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).
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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).