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2011 Ferrari 458 Italia (Michael Bettencourt for The Globe and Mail)
2011 Ferrari 458 Italia (Michael Bettencourt for The Globe and Mail)

Ferrari 458 Italia

Ferrari Italia takes its place in history Add to ...

Vendors around the Maranello factory offer tourists a short drive in a Ferrari, modern or older: €80 for 10 minutes in a California, €100 for a pricier F430 Scuderia.

And if you really want to stand out in this Ferrari town, one vendor offered a blast in a Lamborghini Gallardo.

There were no examples of the 2011 458 Italia, the all-new Ferrari V-8 sports car that replaces the much-beloved F430. Not surprising, since the Italia is not in full production yet; it won't be available until July in North America.

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However, there is a 458 Italia gracing Ferrari's Galleria museum - and in a deserved spot already.

Sure, there are a few exotics with similar power and price tags to the 458, but the Lamborghini Gallardo is the 458 Italia's undisputed arch-rival. Built 45 minutes away in northern Italy, the Gallardo also offers a low and lusty design, mind-blowing power and a similarly audacious price of $270,000 or so.

Having just recently sampled Lamborghini's new 2011 Gallardo 570-4 Superleggera at full scream on a race track in Spain, it was fascinating to note the many similarities between it and the all-new 458 during a preview drive of the new Ferrari in and around the mountains surrounding its Maranello birthplace, although the two have completely different personalities.

Power is remarkably identical: using European figures, we're talking exactly the same horsepower and torque for both the 458 and Gallardo Superleggera: 570 and 398, respectively. Hmm, could this have been the result of some MacLaren-style peeking over the fence at your Ferrari neighbours? Perhaps, although the 458 is no secret, having officially been unveiled last fall. But the Lambo's massive grunt comes from a 5.2 V-10, while the Ferrari has a 4.5-litre V-8.

The figures are a truthful hint to their differing routes to enthusiast heartstrings. The Ferrari is the high-tech, high-rpm, Formula One-inspired route to performance heaven, while Lamborghini has staked a more immediate, traditional and brasher territory in the Italian super-car wars.

The Ferrari seems more technologically advanced in every way. It sports a more understated, but aerodynamically efficient, body, with an integrated rear spoiler and air intakes in the headlights and rear bodywork but not on the body sides and has a much more modern dual-clutch transmission compared to the rougher single-clutch unit used in the Lambo and the 458's F430 predecessor.

The 458 Italia also marks a historical turning point for the F1-inspired company. It will be the first Ferrari not to offer a manual transmission.

"The manual gearbox is now dead, literally," said Joanne Marshall, communications director for Ferrari in Maranello, since Ferrari has integrated the latest-generation electronic differential into the new dual-clutch transmission. "Not only for performance reasons, but also for emissions."

Sniff, rest in peace, that "clink clink" of metallic gear changes - you may not have moved Ferraris any faster than these new manual and automatic transmission permutations, but the distinct feeling and sound held an appealing sense of authority in one's driving, enough so to be copied by various rivals.

Marshall says the company now sells less than 5 per cent of its products globally with a manual. Combine those sales figures with Ferrari's stated goals for increased fuel economy and hybridization of all its cars in the next four years, and the end of the manual Ferrari era seems near.

In the end, however, Ferrari is about performance above tradition, so there are clear advances with this transmission. The seven-speed Getrag in automatic mode jumps up the gears very quickly, and relatively smoothly, so that you're in sixth almost by the time you unwind the steering wheel.

This no doubt helps achieve the official combined rating of a surprisingly reasonable 13.3 litres/100 km, although it also deprives the 458 driver of revs, which this car really needs to truly sing.

That's not only because its power peak of 570 hp is right up at this car's mind-blowing 9,050 rpm redline, but also because there's an occasional harsh metallic resonance at sub-5,000 engine speeds that tells you this car is happier when being worked hard. Even the torque peaks at a lofty 6,000 rpm, with 0-100 km/h runs and top speeds of less than 3.4 seconds and more than 325 km/h, respectively. That's as specific as Ferrari will be, at least officially, although they admit to a recent 3.3-second run at the firm's Fiorano test track.

Regardless of the numbers, above 6,000 rpm is where the true joy lies. Smash your foot to the floor, and the ferocity with which this engine flies up to its tach's upper third is startling, its flywheel seemingly as light as fresh popcorn. It wasn't easy to get to redline on this mostly twisty route, nor will it be on open straights if you value your drivers' licence, so this car demands some track time to truly get to know it properly.

Getting to know its insides takes a while as well, as Ferrari has done away with any type of control stalk besides the shift paddles. This means that the turn signals, wiper and washer controls are right on the lovely flat-bottomed steering wheel, along with buttons to start the engine, soften the suspension, or toggle the F1-inspired manettino dial between comfort and increasingly hard-edged performance settings for the transmission, exhaust and stability control system.

It's likely the busiest steering wheel in the business now. But it also does its most important job impeccably well: steer the car exactly to the inch of pavement where you want it.

Five minutes out of the parking lot of Ferrari's headquarters made it clear that the all-new aluminum chassis and front suspension has given the 458 radically quick steering, with response as immediate at 20 km/h as during a brief blast to 220.

At high speeds, black winglets integrated into the front nose deflect downward by up to two centimetres, helping to both push air underneath the car, while adding some additional down-force. These "flexible" wings were used and soon outlawed in F1.

At the end of the day, we parked the 458 next to the "family tree" wall at the Ferrari factory, which depicts the company's entire half-century of road cars. With shadows looming, the Italia lined up nicely against a life-size depiction of the F430, Ferrari's best-selling model of all time, its worthy successor shining just a little brighter.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

2011 FERRARI 458 ITALIA

Type: Mid-engine, two-seat exotic coupe

Base price: To be announced

Engine: 4.5-litre, direct-injection V-8, DOHC

Horsepower/torque: 570 hp/398 lb-ft

Transmission: Seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic

Drive: Rear-wheel-drive

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 13.3 overall; premium required

Alternatives: Aston Martin DBS, Audi R8 5.2 V-10, Lamborghini Gallardo

LIKE: Eye-popping style that's understated by Ferrari sports-car standards;dripping with Formula One inspiration: looks, interior, under the hood; Enzo-like super-car performance from Ferrari's "entry-level" coupe; super-quick steering as responsive at 20 km/h as at 220 km/h; soulful wail above 6,000 rpm, right up to 9,000 rpm redline

DON'T LIKE: Lack of any stalks puts too much on steering wheel, like high beams and turn signals; having the navi up means you can't see stereo settings; missing some basic standard items: iPod input, cup holders, CD player; responsive steering could be overly quick at high speeds; needs a track to fully enjoy

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