YOU’RE A man, or increasingly a woman, of a certain age, and you’re in the market for a supercar. The question is: how much money do you spend? Too little and the car isn’t special enough. Too much and what you gain in satisfaction, you pay for in worry.
In days past, if you wanted a midlife-crisis cruiser, you had to spend as much as most people did on their house. But as house prices have gone relentlessly in one direction — upwards — the cost of supercar-standard power, acceleration and speed has gone in the other, in part because of advances in engine technology. So much so, in fact, that in London a supercar costs less than some garages, let alone the houses attached.
Take the Ferrari 458 Speciale and the Audi R8 V10 Plus. Beneath the chiselled bodywork each has two seats, a howling great engine and braking systems that alone would cost more than a Ford Fiesta to replace.
But there’s a crucial difference: one of them costs getting on for twice as much as the other. The Audi belongs to an emerging class of “affordable” supercars including the BMW M6, the Jaguar F-type V8 S and the new Porsche 911 Turbo S, while the Ferrari relies on its badge and its pedigree to appeal to buyers. So the question is: can that kudos, plus an extra few horsepower and a shade more speed, really be worth paying so much for?
After tests at Brands Hatch it was clear that both would have Jeremy Clarkson bellowing, “Power!”, Richard Hammond declaring himself a driving god — again — and Captain Slow debating the merits of the Audi’s four-wheel-drive system versus the microprocessing power of the Ferrari’s sideslip anglecontrol system. In short, both qualify their owners for membership of the supercar club. But are both special enough to cure a midlife crisis?
Ferrari 458 Speciale
Like a three-storey underground extension to an oligarch’s London mansion, the Ferrari is a car for the sort of individual that likes nothing more than to go one better than the rest of the world.
Whereas most of us would agree that a standard 458 Italia would look sensational parked on our drive, owners of the 458 Speciale would be unimpressed: too common, too slow, too tame, they’d be thinking.
In their minds the 458 is old news — it was launched nearly five years ago. The Speciale is a high-performance version of a car that was never found wanting in the speed department.
Ferrari has pulled apart the standard 458 and rebuilt it, turning everything up to 11 so that it is more powerful, lighter, louder (on the eye as well as the ear) and bursting at its carbon-fibre seams with technology that means any driver can jump in and drive fast. Much of this technology has been developed in Formula One. Plenty of car companies make similar claims, but few of them stand up to scrutiny.
The floor of the car is carbon fibre — essential in Ferrari’s view to shave off a little more weight. Or take the Brembo brakes, carbon-ceramicdiscs that are an evolution of those fitted to the LaFerrari hypercar. Or the mixture of passive and active aerodynamics that pins the Speciale to a racing circuit like a barnacle to a ship’s hull.
Then there are its fiendishly clever electronic driver aids, such as the sideslip angle control. This makes you look like a driving god by allowing you to slide the car using the throttle without, you hope, parking against a crash barrier.
Some would say this makes the 458 Speciale feel like the most overpriced computer game in the world, but there’s nothing synthesised about the sound of its V8. The 4.5-litre engine is loud when it first fires up and positively ear-splitting when given a full head of steam. Living next to the owner of one must be something like sharing a flat with Brian Johnson of AC/DC.
As you pull away, the sticky tyres pick up stones and throw them against the wheelarches, so it sounds as though you’re sitting in a giant baby’s rattle. I select the “Wet” setting, via the steering wheel’s manettino switch, and it quickly becomes apparent that even on a greasy track the driving aids are smarter than the driver: it’s possible to push the car to a surprising degree without it killing you.
In automatic mode the software for the dual-clutch transmission is aggressive. “There is only one way to drive me,” it says: “fast.” Even when you are slowing gently for a corner, the gearbox shifts down gear by gear in rapid succession, keeping the engine revs high and ready to slingshot the car out of the apex.
Wary though I am of insulting the competition, the Audi is just not up to it. Not only is its engine less powerful, but it must cart 200kg more. That is like strapping a Yamaha R1 superbike to the Ferrari’s roof. And it means the German car lacks the agility of the Ferrari.
This must be how it feels to race against Usain Bolt. No matter how hard you train, there’s only ever going to be one winner.
But hold on, you may be thinking: everyone knows Ferraris are as temperamental as a toddler, right? Actually, all new Ferraris come with a four-year warranty and a seven-year servicing package; theoretically, for the first four years at least, all a driver will pay for is the fuel and tyres that they burn through. Of course, with the 458 Speciale you may get through a few of them.
