First published in the September 2013 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia's best car mag since 1953.
The Sea Cliff bridge perches at the end of a stunning strip of road. There aren’t many cars beautiful enough to match it. Here’s one...
IT FEELS like you’ve swallowed a solid, round, river rock, one that’s been lightly dusted with cocaine, like Pablo Escobar’s morning donut. People keep asking me, and that’s as close as I can get to describing what it’s like, how it feels, to drive the freakish Ferrari 458 Spider – it’s a kind of stomach-punched anxiety mixed with a surging elation.
Parachuting and suicidal ski runs are the only things I’ve done that come close.
Of course, that really describes what it feels like afterwards, as the fear-sweat slinks off you. While you’re in the driver’s seat it’s visceral and violent. There’s a thin scintilla of worry, based on the fact that this $587,951 car doesn’t belong to me and hurting it would be career-damaging, but there’s plenty of genuine fear for my wellbeing beneath that. For the first hour I kept finding myself arriving at corners while my brain was still a few seconds behind, wondering where its body went.
My adrenal glands were wrenched opened by the throttle and punched closed by the unbelievable carbon ceramic brakes, each disc the size of a kitchen table. You can see this effect on your passengers’ faces too, fear and joy making Funniest Home Videos of their faces, flushing out their teeth in irrepressible grins.
This is as good as driving gets. Hardcore and hard on the unwary. It’s hard to believe the only barrier to entry is a wallet as wide as the rear tyres.
“Sure, it’s great, but where would you actually use it?”
This is the other question that comes up a lot with this car, and besides the obvious answer of “everywhere, every chance I got”, our answer is the ribbon of road that runs south from Sydney, through the glorious Royal National Park and over the spectacular engineering monolith that is the Sea Cliff Bridge.
Ideally, we would be rich or influential enough to have the road shut, and purged of cyclists, for the day. Instead, we spend our time shaking our heads in equal parts anger and disbelief about the speed limits that blight this otherwise brilliant stretch of tarmac.
Pass through the entry gates, just south of Sydney’s white-walled Sutherland Shire, and you’re instantly into a downhill section of tightening 25 and 35km/h posted bends, which the 4.5-litre V8, 419kW Ferrari attacks with a kind of pinpoint-accurate savagery.
The steering of the 458 is not as instantly welcoming and chatty as that found in a Porsche; it feels sharper, more instantaneous and darty and, frankly, not as well weighted. But this is something you grow to appreciate, because it merely reflects the ethos of the car. Everything here happens faster than in other cars. I’d driven the awesome Audi R8 V10 Plus just a few days earlier, but this felt like stepping up from a go-kart to an F1 car.
Indeed, from the change-up lights on top of the beautiful carbonfibre-inlaid steering wheel to the shift paddles and the g-forces it imparts in changes of direction, there’s much that feels genuinely ‘F1-derived’ (a term thrown about far too liberally by other makers) about this car, not least of which is the sound. A tunnel in the 458 at even half throttle transports you into an F1 lap at Monaco. A 3.4sec dash to 100 feels like a race start.
It would be hard to speed in any normal car through these tightening bends, which make you feel like you’re tracing a Slinky, but the authorities have decided to make it a 60km/h zone anyway. It’s not a residential street, mind you, but this limit stays in place for the enticing climb up from the tranquil Audley Weir through eucalypt-scented gumtree forest. The bends are slightly faster here, and there are rock walls to bounce the screaming exhaust off, and back when the limit was, sensibly, 100km/h it would have been possible to sit on that speed the whole way up.
Soon enough you burst past a more generous 80km/h limit sign, which indicates the corners are now scarcer, and immediately you glimpse the Pacific Ocean to your left; almost Australian-flag blue against the low-green scrub and occasional grey trunks. The landscape changes completely and to your right you can see what looks like an endless, half-height forest of bottle greens, stretching to the horizon, with all of inland Australia, barren and beautiful, in the distance.
You get a first sniff of the ocean from up here, too, and relish in having the roof down as you cruise slowly and effortlessly, dropping a gear every now and then just for fun. There’s a valve that opens just behind your buttocks at 3000rpm, so you can enjoy the fruits of Ferrari ownership, even in traffic. That soundscape peaks much higher once you explore the rarefied air above 6000rpm, all the way to a back-smack gear change at 9000rpm.
We stop at one of the Royal’s many stunning, secluded beaches and immediately turn our backs on the view so we can stare at the 458 for an hour while our photographer loses his mind, making strange exhalations of joy every time he finds a new piece of engineering jewellery to shoot. My personal favourite is the silver sliver of prancing horse that seems to float, hologram-like, just below the number plate and in between the two F1-styled carbonfibre blades that form the car’s Schumacher-like chin (all part of the world’s most extensive options list, see breakout, right).
I previous fell very heavily for the jet-fighter, teen-fantasy lines of the Lamborghini Aventador, but the 458 is simply sexier, and more stylish. The headlights alone are worthy of design awards, and possibly poetry. The size of the rear deck is gob-smacking and nothing at all spoils the purity of the whole sculpture, not even the centrally mounted rear exhausts, which I so despise on Boxsters. It’s a stunning car to follow, and a damn well intimidating one to see in your rear-view mirror. It looks angry and hot all at once, like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill.
After trailing along barren cliff tops for a few more kilometres, the road dips sharply as the landscape mutates once again. Big tree ferns pop up sporadically first, then bigger trees, which soon overhang the road, forming a canopy, then that loamy, lovely wet scent of rainforest creeps into the cabin and fallen sticks and leaf matter crawl across the road.
