The first thing the cop says is, "I'm not going to give you a ticket because this is the first Ferrari I've ever pulled over."
Sure, he made it sound like we were getting off lucky, but to be fair we hadn't really done anything illegal in our bright red 2005 Ferrari F430 Spider. The sharp right-hander, located in rural Southern California, had a "15 mph" advisory speed sign. We slowed appropriately, banged out two perfectly executed downshifts (easily done with the F1 paddle shifter) and blasted right back up to a totally legal 50 mph.
Problem is, when you "blast" up to 50 mph in a Ferrari F430 Spider it's almost as heart-stopping, and attention-grabbing, as a shuttle launch. The V8's 483 horsepower creates a shrieking exhaust wail that could be considered highly offensive -- if it wasn't so damn melodic. At least, we found it melodic. Officer Tulley probably found it highly intrusive and belligerent on this otherwise placid roadway. But that doesn't make it illegal, right? It would seem so, as he let us off with a warning, plus a wave and a smile.
The officer's reaction was not uncommon during our too brief time in Maranello's latest creation. Everywhere we took the F430 we got smiles, waves and thumbs up. But the most unexpected response came on the curly canyon roads when encountering slower traffic.
People pulled off to the side of the road to let us by!
Depending on where you live this might not seem worthy of mention. But trust us when we tell you that California drivers aren't particularly known for "yielding to faster traffic" -- unless, apparently, the faster traffic is blood red, emits a siren song and has two bumper-mounted air intakes that could each swallow a fully grown Saint Bernard.
Passing the slower traffic, even without their cooperation, is a no-brainer with the F1 tranny. Tug the left-hand paddle twice, take a moment to relish the computer-controlled throttle blips and matched engine revs, then dip into the 343 pound-feet of torque available from the 4.3-liter V8. We drove the F430 coupe last year, and the soft-top version feels every bit as lively -- even with the 150-pound weight gain over the hardtop.
Performance testing backed up our seat-of-the-pants impressions, with a 0-to-60 time of 4.6 seconds and a quarter-mile run in 12.4 seconds at 125.3 mph. While the F1 paddle-shifter makes upshifts and downshifts almost child's play, getting the F430 Spider off the line requires a deft right foot.
In Europe this same model comes with Ferrari's coveted "Launch Control" system, but liability concerns kept that feature from making it to U.S. shores. This means the only way to get an F430 Spider off the line quickly is to turn off all driver aids and boot the throttle. At this point things happen quickly, with the engine roaring up to about 5,000 rpm, the electrohydraulic clutch dropping and the rear wheels clamoring for traction -- all in less than half a second.
Pedal it properly and you can pull a low 4-second 0-to-60 time. Get it wrong and you either send up a cloud of Pirelli air pollution (too much throttle) or you nearly stall the engine (too little throttle). Our 4.6-second time represents a semisuccessful balance between the two, but we're convinced a few more tenths were available. Maybe if the tranny didn't cost $10,000 we would have kept trying until we got it right, but we decided it was better to give the car back to Ferrari with its clutch intact.
No such worries arose when running through the slalom. The F430's various driver settings allowed us to confidently rip between the cones with minimal interference from the stability control system. Using the F1-inspired steering wheel dial, or manettino, you can set the car up for everything from driving on packed snow to running a professional race event. There are a total of five settings that moderate not only stability control but also suspension settings, electronic differential behavior and transmission aggressiveness. We put it in "RACE" mode and pulled a 68.9 mph, our fastest slalom speed yet.
Think of the "RACE" setting as Ferrari's version of "Competitive Driving" mode on the Corvette; enough leeway to have fun, but with the reassurance that if something goes awry the electronic nannies will swoop in and prevent a costly insurance claim. You can also dial up "CST" mode with the manettino, meaning no stability control aids whatsoever. In this mode it's easy to swing the 285 series rear tires wide in corners -- almost too easy.
