2019 Ferrari 488 Spider Top down, in search of the perfect tunnel. White Noise. Two of the enduring joys of a Ferrari convertible are driving at dusk and blasting through tunnels. We savour both in the sensational 488 Spider. Words John Barker. Photography Andy Morgan.
Drive story: 488 Spider Top down, throttle pinned. John Barker goes tunnel-hunting in the sensational, 203mph, 488 Convertible…
I knew it was going to be loud when we entered the tunnel, but the volume and resonance still came as a sensory shock, like turning on a TV and finding that the surround-sound has been cranked to maximum. And this echoing yowl was merely the Spider’s V8 on the overrun. What on Earth would it sound like hauling hard in second gear?
It was no coincidence that our photo location featured a choice selection of tunnels. Nor was it a surprise, as evening faded into night, to find that this spot at the Brighton Marina was a magnet for others. The illuminated car park beneath one of the elevated sliproads was the muster point for a gathering of cars, vans and motorbikes, and there was a relaxed, regular feel to the scene.
‘THE EXTRA 50KG THE 2019 FERRARI 488 SPIDER CARRIES IS ALL IN THE RIGHT PLACE, BETWEEN THE AXLES’
It played out like a low-budget recreation of The Fast and the Furious, the objective, as far as we could tell, being to arrive and depart with audible enthusiasm. Filling the air in turn were a couple of growly, fat-piped Nissan 350Zs, a parpy, single-cylinder trials-style bike, a sweet-sounding 16-valve Corolla, and at one point a seismically rumbly black AMG Merc stalking the car park.
It was so very tempting to go for a full-bore hack in the Spider but we had a couple of hours’ work to get through so kept a low profile. Not easy in a Ferrari, even less so in one that’s flat metallic white, or ‘Bianco Italia Opaco’ in Ferrari speak. As my good friend (and photographer’s assistant for the day) Tim Milne and I had discovered in London earlier in the day, a white Ferrari with the roof down tells people that a) you crave attention and b) you are up for a race.
When I picked him up from his West London home, Tim insisted we should have the roof down, and he was right; on a warm day like today, the capital is a richer, more enjoyable place when you’re open to the elements. Driving a coupe, you’re on a mission, ducking and diving, nipping and tucking, cocooned in your own environment, air- conditioning and stereo cranked up. The world passes by like a movie. Convertibles are different.
Drop the roof and you instantly change your relationship with your environment, becoming more aware and more of a part of it. Your view goes from CinemaScope to iMax, and aurally it’s like pushing the door open on a busy pub, the volume jumping up and the soundscape expanding and becoming more detailed. Teasing aromas waft in, your arms and brow warm in the sun and the wind ruffles your hair. It’s such a delicious sensory experience that you drive more slowly, soaking it all up, drinking it all in.
Even so, over the years I’ve had an enduring love/hate relationship with convertibles, and roofless supercars in particular. Who needs a 200mph convertible” Mainly, though, I’ve objected on the grounds of engineering fundamentalism. When you remove the roof, there also tend to be some negative additions to the sensory smorgasbord, such as the way the rear-view mirror shakes and the steering wheel shimmies when you hit a pothole, the degraded steering response and the less precise wheel control, all because the body is less rigid. There’s also all that turbulence in the cockpit, more wind noise when you have the roof up, blunted performance because of the added weight, less security…
I admit this is a position that has become increasingly less tenable. Engineers have become better at designing open-top bodies but the biggest shift has been effected by the folding hard-top. This best-of-both-worlds, convertible- coupe solution has evolved rapidly since Mercedes revived it for its dinky SLK in 1996. Maranello’s engineers built the 488 Spider around its RHT (Retractable Hard Top) and reckon that, thanks to its simple mechanism and aluminium construction, it weighs 25kg less than a motorised fabric roof would. Mind, you wonder if a mohair top would be viable at the car’s top speed of 203mph. It would probably balloon so much you’d think someone inside had pulled the cord on an emergency inflatable life-raft.
No question, roof-down you’re much more aware of the aural output of the twin-turbo V8 just behind you. With the manettino set to Sport, it has a ‘stealth’ zone, sub-2000rpm, where the exhaust gases are channelled through a quiet route. Above that, the tailpipe valves open up the more direct, less silenced route, delivering a fruity blare. Being a flat-plane-crank engine, it’s not a traditional, heavy-duty V8 note like the AMG’s but it is loaded with character, and what’s clearer in the Spider is just how strongly digital the shift from quiet to loud is. Occasionally you can even hear the metallic clink of the valve mechanism. Twist the manettino one notch higher, to Race, and the valves open much earlier and the saucy drawl is there almost from the get-go.
Over some of West London’s lumpier roads, there are hints that the Spider isn’t quite as structurally resilient as the GTB. Delve into the technical specs and you’ll discover that the convertible weighs 50kg more, the premium shared between the clever roof and some strengthening to the aluminium sub-structure. In truth, the additional weight does little to blunt the performance: the 0-62mph time remains a scintillating 3sec dead and, although it does add 0.4sec to the 0-124mph time, 8.7sec is still pretty darned rapid. The Spider is virtually as aerodynamically efficient, too, getting to within 2mph of the GTB’s top speed.
