Porsche 911 GT3 RS v Ferrari 458 Italia

Porsche's purist road-racer or technology-laden new 'baby' Ferrari: which is the better junior supercar on the road?

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There is a moment, just the briefest, fleeting instant, when the 911 GT3 RS feels outdated, almost obsolete. It’s difficult to fathom how the purest Porsche street machine could ever feel out of date given that its 3.8-litre motor now has 444bhp, great hunks of titanium connecting the crank with the top of the engine and a specific output that reeks of motorsport. But, after the Ferrari 458 Italia, it seems old.

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In fairness, the 458 isn’t the normal updated V8 berlinetta. It’s a paradigm shift in the way Ferrari approaches the subject of performance cars, and it does things that other – perhaps lesser – machines cannot.

Accordingly, after a decent run in the Ferrari, I clamber back into the RS. The optional adjustable buckets of this car make that a more dignified process than the fixed carbon efforts that are fitted as standard, and you settle behind that familiar three-spoke wheel and low-scuttled dashboard. It’s a decent place to sit, if a little unexciting. Your synapses still tingling from the Ferrari’s outrageous pace, you twist that chunky key and the opposed six fires with a baaaaarp then the single-mass flywheel chunters away.

You push the heavy clutch pedal down against its stop, move the Alcantara-covered gearlever to select first gear (it needs a good shove and the gate offers much more resistance than a standard 911’s equivalent) and get rolling.

And it’s during these first few moments that the 911 suddenly feels almost vintage after the 458 – a journey back in time to a quaint period when cars had three pedals and a stubby lever between the front seats. Christ, the Porsche has clock faces on its dashboard – from the driver’s seat the 458’s dash looks like some kid-gamer’s fantasy: TFT screens and multiple configurations of pretty much anything. The Porsche has a yellow shift light – and that’s about your lot.

Minutes earlier, the 458 was imperceptibly swapping gears in fractions of a second at the touch of a paddle, steering with such speed that it wasn’t necessary to cross your hands – and now the Porsche is asking you to move a lever, arse about with an extra pedal and use indicator stalks. It feels slightly backward: like stepping from a full-carbon Bianchi racing bike onto a penny-farthing.

The disappointment – if you can call it that – doesn’t last long. Once your hands, feet and bottom acclimatise to the messages that fizz through the RS’s structure, the car suddenly feels alive, and its burgeoning, relentless personality is completely addictive. Only then do you begin to understand the fascinating dichotomy presented by these two superb cars – perhaps the two best series-production road-going sports cars ever produced, in fact. Because having driven them both back-to-back, and now sitting here writing about them, I’m still not sure that they should be compared with each other.

You see, Ferrari hasn’t just moved the game on in terms of performance – taking this car out to 562bhp at 9000rpm, with a kerb weight of 1485kg, is pretty extreme – it has also genetically enhanced the price to £169,545. A generously specified car like the one tested here now occupies a price point so far removed from the £106,870 GT3 RS that you could have a base-spec RS and a cooking Carrera for everyday use for the same money.

The Porsche may be 118bhp shy of the 458, but it does counter with a pretty delicious specification of its own. That famous Metzger-designed six now displaces 3.8 litres and runs to beyond 8000rpm. Interestingly, it uses titanium rods to operate at those crank speeds, whereas the 458 spins to a crazy 9000rpm with nothing but steel internals. The torque deficit isn’t as great, but the 4.5-litre Ferrari’s extra displacement brings 398lb ft compared with the Porsche’s 317. Perhaps the most important comparative figures are the power-to-weight ratios. The 458 offers a startling 384bhp per ton; the 911 trails with 329bhp per ton.

Back to the 458 then. Styling is a personal thing, but the Italia quickens your breathing, combining distinctive mid-engined Ferrari berlinetta traits with some stunning aerodynamic detailing. There are so many scoops, intakes and outlets that the car seems semi-porous, and of course there are the triple exhausts that are a respectful nod to the F40. In black it’s decidedly insectile: a 560bhp praying mantis with alien-esque LED eyes and an appetite for Porsches.

