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Maranello’s fourth-gen track-special supercar bursts through the 700bhp barrier - but is the 488 Pista better than the McLaren 720S or Porsche 911 GT3?

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The track-ready ‘special series’ V8 supercar, delivered as the sun sets on another mid-engined Modenese model generation, has become a go-to piece of product strategy for Ferrari.

Starting with the 360 Challenge Stradale in 2003 and taking in the subject of this week’s road test – the 488 Pista – we’ve now seen a line of four consecutive examples of the breed. However, none of the 488 Pista’s predecessors – the 360 CS, 430 Scuderia and 458 Speciale, and before those the 348 GT Competizione of 1993 – represented such a titanic leap in performance as this.

Rear diffuser is slightly larger than a 488 GTB’s, but most of the extra rear downforce comes from the enlarged rear wing. It’s a contributing part of an aero makeover that adds purpose without too much visual aggression.

Thanks to this car, the extra-hardcore ‘junior’ Ferrari has skipped out a whole stratum of the supercar hierarchy: whereas a Speciale made a peak 597bhp, the Pista cranks the power all the way up to 710bhp, neatly vaulting over the 600-and-something-horsepower supercar class without so much as a downward glance.

A twin-turbocharged V8 engine with 50% new components is what has allowed the Pista to advance so quickly; and while you might think such horsepower-grabbing pace unsustainable, it is after all only enough to allow this car to match a McLaren 720S for peak power and torque. Elsewhere, there’s a familiar mix of new downforce-generating carbonfibre bodywork, a stripped-out lightweight cabin treatment and a track-intended suspension overhaul to report on – and we’ll cover them all over the next few pages.

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There are also some eyebrow-raising acceleration figures and circuit lap times to tell you about – the Pista having become the first production car to bring a set of super-sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 R tyres to the MIRA dry handling circuit, as well as everything else. Read on to find out what difference they made.

Price £252,765 Power 710bhp Torque 568lb ft 0-60mph 2.8sec 30-70mph in fourth 3.5sec Fuel economy 17.2mpg CO2 emissions 263g/km 70-0mph 37.7m

The Ferrari 488 line-up at a glance

With the 488 replacement, the F8 Tributo, announced earlier this year and soon to be launched to the press, the regular 488 GTB coupé is no longer on sale. Meanwhile, all examples of the 488 Pista coupé have been sold - leaving just the Pista Spider as the sole member of the line-up still available to new customers at the time of writing.

On a Pista, you get various pieces of carbonfibre bodywork, carbon-ceramic brakes, Cup tyres and a lightweight lithium ion battery as standard, as well as that engine.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Ferrari

DESIGN & STYLING

Ferrari 488 Pista 2019 road test review - hero nose

If you ticked every lightweight option on the order form for a 360 CS, you could make it 110kg lighter than a 360 Modena. By the time of the 458 Speciale, the weight loss from the standard car was down to 90kg.

The 488 Pista offers a nothing if not predictable 90kg saving, bringing it down to a claimed 1385kg with lightweight options; or 1465kg as weighed in the case of our test car, which, allowing for the full tank of petrol it was carrying and the mass of the 488 GTB we tested in 2016 (1555kg on the scales in like-for-like running order), makes Ferrari’s claim entirely credible.

Ferrari brought the S-duct, which routes airflow through the nose section to boost downforce, to Formula 1 and the 488 Pista is Maranello’s first road car to use one.

The section of the 488’s bodywork ahead of the front axle has been entirely redesigned for the Pista. It’s now made up of a carbonfibre bonnet and front bumper, and inside it, the lateral radiators so important for engine cooling have been inclined rearwards rather than forwards, to the improvement of both cooling efficiency and the car’s aerodynamic performance.

At the rear, a carbonfibre bumper and spoiler do their bit for weight saving, with a Plexiglass engine cover also saving a few grams. There’s a lithium ion battery, too, and a set of optional carbonfibre wheels (fitted on the car we performance tested, although not on the one we photographed) that are 40% lighter than the car’s standard alloys.

Then there’s the Pista’s engine; and what an engine it is. In large part a ‘civilian garb’ motor from one of the firm’s 488 Challenge racers, it’s a widely overhauled 3.9-litre 90deg V8 with a lightweight flat-plane crankshaft, an Inconel exhaust manifold, a lightened flywheel, titanium conrods, lightweight cylinder liners and new valves and valve springs.

It duly weighs 18kg less than the V8 in a 488 GTB and, running a slightly higher compression ratio and shorter induction tracts than its relation, makes 710bhp between 6750rpm and 8000rpm, and up to 568lb ft of peak torque at 3000rpm. However, torque is electronically governed depending on your selected gear in order to give the engine’s performance a more progressive feel, which means peak torque actually only ever figures in seventh gear – just as was the case with the 488 GTB.

Where suspension is concerned, the Pista gets retuned SCM-E adaptive dampers and coil springs stiffened by 10%. It also has a new electronic lateral dynamics controller called the Ferrari Dynamic Enhancer (FDE), which uses subtle brake interventions to trim the car’s cornering line and operates in addition to the influence of the torque-vectoring e-diff.

