Ferrari 458 Italia

Let the Ferrari 458 Italia be your festive fantasy

It's almost Christmas, and the dominant festive colour is red. It is the time of presents, indulgences, and jollity, a time to worry less about disappearing pension funds and global sweltering. This week's road test should fit the mood well, then. Such a car will be only a dream for most of us. But if reading this helps you live the dream, at least vicariously, then it's better than nothing.

The vivid red Ferrari you see here is the new £150,000 458 Italia. It replaces the F430, and it shares the concept of its two most recent ancestors (F430 and 360 Modena) in having a mid-mounted, very powerful and very loud V8 engine in an aluminium chassis and body. But apart from the casting of its cylinder block, it's an entirely new car.

It looks fabulous, with a functional, unadorned purity that comes from the way aerodynamics dictate the shape. Those intriguing winglets in each front air-intake are anchored at their inner ends only, so they can deflect at speed to divert excess air away from the radiators and under the car to increase downforce. At maximum speed (202mph) there's around a third of a tonne of this.

Some speed, that. Of minimal use to most of us, but somehow uplifting as an idea. More readily experienced is the extraordinary acceleration, a thrust of the sort that gives you no time to get your bearings and reconfigure your internal organs. The claim is under 3.4 seconds to 62mph, 10.4 seconds to twice that speed.

Power, of course, is partly why. The 458 has 570bhp if you count the extra 5bhp gained from the effect of air being forced into the engine at higher speeds. And it's all done with great efficiency and low-for-a-Ferrari CO2 output, thanks partly to direct fuel injection which allows a higher compression ratio.

This is an engine which has the hard-edged, snorting sound of an old-school rally car at low speeds before the exhaust by-passes open into the two outer pipes and the full bellow is unleashed.

And then there's the new seven-speed sequential gearbox, now a double-clutch unit derived from that of the Ferrari California. Ferrari's previous paddle-shift transmission brought a pause in acceleration with each upshift. The new one not only eradicates the pause, but adds a momentary increase in acceleration from the rotational momentum of the engine as the engagement of the higher gear pulls the crankshaft speed down.

But this is not the seamless, creamy-smooth shifting of which a double-clutcher is theoretically capable. There's more drama if the shift feels more "mechanical", so Ferrari has deliberately roughed-up the shift action a bit.

A new steering-wheel design brings almost every hand-operated driving control within its orbit, including thumb-operated indicator buttons. Behind it is the tidiest dashboard yet seen in a Ferrari, with a big, central tachometer and TFT screens either side of it containing the speedometer, the sat-nav screen and a choice of systems readouts.

Driven with the verve for which it is made, the Ferrari feels invincible. Its steering responds much more quickly than an F430's, but it doesn't feel remotely twitchy because the rear suspension helps to keep the response measured and progressive. It just feels compact, instantly flickable and amazingly supple, given how flat it stays in fast corners. Adaptive dampers are why, which set themselves more firmly when you flick the manettino switch to "race" mode or above, but you can manually return them to suppleness if the surface is bumpy.

In race mode, you can really explore the 458's limits, knowing that the latest electronic differential and its digital conversations with the F1-Trac system are helping you all the way. Turn the traction control off and the tail slithers more readily, but still the Ferrari stays on your side because now the E-Diff is working a little harder. Turn the stability system off as well and you're on your own.

This can be the fiercest mainstream Ferrari ever if you want it to be, but it's also one of the easiest to drive. It's an extraordinary, an irresistible, combination of attributes. The perfect Christmas present? For me, at least, that remains in the realms of the theoretical.

The Rivals

Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4: £144,960.

Mid-engined with 560bhp and more raw character. Four-wheel drive, as with R8; pricier and faster Balboni edition is rear-drive only.

Audi R8 V10: £99,580.

Based on the Lamborghini Gallardo but Audi-fied with an 525bhp V10 engine. It's a satisfying supercar and (relatively) good value.

Porsche 911 Turbo: from £101,823.

Rear engine in archaic 911 fashion, but modern technology and four-wheel drive make it manageable despite 500bhp and colossal torque.