If the exterior seems futuristic, the interior goes several steps further. The main aim has been to provide an environment that allows the driver to either keep both hands on the wheel at all times or, at the very least, have him reach no more than a few inches. It’s a complete departure from anything we’ve seen from Ferrari before and it’s notable for looking stunning and being mostly logical. It’s also very well constructed.

Why this large-scale reappraisal of control surfaces didn’t include a re-think of the ludicrous key and starter button functions is anyone’s guess, but the silliness found in other recent Ferraris is perpetuated in the 458: you must insert the key and hit a button on the wheel to fire the V8. It yelps into life and idles more smoothly than expected.

You pull the right-hand lever to select first, just as you did with the old-style ‘F1’ ’boxes, but this time there’s no unseemly clunk as the gear engages and no ugly shunting as you try to drive away slowly – the new dual-clutch transmission has transformed the slow-speed manners of the smallest Ferrari. It’s now a pussycat in town.

The steering is very fast and light – almost arcade-game in its apparent detachment from the front axle – and the throttle response is very sharp. These, combined with the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gearshift, make the first few minutes in a 458 rather unsettling. And then you realise that to drive and enjoy the Italia you have to adjust to its way of doing things, which, on the whole, means managing your inputs with a greater degree of delicacy – especially the steering.

The performance is pretty startling. Don’t think for a minute that the peak output point of 9000rpm leaves this car lacking in the mid-range, because it hauls from 2500rpm in one great wall of noise, and those seven ratios are so closely stacked – and the gearshift so fast – that the impression is of one long, sustained rush of acceleration.

Ferrari’s ‘baby’ motor is itself now a complete monster. The claimed performance for this car makes your head ache just thinking about it. I mean, 0-124mph in 10.4sec is insane. It takes a 550 Maranello that long to reach 100mph, and that, of course, is assuming that its driver is capable of nailing the perfect getaway that you would require to achieve it.

It’s the anytime nature of the 458’s performance that comes as such a shock, and much of that is down to the transmission. This is by far the best sporting application of a dual-clutch tranny, because it’s smooth and unobtrusive when you want it to be, then an instant later those same clever gizzards transform into something approximating a full race transmission. Even your neck gets a light thwack during each full-bore upshift. It makes Ferrari’s old hydraulically actuated manuals seem like a complete shambles.

The chassis’ electrical systems are truly amazing. At first you push gently on the long-travel throttle pedal, waiting for the point at which the E-Diff begins to lock and push the car into oversteer. But with the manettino in Sport mode, the differential and traction control work almost imperceptibly – to the point that you quickly begin burying the throttle with increasing anger, just to see what happens. The answer, on dry asphalt, is grip and grip. Traction is superb.

The ride is a little busy with the dampers on the firmer setting, but you can improve this by knocking them back to ‘bumpy road’ mode, though even then the 458 is less supple than the RS, which I didn’t expect. The 458 has good wheel travel, though, and even if it feels hurried over rough surfaces, it rarely gets deflected.

What emerges from time in the 458 is a driver-vehicle relationship unlike any other. You drive the car with your wrists, making small, neat inputs. You lean on the systems to transfer as much of that 562bhp to the surface as possible and you almost forget about the gearshift because it’s so damn efficient. You cover ground at an extraordinary rate, you snigger at the arrogance of the engine and you admire – greatly admire – the technical omniscience of Ferrari’s achievement.

And, at first, the precocious brilliance of the 458 does hang heavy over the RS. It just feels antiquated and unnecessarily demanding. The gearshift is so heavy, the steering much slower and the engine, despite being superbly responsive, doesn’t fling the car at the horizon the way the Ferrari’s V8 does. There’s somehow slightly more inertia in the package, which is odd given that it’s over 100kg lighter.

