Ferrari 458 Italia meets 308, 348, F355, 360 and F430

Henry Catchpole
21 Dec 2011

Ferrari's V8 mid-engine masterpieces compared. Hi-tech 458 Italia meets its 308, 348, F355, 360 and F430 ancestors in a sonorous supercar group test

At my parents’ home, tucked away under bubble-wrap in several drawers and dusty boxes, I have a collection of small, die-cast models ranging from 1:43 to 1:18 scale. They’re mostly red. As a small boy, I loved Ferraris.

I think it stemmed initially from that magical Rosso Corsa paintwork, the way it made them stand out from the common herd, but the whole aura of the company soon mesmerised me. Just catching a glimpse of one of its cars travelling down the other side of a motorway could make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. And if I happened upon one in a car park I could spend hours just walking around it in awe and wonder, looking at the gleaming details. If that small boy could have known that one day he would find himself in the driver’s seat of an F355 hammering down to Salisbury where five other Ferraris were waiting…

It’s a very simple idea really, and I’m sure you’ve made the link already, but the aim of the next 13 pages is to chart the progress (or not) and driving experiences of Ferrari’s V8 road cars over the last 30 years or so. Maranello might have made its name with 12 cylinders, but in the last three decades the smaller Ferraris have arguably been more important as they are the ones that have been the stuff of dreams for more people, allowing them to think, ‘maybe, one day’.

The early-morning traffic on the A303 is surprisingly light and the dual carriageway snakes away into the distance largely empty. Mid-engined Ferraris all offer a fantastic view out through their laid-back windscreens and it gives a distinctive and impressively airy feeling to the low cockpit. I picked up this F1 Berlinetta from its very kind owner in Surrey last night and it’s amazing how supple it feels and how light the power steering is and how incredible the… but I’m getting ahead of myself – we need to start at the beginning.

We’re meeting on a small triangle of roads just north of Stonehenge and base camp for the day is a huge and extremely picturesque gravel area that the army, who range across the plain, have allowed us to use. They make a magnificent sight, the six cars lined up in the sunshine, and a few things stand out straight away (apart from the Giallo Fly in the otherwise Rosso ointment). Three cars with pop-up headlights; three with faired-in lamps; three with engines on display, three not. Apart from the ‘Challenge’ wheels on the F430, there is a neat progression of ever more spindly-spoked five-star wheels. And the 348 stands out in the group as a product of the ’80s, with a lot more straight lines and square edges in its design than the others. It’s also the only one without round rear lights. The 458 is the first not to have four pipes poking out from the rear… It’s fascinating.

The 308 is where it all started and this GTS is a proper early ‘carb’ car with four Weber 40s. In 1981 the 308 had the hair ripped from its chest by fuel injection, which dropped power from 252 to 214bhp. It partially re-grew when the QV came along and raised power back up to 240bhp, but carburettors are where it’s at. The leather driver’s seat, smoothed and polished through years of use, seems to be only available in a reclined position, there’s no shoulder support and the headrest would be of no use in an accident. The top of the steering wheel is tilted away from you too, and as a result you feel vaguely louche just sitting in this car. I’ve got the nagging sense that I ought to have put on some white socks and slipped into a pair of loafers before getting settled.

‘Analogue’ is the first thing that springs to mind when you look at the rows of slider controls between the seats. You suddenly remember how old this car is when you see one is labelled ‘Choke’. The small key can only go in one way up and the 2927cc, flat-plane-crank, 90-degree, transversely mounted V8 (reportedly a derivative of Angelo Bellei’s 1964 F1 engine) fires with a slightly feathery edge to the exhaust note. The controls are all weighty but not quite as heavy as I feared they might be. Left and back with the delicate-looking black-topped gearlever for the dog-leg first, ease up the revs with the floor-hinged accelerator and we’re away.

