With the iron door at the iconic Ferrari factory gate in Maranello buzzing open at 8:55 in the morning, I can’t help getting excited about what is going to happen. One of the most legendary sports car manufacturers invited me to drive their latest model and it is mine for the day. Shreds of childhood dreams and historic images of Formula 1 hero’s, movie stars and world leaders at this exact same location flash through my head. What is it with this inexplicable force of attraction surrounding Ferrari? It is not just the result of a highly effective marketing department, because the village is covered in red and yellow and the number of flags and images of prancing horses is a tourist attraction in itself. And that is just in their home town. Visit a Grand Prix anywhere on the planet and the amount of Tifosi is even more impressive. Such a large group of fans and devoted followers makes the release of every new Ferrari an extremely exciting and hotly debated event. In case of the 488 the tension was on at even higher level, since this is the first Ferrari in this segment with a turbocharged engine. The last time Ferrari offered an engine with forced induction was in the early nineties with the F40. That was a full blown supercar however, and the 488 operates at the other side – or actually the bottom – of the sports car spectrum.
Engine of the Year Awards
As a member of the International Engine of the Year Awards I asked for a detailed technical explanation about the newly developed V-8 engine. So they didn’t just hand me the keys, I was first bombarded by Ferrari engineers with all the innovative improvements that put the 488 ahead of the competition and hopefully ahead of the 458 Italia as well. Especially that last part was very important during the development process: the naturally aspirated 4.5 V-8 with 562-hp – that dominated different classes of the International Engine of the Year Awards for years – could spin up to 9,000 rpm and sounded like a race car that accidentally found its way onto public roads. Impressed with all the scientific details and the dazzling numbers I finally get the red key to a spectacular blue 488 Spider along with the messages: “You can drive as far as you like, but please make sure to return the car before five pm.” Now that’s a good start!
Turning left from that famous front gate I drive straight through the small centre towards the hills. I have a map on the driver’s seat showing a route highlighted with a marker and this is one of the routes that factory test drivers use during their daily routine. Expecting people to be accustomed to Ferraris driving at extreme speeds here I go flat out, but I did not expect so many people to cheer, smile and honk along the way. While revving the engine to its max of 8,000 rpm I notice it sounds less aggressive and not as loud as the V-8 in the 458, but intimidating nonetheless. More like a baritone bark instead of a hysterical shriek. That 8,000 rpm redline is exactly where you want to keep this eight cylinder, because that is where it delivers full power. It doesn’t just deliver it though, it throws it in your face, or in your back actually and with a brutal amount of force. The 488 accelerates in such a way that you need to focus on the braking point of the next corner, while still exiting the corner before it. This car doesn’t just accelerate, it skips parts of the road.
As much as I love blasting down these rollercoaster mountain roads, I have to abort this high speed rush for our own safety. Exceeding speed limits by factor three and vehicles I overtake appearing to go backwards are clear signs of imminent disaster. The ideal moment then, to turn the Manettino switch on the steering wheel to ‘Sport’, open the roof and enjoy the 488 in a completely different way. La Dolce Vita. This hard core street racer turns out to have a very gentle side as well. The engine sound changes into a background rumble, the transmission becomes silky smooth and the chassis shows that Ferrari is still master and commander in the Gran Turismo segment. On the last part of the route, I floor the accelerator one more time. Even in this – relatively – comfortable mode the V-8 pops and crackles on the downshifts and the 488 screams down the road again. The increase in speed is so powerful that it gives the impression of your full body weight being pressed into the backrest without your backside putting any pressure on the seat. This sensation is instantly flipped 180 degrees when the huge callipers bite down into the carbon fibre disk and I crash back to the 50 km/h (30 mph) speed limit, with the air being pressed out off my lungs by the immense force of the safety belt.
With schoolboys waving and pointing ecstatically and tourist snapping pictures I drive through the front gate to return the Spider, filled with mixed emotions. Sad because I don’t want this test drive to end, but happy because the 488 has exceeded every single expectation. Worries about a less responsive and muffled engine because of two turbochargers have completely disappeared and the feared turbo gap is only faintly noticeable below 3,000 rpm at low speeds in a high gear. The only real turbo lag we detected is the one between the resignation of the iconic F40 and the launch of this latest descendant that, without any doubt, has the best turbocharged engine available at this time.