Italy's economy may be in shambles, but that doesn't stop its proud citizens from lusting after their homegrown Ferraris. From cobbled streets in northern Italy's Emilia-Romagna region to rocketing laps around Ferrari's cozy Fiorano test track, the Ferrari 458 Speciale draws more leering stares than Monica Bellucci, at least during our recent drive. "Speciale" aptly describes this lightweight, hard-core version of the 458 Italia, already one of the world's most addictive sports cars. The Speciale's teasing blue-and-white stripe is a nod to Ferrari's old North American Racing Team, one of whose romantic racers – a 1967 275 GTB NART Spyder – set a world auction record for any automobile when it fetched $27.5 million in August.
For $298,000, the Speciale is a relative bargain: A track-focused training tool designed for skilled drivers, not Wall Street poseurs. On display under a clear cover, the mid-mounted V8 engine bellows a 9,000-rpm aria into the driver's ear, aided by a new carbon-fiber intake system. That handcrafted engine whips up 596 horsepower from just 4.5 liters of displacement. That's nearly 133 horses per liter, a new high for a naturally aspirated engine in a production automobile. Slimmed to 3,075 pounds, the Speciale slays 60 mph in three seconds flat. The alluringly curved body adopts trick active aerodynamics, including pivoting front flaps and an electronic underbody spoiler, to slice the air yet pin itself to the pavement at up to 202 mph. Carbon-ceramic brakes, straight from the roughly $1.3 million LaFerrari supercar, rein in the Speciale with otherworldly strength on Fiorano's long straightaway.
Riding shotgun is Marc Gené, the Ferrari test driver and 24 Hours of LeMans winner. We flick the Manettino – the car's nerve center, a red lever on the steering wheel – into its fast-twitch Race setting, heightening response from a range of systems. The Spaniard urges us to push the limits to experience Side Slip Angle control, which analyzes a driver's moves in real time and – if he's up to the task – maxes every performance parameter for the fastest possible lap times.
It's the latest weapon in Ferrari's Formula One-based tech arsenal that includes the paddle-shifted transmission, the F1-Trac traction control, and the e-Diff electronic differential, which helps the Ferrari catapult from turns with eyeball-squeezing force. Later, the Speciale howls through Italy's epic countryside, blowing past mortal machines and blowing the minds of driver and bystanders alike. Those include old men, Ferrari's loyal tifosi, who tip their hats as this beauty burbles past. In Ferrari's Maranello hometown, guys know Speciale when they see it. [$298,000; ferrari.com]