The gearshift is the focus of attention in the first few miles, partly because it just feels exciting to be using a Ferrari open-gate ’box and partly because you need to concentrate to use it. Across the gate it’s quite stiff initially so you don’t rush shifts, but the clutch is accurate and matches the sensations from the gearlever so it’s an enjoyable, albeit considered, process.

Out of a small village and squeeze open the taps towards the first sweeping corners. Your speed builds smoothly and at a rate where you can enjoy the note- changes in the gruff, guttural engine. The rate of acceleration isn’t going to snap your head back, but it’s not the disappointment I’d worried it might be either. Interestingly, both Harry Metcalfe and I thought it sounded a little ‘vintage’; what definitely aren’t vintage are the brakes, which feel superbly progressive and strong under your foot all the way from the top of the pedal’s travel.

If anything, after the confidence inspired on the way into the corner, it’s then something of a shock once you start using the steering wheel in anger. The first left-hander I tackle with a bit of ambition, the front end grips… then goes alarmingly light, and then the rear end appears to be quite unconnected and unhelpful until you get on the power.

To be fair, the chassis rigidity is never going to be quite as good when you’ve chopped a section out of the roof, but it was a shock to find out how much you need to methodically set the car up early and then drive it through on a balanced throttle to keep the chassis loaded up.

Harry reckons that there are sweeter-handling 308s (particularly without this car’s slightly wider wheels) but there’s no doubt that dynamically this car is more closely related to the Dino than the 348. That’s not to say it’s not desirable, far from it. It’s just that the best bit of all arguably comes when you park up, pull back the catch hidden under the swooping door architecture, get out, walk away and then stop and look back at what is probably the prettiest shape here. Owning one of these really would make you feel pretty good about life.

Where the 308 GTS is all subtle, scalloping, dainty edges and slim hips, the 348tb is a chunky, almost blunt shape, basking four-square in the car park, pretending to be a mini Testarossa. The t in tb stands for transverse (the b is for berlinetta) but it’s the gearbox not the engine that it’s referring to – unlike in its predecessor, the V8 is now mounted longitudinally, as it has remained in every ‘junior’ Ferrari since.

Swing open the straked door and the first thing that your eye is dragged to is the gearlever. Now silver-topped and with a slightly bigger ball, it looks like a piece of simple but stunning sculpture. I’d thought that all the levers were straight, but this one has the most perfect arc to it and it makes it utterly beautiful. The gorgeous cluster of Veglia dials in the 308’s instrument binnacle, however, have been replaced with ones scripted in luminous orange with a very square-edged digital-looking font. They scream ‘welcome to the ’80s!’ louder than a shell suit with shoulder pads, although weirdly I’m sure it’s also a very similar font to the one used on a 430 Scuderia’s bright yellow rev-counter…

Interestingly, this is the only car with a centre console that joins to the floor and it robs the cabin of a little of the spacious feel of the others. You also notice how offset the pedals are to your left. Stir the 296bhp (320bhp from 1993) V8 into life, then hoist up and down with your right hand to release the fly-off handbrake situated between seat and door. Vipul Dave, who has kindly brought this 348 along, suggests that I don’t bother with second gear while the car’s cold, saying, ‘It’s simply not worth it.’ Of course, I forget this completely as I move the lever out of the dog-leg first on the way down the hill and try to push it forwards for second. Nothing. It simply won’t go in. So I pull back for third, which is a little less reluctant, and the low revs chunter as I let the clutch up and we head down towards the village.

As we gather pace like the rolling stone, however, I forget all about the gearshift, because the simple, unairbagged, Momo Corse wheel is coming alive in my hands. It literally starts wriggling around, talking excitedly about all the bumps in the road and sometimes making a bigger gesture as a camber attracts its attention. Despite the lack of assistance and the wheel’s relatively small diameter, it’s not heavy in any way, there’s just perfect weight and no slack to add to the constant communication. The 348, if I’m honest, was probably the car I was least excited about driving, assuming it would just be a poorer, slower first stab at the 355. But now I’m excited because it’s instantly obvious this car has some of the best steering, possibly the best, that I have ever sat behind.

