As observant chroniclers of the automobile scene will note (along with students of Hollywood B-lists and Sunday-dinner fixings), midlife makeovers are not always good news. Alleged improvements are easy to count in the version 2.0-or, as we used to say, Mark 2-editions; we've got press releases just in case we miss them. But sometimes these revisions are harder to feel behind the wheel. Indeed, be they mortal or super, most cars are lucky to emerge from the face-lifting process no worse than they were before.
So welcome, first, the most exceptional of the many exceptional features of the new Ferrari F430 Spider, the just-launched revision of the Ferrari 360 Modena, which debuted in 1999. This follow-up is a striking exception to the rule, not only equaling but fairly blasting past the incredibly super model it updates. As if it suddenly had 483 hp and 343 lb-ft of torque at its disposal, which, of course, it now does. Not since the Z06 version of the C5 Corvette debuted in 2001 has a vessel already so exciting to drive gone in for a mid-ocean course correction and returned to steam so wickedly strong and so noticeably improved.
Outward refinements seem subtle on this most unsubtle machine, until you learn that the only carryover sheetmetal is the doors. Plus, there are improvements to the wind-deflection system, a revised power convertible top, and new polished stainless-steel tailpipes. There's an updated instrument binnacle, a slimmer central tunnel, and a driver's-mirror shell now embossed to read "F430," just in case anyone was in doubt that yours was the latest and greatest example of a car that now costs about $200,000.
But the F430's biggest news lies under a glass cover, just behind the driver and just ahead of its nineteen-inch rear wheels, cradled in the exposed rails of a high-tech aluminum spaceframe.
Seven-tenths of a liter in additional cubic capacity doesn't sound like much, even if it does represent an almost 20 percent increase over the none-too-shabby 360 Modena's 3.6 liters. But it turns out the old adage about the lack of a suitable replacement for displacement holds as true for fancy-pants DOHC V-8 rev monsters crafted from aluminum by Italian artisans as its does for the V-8 rock crushers puked out by American factories in cast iron when the adage was new. The F430's larger-displacement V-8 and new four-valve cylinder heads serve up an additional 91 hp and 67 lb-ft of torque, shaving half a second off its 0-to-60-mph time (now about 4.0 seconds) and raising top speed to 193 mph.
Back home, of course, a red Ferrari driven in anger is a surefire invitation to the courthouse anywhere, anyplace, anytime. But in Italy- in the hills above Maranello, at least- it's an entirely different kettle of fettuccine.
We headed skyward at the suggestion of photographer Mark Bramley, who knew too well Ferrari's planned route for the U.S. journalists who were there to drive the F430, having negotiated the same course with a group of British scribes the week before. So, while I and the rest of the American journalists were busy letting out a collective gasp as our bus pulled into the Palazzo Ducale in Sassuolo to reveal a dozen topless F430s with keys in ignitions, Bramley was already plotting our escape. He had it in mind for us to take an intentional wrong turn out of the plaza, with no goals beyond driving hard for nine hours and rejoining the group at day's end, in the parking lot of the Galleria museum and gift shop adjacent to Ferrari's shrinelike Maranello factory. It sounded like a plan.
In the name of photographic possibility and to smooth our way through the Italian countryside, we were fortunate to detach German (pronounced "Herrman") Gilli, a Ferrari wrench and test driver, complete with company car-in this case, Italy's people mover of choice, the Fiat Multipla diesel. Gilli would serve as our guide, translator, and rabbit.
Initially, it proved hard, comically so, to keep pace with the Multipla, at least as conducted by the twenty-eight-year-old Gilli, who came to Maranello three years ago from his native Argentina. A man possessed, Gilli piloted the Multipla at breakneck speed most everywhere. Showcasing what we took to be local custom, he drove on the wrong side of the road and ignored solid lines as he shot apexes and overtook on blind corners. This in villages whose size, along with general notions of etiquette and the natural impulse toward self-preservation, would seem to have dictated hauling it down to a walking speed or facing the prospect of certain arrest.