Sadly, there is an obvious price to pay for the Spider’s folding hard-top and it’s that the 660bhp bi-turbo V8 is no longer on display like a piece of art in a museum cabinet. Still, it’s always fascinating watching these retracting roofs in action and the 488’s is particularly satisfying; the buttress panel flips open and the two-part roof hinges backward, overlapping as it goes, so that when it’s flat on its back its curled edges sit neatly beneath the voids of the buttress panel. It can be raised in just 14sec at speeds of up to 30mph, which is handy – unless it’s in free-flowing traffic on the M25 that you find yourself when it starts raining…
To be honest, in an ambient 20°C it’s not an unpleasant experience; even when the rain is at its hardest there’s just a refreshing mist gently swirling around the cockpit. The small, upright rear screen drops by about a third when you stow the roof, setting it to the ideal height for minimal turbulence, so there’s never more than a gentle teasing of your hair, even at speeds above 150mph, apparently.
Off the motorway, the pace of the Spider compared with the GTB is not perceptibly diminished. This is a car that, shown a decent straight, has an astonishing ability to make it feel dramatically shorter than it appeared just moments before. Pin the throttle and the 488 lunges forward on a wave of torque that rapidly becomes a high-rev keening; turbocharged it may be but this is an engine that loves to rev Somewhere around 8000rpm, the dual-clutch transmission transfers drive seamlessly to the next ratio, the acceleration uninterrupted. The engine note and the tacho needle drop but both are instantly climbing again. Keep the throttle pinned and the Spider will repeat this a few more times before the wind resistance starts to drag at the acceleration, as it does in the GTB, only with the roof down you’re much more aware of the car pushing through the air.
As poor surfaces in London had hinted, there is a slight degrading of structural stiffness, but once the Spider is committed to a turn, the same magic is there. The 488 looks and feels as wide as it is long, endowing it with an innate agility, and this combines with terrific grip to deliver a car that feels endlessly willing to carry speed and slice into, through and out of turns. Meanwhile, throttle response is incredibly crisp for a turbocharged engine, so you can precisely mete-out how much energy is driving the rear wheels and influencing the dynamic balance.
True, in the Spider there is some shimmy over potholes, and the crispness of initial steering inputs is slightly blunted, but the 488 is so willing and beautifully balanced that it doesn’t diminish your engagement and enjoyment. The extra 50kg the Spider carries is all in the right place, between the axles, so weight distribution is unaffected. And the feeling in the 488 is that most of the mass of the car is low down, below hip height, so when you commit it to a turn, the physics feel like they’re very much on your side.
As with the GTB, the Spider has poise to spare, so when the grip at the rear slips away, even unexpectedly, the transition from grip to slip and back again is so calmly dealt with by the chassis, you wonder why you were initially bothered. Understeer seems never to happen – you turn, the car obeys. And if the road surface is particularly choppy, you can always thumb the button that softens the damping and takes the sting out of the surface. I find myself doing this more than I did in the GTB, mostly because I spend more time ambling in the Spider.
It’s a rather lovely late afternoon when we arrive in Brighton. Photographer Andy Morgan directs us to a quiet spot on the promenade where we can snap details and statics before it gets dark. Again, the car attracts plenty of attention, but people are unfailingly polite and courteous, asking before taking photos, even the youngsters in the Corsa practising handbrake turns.
The shoot is in the bag by about midnight, by which time the local gathering has dispersed, which is a shame because they never got to hear the 488 at full voice. We’re in Race mode and manual, and giving the throttle a decent squeeze in first gear on the up-ramp creates a solid, complex and rapidly escalating howl that must sound rather as though the multi-storey car park is being sawn in half.
Gently around the curve, into second gear and. just before we plunge into the mouth of the tunnel, I pin the throttle again. It’s an explosion of sound, a physical, disorientating blast that penetrates deep into your core and drills into your head. And then we’re out into clear air and the noise dissipates. I ease off, stunned. I was expecting a sonic blast, but not this. If this was a cartoon, I’d be Wile E Coyote, standing by a patch of scorched earth with a blackened face and a burnt taper, having returned to an ACME rocket that hadn’t gone off.
Moments later, there’s a light jangle and a flash from the centre console. It’s a text from Andy, who was still packing away his gear when we hit the tunnel: ‘That Ferrari, it’s bangin’!’ Sure is. It’s been a lot of fun, but now it’s late and we have a couple of hours of motorway ahead of us. Having thrilled us, the Spider will now soothe us. As we roll up to the next set of lights, the roof goes up and we complete our journey in what feels just like the GTB. Who said a 200mph convertible doesn’t make sense.
‘JUST BEFORE WE PLUNGE INTO THE TUNNEL, I PIN THE THROTTLE AGAIN IT’S AN EXPLOSION OF SOUND’
Specification 2019 Ferrari 488 Spider
ENGINE V8, 3902cc, 32v, twin-turbo
MAX POWER 661bhp @ 8000rpm
MAX TORQUE 560lb ft @ 3000rpm
TRANSMISSION Seven-speed DCT, rear-wheel drive, E-diff
SUSPENSION Front: double wishbones, coil springs, electronic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: multi-link
BRAKES Carbon-ceramic discs, 398mm front, 360mm rear, ABS
WHEELS 9 x 20in front, 11 x 20in rear
TYRES 245/35 ZR20 front, 305/30 ZR20 rear
POWER TO WEIGHT 441 bhp/ton
0-62MPH 3.0sec (claimed)
TOP SPEED 203mph (claimed)