You would think, given the Ferrari F430 Spider's unearthly good looks -- its sheet metal like a fierce, turbulent flow of molten lipstick -- that the car would primarily be a visual experience. And yet, as I sit here reflecting on my week in this car, my brain trembling with San Andreas-like aftershocks and my hair fully locked in the horizontal position, what I remember most is its sound -- or sounds. This thing has more voices than Linda Blair in full antichrist mode.
Tip up the driver's door handle recessed in the car's shoulder line, and from deep within come the whirring sounds of pumps and high-pressure hydraulics stirred from their slumber. Uh-oh. Something license-losing this way comes. Swing open the lightweight aluminum door, park your unworthy hinder in the cradling leather seat (upholstered like the best luggage you'll never own), turn the red key and press the start button on the steering wheel. The big, flat-crank V8 spins with a chuffing, pneumatic cough, then lights with an icy-hot bark that swamps all other sounds in the parking deck.
The idle note is polyphonic. There's the altogether unimpressive and tinny flatulence coming from the quad exhausts, combined with the throb of measured detonation of the 4.3-liter, 483-horsepower engine, which is that ungodly thing with the twin red nacelles under the transparent engine cover. Once the engine light on the instrument panel goes off, the oil is warm and the catalytic converters are up to temperature. It's safe to give it the gas. Sort of.
This is not a car for the bashful. The F430 Spider is exactly as loud as four Italian sport bikes glued together, which is to say loud enough to set off jewelry-store burglar alarms and register on governmental homeland security monitors. At part-throttle, the car tries to restrain itself -- it sounds a lot like a trombone played with the mute in. But as soon as the needle on the big yellow tach sweeps past 4,000 rpm, an air-metering drum rotates between the dual air plenums, and then, oh boy. This is the motorized diphthong from hell. BaaaaWHAAAAHHHH!
To double-downshift this car in a tiled tunnel is to experience utter automotive satori. The whopping, snapping overrun sounds made me choke back tears of joy. I know. I'm not well, really. If you want to help, please donate $205,000 to the Dan Neil Ferrari Fund. With research, there is hope.
The product of what is purely the most sophisticated piece of reciprocating machinery on the road, this sound is dark and primitive and triggers fight-or-flight bells in those who hear it. Tease the 8,500-rpm redline and for blocks around alfresco diners raise their heads in unison, like African meerkats around a watering hole when one picks up the scent of hyena.
And that's just around town. With an empty on-ramp and a clear shot at the freeway, nail the throttle and the sound you get is like pulling Odin's beard -- an unhinged, stressed-metal rage and hurricane howl of the induction pounding down air. The car rockets from 0 to 100 mph in less than 9 seconds. Keep your boot in it and crack off four 150-millisecond upshifts with the car's F1-style paddle shifters. Just try.
In jail, no one can hear you scream.
The experiential difference between this car and the one I drove in Italy last year is, of course, the fully automatic convertible top, which stows vertically behind the seats so as not to obstruct the view of the engine. It takes 20 seconds for the electro-hydraulics to nest the top under the sculptured fairing. Truncated roof buttresses merge with the upholstered roll hoops behind the seats to provide some beveling in case the car should roll over.
This is a slick and sleek installation that takes almost nothing away from the car's performance. As a convertible, it still feels as stiff as a submarine hatch and faster than a nuclear-tipped torpedo. And yet, with the top down, the driver can hear the car in its surrounding ambience, and it's a completely different gestalt from the coupe, as the bellowing rip-and-tear sounds fold back on you from canyon walls.
The F430 is the best-handling car in the world. There, I've said it. This thing feels like it was grown from the purest of sports-car stem cells and exposed to Fantastic Four-like gamma rays. An hour's hard driving in mountain switchbacks will exhaust your supply of sailor expletives and you will be reduced to "Gee willikers" and "Boy howdy!"
