The Kelpies, near Falkirk, will open to the public on Monday, so when Ferrari let us borrow a 458 Spider in the run-up to the big day, it was too good a photo-opportunity to miss – and the perfect excuse to compare notes. The Kelpies cost £5 million to build – you could help yourself to at least two dozen 458 Spiders for that sort of money – and tip the scales at 300 tonnes each, more than 200 times heavier than the Italian stallion.
You could stack all 24 Ferraris in a very expensive pile and still not reach the tip of the Kelpies’ ears, 100 feet above the Forth & Clyde Canal. Sculptor Andy Scott’s creations shimmer in stainless steel, the Pininfarina-penned Ferrari seduces in sculpted lightweight aluminium.
Both draw a crowd, but, while the Kelpies stand rooted to the spot in silent contemplation, the Ferrari is built for cantering across country at speeds racehorses can only dream of. And boy, does it like to shout about it. In supercar-speak, “spider” is Italian for “convertible” and retracting the 458’s metal roof offers driver and passenger a near-F1 blend of speed, excitement and noise.
So, photo session over, we bade The Kelpies farewell and made tracks for Skye, the bark from the 4.5-litre V8 engine and trio of exhaust pipes filling the glens – and our ears. OK, so it rained most of the way to our lunch stop at the Three Chimneys restaurant (it seemed a fitting place to visit in a car with three exhausts) and most of the way back, but no matter, because the Spider’s rear window can be dropped out of sight while the roof is still raised, allowing driver and passenger to immerse themselves in the mid-mounted engine’s song without risking a soaking.
The leather-lined cabin offers plenty of headroom for six-footers with the roof in place and damp roads offer a fairer test of the 458’s talents in the sort of weather you often get when you don’t live on the Italian Riviera. Slip the manettino dial on the steering wheel from “race” to “wet” and let’s see how Ferrari acquits itself with its throttle response and traction control reined in to suit the conditions.
It’s quite a generous rein, so the 458 still makes a delightful noise, still swishes its tail if you’re too eager with the whip and still charges around like a rodeo stallion. Standing water and fat tyres usually spell trouble, but the Ferrari carves a neat line through the puddles. We chase rainbows across Rannoch Moor and through Glencoe, looking for a patch of blue sky that will allow us to drop the roof, but the sun is always in exactly the wrong place.
The Spider rides on slightly more supple dampers than the fixed-roof 458 – suspension spring rates are unchanged – but strike a pothole and you’re reminded this is still a hard-edged sports car and not some soft-shoed grand tourer. Other clues to its sporting intent are the enormous rev counter that dominates the dashboard display and the cruise control switch marked “pit speed”.
On rough surfaces, the steering wheel never stops dancing in your hands. It’s lightning-quick to react to the slightest of inputs and, even on a damp surface, it’s clear the Ferrari is blessed with astonishing grip and cornering ability.
The throttle, too, reacts to every tickle from your toes, the V8’s enormous power aided and abetted by a seven-speed gearbox that switches ratios in the blink of an eye. Left in automatic mode, the Ferrari will wuffle around contentedly in seventh gear at speeds as low as 35mph. The car carries a mere 50kg weight penalty over its fixed-roof sibling, so performance is barely changed – Ferrari promises an identical 0-62 time of 3.4 seconds, but top speed falls from 203mph to 199mph. You’ll get over it.
Carbon-ceramic brake technology has advanced in leaps and bounds since the rather “on-off” affairs of old, and the Ferrari’s dinner-gong discs offer smooth, progressive retardation in traffic, or more stopping power than your facial features can handle if you find yourself carrying far too much speed into a race circuit hairpin. Finally, with 450 miles of our 500-mile round-trip covered, and with the last of the day’s light fading, the clouds part and it’s time to savour the Ferrari al fresco. The 458 Spider marks Ferrari’s first attempt at fitting a folding hardtop to one of its mid-engined models and is a neat affair. Simply press a switch between the seats, count to 14 while the assembly tucks itself away, and you’re ready to go. The buttresses behind the headrests act as rollover protection, and the rear window pops back up to reduce buffeting. It’s a triumph of packaging that weighs 25kg less than the cloth roof fitted to this car’s predecessor, the F430 Spider, and leaves enough room behind the seats for a luggage shelf that Ferrari says will swallow a set of golf clubs and that complements the usefully deep boot in the nose.
You’re waiting to find out if a 458 shorn of its strength-giving roof pillars turns to tiramisu, aren’t you? I’m delighted to disappoint you. True, you sense a little more flex over rippled roads than you would in the Coupe, but it’s marginal and the Spider is still a sharp handler. If you’re in the fortunate position of being able to afford a 458, the extra wind-in-your-hair thrills and unfiltered howl from the exhausts far outweigh any compromise in on-the-edge performance.
The car is not without its faults but, because it’s a Ferrari, you’ll forgive it just about anything. The roof, for example, can only be raised and lowered with the car at a standstill and, in what will come as a crushing disappointment to small children who like to coo at powerplants from the pavement, the glass engine covers have been replaced by painted metal.
The modular layout of the dashboard seems at odds with the car’s flowing exterior lines, although it’s beautifully put together and the controller for the satnav and stereo is mounted beside the driver’s door, which means your passenger can’t play a part in route-finding or music selection. Changing radio station or flicking between tunes on your iPod means exiting from the satnav screen and fumbling about with the rotary switches for a bit as you trawl through a lot of sub-menus. In a Fiat or a Ford, it would drive you nuts. In a Ferrari, you’ll convince yourself it’s all part of the car’s unique charm.
Anyway, who wants to listen to the stereo when you’ve got a V8 orchestra to entertain you? Onward, and don’t spare the horses.
Public tours of The Kelpies start on Monday, April 21. For more information on the tours and The Kelpies, visit www.thehelix.co.uk
Price £198,971 (£244,025 as tested)
Engine 4.5-litre, petrol, 8 cyl, 562bhp, 399 lb ft
Performance Max speed 199mph; 0-62mph 3.4secs
CO2 emissions 275g/km