The engine is powerful enough rather than memorable and again the brakes are surprisingly strong and full of feel, but it’s the corners I’m starting to enjoy. The nose feels direct and eager to react, which is another surprise, so you get a lot of confidence guiding it through the shallow sweepers of the plain. By the time I reach a tighter series of S-bends I’m feeling inclined to pitch it in, but thankfully I’m a bit cautious the first time through. Turn in positively with that lovely steering and suddenly the engine behind you feels like it’s mounted very high up. The weight instantly wants to come round behind you and, unnervingly, it feels almost like the 348’s picking up an inside real wheel. ‘Don’t, whatever you do, lift off now,’ you have to tell yourself. Metcalfe, who has a bit of a ‘moment’ in the 348 later on, hits the nail on the head: ‘It’s like a mid-engined Peugeot 205 GTI; exciting when it’s going well but capable of delivering a heart-in-mouth moment should you dare hesitate when entering a corner a little too fast.’ I can certainly understand why road testers at the time were unnerved by it, particularly in the wet.

After the constantly busy thrills of the 348tb, the F355 F1 Berlinetta feels like a wonderfully soothing place to be. There’s no clutch to worry about and just a dinky T-bar where the teeth of the manual gate once were. The two pedals are less offset and although the fat steering wheel has swallowed an airbag, power assistance means it couldn’t have been easier to twirl when manoeuvring out of the car park.

Some traits still remain: the top of the wheel is still canted away slightly and the seating position feels laid-back and very low. There’s a strong suspicion that your bum would be sporting scratches if you ran across any conkers still in their cases.

The conker’s spikes would, of course, have to penetrate a full-length undertray, as the F355 was the first of the V8s to foray into F1-inspired aerodynamics. The most obvious F1 inspiration, however, comes in the shape of two small-eared black paddles behind the wheel. There’s a disconcerting amount of clutch slippage as you pull away from a standstill, but in the first few gentle miles the hydraulically actuated, paddle-operated manual is not the hesitant, jerky experience I had feared an early paddle-shift ’box might be.

In fact the whole car flows in a very relaxed manner, the supple suspension with its electronic dampers breathing with the road and filtering out any rough edges. Then, just when it’s all starting to feel a bit tame, you let the revs run a little higher. The hairs prickle on the back of your neck and goosebumps spread like wildfire across your forearms.
 
The sound as the five-valves-per-cylinder V8 (the reason for the last 5 in ‘355’) homes in on its 8500rpm red line is a howl wrapped up in a bark and enclosed in a shriek. Spines tingle, ears rejoice and you almost crave a Spider version just to make the most of it. This car actually goes even further as it has a Capristo exhaust on it, which sounds perfectly normal around town and through villages but rips the air to shreds as soon as the bypass valves open above 4000rpm. I, and probably every petrolhead in Wiltshire, heartily recommend one.

As you revel in the engine and your progress across the ground inevitably increases, the F1 ’box starts… to show its age, with blip-less downshifts… and 0.15-second upshifts (0.25 seconds if you’re not in ‘Sport’) interrupting… the flow a little. The handling is much friendlier than the 348’s, with the weight feeling lower and more balance front to rear, but you’re not really encouraged to explore it thanks to the slightly slow and over-assisted steering, which feels very light either side of the dead-ahead. Metcalfe has driven a couple of 355s recently and agrees: ‘It has a very talented chassis, but I only found this out by trust and not by the initial feel from the wheel. It’s not helped by the electronic dampers feeling a little “loose” to begin with, giving you the sense you’re never truly wired into what’s happening at the point of contact with the road.’ We both agree that we want one, though, even if it’s just for tunnels.

Fly-off handbrake on, lift up the flap to open the door (a system that appears from 348 all the way through to 458) and lunchtime finds me standing at a crossroads in the Ferrari V8 story: behind are buttresses and slats, ahead lie crackle-finished red cam covers beneath curvaceous glass. The 360 Modena really couldn’t look much more different to the 355 if it tried, and its design attracted some criticism at the time. I think it’s aged well, though, and the simplicity of both the 355’s and the 360’s lines makes them amongst the most seductive here.

