This has many people in a tizzy. You can be forgiven for wondering why.
The tech is important here, and worth explaining to those who view cars merely as transportation. A turbocharger is a small intake compressor driven by an engine’s exhaust. The logic behind it is simple: Engines burn fuel and oxygen in a relatively specific ratio. All else being equal, if you want more power, you must add more fuel, but you can’t do that without adding more oxygen. Turbochargers recover energy from the exhaust to compress the air the engine breathes. More fuel is added to compensate, and boom—more power.
The glory of a turbo is that its benefits are, to a certain extent, demand-driven. Generally speaking, when you’re on the throttle, the exhaust gases drive the turbo harder, producing more compressed air (a.k.a. boost), which requires more fuel, which gives you more power. Keep your foot out of it and the turbo doesn’t work as hard and the engine gets better fuel mileage. This is important, because even Ferrari must make its cars more efficient. The government has decreed it.
Everyone’s Doing It, Why Don’t We?For this reason, turbos have become commonplace in the past decade, appearing under the hoods of everything from $20,000 hatchbacks to seven-figure supercars. Automakers—well, most automakers—love them. But turbos have their downsides. There is a certain amount of unavoidable throttle lag—the pause between dropping the hammer and the turbocharger kicking in. And you don’t get good fuel economy when you’re asking the engine to make peak power. These drawbacks are minimal and diminish each year, but they exist. There’s no free lunch.
Ferrari has been dragged against its will into the turbo era. Historically, it hasn’t made a lot of turbocharged street cars (racing is another story entirely). Last year, it unveiled the $202,723 California T, a twin-turbo version of its entry-level drop-top. Before that, you had to back a generation to the utterly insane F40 supercar of the 1980s and, before that, the equally bonkers twin-turbo, rally-derived 288 GTO. Maranello has largely steered clear of turbocharging because it dilutes two things everyone expects from a Ferrari: a ferocious, animalistic exhaust note and razor-sharp throttle response.
In the other camp, you have the loyalists, the tifosi, the people for whom Enzo is a god and the company can do no wrong: The 288 was turbocharged, and it was great, they argue. The F40 happened, and it ripped my face off. Ferrari wouldn’t do this if it couldn’t do it right, so it has to be right. Join the future and the 488 will be amazing and stop living in the past you jerk and go drive your Model T.
The truth is, of course, somewhere in the middle.
Even Ferrari Must Change With the TimesFerrari has a proud history of refusing to adopt any technology it deems unworthy. It has famously resisted electrically assisted power steering—which is virtually the rule for the industry, found in everything from econoboxes to Porsche’s $845,000 918 Spyder—because it tends to compromise steering feel and connection to the road. It’s the same story with all-wheel drive, which wasn’t available until the Ferrari FF came along in 2011. (The FF’s system is a bespoke setup that prioritizes lightness and feedback. It works pretty well, and the car feels like a Ferrari, all bloodlust and sex.)
You can afford to be this picky when you’re a tiny, luxury-oriented company with rabid customers and an R&D philosophy best described as “Too much still isn’t enough.” But everything has limits, and all things must pass. And so Ferrari is adopting turbochargers even if company capos have said they don’t like them. The driving force (no pun intended) is fuel economy, government mandates, image, and the fact that, from time to time, even small companies must grow.
And so we have the 488 GTB, which will do zero to 62 mph in three seconds flat, hit twice that speed in 8.3 seconds and, should you have sufficient room, achieve a Vmax just north of 205 mph. It will do this while delivering a combined fuel economy in the ballpark of 20 mpg. (The exact figure is TBD, as the number Ferrari cites, 11.4 l/100 km, is based on European tests and standards.) And it is of course packed with the electronic wizardry and aerodynamic magic to ensure it handles as you’d expect it to, meaning mere mortals will never see the edge of its performance envelope.
Still, there is the matter of the twin turbochargers flanking the 3.9-liter 90-degree V8. It remains to be seen just how this will play out—despite all the uproar, few, if any, people outside of the company have actually driven the 488. Yet it is an interesting discussion, one that goes to straight to the role emotion and passion plays in how we view cars. And few marques inspire so much emotion and passion as Ferrari. Can you imagine people getting this worked up over, say, a Volkswagen?
Even a Flawed Turbo Can Be EntertainingThere is reason to be optimistic. Ferrari makes the most focused sports cars in the world, consistently doing more with less than any other automaker on earth. It has experience with turbos, even if the 288 and F40 were produced when engines were a lot easier to build and regulations much easier to meet. The company’s razor-sharp, direct-injected, naturally aspirated V8s and V12s are among the best things ever created by man. When you drive one, you see the face of a certain kind of god. They are a benchmark, a reminder of what’s possible given enough time, dedication and talent. The engine in the 458 is one of the finest ever assembled, and it absolutely defines that car.
People criticize turbocharged engines, but even a flawed one can be entertaining—one of the best things I’ve ever driven was a Porsche 934 Le Mans car, and it was everything bad about turbochargers wrapped up in one bloodthirsty package. (Horrendous lag, a terrible exhaust note, throttle response that wanted you dead in a ditch. It was still great.) Ferraris are so intoxicating because they feel and sound and talk to you a certain way, and much of that is related to engine response and noise and RPM—the living, beating heart of a car, the feeling that it’s alive. Ferrari promises these things in the 488 GTB.
I’ve driven a 288 GTO, and it felt and sounded right, but the turbocharged engine was offset by the fact the car was such a glorious mind-fuck. It was perfectly calibrated, a monster capable of big, big speed without being the slightest bit intimidating. It was a joy to drive. It could’ve been powered by an old chainsaw and I would’ve loved it. Perhaps that’s the point. Ferrari got it right, when the conventional wisdom suggested it couldn’t. What the haters don’t realize is that, like any other technology, a turbo isn’t good or bad in and of itself. It’s all in how you use it.