It's my first time so I'll be gentle... No, don't be filthy; I mean my first time driving a Ferrari. Given that I've been professionally writing about cars for fifteen years now, it's actually kind of impressive that I've managed to miss having a go in Maranello's finest, but while I've come close on occasions before, this is indeed my moment of Italian cherry-popping.
The 458 Italia looks more Ferrari-esque than just about any car. It sits somewhere below my waist height, an atomic doorstop of vivid blood red (of course) that makes the backdrop of Belfast's Titanic museum - a deeply striking building in itself - look somehow rather plain. The tour guides must be well hacked off with us, robbing the grandeur of Belfast's finest floating icon out from under it.
Why are we in Belfast? Simply because, on the island of Ireland, there is only one Ferrari dealer and it's Charles Hurst, part of the Lookers Group, which has just finished upgrading its combined Ferrari and Maserati showroom on the Boucher Road to the tune of more than £1 million.
We'll get a tour of the new showroom later, with its high-tech 'Atelier' where customers can ooh and ah over paint swatches and buttery-soft leather samples. For now, the roads of the picturesque Ards peninsula beckon and it's high time I broke my Ferrari duck.
Worryingly, it's raining and just the other night I was in the cinema watching Rush, where wet, curvy roads and a red Ferrari didn't make such an enticing combination, but everyone else in the convoy has left and now it's down to me. Pop the door (with a surprisingly cheap-feeling plastic handle) and drop way, way down into an enveloping black leather seat. Twist the old-school key, thumb the Engine Start button mounted - as are almost all the other major controls - on the steering wheel and the 4.5-litre V8 engine barks into life.
Crikey, it's loud. More musical than a truck full of woodwinds too, and it fires revs at the flywheel in great big bursts as you tap the throttle. Pull the right-hand carbon fibre paddle back to select first, and finally, I'm driving a Ferrari. The first few kilometres are, rather remarkably, unremarkable. For a low, wide, mid-engined car, the 458 is incredibly tractable and manoeuvrable in traffic, even riding quite gently over urban lumps and scrapes if you remember to push the soft mode suspension button (yes, also on the steering wheel).
Finally, we're out beyond the urban confines and some dry, twisty roads await. Flick the Manettino switch from Sport to Race and suddenly the 458 twitches into barking mad life. Gone now is the soft boulevardier that brought us out of the city centre, and instead is a snarling, roaring beastie, wringing every last rev and high-alto-note out of that 570hp V8. Bloody hell, it's fast. That may sound like rather on obvious thing to say, but it really is a staggeringly quick car. But it's also ruthlessly composed, refusing to get unnecessarily harsh or bouncy even on broken blacktop. And there's bad news for your licence in the way that the 458 can maintain high three-figure speeds with an insouciant ease. Steering feel is, frankly, just about perfect (aside from having to keep your thumbs away from the daft wheel-mounted indicator buttons) and the 458 corners with the feel of a go-kart that's had a Saturn V shoved up its bum. In other words, bastard fast but with a level of control and adjustability that is hard to credit for what is supposed to be a highly-strung Italian thoroughbred. I even got it to drift a couple of times coming off wet roundabouts and junctions, and that's quite a feat for someone who normally screams and climbs in the back at the sight of a slide.
The best part is that this is an affordable 458, or at least relatively so. In spite of looking and feeling utterly brand new, it was actually a 2011 car I drove, and one that has now been through Ferrari's just-launched Approved Used scheme. Just as with other more pedestrian car makers, Ferrari has now twigged onto the fact that many people's first ownership experience is more likely to be used than new, and that if you look after your used buyers properly, it's easier to convert them to new buyers later.
So, if you buy a second-hand Ferrari from Ferrari, it will have been through a 190-point check, have been fitted with new brake pads and tyres, if needed, fully serviced and be carrying a full two-year factory warranty. Better yet, if it's a post-2012 model, it will come under Ferrari's new inclusive service package, which, get this, runs for seven years and covers all regular maintenance and servicing, including parts. Hang on, is Ferrari trying to compete with Kia?
Not quite, but it is trying to make the point that its cars are more robust and day-to-day useable than is usually thought. Matteo Torre, Ferrari North Europe's general manager told me that "I think our customers want to buy a car that is reliable and where they can track the history of the car. We are so sure about the reliability of our cars that we have decided to give, all over the world, the seven years maintenance programme, including the parts."
Of course, affordable is a relative term. The car I was driving lists at £164,000 (about €200,000 and that's before VRT) so it's certainly not cheap, but at least the likely running costs have now come down a bit thanks to the inclusive service plan. It's almost enough to make you want to take the leap into Ferrari ownership.
Would I, now that I have finally driven one? No. Sorry, but impressive and enjoyable though the 458 certainly is, it doesn't quite ring my bell. Or at least, not to the necessary degree to go spending that kind of money. While I'd love to have that kind of handling and power at by beck and call every morning, the thrusting image and scalding red paint job just doesn't do it for me. I don't like to get jealous stares from the pavement, so I guess I'm just not extrovert enough for it.
If you are, then good news; Ferrari ownership just got a lot more cost-effective and Hurst's now has a gloriously tempting showroom ready and waiting for you.
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