Ferraris have always been defined as much by their beauty as by the sound of their engines. The Italian marque’s expertise in V12s, both for the road and the track, is legendary.
Few who have experienced the mechanical orchestra of a Formula One Ferrari V12 as it approaches at full song will forget the hair-raising experience. But the bulk of the Prancing Horse’s road cars are powered by V8s, arguably the more practical approach for the road, balancing performance and usability.
Pressure to produce more economical and environmentally friendly vehicles has seen many makers turn to turbocharging Early turbocharged engines suffered a lag in throttle response and were difficult to drive smoothly. But technological advances have virtually eliminated—not quite, but almost— turbo lag.
The engines have become more economical and environmentally friendly, and everyone seems to be happy, except for one thing: the engine note. Turbo engines tend to have lower redlines, resulting in engines that no longer scream but rather rumble.
This has been a conundrum for exotic carmakers. Ferrari’s first modern turbocharged V8 production car, the California T, which was launched in 2014, didn’t quite sound the way its customers wanted a Ferrari to sound.
This has since been addressed, but the sound of the current California T is still a far cry from that of the normally aspirated V8s. The pressure was therefore on for Ferrari’s next turbocharged car, the 488, which is the successor to the 458 Italia and its predecessor, the 430 Modena.
The 488 is the two-seater mid-engine exotic car par excellence and made its debut at the Geneva Motor Show in 2015. It first appeared in the fixed hardtop version, the GTB. It’s since been joined by the Spider, which is equipped with a retractable folding hardtop.
I’ve always been partial to a fixed roof, because it contributes greatly to the rigidity of the car and is lighter than a folding roof. For this test, I was given the opportunity to drive both the 488 GTB and 488 Spider back to back at the Zhuhai International Circuit, so I could compare them in similar conditions and at speed.
You need a keen eye to distinguish the GTB from the Spider because there is little cosmetic differentiation between the two. The aesthetic connection to the 430 and 458 is clear, but the 488 is less angular, somewhat more organic.
It’s been a polarising design; while many love it, others clearly prefer the 458. However you look at it, the 488 is impressive because it manages to incorporate all the aerodynamic assistance necessary for a car capable of more than 300km/h without resorting to mechanical extensions that activate above certain speeds.
The cabin will feel very familiar to any Ferrari driver. Unfortunately, the famed metal-gated shifter has long gone the way of the dodo. The flat-bottomed steering wheel provides the usual quick access to the main controls, including the Manettino dial, which sets the car’s dynamic characteristics—throttle and suspension response, and traction control.
You’ll immediately be drawn to the large red engine start button on the lower right of the steering wheel. The engine comes to life with a rumble rather than a scream, but an agreeable one that implies there’s a lot more to come should you press the pedal a bit harder.
As I drive out into the traffic in Hong Kong, I quickly realise the 488 GTB is very different from the 458. The suspension provides excellent feedback. Every imperfection in the road surface comes through loud and clear, although not in a negative way.
It doesn’t feel as though the suspension lacks compliance, simply that the engineers wanted the driver to be as connected to the road as possible. However, I reach for the suspension button and select the bumpy-road setting—that’s the symbol shown on the dashboard. It doesn’t dull the suspension but provides a more comfortable drive.
Push the throttle a bit harder and the 488 responds immediately—and not in the overly controlled manner you’ll find in many sports cars. This is a car that commands respect and a certain skill. It’s tremendous fun to drive when the road opens up, as long as you’re not on a particularly pockmarked surface, and you really feel involved at any speed.
On the track in Zhuhai, I get to compare the GTB and the Spider in their element on a surface where I don’t have to worry about traffic. From the first lap, the 488 is just as impressive as it was on the road. The feedback gives you a sense of confidence, but also a sense of purpose as you learn where the optimal braking points are.
I did not need to worry about the exhaust note either, as it never feels muted or distant. I’d still like more of it, but for a modern turbocharged sports car, it works well.
One aspect that will take some getting used to is the flat torque curve of the turbocharged engine. Maximum torque of 760Nm is achieved at a low 3,000rpm. In comparison, the 458 Italia’s 540Nm peaks at 6,000rpm. It took me a couple of laps to adapt my driving style, with my instructor urging me to “use the torque” instead of flicking through the paddles to find a lower gear.
Switching to the 488 Spider, I’m hard-pressed to tell the difference at first. The noise level in the cabin is similar. At speed, though, you start to sense the Spider is different; there’s only so far the engineers can go to compensate for the difference in rigidity between the GTB and the Spider, and the extra 50kg that the folding roof adds.
However, I generally feel the Spider is more engaging and fun, more forgiving at the limit, compared to the GTB. I can feel some body flex, but any slight loss of traction is gradual. There’s little doubt the GTB would be the one to drive if you’re going for absolute performance and the lowest lap time, but the Spider, for the occasional track day, would probably be more rewarding.
I was thoroughly impressed with the 488, both on the road and track. Ferrari has managed to give it a sense of engagement at all speeds, be it a hot lap at your nearest track or on your daily commute. I still miss the normally aspirated engines, but the trade-offs are well managed in the 488 and make it a highly desirable modern exotic.
(Text by Sean Li)