Inside the 360, things have changed as much as on the outside. You feel like you’re sitting more upright and slightly higher off the ground. The steering wheel sits more vertically, the prancing horse in its centre pointing at the top of your six-pack rather than the middle of your sternum. The cockpit feels tidier, too, now that the instruments have all migrated back under the main binnacle with the rev-counter taking centre stage.

Despite being a noticeably bigger car, the 360’s weight is on a par with the 355’s thanks to an aluminium spaceframe replacing steel box-section in the chassis. You can sense the increase in stiffness just rolling across the larger stones in the car park, with the whole car feeling tighter, stiffer and more honed. With the slightly sparse interior, and the whole bodyshell reacting to what’s underneath the Pirelli P Zeros, it’s a bit like sitting in a big Lotus Exige.

The 360 was the last V8 Ferrari to sell in any meaningful numbers with a manual gearbox, so I’m quite pleased that this one doesn’t have paddles. The open-gated manual is a revered thing – it’s like one of the seven wonders of the automotive world, along with a Lamborghini scissor door and the McLaren F1’s central driving position. But the truth is that, as the 348 showed, they can sometimes be a complete pig to use, particularly when the oil’s chilly. When they’re working well (say, in an Audi R8… I’m going to find a prancing horse’s head in my bed for saying that!) you get the delicious clack-clack as the shaft moves swiftly between the prongs and it feels as smooth and satisfying as sliding a garden spade into soft earth. The 360’s is the best of the manual shifts here, with an easy, well-oiled action, even if occasionally it throws up a little unexpected resistance. It’s a characterful challenge – and I still love it.

The 360 is the first car I’ve driven
today that feels like a junior supercar in terms of its straight-line pace. Perhaps it’s because it’s rawer than the 355, but the increase in punch feels greater than the 20bhp hike and 0.2sec drop in 0-62mph time would suggest.

I find myself chasing Harry in the 348 and I watch as the black-slatted rear dives into a third-gear left-hander. The 360 follows with ease, obviously, but it feels like the tyres are barely scratching the surface of the road rather than digging in and generating huge grip. The quick steering and reactive nose mean it feels very much like the precursor to the 430 and 458 that it is, but when grip runs out at the front there’s a mid-engined twitchiness to the balance that you don’t feel you necessarily want to provoke.

Written down, it sounds a bit like the 348’s handling traits might have skipped a generation, but in reality there’s a much lighter, more tip-toey sensation with the 360. It’s more like a big mk1 Elise and delightful in the same way, but there’s an edginess that means you can’t drive it with quite the abandon of the cars that succeeded it. Nevertheless, it’s interesting how acutely you can feel the genesis of the current 458’s handling.

Technology is the first thing that strikes you about the 430. The 360’s graceful, clean lines have been tweaked and pinched in an effort to move the air in more efficient ways and Harry thinks it’s only half successful: ‘The sculpted front wings that wrap round perfectly formed headlights just ooze good design. Trouble is, I think the designers were taking so much care over the looks of the front half, they forgot to do the rear.’ The rear certainly looks a little hunched-up and tense across the shoulders, though there’s still something impressive about the row of vanes in the big rear diffuser.

Inside, the steering wheel has very definitely taken over from the gearlever as the attention-grabbing centrepiece. It’s not only that the manettino and starter button have appeared on the wheel for the first time, but the very shape of the wheel has started to morph from round to something more polygon-like. I wouldn’t mind betting that the 430 was launched around the same time as Ferrari started ramping up its merchandising business too, as there seem to be a lot more badges and cavallini dotted around the cabin.
There are a few little details that have history, however: the metal pedals have the same drilled holes that look like octopus suckers, just like in the 308, and the four switches for the petrol cap, heated rear screen, etc, are exactly the same as those operating the windows in the 355 (I know that’s a bit geeky, but let’s not forget the models in bubble-wrap).

