Wonderful in many ways, but also symbolic of a changing world | by Andrew Frankel
When you drive the new Ferrari 488 GTB and feel more power under your foot than offered by the pinnacle Ferrari Enzo hypercar of just 10 years earlier, it is easy to forget how it got that way. The journey that leads directly and without interruption to this wildly potent machine begins in 1968 with Ferrari’s first mid-engined car, a machine so junior to its mighty V12 stablemates it was named after Enzo’s son. Its 2-litre V6 engine offered just 180bhp and it was called the Dino 206GT.
Today’s junior Ferrari, this 488 GTB, offers 660bhp – or, put another way, precisely double the output of Ferrari’s Boxer flagship scarcely more than 30 years ago. And all I can think it has in common with its original 206GT ancestor is that mid-mounted engine location and an 8000rpm red line.
The 488 GTB is technically a modified version of the 458 Italia that came out in 2010, but as the only significant components carried over are the gearbox, steering rack, glasshouse and roof, it can be thought of as effectively new. Its engineering is so dense that a room full of motoring hacks, who can usually be counted on to start dozing after about 45 minutes of technical presentations, were held rapt for more than two hours, once even breaking into spontaneous applause as some unfathomable evidence of its mechanical complexity was displayed like lines of DNA code on a screen.
However, the essence of it is this: if you exclude the Italian-market 208GTB Turbo tax-break special of the 1970s and ’80s, the 488 GTB is only Ferrari’s second turbocharged mid-engined car after the F40. Its engine retains the flat-plane configuration of all Ferrari V8s (save that fitted to the Lancia Thema 8.32) and has a capacity reduced from the 4.5 litres of the 458 to just 3.9 litres but its power output raised by an entire 100bhp. The car’s construction is still all-aluminium, Ferrari resisting as ever the lure of anything more than cosmetic carbon fibre in its production models. Even so there are no fewer than 12 different alloys in its structure and body and, despite the additional turbos, wastegate and 20 per cent increase in required cooling capacity, the 488 is still 10kg lighter than the 458 it replaces.
But I don’t think it’s as pretty as the 458. It’s more pugnacious and more heavily muscled, especially around its shoulders where those huge air intakes feed the engine, but to me the 458’s shape is cleaner both front and rear, and more memorable.
The interior follows standard modern Ferrari form, though I’d say its perceived quality has improved. The steering wheel still comes pointlessly loaded with buttons and the navigation is still hopeless, but visibility is superb, the driving position almost faultless (a touch more reach control on the wheel is all that’s needed) and the big central tacho full of both promise and presence. If you’re in the market for one, take care over which seat you choose: Ferrari offers three and the lumbar support of the standard chair in the car I drove was inadequate on the road, the lateral support equally deficient on the track.
The 488 GTB is the first Ferrari you start without the need for a key, a pointless ‘enhancement’ in my view. You’re answered not by a sharp snarl, but a dull woof from the turbo. Like all modern Ferraris the 488 offers a ‘bumpy road’ button that slackens off the damping when required, providing ride quality absolutely as good as can reasonably be expected in this kind of car – possibly better. The car is quiet enough too, but only in seventh gear and on part throttle which, to be fair, is how it will spend almost all its motorway miles. If you’re just idling your way through traffic you may not appreciate the unavoidable blare of Ferrari’s new turbo motor.
I took it to the hills south of Bologna hoping for clear roads and a chance to understand better a Ferrari more changed in character than any I can recall since Maranello ditched the mid-engined, flat-12 Boxer, Testarossa, 512TR and F512M series and returned to its front-engined roots with the 550 Maranello, some 20 years ago. This strain of Ferrari has always been the one that required you to work a little to access its performance. Drive a little old Dino or a brand-new 458 and both require you to think a little, downshift and raise the revs to the roof before they’ll do their wonderful stuff. If you wanted a Ferrari with a bottomless lagoon of power into which you could effortlessly dip at will, you bought one with 12 cylinders.
No longer. Ferrari’s engineers explained in great detail precisely how they deliberately manipulate the engine’s torque, creating different maps and therefore a different torque curve for every gear and only allowing the engine’s full potential to be deployed in top. In the lower ratios, torque is artificially meted out as the revs rise in an attempt to simulate the characteristics of a normally aspirated engine. I can scarcely imagine how it would feel if left to its own devices: as it is, driving this car safely in public is an exercise in perpetual, saintly restraint. The performance gain over a 458, partly in terms of ultimate speed but more relevantly in terms of accessibility, is shocking, and I use the word after some thought. When Ferrari replaced the 599GTB with the F12 the power gain was greater even than this, but the increase in accessible torque was as nothing by comparison. In short I can think of no car in the company’s history that has offered a greater hike in real-world performance over its predecessor than this.