We're not sure if the new electronic differential (first seen on the F430 coupe) is what contributes to the car's somewhat snappy nature, but we do know that turning stability control off, and getting on the throttle during corner exits, tended to bring the rear end around more abruptly than we expected. And while this could have proven tricky in lesser cars, the F430's predictable and communicative chassis allowed us to balance the sudden oversteer with tiny steering wheel corrections.
Braking is similarly in line with the F430's exotic nature, both in terms of design and capability. The 13-inch vented and cross-drilled rotors are grabbed by four piston calipers, and they managed to slow the car from 60 mph to zero in a neck-straining 109 feet.
Credit the car's catlike reflexes to its all-aluminum chassis and double wishbone suspension (also all aluminum). In the transition from coupe to convertible, Ferrari stiffened the chassis in three areas: beneath the A- and B-pillars, inside the door mounts, and along the base of the windshield. This added the aforementioned 150 pounds, but the company claims a 10-percent increase in torsional resistance and 5-percent increase in bending resistance compared to the 360 Spider. They also point to a 37-percent increase in frontal-impact resistance, and a 105-percent increase in rear-impact resistance (allowing the F430 to easily meet the latest U.S. crash standards).
We didn't test that aspect of the F430, but we did enjoy the fully automatic power top that folds completely out of sight in about 20 seconds. That's good, because if a $20,000 Miata drives up you'll want to stow that plastic rear window ASAP, before the driver points out how he could have bought 10 Miatas, each with a glass rear window, for what you paid for your "premium" sports car. But Ferrari claims the plastic window is "the ideal solution, as it doesn't affect the weight distribution or the handling." OK.
On the upside, wind buffeting is minimal with the top down, even before putting the rear deflector in place between the seats. Do that, raise the side glass, and you can cruise at 75 mph with no more turbulence (and less wind noise) than in a luxury sedan with an open sunroof. Similarly, with the top up there is minimal wind and road noise at speeds up to, and beyond, 80 mph.
Not Perfect, So What
Of course no car is perfect, and if you wanted to nitpick you could call out the 2005 Ferrari F430's loud, long and highly annoying warning beeps whenever you insert the key, unbuckle your seatbelt or start the engine. Then there's the switchgear, which like the plastic rear window doesn't really line up with the $200,000 price tag. And what's with the grinding noises as the top stows and folds? Certainly a $33,000 Honda S2000 doesn't suffer from any of these failings.
But if you buy one of those instead, and then see flashing lights in the rearview mirror, don't expect the cop to say, "I'm not going to give you a ticket because this is the first Honda I've ever pulled over."
System Score: 7.0
Components: Our F430 Spider had the optional upgraded audio system, although Ferrari says little more about the unit other than that it's upgraded. It costs an extra $1,900 and for your money you get the addition of a console-mounted subwoofer, a Becker head unit and six-CD changer. In addition to the subwoofer there are four door-mounted speakers (one midrange unit and one tweeter in each door).
Performance: Exotic sports car builders have long overlooked niceties like stereos and comfort-oriented features but the F430 takes a huge step forward by offering a premium stereo option that actually sounds pretty good.
The sound quality is clear but lacks good separation. The stereo is fairly loud; you can turn the volume up high without any distortion. In fact, you can turn the stereo up loud enough to drown out the V8 that's wailing away right behind you. We're not sure why anyone would want to do that but to each his own. Bass response is surprisingly good thanks to the optional subwoofer. Even with the top down, music fills the cabin without being intrusive.
The head unit itself is fairly small and accessing certain features like bass and treble adjustments can be challenging. The long line of small buttons on the bottom of the radio serves multiple purposes including radio station presets and CD track up/down. Only after you hit the button with a musical note on it do you get to the bass, treble, fade and balance functions. It's not awful but it's not intuitive either.