But, as with all 911s, you need to gel with the latest RS, work with it, not against it. What then emerges is one of the great analogue driving experiences; this is very much Porsche’s vinyl to Ferrari’s MP3. That slower steering rack speaks to the driver through a thin-rimmed Alcantara wheel, and the way it writhes and wriggles in your hands might actually be the clearest representation of the differences between the two cars. You see, the Porsche is obsessed with involving the driver, it wants you to take charge and feel everything, whereas the Ferrari is much more concerned with technical excellence, with deploying its fearsome potential to the surface at all times. There’s this nagging little voice in the RS, like an over-enthusiastic nephew: ‘Come and see this! Come and feel this! Come on! Come on!’

Through a series of tighter, more technical sections, there’s no doubt that the Ferrari is marginally the quicker car. Its front axle holds a slightly tighter line – even on normal Michelin Pilot Sport rubber compared with the Porsche’s Cup variety – and its traction is simply remarkable. But the RS is the more effervescent; you feel its mass moving around more, you have to manage the power more actively and it sends some glorious messages back through seat, pedals and wheel.

It wants to misbehave too. After a couple of sensible passes for the camera, I can’t help but ‘back it in’ and exact some pain on those rear tyres. It’s so intuitive and natural, but equally so strange that a car with perhaps the strongest reputation for flinging its occupants into rock-faces is actually the more amenable of the two. The 911’s slower steering helps – in the 458 you’re dealing in tiny fractions of inputs.

The noise is telling, too. For all the Ferrari’s volume and shriek, it offers a slightly synthesised shout, whereas the Porsche sounds more organic. Yes, it too has valves in the exhaust system that open under certain loads, but above 4000rpm it just sounds divine.

By now you’ll be spotting the vast differences in the way these two go about their business. The Porsche is infinitely more demanding of the driver. All it takes is a second-gear turn approached from a fifth-gear straight to expose the gap that exists between the two experiences they offer. In the Ferrari you simply choose your line, avoid any notably bumpy sections in the braking zone, thump the left pedal, feel those huge 398mm carbon-ceramic Brembos come to life, flick the left paddle three times and turn in. Easy as A-B-C.

Not so in the Porsche. Again, you pick your braking zone carefully to avoid bumps, even though the RS is actually deflected less by them because it’s a little softer. But each gearchange requires a perfect combination of shifting, steering and heel ’n’ toe if you’re to avoid agitating the rear axle. You have to manage the mass more carefully, too. Nail the brakes (smaller at 380mm, but with a more consistent pedal response) and the nose dives under deceleration, but release them too quickly and it rises suddenly, unloading the front axle too fast and bringing a whole world of pain known to the outside world as understeer. In short, the driver has a much bigger influence on the quality of the 911’s behaviour.

This is a key point in the defining characteristics of 458 and RS. They may not be direct rivals but they mark two potential paths for the future of effing fast cars: the deliberately interactive and the deliberately competent. They aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, because the Ferrari is still great fun and the Porsche is deceptively refined and useable, but their core characters are so different. I warmed to the RS more, mainly because it reminded me of what I look for in a car. I want to be a part of the action and I’m now surer than ever that greatness can be measured in the clarity of connection between driver and machine.

Does that make the Porsche the better car? It depends on your point of view. There’s no doubt that the 458 is a superior technical statement and that its spread of abilities shades the 911’s. You could use the 458 every day, its transmission is brilliant and the cabin is ideal for long distances (the optional carbon-backed seats are especially good). What it doesn’t deliver is as pure an interactive driving experience as the RS. Some will find the 911 a bore – too difficult, too demanding – but in reality its judgement of hardcore adrenalin rush and surprising useability isn’t that far behind the 458’s. This one has sat-nav, an iPod connector and electrically adjustable seats. It’s just not as refined as the Ferrari.

I prefer to summarise them like this. If you told me I had to drive one of this pair every day for the next 12 months, I’d take the 458. It’s a stunning achievement. But if you told me I could only drive one car for an hour during that same period, could only savour 60 minutes in a vehicle during a whole year, I would choose the GT3 RS. It’s a rush and it reminds us what driving is all about.

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