And it has been done without turbo lag. By mounting the twin-scroll turbos on shafts carried by ball bearings and creating the compressor wheels from a low-density titanium-aluminium alloy, the delay between a request for power and its arrival is not perceptible – at least to this particular human. It can be measured, however, and Ferrari claims it is one tenth of a second slower than the normally aspirated 458, an interesting technical detail but not one of any relevance on the road.
But you still find yourself wondering about what all this additional power and torque is actually doing for you. Because the car develops peak power at 6000rpm and maintains it through the next 2000rpm to the limiter, Ferrari has been able to stack the gear ratios in such a way that, when you’re driving flat out, you never have less than all 660bhp at your disposal. By contrast, if you drive a 458 the same way and – because like all normal cars it cannot maintain peak power from one shift to the next – the average amount of power at your disposal during maximum acceleration is not the 560bhp maximum, but something closer to 510bhp. So in the real world, the actual power difference between them at maximum attack is about 150bhp. But you’d need to be a braver man than me to use it in public.
In fact what actually happens is you run up against other limitations, usually the traction capability of rear Michelins that despite being soft, fat (they carry a 325/30 section) and purpose-built, are unable to cope with the demands of this engine at the exit of even third-gear corners on completely dry roads. Leave the electronics engaged and there’s nothing to fear, because literally the only evidence of the tyres having had enough is a little blinking light on the dash and a curious sensation of the engine having been robbed of a couple of hundred horsepower.
Driving this way does leave some fairly fundamental questions unanswered. The car feels a bit like a circus lion, claws blunted by electronic control and restrained by the environment in which it finds itself. Rightly or wrongly but without question, any owner wishing to really understand the true nature of their 488 GTB is going to need to attach him, or herself to the 10 per cent or so who will actually ever take theirs
to a track. Happily, Ferrari owns Fiorano for precisely such purposes.
I’m not expecting anyone to feel sorry for me but the next part of the job, while fun, is hard. As usual, I got four laps, of which the last had to be slow to cool the carbon-ceramic brakes for the next use. So that’s three laps, substantially less than five minutes in which to persuade a car with a lot more power than a McLaren F1 to reveal all. If by the apex of turn one you’re not on the limit with all the stability control turned off, you’re wasting time.
So now is the time to tell you that very few standard mid-engined Ferraris have ever felt good on a race track. Highly evolved esoterica like the LaFerrari, 458 Speciale, 430 Scuderia and so forth are designed for this kind of work, but the everyday cars are not. While a front-engined machine like an F12 will amiably and effectively skid about until you run out of rubber, in the mid-engined machines it’s usually me who runs out of nerve first.
But not this one. You might have thought a turbo engine with all that torque would prove rather adept at unsticking the rear end of the 488 GTB and you’d be right, but now and for once that’s an entirely good thing. The 488 has the best weighted, most linear steering system to bless a Ferrari in at least 10 years, while the chassis is actually rather docile, phenomenally so you might think, given the forces at work. Inherently it wants to understeer, which is good, but it doesn’t take much encouragement, barely a prod of the foot in fact, for it to start sliding. And here’s where it gets really clever: the car, via a dialogue between the electronic differential and Ferrari’s side-slip control software, knows what you’re doing.
It can measure the amount of opposite lock being wound on and the rate at which it is being applied and then compare this with what you’re doing with the throttle. Then, if it concludes there’s not actually a complete moron behind the wheel, it’ll let you get on with it and let you drift until there’s no more steering lock to be had. If not, and even with traction control switched off, it’ll at least try to save you from yourself.
For this I want to place the 488 GTB among the finest mid-engined Ferraris of all time, and the chassis merits it without question. For a standard Ferrari production model, it is a landmark. But there is also that engine to consider. We all need to understand that Ferrari had no choice but to use turbos because once it is spun off from its parent later this year, it cannot offset its emissions against Fiat Panda sales, so has to be seen to be an environmentally considerate citizen. In terms of engine response I know no better turbo motor than this, and many might consider its lack of aural theatre a better than fair price to pay for its power and the way it is delivered. But I’d still rather it were normally aspirated and would sacrifice power that can rarely be used for the searing, soaring soundtrack of a traditional Ferrari sports car.
But this should not be allowed to cloud Ferrari’s fundamental achievement with this car. If you believe a Ferrari should always live at the outer limit of road car performance, then this one deserves its place in the Maranello stable more than most. All I would say is that the 488 GTB is so ferociously fast that there is surely now space in the range for another, more accessible product – and at a lower price.
A new Dino perhaps? Turn to the news on page 52, and you’ll see others in a rather better position to make it happen have had the idea too…
Engine: 3.9 litres, 8 cylinders, twin turbochargers
Power: [email protected] rpm
Torque: 560lb [email protected] rpm
Transmission: seven-speed double clutch, rear-wheel drive
Top speed: 205mph