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car review

2012 Ferrari 458 Spider

To some, they used to be called poster cars: vehicles so achingly gorgeous to their mostly teenage admirers they'd end up on bedroom walls all across the world. To others, car porn.

Enticing shots of hot cars are more likely to be admired these days on websites, laptop screensavers, smartphone screens or digital wallpaper, their fetching design appeal spreading to older types looking for an extra bit of motivation on the job, or another reason to buy that lottery ticket.

Ferrari has long been a producer of these poster cars. And just as the digital mediums have fanned old desires into new forms, the Italian auto maker has also advanced its traditional mid-engine sports car to take advantage of modern technology.

The proof is in the new 458 Spider, which retains all the aesthetic and performance appeal of its luscious 458 Italia coupe, and adds a folding metal roof. It therefore becomes the first mid-engine sports car to find room behind its two occupants for a large engine as well as a receptacle in which to snuggle the back-flipping roof panel.

The one design sacrifice 458 Spider buyers will have to make is that they can no longer see the lovely red cam covers, its artfully displayed twin cylinder banks seeming more like an elegant H-pattern than a 90-degree V.

In any other car, you wouldn't think twice about not seeing the engine. But Ferrari's mid-engine sports car has been showing off its heart under a transparent cover since the 360 Modena debuted in 1999, and then the much admired F430 after it, which became the best-selling Ferrari of all time.

It's clear that Ferrari tried various ways to keep the engine visible. But the top became too heavy, as did the support structures, say company executives. Yet what makes the 458's lack of transparency more notable is that even when you pop the new louvered rear hood, you still can't see the vast majority of the engine.

This is a marked contrast with the 458's predecessor, which kept the engine proudly visible in both top up and top down forms. In part, this was a brazen sporting statement; but it also effortlessly accommodated the many requests to see the work of art lurking underneath.

Ferrari officials in Italy say their main goals in designing the 458 Spider were to increase comfort while maintaining the handling and dynamic response of the Italia. This may not seem a recipe that would scream for adding a seemingly bulkier folding hardtop. But the sports car maker says the aluminum top's components weigh 25 kg less than the soft top in the F430 Spider, and that the 2012 Spider will outweigh its coupe counterpart by only 50 kg.

That's enough to maintain Ferrari's mysteriously vague 0-100 km/h acceleration time for the 458 Italia of "less than 3.4 seconds." Top speed is slightly lower for the Spider, at 320 km/h, although if you'll miss those extra five kilometres or so of top end, you'd likely be more interested in the track-friendlier and stiffer coupe.

Ferrari engineers insist that damper rates on the 458 convertible are 30 per cent softer, to ease its everyday suitability for owners who tend to drive their cars longer, if not quite as hard – perhaps out of compassion, since they tend to drive more often with a passenger. This car can easily generate enough g-force to send your significant other's lunch flying back up through their nose, at which point they'll surely be less than impressed with the car or its driver.

That significant other will more likely be impressed with the impeccable materials inside, as well as the ultra-modern feel of the centre console, dials and controls. The flat-bottom steering wheel is immaculately carved and attractive, though the buttons for the horn integrated into the outer rim can be tough to find in a hurry.

The rear window now operates as a windscreen, automatically positioning itself ideally to cut wind noise and buffeting, or a switch on the dash can open or close it at will, allowing you lots of wind in through the windows.

For such a performance-minded sports car, the 458 Spider is remarkably quiet with the roof up. Add to that a suspension that can be instantly placed in "soft" mode – or at least as soft as a rear-engine Ferrari allows – and it makes a noticeable difference when you find yourself on an unexpectedly rough road, while keeping your engine and transmission aggressiveness settings the same.

But to truly experience this car's soul, one needs to pull over, hit the P button for Park, then hold that roof button for 14 seconds until sunshine appears above you, and similarly heavenly noises come through like a shrieking vuvuzela installed behind your hand-stitched leather seat.

Despite the technological advancements in the all-aluminum hardtop, the multi-adjustable suspension with electronic damping, and the simple-yet-advanced manettino controller on the steering wheel that adjusts throttle maps, shift speeds and electronic stability settings, it's the raw emotional power that makes the 2012 Ferrari 458 Spider stand out even in a peer group that include some of the most exciting droptops in the world.

Slated to become available in March in Canada, at a price that will very likely exceed 300 large, Ferrari has created a poster car that's equally as exciting from the driver's seat as the sidewalk, and gives up little compared to its fixed hardtop sibling.

Tech specs

2012 Ferrari 458 Spider

Type: Two-seat convertible sports car

Base price: (estimated) $257,000 (U.S.)

Engine: 4.5-litre V-8

Horsepower/torque: 562 hp/398 lb-ft

Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic

Drive: Rear-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.8 combined city/highway; premium gas

Alternatives: Aston Martin DBS Volante, Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder, Mercedes-Benz SLS Roadster, Porsche 911 Turbo S Cabriolet