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Physics-defying 458 Speciale zips past excess

Published: Monday, June 2, 2014 1:17 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Ferrari)
The Ferrari 458 Speciale is a faster, leaner and more focused model of an already fast and lean supercar, the 458 Italia.

The speed limit on New York’s Palisades Interstate Parkway is 50 mph, but traffic usually sweeps along much faster.

My Ferrari’s speedometer stays firmly pegged at 48 mph.

A minivan rockets by, passing on the left. A small boy puts his nose to the window, opens his mouth wide and waves. Perhaps this is the first real-life Ferrari he’s ever seen – or maybe just the first one driving so slowly.

The 458 Speciale I’m testing is painted a vigorous red. It’s also got racing stripes, basically doubling down on the attention factor. I’m quite sure, for instance, the Palisades Interstate Parkway Police will take notice.

After all, would you pull over a Honda Civic or this $288,000 supercar?

Hence, two miles under the speed limit. No problem. I’ve been looking forward to the Speciale since it was announced last year at the Frankfurt motor show.

Better, I’m headed to the racetrack, the speed-appropriate place to let its 597 horses roam free.

Exotic-car manufacturers love to say their models are race cars for the street, but this Speciale from Maranello, Italy- based Ferrari SpA comes close. It’s a faster, leaner and more focused model of an already fast and lean supercar, the 458 Italia. In other words, how about an extra dose of extreme with your excess?

Ferrari historically has made two types of cars: those with 12-cylinder engines placed under the front hood, and those with V-8s in the center, behind the driver.

The former are generally grand-touring cars, ideal for zinging across Italy on the Autostrada, while the latter are best on the racetrack, where agility and low weight matter most.

The mid-engine placement affords ideal balance, allowing deft changes in direction. It also sounds fabulous keening at 8,000 revolutions per minute just behind your head.

Since the early 2000s, the Fiat SpA unit has produced hard-core versions of these mid-engine V-8 models, including the Challenge Stradale based on the 360 Modena and the 430 Scuderia from the F430. Still, after first driving the “conventional” Italia several years ago, I couldn’t imagine how Ferrari was going to one-up itself.

Then, hubris, they called it the Speciale. Way to point out where you’re going to hit a home run before you’re even at bat, Ferrari. Best bring the goods.

So, yes, I’ll be needing a racetrack to squeeze all the juice from this car.

A couple of hours later, observed but unmolested by the local constabulary, I arrive at the Monticello Motor Club in upstate New York. There is a small commotion among members. The Speciale is like a special-grade weapon out here, and this is the first time anyone has seen it. Look, multimillionaires are taking mobile-phone pictures of my car.

Owners won’t race the Speciale. Ferrari has a 458 model for that, the Challenge, and its own race series. Instead, many will drive it up to a private racetrack such as Monticello, spend the afternoon slinging it around at phenomenal speeds, then amble slowly back home. It’s like a day of golf, only with helmets, spiking adrenaline and paramedics always on call.

The Speciale’s $288,000 starting price is before gas guzzler taxes or destination charges. My test model comes to $336,210. The obvious question is, what makes it that much more special than the $234,000 Italia?

More power, clearly, as sure an ingredient as cream and butter in any French dish. The Speciale gets 597 horsepower and 398 pound-feet of torque from its 4.5-liter V-8, which is truly significant for an engine without the aid of turbochargers or superchargers.

It also looks more intense than the Italia, with a big scoop in the sexy hood, dartlike fins hanging off the side that help channel air, and a flipped-up trunk/spoiler. Ferrari is knee-deep in aerodynamic R&D, and like an airplane, the Speciale employs a series of flaps that variously open, close or deploy to keep the car better planted on the asphalt at high velocity or make it easier to turn at lower speeds.

Very cool and trick and all, but the stuff you’ll actually notice is that the car has no carpeting, no radio and no navigation system. There’s no leather, bolt heads are exposed, and most things you touch are made of carbon fiber. Your feet rest on a sheath of aluminum.

Ferrari was relentless in pursuit of weight savings, so the Speciale is almost 200 pounds lighter than the Italia thanks to criteria like the minimalist interior. (Asking owners to lose a few pounds would be rude, one supposes.) Yet, unlike its predecessor, the track-oriented 430 Scuderia, the Speciale still feels luxurious and precious.

But ultimately, this isn’t a car to gawk at or brag about. It’s a car to drive hard, to pummel, to fall in love with at 150 mph.

I strap on a helmet, switch the steering-wheel-mounted control to “race,” and roll out. The V-8’s song is already tickling my limbic system. Much of the joy of driving a Ferrari comes from the sound alone.

Yes, it’s fast. Yes, the carbon-ceramic brakes are great. But it’s a technical uphill corner when the Speciale suddenly comes alive underneath me. I’ve taken this turn in real race cars and in McLarens and Porsches and Corvettes. You always have to let off the gas here and be patient.

In the Ferrari I’m still on the accelerator, left wheels riding the curbing, gaining speed instead of shedding it. What manner of physics is this?

Call it Maranello magic. The brains of cars are becoming ever more like artificial intelligence, using electronic stability and traction control to keep drivers out of trouble. This usually means cutting power at key moments.

Yet Ferrari has specifically tuned the electronics to allow the car to slide, to wag its tail out, to let the driver have more fun, while still keeping the car in check – and from spinning off the track.

They know there are limits to buyers’ driving skills, and the might of a car such as the Speciale would put most of us well over those limits. So the system basically intuits what a driver wants to do, and then arm-wrestles with physics to make it happen.

Ferrari dubs this “Side Slip Angle Control.” Most owners will simply call it fun. It lets you get away with things you might not think possible, or that are less than prudent in a car this expensive.

After I’ve done a number of efficient, fast laps, I start to play – a little extra gas at the exit of a corner here, a quick waggle of the steering wheel there. The car gets a little sideways, drifts through corners.

It’s not the fastest way around, but it’s earning me all kinds of imaginary style points.

I expected the car to be fast and hard-core. I just didn’t expect it to be so playful, so much silly fun. So, well, joyous. Plenty special enough to earn its name.

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