The Ferrari 488 GTB – or Gran Turismo Berlinetta – is the latest chapter in a love story that began 40 years ago, when Ferrari introduced its first two-seater, mid-engined V8. The 458 Italia of 2009 was the apogee of this type of sports car and was acknowledged as the best Ferrari for decades. So how do you replace a masterpiece?
That’s not Ferrari’s only concern. Its charismatic president Luca di Montezemolo was thrown out last autumn by Sergio Marchionne, boss of Ferrari’s parent company Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA). “M”, as Marchionne is called by his staff, plans to liberate some of the prancing horse’s estimated £2.5-£5.7bn value in an Initial Public Offering of shares to help fund FCA’s £34bn five-year plan.
This goes to the very heart of what Ferrari is and should be. Under Enzo’s patrician hand, road car customers were a fungible bank to fund racing. Now we face the prospect of avaricious trophy shareholders and sleek hedge-fund guys squabbling over the company’s profitability and product plans.
Already there’s talk of increasing annual production from a total capped at 7,000 to 10,000 and a relaunch of the Dino name with a new V6 model.
When the 488 was unveiled at this year’s Geneva motor show even the most gormless Ferraristi seemed let down by its appearance. The clue to those looks came at the launch. “When we gave them [the design department] the shape,” said Matteo Biancalana, aerodynamics chief…
So it’s the wind that’s shaped this bodywork, rather than a designer. And there’s no denying the body does clever things with air. Biancalana and his colleagues have funnelled it under the downforce-creating rear spoilers, pushing turbulence out past the back of the body where it can’t create drag. It also sucks the car to the road with low pressure areas at the front and there’s a movable rear spoiler under the back, which reduces drag at speed in a straight line. The trouble is that however lovely it looks, the 488 is simply not as gorgeous as the car it replaces.
Then there’s the turbocharged engine. At heart this is the same all-alloy, four-cam, 3.9-litre, flat-plane crank V8 used in the California T, with a new bottom end, pistons and revised cylinder heads and cams. It’s enormous, due to the long inlet tracts and IHI turbos either side.
The gearbox is the same seven-speed, twin-clutch unit as the 458’s, while an electronically controlled limited-slip differential varies the torque to each rear wheel according to steering and slip angles.
Also aimed at keeping you on the road is a retuned version of Ferrari’s sideslip angle control, which stiffens or slackens the electromagnetically-controlled dampers to maintain grip. This works with the stability and traction control system and the electronic differential to maintain driver control even with the wheels spinning and the car sliding. These stability systems can be dialled out progressively via a steering wheel switch (manettino).
With door handles also shaped by the aerodynamicists, the lever feels like a disposable spoon from an ice cream tub. Climb in and you are faced with an expansive facia and low centre console. There’s a huge rev counter in a binnacle flanked by ancillary displays for everything from oil and water temperatures to lap times. The satnav display is tiny (and the system is hopeless). There are no steering-column stalks, just gear-change paddles. Everything else is on the steering wheel, which can lead to inelegant groping to select the indicators on a roundabout.
The passenger also gets an (optional) display so they can be horrified by the speed or side force being applied to their body. The seats are heavily bolstered and not altogether comfortable, although other seats are available as options.
The rear views are restricted and the mirrors are mostly filled with the engine’s cooling ducts. But there is space behind the seats for a couple of soft bags and you can fit a smallish suitcase under the bonnet.
Start her up and the turbo engine drones through the aluminium body. At very low revs it’s quiet, while at medium speeds, where most owners will do most of their driving, it has a muffled and flat note like a frog in a sock.
Engine behaviour in the lower gears is carefully manipulated by restricting torque to mimic the character of a naturally aspirated V8. That works on the track, where the throttle is mostly fully open or shut, but on the road there’s an artificiality about the response.
The main impression, however, is of crushing power. On the public road the traction control light is on most of the time and driving the 488 GTB becomes an exercise in self control – you’d rarely, if ever, use full power.
I did in one surreal moment as I changed down and floored it. The refrigerator thrum rose to a Stentorian blare, the scenery blurred and my stomach was left where I’d first pressed the throttle. It felt like the opening credits of a Star Trek movie.
On Ferrari’s Fiorano test track it felt even more insanely fast, which is unusual as cars more commonly feel slower on a circuit. The gearbox is exactly what you need in these circumstances, fast but not unsettling unless you select Race mode. The first three gears are closely stacked, which means you can be busy with the paddles at first.
The chassis is heaven sent with feedback and finely wrought control, and the hydraulic steering, a version of that fitted to the 458, is brilliantly intuitive, with a pleasing solidity. The 488 GTB turns into corners instinctively and accurately and the systems work fantastically well to control the inevitable slides when you floor the throttle on the exit.
If you consider that the car is constantly altering its aerodynamics, damping effort, traction and engine torque, that’s an enormous amount of successful calibration work for a smallish company.
One thing that isn’t up to snuff, though, is the braking. The response is abrupt on the road and on the track the standard carbon-ceramic anchors don’t inspire confidence.
Great chassis, great steering, insane amounts of power, reassuringly expensive, the Ferrari 488 GTB is in almost all senses a terrific supercar.
It will be poorly judged by history, however, purely because its aural qualities lack the pure stridency of the 458 and the looks, while functionally clever, are a step back.