There is something truly special about Italian cars.
No matter whether it’s a cute city runabout or a sleek supercar, nothing matches the passion and emotion generated by a machine created under the Latin influence of the Tricolor.
People simply love them, from those with the ability to look past their flaws and own, restore or collect them to those that simply admire them or aspire to join the romance of Italian car ownership.
Tens of thousands of those people converged on the lawns of Old Parliament House in Canberra last weekend for AutoItalia, the largest gathering of Italian cars in the southern hemisphere.
At the centre of the 400-odd machines on display was Ferrari, the epitome of the Italian automotive industry and the car maker by which all others aspire to in terms of desirability, performance, exclusivity and profitability.
The Prancing Horse was the featured marque at AutoItalia 2017 as part of the brand’s 70th anniversary celebrations with more than 80 cars on display, ranging from classics such as the lithe V6-powered Dino to the brutal road racer F40 through to today’s modern icons like the 488 GTB and Spider and the first public showing in Australia of the four-seater GTC4 Lusso.
It was a sea of red surrounding the (unfortunately empty) reflection pond, but there was the occasional break from the traditional colour of the Scuderia, such as the one-off bright green 458 Speciale or the gorgeous light blue 365/4 Daytona and the white 512 Testarossa like the one made famous in Miami Vice, the 1980’s smash hit cop show.
Almost as if they were facing off against each other, across the main path was a much smaller, yet more colourful and brasher, collection of Lamborghinis and Maseratis that sandwiched a selection of DeTomasos, while on one side of the lawn was an assembly of Fiats and Lancias and the opposite lawn amassed a gathering of Alfa Romeos and other Italian machines.
Italy’s two-wheeled heritage wasn’t ignored either with motorcycles from Ducati, Moto Guzzi, Aprilia and Benelli on display as well as a handful of Vespa scooters.
From the outside, the passion for Italian cars seemingly ranges between pure vanity and total insanity. In an effort to understand that spectrum, I travelled to and from Canberra in a Ferrari 488 Spider – the Prancing Horse’s latest mid-engined convertible.
Immediately, even before I slid into its two-seater cockpit, I am in total admiration of its striking design, and its special Blu Corsa paintwork highlights the shapes and lines in its bodywork, especially in low afternoon light. It is an extremely photogenic car and my phone now has hundreds of pics of 488 SPR on its hard drive. I may even have a few less friends on social media because of the barrage of posts over the weekend and the subsequent envy I received in return. I don’t care…
Driving a Ferrari only amplifies my level of admiration for Italian machinery. The moment you press the starter button on the steering wheel and fire the 3.9-litre twin-turbo V8 into life, the rest of the world disappears for an instant. It gets deleted by the mechanical cacophony that has erupted behind my shoulders when I give it a rev; a symphony of air being sucked into the inlet, the faint whistle of two turbochargers building boost and eight high-compression pistons thumping up and down inside the aluminium block before drumming out a guttural exhaust note.
While the move to turbocharged engines has altered the tune of Ferrari’s V8, and it can’t replicate the purity of a screaming wail produced by a naturally-aspirated engine revving to 9000rpm like the 458 Speciale did, the 488 Spider still tickles the ear drums and sends shivers down your spine as the revs rise.
It is also very, very fast. With 492kW of power and 760Nm of torque, it can accelerate from 0-100km/h in just 3.0 seconds, reaches 200km/h faster than most hatchbacks notch up triple figures and it will top out at 325km/h. To put that in context, even though it has clever electronics that limits torque in lower gears to create a more linear power delivery, it will pin your head back against the seat and still spin its rear wheels in third gear under heavy acceleration.
The performance, and the noise it makes, is addictive and everyone wants to race you away from the traffic lights – at least just to watch and hear it tear away.
But intersections are few and far between on the Hume and Federal Highways that link Sydney and Canberra. And even though the Spider wasn’t created to be a long-distance cruiser, it does an admirable job of it. The suspension is naturally quite stiff and you’ll feel most bumps and joins in the road, and the wide tyres tend to make the car tramline over camber changes. But the magnetic dampers make it more than bearable, the razor-sharp steering has masses of feedback and only requires minor inputs to keep it steady and the engine, with the revs sitting on 2000rpm in seventh gear, burbles serenely in the background.
It is also brilliant at being a convertible. With the hard-top roof folded back underneath the engine cover, the small rear windscreen in its most upright position and windows up, there’s barely any turbulence in the cabin. With a liberal dose of sunscreen, I drove the entire return trip to Canberra without the roof in place. Easily.
Okay, so what’s not to like about the 488 Spider? There’s a bunch of small niggles that come to light when you drive it normally, like the cruise control (sorry, pit lane speed limiter) that constantly needs adjusting on inclines and descents, the fiddly multimedia controls, the lack of storage space and steering wheel mounted indicators take time to get accustomed to, and can be awkward if you’re trying to signal out of a roundabout with more than half a turn of steering lock on.
Then, the fact that it costs $526,888 (plus on-road costs) before you even tick an options box makes it an indulgent purchase no matter where you stand on the social ladder. And finally, you’ll need access to somewhere to genuinely, and legally, enjoy its performance.
But all you need to do is turn off the highway onto a twisty back road and unleash the sports car it was meant to be and nothing else matters. It is an amazing, thrilling, beautiful, emotion-charged machine that is completely irrational – but for all the right reasons. Just like a Fiat Bambino, or a Lancia Fulvia, or an Alfa Romeo GTV.
Yes, there is something truly special about Italian cars.
Ferrari 488 Spider price and specifications
Price: From $526,888 (plus on-road costs)
Engine: 3.9-litre V8 twin-turbo petrol
Power: 492kW at 8000rpm
Torque: 760Nm at 3000rpm
Transmission: 7-spd dual-clutch automatic, RWD
Fuel use: 11.4L/100km.