For this you could credit many things. The F1-style paddle-shifted gearbox -- essentially a six-speed manual transmission with a computer managing the clutch -- is superb. Even at near redline acceleration, the gearbox slips from ratio to ratio with a smoothness Napoleon brandy would envy. More important, you can drive this car deep into a corner full on the brakes, tugging the left paddle for downshifts -- the F430 will expertly blip the throttle to rev-match the gears -- then turn in and lift off the brakes to waggle the rear end. Trail-braking was never this easy.
At this point, the car's electro-hydraulic differential comes in. At corner entry, the E-diff frees up the rear end to allow maximum difference in rotational speeds between the left and right rear wheels, helping the car turn. Open the throttle again at the corner apex and the E-diff -- gathering data from steering, engine and inertia sensors all over the car -- actually overdrives the outside rear wheel. The steering effort lightens in your hands and the car arcs around the corner like a wheeling kestrel.
Of course, it has magnificent brakes, perfect steering and raw, Fujita-scale power. Lots of exotics do. The Ferrari's advantage is that so much of it is usable. Yes, it has lateral grip in excess of .9 g's, thanks to the enormous Bridgestones clutched in its paws. But unlike a lot of exotics, all that grip is available the instant you turn the car -- no waiting for the suspension to take a set, no countering momentum while the chassis settles down. It is just there.
The F430 is the first Ferrari to be equipped with the manettino, a five-position switch that changes the behavior and thresholds of the car's gearbox, engine management, suspension, anti-lock brakes and stability control. In the ice and low-grip settings, the traction, anti-spin and ABS functions are all set on Defcon 4 to prevent the car from getting out of control. Sport setting is "normal," although it's pretty dang sporty. In the race setting, the gearshift points are raised, the suspension goes hard, and the computers lie back even further, stepping in only if the car senses major trouble. True to Ferrari's double-black-diamond ethos, expert drivers can turn all these systems off so it's just you and the car against the rapacious weeds and ditches that would gobble you both.
It ain't me, babe. Oh, no, no. It ain't me.
IS this a perfect car? No. At speeds below 10 mph, it tends to have a nasty driveline snatch -- the car yanks back and forth, making you look really uncool. Also, the top mechanism on our megabuck test car needed a little help to latch onto the windshield header. The leather cubby between the seats resisted opening. The long and gorgeous nose of the car, carved to aerodynamic perfection, tends to scuff on anything less than bed-flat streets. I had to plan my route around Santa Monica carefully lest I leave hundreds of dollars' worth of red paint on the concrete. And the audio system is something out of a box of Italian Cracker Jack.
But the F430 Spider is an event, a celebration. Sitting in a parking garage with ordinary cars, it inhabits another space and time. It glows like a hot isotope. Is someone in coronary arrest? Put two of these on his chest and yell, "Clear!"
The arrow has never been smithed to beat it.
I spent all week giving people rides, but the best was Wylie, the 8-year-old son of an editor here at the paper. He showed up at my desk in his Ferrari polo shirt and hat, about the cutest thing that ever drew breath. I buckled him into the car and took him for a ride. He squealed and the car squealed and I poured on the gas. For the most part, he was speechless, smiling and laughing. Then, with a child's instinct for perfect truth, he shouted over the engine and the wind: "I'm dazzled!"
Me too, kid. Me too.
2006 Ferrari F430 Spider
Base price: $204,867
Price, as tested: $212,000
Powertrain: Mid-engine mounted, naturally aspirated 4.3-liter, 48-valve V8, dual-overhead cam, variable induction and valve timing; six-speed manual transmission with electro-hydraulic clutch and paddle shifters; rear-wheel drive
Horsepower: 483 at 8,500 rpm
Torque: 343 pound-feet at 5,250 rpm
Curb weight: 3,350 pounds
0-60: 4 seconds (estimated)
Wheels (front/rear): 19 x 7.5-inch cast aluminum; 19 x 10.0 cast aluminum
Tires: 225/35ZR19 84Y; 285/35ZR19 99Y Bridgestone Potenza
Wheelbase: 102.4 inches
Overall length: 177.6 inches
EPA fuel economy: 11 miles per gallon city, 16 mpg highway
Final thoughts: The absolute best way to lose your hearing
Automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at email@example.com.