Turn the key, fiddle with the immobiliser, turn the key again, scratch your head, then remember the big red pimple glaring out from the steering wheel marked ‘Start’. Of all the cars here, the 430 has the friendliest chassis. The steering is quick but not over-sensitive, the grip in the corners is impressive but not intimidating and the introduction of the E-diff paradoxically makes the rear both more planted and more exploitable. Gone is the nervous, overtly mid-engined feeling of the 360 and instead you have a car that can be driven like a 483bhp Italian M3.

The 430’s engine originally had a Maserati trident on the bonnet above it and curiously has just four valves per cylinder, but you can’t argue with the huge leaps of 89bhp and 68lb ft over the 360. There’s still a flat-plane crank but the noise coming from behind your shoulders and resonating across the plain has a deeper, hollower blare to it.

I really enjoy driving the 430. The predictability of its handling and how comfortable I feel driving it up to and over the limit feels spot-on for the road. Perhaps the only slight disappointment is that, seven years on, its F1 gearshift isn’t quite the snappiest any more. And to be fair it probably only feels that way because of the last car here…

The 458 Italia has probably the most ordinary door handles of the group (I’m a particular fan of the 355’s, hidden under the side vents) but apart from that it moves the game on in every possible way. You’re greeted by a dashboard that is moulded like a futuristic sculpture and a hexagonal steering wheel festooned with buttons as though you’re about to play Gran Turismo. The handbrake is electric and there’s no analogue dial apart from the 9000rpm red-lined rev- counter, not even a speedo. Instead there are two multifunction screens to tell you how fast you’re going, how toasty the engine, brakes and tyres are, and which way it is to Andover. But while the decor feels cutting-edge, the physical driving experience goes further still. It’s on another planet and I can’t see how the 458 can be called a ‘junior’ supercar anymore.

Everything is hyper-sensitive and your synapses need to be buzzing if you’re going to try to get on top of it and drive it quickly. Throttle inputs need measuring in millimetres, less if you can manage it. Likewise the steering, which darts the front end around with almost unnerving grip. The double-clutch ’box is the best on sale today with shifts, up or down, going through seamlessly yet with maximum drama. Ferrari has also finally fitted paddles long enough to allow you to change up while still exiting a corner (and if you’re sideways too it’s about the best feeling imaginable).

The whole car seems to sit flatter and wider on the road than the 430, with roll cut out almost entirely. It is possible to unstick the rear but I can guarantee you will be trying to when it happens. Thankfully the controls are so scintillating that it’s actually quite easy to catch the breakaway and you can even ride out the slide on the throttle, but it’s an adrenalin-fuelled game. After a fast drive in a 458 you feel like you won’t sleep for days, or if you do it will be with your eyes wide open. You’d probably go base-jumping to calm down.

Metcalfe actually believes it might be too much: ‘This car lifts performance to silly levels – you really don’t need to go this quick to enjoy a junior Ferrari.’ It certainly marks a huge leap over the 430 in the same way the 348 is a big jump on from the 308 and the 360 is a massive step on from the 355. And if you had to pick the best car from these six then there’s no question that the 458 is the pinnacle, the car which delivers the biggest, most visceral, most incredible hit.

But the reassuring thing is that the 458’s astounding pace and wizardry don’t diminish the other cars here. There are similarities and differences from first to last but each has its own distinct personality and you could find multiple perfectly rational and perfectly irrational reasons for being excited by any one of them. For example, my highlight was probably the 348’s steering, and that’s not something I’d expected at the beginning of the day. The point is that they all do justice to the small rectangular badge they share on their noses. And that’s a huge relief to the small boy in me.

Big thanks to Mark Borthwick (308), Vipul Dave at motoringlegends.co.uk (348), Nick Corke (F355), Martin Wooley (360) and www.meridien.co.uk (F430).

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