Arguably, though, our most difficult test for this pair of desirable sports cars is ruthlessly simple: dangle the keys in front of an eight-year-old boy and see which gets his vote. The Ferrari walks it. James Mills
Ferrari 458 Speciale specifications
- Price: £250, 959 (as tested)
- Engine: 4497cc, V8, naturally aspirated
- Power: 597bhp @ 9,000rpm
- Torque: 398 lb ft @ 6,000rpm
- Transmission: 7-speed auto, rear-wheel drive
- Acceleration: 0-62mph in 3sec
- Top speed: 202mph
- Weight: 1,395kg
- Fuel: 23.9mpg
- CO2: 275g/km
- Warranty: 4 years; 7 years’ servicing also included
Audi R8 V10 plus
An experienced motoring hack once said to me: “If you want to be somebody, you buy an Audi. If you are somebody, you buy a Ferrari.” I laughed, but the phrase stuck with me.
Choosing an Audi tells the world you’re in a hurry. The German company is best known for building large, luxurious saloons that barge their way around the motorway network, LED daytime running lights ablaze. Cars driven by driven people.
Ferrari owners, by contrast, have already arrived. Usually at the casino in Monte Carlo, where they toss their keys to the valet. Or outside the pro shop at Gleneagles.
But let’s put to one side for a moment the kind of signal you’re giving off from behind the wheel, and concentrate on facts. Audi has been winning more great races than Ferrari of late — 13 Le Mans, for example. Meanwhile, Ferrari limps along in Formula One like a sprinter with a torn hamstring.
Much of what Audi has learnt on the racetrack — stability, durability, fuel efficiency — has been transferred to the R8. Like the Ferrari, it is built from aluminium and is liberally decorated with carbon fibre, and its engine features direct fuel injection, which improves efficiency and performance.
It’s a handbuilt car, too, so it is just as exotic as any Ferrari. But take a look at the difference in price and prepare to be surprised: the Audi islittle more than half the price of the Ferrari. With options fitted, the 458 costs £250,939, against £131,980 for the Audi.
And let’s not pretend that by choosing the cheaper car you won’t turn as many heads. The R8 attracts attention wherever it goes. You don’t need to be a contortionist to climb in and out of it and it is so well behaved in traffic that you can forget you are in something lithe and low, if you ignore the admiring looks.
The fastest version of Audi’s flagship has a V10 engine, not a V8, and has four-wheel drive to help you get to where you want to go, especially when it’s raining and the roads offer all the grip of a greased baking tray.
Don’t think this means it can’t be much fun to drive, though. In a rare fit of exuberance the German engineers have tuned the four-wheel drive to send 85% of the engine’s power to the back wheels in normal driving conditions.
On the track at Brands Hatch the R8 V10 Plus, the most sporting of the R8 range, was in its element. With a 0-62mph time of 3.5 seconds it’s certainly enough to blow the cobwebs away. Just as impressive is the stopping power of the carbon-ceramic brakes — standard on the V10.
If you’re serious about your driving — and admittedly not all buyers of such exotic cars are — the R8 offers the choice between a manual gearbox and an automatic. Ferrari, a company that proudly declares itself the maker of the world’s most thrilling sports cars, offers only automatic. Get out of that one, Montezemolo.
The Audi’s interior strikes a nicely judged balance between drama and cupholder. And compared with the sparseness of the Ferrari it feels like the lap of luxury.
The R8’s V10 engine is more mellow than the hyperactive Ferrari’s V8, and the cabin is comparatively quiet when you’re on a motorway run. Of the pair, this is the car more suited to long weekends in the country. Try that in the Ferrari and your travelling companion won’t be talking to you: it’s impossible with the noise.
Put your foot down in the R8, though, and it comes alive. If, like me, you remember the sound of the original Audi quattro, you’ll recognise it straight away. True, at 542bhp the engine is slightly less powerful than the Ferrari’s and doesn’t rev as high, but you’ll only really notice the difference on a track day.
And if you’re on a track day you’ll appreciate the security that four-wheel drive offers. No matter what the weather conditions, the R8 feels surefooted and trustworthy. By comparison, the Ferrari is a little hysterical for my tastes.
This may not be the more raw, sporting car of the two, but drivers who want to use their supercar for everyday tasks will fare far better with the R8.
So what about the Audi’s image problem?
Fortunately for the German company, Ferrari has a problem of its own because of owners who fail to understand that their role is to enjoy their wealth quietly, away from prying eyes. When they crashed their 458s, the grime musician Lethal Bizzle and the footballer Louis Saha — to name two of a number of accident-prone Ferrari drivers — put dents not only in their cars but also in the Italian brand’s reputation for effortless superiority. Nick Rufford
Audi R8 V10 Plus S tronic specifications
- Price: £131,980 (as tested)
- Engine: 5204cc, V10
- Power: 524bhp @ 8,000rpm
- Torque: 398 lb ft @ 6,500rpm
- Transmission: 7-speed sequential, auto four-wheel drive
- Acceleration: 0-62mph in 3.5sec
- Top speed: 197mph
- Weight: 1,595kg
- Fuel: 21.9mpg
- CO2: 288g/km
- Warranty: 3 years