You don’t expect a Ferrari to be a breeze to drive on Delhi roads – it’s like taking a derby winner for an evening trot down Juhu beach. But the 458 Italia is one of those rare thoroughbreds that can adapt quite well to an environment it wasn’t exactly made for. It’s me that’s taking a bit of time to adjust. I gingerly ease the 458 over the hump exiting the Aman Hotel, conscious of scraping the underbelly on the way out, but thanks fully there’s no sickening crunch. A bigger test of nerves is the 458’s blind spots, which can hide autorickshaws, camera phone-toting bikers and menacing DTC buses all at once. Driving a left-hand-drive car didn’t help either, especially when you have to place that gorgeous looking nose into Lutyen’s many (and free-for-all) roundabouts. You can’t just rely on the wing mirrors to see what’s barreling towards you, so you have to depend on your passenger to say ‘go’ or ‘no’. But, with each passing kilometre, confidence rises and within 20 minutes you’re ready to play in Delhi traffic. An epic day lies ahead.
The 458 Italia is widely acknowledged as the best sports car in the world. That’s quite a sweeping statement but it’s one that I wholeheartedly endorse after every encounter, however brief, I’ve had with this Ferrari. I’ve driven it on Mumbai streets (thanks to my good friend Gautam Singhania), on a private test track (with a smitten sachin Tendulkar), and just now around the Buddh circuit and Delhi roads.
It’s hard to pin-point one thing that makes the 458 drive straight into your left ventricle but if there is one thing, it’s the geisha-like personality of this sports car, which aims to flatter and delight the driver in any circumstance. So whether you’re tootling along in traffic or going flat out on a race track, the 458 is up for it.
With the Manettino set in ‘Sport’, that’s right, in a 458, sport is ‘normal’, it’s remarkable now civilised the 458 feels in the thick of Delhi traffic. It idles smoothly, accelerates quite seamlessly and I’m amazed how well the twin-clutch gearbox functions. At low revs, the engine note is quite mellow too. Enhancing the everyday usability is the 458’s suspension, which is remarkably pliant for a supercar, especially on the softer of the two-stage damper settings. Delhi has its fair share of bad roads, which the 458 tackles quite easily, and it’s only sharp edges and potholes that can’t be absorbed by the rubber-band thin sidewall that crash through. The light, quick steering with just 2.0 turns from lock to lock may feel too sensitive on a race track (see box) but in town it gives you a certain amount of agility which is useful for darting through traffic.
Spending the better part of a day inside the 458 allows you to soak in the interiors and the detailing (I lost count of how many prancing horses there are embossed on various parts of the car) that seems light years ahead of its predecessor, the F430. There is a genuine quality feel to the insides that family befits its bloated price tag, but if there is a fault, it’s with the ergonomics. Ferrari’s idea of making its cars completely driver-focussed is to house all the controls on the steering wheel – including the wiper function, turn signals and high/how beam setting. It’s pretty confusing not to find conventional steering-column stalks and I couldn’t stop fumbling for the turn indicators, which invariably wouldn’t cancel out. A large rev counter with bold fonts takes pride of place in the instrument cluster and is an invitation to rev the hell out of this 4499cc V8 motor. After spending most of the Sunday morning trundling most of the Sunday morning trundling around on empty roads to find locations to shoot, it was time to do just that.
It’s amazing how the persona of the 458 goes from meek to manic with just the flex of your right foot. Select ‘hell-raiser’ on the Manettino, tug the left paddle till ‘1’ lights up on the LED display, mash the brilliantly weighted right pedal and within seconds, you’re rocketed into a different world.
With all 562 horse unleashed, the Italia can catapult you to 100kp in under four seconds. This makes it seriously fast and seriously scary too because you don’t realise how quickly your arrive at the bumper of the car in front of you. It’s only in the first two gears really and maybe third (but don’t tell anyone!) that you can use the full extent of the rev range without looking like a complete lunatic.
This engine revs to a heady 9000rpm and the soundtrack along the way makes even the Rs 3.5-lakh optional sound system seem like a complete waste of money. The exhaust bypass flaps open somewhere along the charge to the redline and the engine becomes incredibly loud and shrill as it rushed to redline. Engine notes don’t come more operatic than this – except if it’s a V12 Ferrari, which we’ll come to later.
The thing about the 458 is that you can enjoy yourself without the fear of it getting the better of you. It’s the way the 458 magically blends its astonishing pace with practicality that makes it such an incredibly satisfying car to drive. The fact that it looks fantastic simply the last tick on the box. Yes, it costs a fortune and so do the options but at this price, nothing captivates you quite so convincingly. Not even the FF which is a cool Rs 86 lakh more.
With four seats good enough to accommodate fairly large adults and a biggish boot to take their weekend luggage, the FF is the functional choice. But when you’re asked to shell out upwards of RS 3.42 crore, it’s hard to see the practical side of it. That’s until you get moving.
Jumping from the 458 straight into FF, it’ easy to make comparisons. You are instantly aware that this is a much bigger car by the huge bonnet in front of you. The front-engined, four-wheel-drive Ferrari, with its relatively slower steering doesn’t feel as agile as the 458, but the ride is even supple and that’s saying something On uneven surfaces, there’s less vertical movement and the long-wheelbase FF only gets fazed by broken surfaces and large speedbreakers, which you need to tip-toe over. A more appropriate comparison can be made with the Lamborghini Aventador, which we exclusively drove on Indian roads a month ago. The FF doesn’t have the raw, brutish appeal of Lambo’s flagship, but feels like a limousine in comparison. That’s not a bad thing, especially when you’re driving at three-tenths around town like I was. And it’s at the civilized end of the scale that you realise that the gearbox is such an important part of the experience. The seven-speed, twin-clutch gearbox (the first on a V12) has none of the jerky, violent feel of the Aventador’s single-clutch unit, but does that rob some of the drama when you’re going for it? Probably yes. On the same open road I redline the 458, I did a repeat performance in the FF. Gearshifts were lightning-quick and, leaving the Manettino in ‘full manual’, you could bounce the shrieking V12 off the limiter. But, just like with the 458, gearshifts aren’t as explosive as in the Aventador, which somewhat masks the brute force of the engine. The FF is distinctively quicker than the 458 and again, you have to concentrate and pick your moments before you can unleash the 651bhp of this 6.3-litre engine. First, second and maybe a bit of third gear and it’s quickly over. You’re back to burbling behind a rick or a scooter. There’s also the sound of the V12 to relish. It’s more shrill and soulful than the 458’s V8 and the simple joy of blasting through an underpass with the windows down to savour the deafening exhaust note played out in theatrical style. For that alone, the FF is worth its ludicrous price.
Though the FF is bigger and more powerful, it’s easier to live with. Not just for its four seats and boot space, but for the very secure and reassuring feel a front-engined, four-wheel-drive car that is perfectly balanced, gives you. This was never more obvious than when I drove the FF in Italy last year. Unlike the Aventador, which is the fastest car I’ve ever driven in India, the FF was the easiest to drive really fast. But in the real world, such occasions to drive flat out are few and far between, so it’s not what a Ferrari can do, but what it does to you that makes it so irresistible.
Source: Autocar March 2012