But instead of calling out the cops or helicopters with rocket launchers the way we would in America, the natives exulted as we barreled through their towns. Children shrieked and jumped up and down excitedly to the accompaniment of squealing, folded-under Multipla tires and the popping and farting of Ferrari's brilliant V-8 on the overrun. Thick-waisted middle-aged women looked up from their chicken tending and smiled, while old folks stopped shuffling long enough to look, nod, and sometimes even wave. Of course, we told ourselves, we were in Ferrari country. It might be different if we were trying this stuff in a yellow Hummer.
If you had to identify a single thing about the Ferrari driving experience that stands out, it would be its engine. Without the V-8's sound and the big balls it confers, you might think you were sitting in a bigger, heavier, more comfortable Lotus Elise, a car that
handles as well, looks as wild, and costs about one-fifth as much as the F430 Spider F1's expected $206,000 list price, while going almost as fast. But the Lotus lacks the exotic engine and the exotic engine sound, as well as the exotic gearbox of the F1 model we were driving, and, as we steeped ourselves in the music they made together, we were increasingly convinced that the noise alone justified the premium.
The route we'd ditched had been designed to celebrate the five senses. But where our compatriots' first stop was Villa Verdi, the home of the legendary Italian composer, signifying the sense of sound, we were treating ourselves to actual sound sweeter than any opera. Call us Philistines.
At idle, the newly chain-driven V-8 ticks over like some sort of high-performance sewing machine. But take the tachometer to four grand or above (it reads all the way to 10,000 rpm but is electronically limited to 8500 rpm) or just stomp the accelerator anywhere past one-quarter of its travel, and the engine instantly transforms, erupting as someone would if someone else had just deliberately dropped a cinder block on his big toe-real mad, real fast. With its state-of-the-art Bosch Motronic injection system, the latest Ferrari V-8 may not make the same great sucking sounds as its carbureted ancestors, but its sound is just as addictive and still worthy of immediate induction into the Engine Note Hall of Fame.
Maximum enjoyment of aural and performance potentiality is made possible by the optional F1 gearbox, a wondrously slick, paddle-operated, six-speed transmission that makes every bozo look like a master of the gearshifting arts. (A six-speed manual is standard.) Its mood is programmable, along with the car's suspension settings and stability and traction controls, thanks to the manettino, a dial on the steering wheel meant to evoke the more complicated steering-wheel controls on Scuderia Ferrari's F1 racing cars. When the manettino is set to Race, the F430 whips off shifts with brutal speed and buttons down its suspension to the max. Other settings include Ice, Low Grip, Sport, and the hotshoe's favorite, Everything Shut Off, which makes entry to the sideways motoring club an option coming out of just about every corner. The rest of the time, traction control systems, working with Ferrari's race-derived electronic differential, work imperceptibly, but with feverish speed, to keep the car and the would-be hero behind the wheel squarely on the black stuff.
A seriously expensive option at close to $11,000, the F1 transmission stands out for its uncanny ability to match engine revs and gears perfectly during downshifts, automatically blipping the throttle for you to minimize unwanted jerking and body motion while offering constant, convenient access to the Ferrari V-8's mellifluous range of tones. Not since the invention of the karaoke machine has a device made singing so easy.
While our fellow journalists were invited to exercise their sense of smell at the scheduled lunch stop, ours had kicked in earlier. While far from the petrochemical-dump aroma of old Weber-carbureted Italian stallions, the open-topped F430 did give us a generous whiff of old-fashioned gasoline fumes.
It is hard to sidestep one's sense of taste in connection with an F430 Spider. Some will doubt the taste of those who buy them. Not because they're not great cars but because they tend to be painted bright red, look like demented anteaters, and have enormous yellow prancing-horse badges stuck to their fenders, outsized emblems that might look more at home on a teenager's bedroom wall.
Price: $195,000 (est.)
Engine: 4.3L DOHC V-8, 483hp, 343lb-ft
0-62 mph: 4.1 sec
Top speed: 193 mph