The brake servo also comes from the 488 Challenge racing car, as does the inspiration for many of its special aerodynamic features. Among the latter are the downforce-generating S-duct at the leading edge of the bonnet; the winglets and air ducts at the lateral extremes of the front bumper; the various changes to the aerodynamic underbody; and the enlarged rear wing and ‘active’ rear diffuser. Downforce is 20% up compared with the 488 GTB, with no associated drag penalty.

INTERIOR

Ferrari 488 Pista 2019 road test review - cabin

Ferrari’s weight-saving regime for the 488 Pista is one whose legacy is evident everywhere you look around the interior. There’s carbonfibre panelling on its sills and centre console as standard – and our test car’s optional specification added an instrument cluster, air vents, floor covers, lower door covers and more at extra cost – some of which very likely added weight to the car as dressing.

Be that as it may, the car certainly ‘looked light’ from the driver’s seat. The seat itself was broader and harder in the cushion than some testers would have preferred, but it made all acceptably comfortable, even allowing for the slightly offset pedal box.

The Pista’s so fast you daren’t take your eyes off the road, so bright shift lights on the steering wheel are very handy when accelerating hard in the lower gears

The audio and navigation system, usually relayed by a right-sided display screen of the car’s instrument binnacle and controlled by a console to the right of the steering wheel, has been stripped out; so, too, have the Pista’s audio speakers.

Where storage is concerned, Ferrari has dispensed with the standard GTB’s glovebox but has left the smaller cubbies of the centre console in situ. Among them is a smallish cupholder up front, while a couple of trays further aft are big enough to house wallets or sunglasses and provide a USB jack and a 12V power outlet for charging wired devices. Elastic storage nets in each door and behind both seats are also handy for swallowing exiled pocket cargo.

All up, then, the 488 Pista looks sparse and stripped out at first glance, and yet it has the practical features you’ll want when you go looking for them. The perfect compromise? Well, if not, then it’s very close.

The 488 GTB’s binnacle-integrated infotainment and navigation system is one of the items that Ferrari dispenses with for the Pista in the name of weight saving. You can have it put back in at an extra cost of £1920, but our test car left it out.

Experience of the 488 GTB and Spider teaches that the navigation set-up is a respectable system that’s not as slick or technically impressive as those you’ll find on the very latest sports cars, and it is slightly fiddly to interact with via the rotary controller, but it certainly does its job; and, as part of a mid-life update to the 488, it offers Apple CarPlay smartphone mirroring, but at an extra cost of £2400.

That the car retains its trip computer, to be found on the left-hand console of the binnacle, means you can keep tabs on things as varied as oil temperature, tyre pressure, lap time and fuel range, but not fuel economy (and in a Ferrari built with the track in mind, why would you be interested?).

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Ferrari 488 Pista 2019 road test review - engine

The Pista’s V8 isn’t the sort of engine to bludgeon you with a huge tide of boost-heavy torque that suddenly explodes through the middle of the rev range. It is unlike most motors of its kind because it revs so freely and sounds so frenetic, but also because it keeps on pulling violently right the way to the 8000rpm redline, so long after so many modern turbos have begun tailing off.

And that high-range work ethic isn’t there by chance. This is an engine whose thrashing pistons are managed and motivated more cleverly than a Pep Guardiola cup final squad. That it effectively saves torque back for the higher gears while also revving so freely makes the car’s outright performance level seem to have almost no limit. That, in turn, also makes the process of pinning the car’s accelerator, and then being brave enough to keep it pinned and hold on shift by shift, a thrill ride that’s very difficult to find an equal for anywhere in motordom.

In terms of power and handling for the public road, the 488 Pista lives on the edge of reason. But it rarely feels nervous and boasts an agility that will be hard to match

Launching from rest to 60mph on its Michelin Cup 2 R tyres in a two-way average of 2.8sec (2.77sec being the car’s quickest one-way run, almost a tenth quicker than Ferrari’s claim), the Pista would outsprint both a McLaren Senna and a McLaren 720S to 90mph. It would also leave a Lamborghini Huracán Performante trailing by several car lengths over a standing quarter mile, and then just keep gapping it.

Ultimately, though, both McLarens would haul the Ferrari back in and overtake it with enough room to run into. (The Senna’s aerodynamics eventually slow it down again above 150mph.) But the Pista needn’t look to absolute supercar class domination to make you appreciate what’s so special about its engine – because, in truth, almost everything about it is special.

The car is so fast at full power, over the higher reaches of the rev range, that it borders on the absurd at times. And yet it’s responsive, tractable, docile, clean-revving, drivable, theatrical and expressive, too. Believe it or not, the car is barely half a second slower from 60mph to 110mph when hauling through top gear than a BMW M2 is over the same increments when pulling flat out in fourth.

You may well wonder if that kind of performance level can ever really be enjoyed on the road in 2019; and you can surmise that, if the answer’s yes, it’s only in very short bursts, which is undoubtedly a frustration at times.

But the Pista’s V8 has such power and drama that it delivers excitement almost every time you flex the pedal. It’s a wonderfully overbearing presence in the car; too forceful, even, at times – but it’s never anything short of epic.

