To turbocharge or not to turbocharge? That’s the dilemma faced by car makers, as regulations requiring greater fuel efficiency and reduced pollution become ever more rigorous.
Pressure to cut consumption and CO2 emissions means there’s little option other than to build smaller combustion engines, which inevitably means a sacrifice in performance. That, however, can be counteracted by a forced-induction system (a compressor, charger or “blower”), which drives more air into the engine’s combustion chamber and hence creates more power. It’s a fairly effective fix if not quite a magic bullet, as turbo motors tend to be less responsive than un-blown engines.
At Ferrari, where for that very reason turbos were long regarded as anathema (though they had been used on some racing cars and limited-edition road machines), the 2014 launch of the California T saw the company bowing to the inevitable and adopting forced induction. Clever engineering and engine management made it possible to imagine that the Cali‘s 3.9-litre V8 wasn’t blown at all, though that still wasn’t sufficient to quell the concerns over Maranello’s first turbo supercar, the 488 GTB, when it first appeared last year.
While a walk around Ferrari’s latest mid-engine missile suggests it’s an evolution of the sublime 458 Italia that it replaces – widely regarded as one of the greatest road cars ever to wear the prancing-horse badge – much of the 488 is new. It’s built upon a chassis made from 11 aluminium alloys and other strong, light and corrosion-resistant metals. It employs radically improved aerodynamics, active dynamics and revised magnetic dampers. Its beefed-up, carbon-ceramic brakes are similar to those on the LaFerrari hypercar. And it has an even more impressive suite of electronic control systems.
And then, of course, there’s the 3.9-litre, twin-turbo V8, which has sparked such debate among the purists. The fear was that compared with the 458, whose 4.8-litre V8 is one of the most gloriously responsive engines on the planet, the shift to a blown power unit would blunt the 488’s performance and appeal.
Ferrari’s own figures are persuasive to the contrary. Whereas the 458 produced 562bhp at its bonkers redline of 9,000rpm and 540Nm of torque at 6,000 revs, the 488’s downsized motor produces almost 100 horses more at 8,000rpm. Perhaps even more important, there’s a bottomless well of twist that’s available at much lower engine speeds, peaking at 760Nm in seventh gear. Those are awesome numbers by any standards; the question is how they crunch in practice.
My encounter with the car comes in late October, with the global launch of what’s almost sure to become the most popular 488 variant, the drop-top Spider. From Hollywood to Hampstead to Hong Kong, the topless 458 sold in greater quantities than the fixed-head coupe, and Ferrari expects that trend to be repeated. It stands to reason, when the retractable hardtop – which takes just 14 seconds to raise or lower – offers both fresh-air fun and complete protection from the elements with virtually no diminution in performance (the Spider weighs 50kg more than the GTB).
We’re staying in a small wine resort at the southeast edge of Emilia-Romagna, the Italian region famed for its slow food and fast cars. Enzo Ferrari’s birthplace in the ancient city of Modena is about an hour’s drive up the autostrada. Imola motor-racing circuit – or to use its full name, the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari – is closer still. And as the surrounding country lanes are much like those on which the 488 was developed, you could say we’re on home turf.
Although similar in dimensions, appearance and configuration, there are clear differences between the outgoing 458 and incoming 488, most notably the preponderance of sculpted scoops and vents on the newer machine. Especially evident on the bonnet and rear haunches, they’re crucial to the car’s design, not only optimising cooling for the turbos, but also maximising downforce and reducing drag.
While these gaping orifices don’t make the 488 quite as pretty as its forerunner, it nonetheless looks spot-on: perfectly proportioned, muscular, aggressive and very, very arresting. The Spider I’ve been assigned is in red, but the car is equally stunning in Modena yellow and sensational in its halo colour of metallic corsa blue.
Despite tweaks to the instrument binnacle and graphics, those familiar with the 458 will immediately feel at ease in the cabin. The big dial combines an analogue rev-counter that reads up to 10,000rpm but is now redlined at 8,000, and a digital speedo. The flat-bottomed steering wheel is loaded with buttons and switches, just as in the older car. There’s a new feature, however, that I presume is designed to terrify the faint-hearted: an optional, passenger-facing digital readout showing speed and engine revs.
The body-clenching sports seats seem hard initially, but after the best part of a day on board I’m still perfectly comfortable. Indeed, by then my only criticism is with the sat-nav, which proves hilariously inaccurate (but as this buys me an extra 30 minutes in the car while, with the help of Google Maps, I try to divine my way back to the resort, I’m not complaining too loudly).
The roof is down, naturally, so we experience the full sonic assault immediately on start up – which alone is reason to choose the Spider over the fixed-head GTB. A common criticism is that blown engines don’t deliver aural excitement, but judging from the Spider this is nonsense.
The V8 barks from inactivity into a low and noisy idle, which builds as you move forward and gather speed, flipping the paddles up through the gears on the seven-speed dual-clutch box, which rips between the ratios in nanoseconds. And as the revs rise, so does the volume, which swells to the intensity of a full-blown orchestral horn section. It may lack the crazed howl of the higher-revving 458, but this is nonetheless an endlessly inspiring soundtrack and one that you won’t tire of listening to for the duration.
By this time you’re probably travelling so fast you’re close to scaring yourself, just as I find myself doing right now. I’m on a narrow, bumpy road where every bend threatens a lumbering tractor coming straight at me, and as each corner looms dangerously ahead I’m frantically hitting the brakes. Yet even travelling through the Apennine foothills at warp-factor speeds such as these, we’re well within the limits of this remarkable chassis. As we race across the countryside, I’m in awe of the instant power delivery that kicks right in the gut, the quick and accurate steering, and the brakes that haul off speed so forcibly they threaten to tear the seat belts from their mountings.
The straight-line acceleration is equally epic. The Spider can hit 100km/h from rest in just three seconds and twice that in less than nine. Flat out it’ll achieve a maximum of 327, and though today I don’t even reach two-thirds of that figure we’re still travelling awfully quickly.
It quickly becomes clear that the 488 requires a different way of driving compared with the 458. Instead of racing up towards the redline in each gear, there’s such an abundance of torque from the force-fed engine that I begin upshifting early and letting the Newtons do the work. And though we’re moving just as rapidly – no, make that more rapidly – it all seems more seamless and less frantic than with the older car. Variable Torque Management, which is intended to make the engine feel less like a turbo, ensures maximum twist is available only in seventh gear, but even in lower ratios a seismic surge of urge is available from way down in the rev band. As for any lack of responsiveness, forget it.
It’s this broad spectrum of abilities, achieved with such apparent effortlessness, and the brilliance of its handling, that make the 488 Spider such a game-changer for Ferrari. Its ridiculous speed, the superb balance of its chassis and the driver-focussed character will thrill and reward the most ardent enthusiast. Yet it’s so flexible and undemanding, and the ride is so supple – and it’s absurdly glamorous and eye-catching – that you could scarcely find a more appropriate set of wheels for a leisurely breeze-in-the-hair, sun-in-the face cruise along the corniche. All eyes will be on you, I can guarantee.
Not having driven a McLaren 675LT, I shouldn’t really pontificate on whether there’s a better modern supercar than the Ferrari 488 Spider. But having experienced the latter’s remarkable breadth of accomplishments I’ll stick my neck out anyway and venture that there isn’t. Throw in a decent sat-nav and it would be very nearly perfect.