One drawback is that the CD changer is located in the trunk area; however, there is a single CD slot behind the radio faceplate that can be used. Also, given that one's full attention is required to pilot a 483-hp supercar; we don't think steering wheel-mounted audio controls would be a bad idea.
We realize that it's entirely possible many owners will put plenty of miles on their F430 without as much as glancing at the radio, let alone turn it on. But at least Ferrari is offering an optional stereo for those whose blast up the coast just wouldn't be the same without a Springsteen CD accompanying the barking exhaust.
Best Feature: Subwoofer delivers nice bass.
Worst Feature: Small head unit with small, counterintuitive buttons.
Conclusion: There's no competing with a Ferrari V8 when composing the perfect soundtrack. However, the company does offer an effective sound system for those who think a car with this price premium should have a premium sound system. -- Brian Moody
Editorial Director Kevin Smith says:
Exotics just aren't what they used to be. Time was that breathtaking performance and the kind of character and exclusivity that can justify extreme price tags came with finicky manners, indifferent build quality and challenging usability. No more. The modern Ferrari (and Lamborghinis, Aston Martins, and the like) has a measure of real-car polish and refinement that represents a remarkable engineering accomplishment, since it does not detract from the "I'm something special" attitude of the car.
So when I get in the Ferrari F430 Spider, determined to identify flaws (including the possibility that over-refinement has robbed it of character), I don't expect the easy pickings of the old days. Is that a little cowl shake I detect on uneven pavement? OK. And even though the steering is generally quite communicative, its weighting stays a little light and artificial as cornering loads build up. Finally, if I look for ways to catch out the F1 autobox in traffic -- suddenly rolling into the throttle just before coming to a stop, for instance -- it can stumble momentarily. That's it.
The F430 Spider is mechanical art that stands out even among exotics while also functioning remarkably well as personal transportation. The car is steady, smooth and unchallenging to drive around town, thrilling and capable under the whip, rich in restrained luxury inside, beautifully put together and arresting to see and hear coming up the road.
What else is there?
I'd be willing to forgive it some character flaws, but I haven't found any worth a hoot. We've come a long way, bambino.
Senior Editor Scott Oldham says:
Roll my naked body on a bed of broken glass. Sit through 24 straight hours of Oprah reruns. Shake hands with Al Franken. Read a book. There was nothing I wouldn't have done to drive the Ferrari F430 Spider.
Then I drove it. A lot. I drove it on mountain roads. I drove it on the freeway late at night when you can go really fast. I drove it in gridlock city traffic. I tached it out in tunnels with the top down, flicked its paddle-shifted transmission up into fifth gear at 120 mph and cruised it by the swankiest Santa Monica eateries as the crowds let out.
Here's where I'm supposed to be contrarian and tell you how crappy it was, how the experience doesn't live up to the hype and how it costs more than it's worth. And I want to. I want to so badly. But I can't. As much as I want to be the guy who is impervious to the Ferrari spell, I'm just not that guy. The F430 is great. Effing great.
Even the F1 autobox, which I loathed in the F355 and 360 Modena, has gotten really good.
What a car. Bust out the broken glass, I want another go.
"I saw some photos of this car on the road in Bahrain and it looks quite nice in motion. It's interesting that Ferrari usually waits some months before introducing the Spider version of their cars. This one is right on top of the general introduction. Perhaps the fact that they are already filling orders to a point of depleting this year's production run is the reason. I can't wait to see it 'in the flesh.'" -- tsaupe1, February 10, 2005
"Well it does look better than the 360 Spider. To me the 360 Spider never matched the F355 Spider in looks. The new F430 looks a little better...but as with the 360 those roll hoops don't look right." -- Merc1, February 11, 2005
"Personally, I'd rather pay $200K for a used F360 Spider than pay double for a F430 Spider. I think a lot of people on this forum can actually afford a Ferrari but will not be willing to pay double for the car unless you are really loaded with lottery money. It's just not a smart thing to do." -- mymercedes, June 16, 2005