listening to the Hidden V8
According to Ferrari, the sound of the car is right up at the top of Spider buyers' priorities, so work was focused on getting that right with the roof down. The result is a new exhaust system and a soundtrack that — without the advantage of driving them back-to-back — sounds every bit as useful at erecting neck hairs as the coupe.
Exhaust apart, the Italia and Spider engines are identical. There's no soft California tune for this engine. You get the same direct-injection all-alloy engine as the Italia, the same 562 horsepower and the same crazy 9,000-rpm redline. This is a supercar engine from the old school, an engine like you used to imagine them as you gazed up at that poster on your bedroom wall — but in fact light-years better than that 1980s reality. It's loud, exciting and more than a little intimidating to newcomers.
Compared with the F430, there's far more torque, 398 pound-feet instead of 343, and 80 percent of it is available at just 3,250 rpm. But unlike the new wave of turbocharged supercar engines, you still don't unlock its true greatness until you wind the thing out toward that 9,000-rpm redline. Once there, you simply pull the huge column-mounted gearshift paddle back to engage the next of seven gears in the excellent dual-clutch gearbox. Changes are instant and seamless, which is good, as it's the only gearbox available.
Naturally, the folding roof and extra strengthening in the rocker panels of the aluminum chassis adds a little weight, in this case 110 pounds over the coupe's 3,042-pound dry weight. Ferrari says a cloth roof arrangement would have been another 55 pounds heavier. The key thing is that performance barely appears to have suffered at all. Ferrari still claims a 0-62-mph figure of 3.4 seconds. Only at the top of 6th gear are the coupe and convertible separated — the Spider being pegged to 198 mph thanks to its inferior aerodynamics, while the hardtop Italia stretches on to 202 mph. Big deal.
Also unlike those supercars you used to dream about, this is one you can jump in and thrash the pants off without worrying about ending up spearing backward through a hedge at your first corner. The combination of the electronically controlled E-diff 3 and Ferrari's F1-trac traction control system allows you to take outrageous liberties with the right pedal, even with the manettino lever on the steering wheel switched to Sport or even all the way up to Race.
The speed of the super-quick steering — typically Ferrari light and not quite reference quality for feel — still takes a mile or so to get used to and even then you might find yourself carving a tighter line than you'd planned. Slides, too — with the manettino switched to CTS Off' (the only position that will allow big angles) — are mostly gathered with a simple flick of the wrist instead of armfuls of opposite lock.
Despite its two-turn lock-to-lock rack, the 458 never feels remotely unstable on entry to a corner, something Ferrari attributes to its work on the rear suspension. And because more of that rear-end stiffness was achieved through spring rates rather than anti-sway bar girth compared with the F430, the ride is exceptional on uneven ground. Should you encounter some really bumpy terrain, there's a button on the steering wheel that relaxes the damping without turning off the spiky throttle response and exhaust note of the manettino's Race setting.
Great, but Not That Great
Inevitably, though, the Spider is not quite a match for the Italia coupe. Chopping the top means the Spider is around 30 percent less stiff than the Italia, although that's a big improvement over the old Spider, which was 40 percent bendier than its coupe equivalent. This time it's barely noticeable except for the occasional and barely detectable tremor from the rearview mirror over broken pavement and a touch more understeer when turning in to tighter corners.
You might find yourself spending more time in the Race setting, too, if you want to re-create the Italia's ultimate agility and body control. But we're talking degrees here. In real terms, the Spider offers almost all of the dynamic ability that made the coupe such a hit. And virtually all of its refinement, too. Raise the roof and you soon forget you're not piloting a true hardtop. It's quiet and squeak-free, although as the roof is not a structural component, there's no increase in chassis rigidity with it in place.
The rest of the car is unchanged. The confusing dashboard and the world's most button-heavy steering wheel are still as easy to decipher as a Tokyo subway map. But the quality is good, as is the cabin space, although the unfashionable mid-'80s-Civic-style floating dash means less room for center console storage. Our car had the standard chairs, but the optional, more sculpted sports buckets are mounted much lower for a better driving position and are worth a tick on an options list that also includes lightweight forged wheels and some beautiful fitted luggage. The trunk space in the nose is huge, big enough for three flight cases, and the shelf behind the seats is designed to swallow a golf bag.
The $30,000 Option
Compared to the $227,000 458 Italia, there's about a $30,000 premium to pay to get yourself a 458 Spider. Well, that, and a couple of years to wait if you haven't already got your name on the list.
You'll pay a dynamic penalty, too; but in real terms, unless you do a lot of track work, it's miniscule. You don't get to gaze at that engine when you park it either, but you get even more noise to remind you it's there. And the styling isn't inferior to the Italia's, only different. In fact, compared to the hardtop, the Spider loses almost nothing but offers a whole new dimension to its character at the flick of a switch.
Ferrari knows its customers better than anyone else. The Italia coupe is still the best drive, but the 458 Spider is so good, that we imagine more than a few die-hard coupe fans might find themselves wavering for the first time. That being the case, it's a shame they've softened it across the board without offering the option of leaving it alone. The average Spider buyer might prefer the more relaxed feel, but we'll take the convertible top and the hard-edged performance, too. Isn't that what a Ferrari is all about?
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored press event to facilitate this report.