The smell and sound of this detritus as it gets squashed down and spat out by the speeding Ferrari make you relish the fact that this is a convertible. It’s not as good as motorbike, although it feels almost as fast, but you do get that sense of being in the scenery, rather than just watching it scroll through your windscreen.
There would be no too-cold-for-roof-down days in this car, only thicker jumpers. Despite the fact that the waif-thin, optional $15,000 carbonfibre race seats in our car are not heated. They’re also not particularly comfortable over long distances, but like the rest of the car, they’re built for speed, and they grip you perfectly when you’re having a go. There’s also the barest hint of scuttle shake from the wheel, which vanishes when you put the folding hard-top up. This is a balletic bit of engineering that must be undertaken when the car is completely stopped, as I found out to my despair and the laughing loathing of those around me when I tried to put it up at a red light, only to find myself spat back into motion by a green one, with the roof halfway up. Best to just leave it down, always.
This fast, forested section is the best part of the road, with a range of short, sharp straights seeming like tunnels carved out of leaves, connecting a range of brilliant corners, with plenty of rise and fall between. Several times I found myself going what felt like too quickly in the bends, yet well within the car’s capabilities. Panic a little and lift off and the nose just tucks in and the whole thing tracks beautifully.
By now I’m loving the steering’s immediacy. The huge diffuser at the back really works, too; you feel sucked to the ground. If they told me it was possible to drive this car on the roof of a tunnel at 200km/h I’d not only believe them, I’d try it.
You come out of the Royal National Park, eventually, at Bald Hill Lookout, where a vast vista of coastline, with the seemingly tiny Sea Cliff Bridge in the distance, presents itself. Here, at the end of Lady Wakehurst Drive, you can watch the hang-gliders leaping off the cliff to what seems like certain death, but if you’re in the 458 Spider they’re just as likely to turn around and watch you instead.
It’s a short ride along Grand Pacific Drive, through another half-dozen downhill switchbacks then past the small but wealthy looking suburb of Coalcliff to Australia’s most spectacular bridge (sorry, Sydney Harbour Bridge, you’re overrated), which even made its way into the Shell/Ferrari TV commercial.
The Sea Cliff span gives up its best views when you drive its 2.8km northwards. It’s a Middle Earth montage of soaring, grassy cliffs dashed with sea spray and mist, which was spouting occasional rainbows on the sunny day we visited, as the Pacific pounded at the cliff’s heels. It’s reminiscent of Highway One in California, albeit a much, much smaller version.
Most people drive slowly across here, with their jaws hanging slack, but being forced to do it some 28 times in a row for our deliriously happy snapper, I discovered that there’s something Mt Panorama-esque about the bridge, with a sharp left-right combination through a kind of unwinding concrete tunnel on the north entry that’s a joy to fire into, again and again. This creates a bit of a stir among the pedestrian tourists, who start sticking out their thumbs and shouting implorations at me. Eventually I stop and take a Fijian tourist for a blat, and then her husband, her brother and her son.
Being able to bring such delirious delight to complete strangers, even for just a few minutes, must be one of the real unexpected joys of ownership for Ferrari folk.
Our official drive is over, and the Ferrari has exceeded all my expectations. It’s not flawless – putting the buttons for the horn right where your thumbs naturally sit on the sexy steering wheel seems like the kind of oversight you’d get on an Alfa, and I never got used to having the indicators operated by buttons on the wheel, either – but it’s frighteningly, happily close to it.
There’s just one more side track we need to explore on the way home; a favourite stretch of road testers called McKell Avenue that runs from the deepest dell of the National Park up to the exit at Waterfall.
It’s a stretch of tightening bends and longish straights that can tell you all you need to know about a car in a short period of time, and it’s patrolled regularly by a policeman who has a tattoo of a fish, a shotgun and a barrel on his forearm, and a sneer seemingly painted on his face. Again, inexplicably, this stretch is a 60 zone. Fortunately, today he finds us on the side of the road, the stone of sated excitement settling in my stomach.
“I guess you’ve been driving up and down here at 60, have you?” he chuckles, gazing at the car like a gamekeeper who’s just missed a poacher. We give a series of politician-steady ‘no comments’.
“Ah, seems like a waste, really,” he groans.
Which sadly sums up one of our favourite roads. Back when it was the 100km/h zone it should still be, it was a driving playground. Today it’s a bit like having sex in a wetsuit; safe and squeaky clean, but a bit frustrating.
Fortunately, even just sitting in a Ferrari 458 Spider makes any road feel like heaven.
$211,413 in options – a new record?
I’d just like to say a big sorry to BMW, Audi, Benz and several other companies for accusing them of gouging people on options. It turns out they’re all amateurs.
The options fitted to our test Ferrari add up to a staggering $223,441, taking the total price to a face-smacking $811,392.
The Ferrari staffer showing me around the car said something about the carbonfibre package and $20K, and I stupidly thought he meant that was for the lot. Turns out the rear diffuser alone was $14,712, and the “sill cover” another $14,421. On top of that there’s another $21,971 for the “carbon fibre racing package”, which doesn’t include the “carbon fibre central bridge”, for another $5k. Sure, carbonfibre is expensive, so let’s look instead at the rear parking camera, for $6950; the cruise control, a whopping $1906; or the electric steering column, standard on many cars, yours today for $1400.
The list goes on, and on, but my two favourites are $10,450 for a car stereo that won’t stream music from your phone and the white paint job, with racing stripes, just $64,500. Ouch.