RIDE & HANDLING

Ferrari 488 Pista 2019 road test review - on the road front

The 488 Pista handles like a car that has had its ‘Ferrariness’ dialled up to 11. If modern Prancing Horses are, by and large, darting, pointy, reactive and direct in their handling, then the Pista explores the outer limits of possibility – and acceptability – on every single one of those points.

With fewer than two full turns between extremes of steering lock, the car feels like it’s up on its toes at all times and in all situations. There is just enough weight in the steering system to make its pace digestible, and a little contact patch feel. The rack isn’t as brilliant as the best produced by Porsche and McLaren in recent years but remains very consistent in its weighting even under extremes of load, which allows you to acclimatise to its directness quite quickly.

Having read just how quick and direct the Pista’s steering rack is, it was a relief to find directional changes don’t feel overly nervous or intimidating on the road. They’re still darn fast, but intuitive and confidence inspiring, too

Although it’s very firm and lively, the 488 Pista isn’t generally a nervous-feeling car on the road. That only ever begins to change on the odd occasion: when uneven surfaces make the car bump steer a little, when it tramlines slightly over similar bumps under braking and when it slips slightly sideways under big applications of power as you cross cambers or painted road markings.

At greater pace on the road, and even more vividly on the track, the sheer agility, incisiveness and handling adjustability of the Pista’s chassis are nothing short of incredible. The car feels significantly overpowered in a way that the 458 Speciale never did. It is at its best when driven in ‘CT off’ mode just below ‘brain-out’ pace, in an indulgent style that lets you savour every deliciously precise, controllable slew of power-on oversteer (and there are always plenty to go around).

Drive it flat out, for outright lap time, and the Pista begins to feel a bit too mobile in its handling; like its penchant for perfect drifts is slowing it down slightly and it could do with greater high-speed stability. The car certainly doesn’t have that aura you find in a McLaren Senna which suggests you could lap it for days on end without finding the limit of its grip and speed.

Rather than testing your bravery and the muscle power in your neck and thighs, the Pista is a track car that appeals more to your senses than some, and that flatters your skill level and dials up the fun factor. In other words, it’s very good indeed.

The Pista is the kind of car to make any track driving session unforgettable. Pointy and alert in its every move, and super-responsive in almost everything it does, it feels nimble and balanced in a way to surpass its every rival.

The flipside of that pervasive nimbleness? Well, the car didn’t really threaten to beat our dry handling track lap record, which speaks to the fact that there isn’t the very last word on high-speed stability or aerodynamic downforce here.

Driving the car quickly means dialling down the stability and traction control systems into ‘CT off’ mode, and adopting a style in which the car feels habitually on the brink of oversteer – with its outside rear wheel always spinning slightly beyond the limit of traction – and constantly being ready with smooth and precise degrees of opposite lock. It’s always exciting, but it does sometimes feel as though you’re overdriving the car rather than getting into the perfect groove with it.

COMFORT AND ISOLATION

Ferrari reckons that more than half of Pista owners will use their cars on the track. The firm will tell you that the everyday usability of the car matters a great deal – but you suspect it wouldn’t have figured highly enough to have been allowed to erode the highly strung, thrill-a-minute character of this car one iota. And neither should it have.

And, sure enough, the Pista is entirely usable in any case. That wailing V8 settles to a reasonably civil hum at lower crank speeds, particularly when you’re using Sport mode on the manettino, and although the wheels and suspension allow plenty of unfiltered road roar to make its way into the cabin, the effect isn’t too bad on smoother surfaces.

Drive the Pista fairly gently and you could tour in it, and hold a conversation with your passenger without shouting. Drive it more as Ferrari intended and you’ll need earplugs to prevent your ears ringing after a busy couple of hours – although, even at pace, the noise level isn’t exactly bothersome.

The car’s B-road ride is certainly more busily reactive than in the average supercar and can still seem terse and even a little bit wooden if you’re really pressing on, although it improves with the dampers set to ‘bumpy road’ mode.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Ferrari 488 Pista 2019 road test review - hero front

If this section looks more truncated than normal, that’s because it’s somewhat academic. As is so common with limited-series Ferraris, the Pista sold out very soon after its announcement to the buying public in 2018. That’s in spite of having been priced at a healthy premium compared with some rivals.

This car was always likely to be a very canny buy, just as its predecessor was. And so it has proved, with a few of the ‘delivery mileage’ Pistas on the secondhand market being offered at prices approaching £400,000.

The Pista is an incredible driver’s car and one to celebrate and cherish. To my mind, it’s not the very best of its kind that Maranello has ever built – but I’d still be hard pressed to choose between one and a McLaren 600LT

Ferrari also looks after the ownership equation of its cars very well these days, offering a four-year warranty that can be extended at extra cost right the way to 15 years, and throwing in seven years of scheduled servicing for free.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Ferrari

VERDICT

Ferrari 488 Pista 2019 road test review - static doors

The Ferrari 488 Pista offers an on-track driving experience of incredible pace, and handling poise that’s more enticing than anything we’ve seen in recent years from Lamborghini, McLaren or even Porsche.

It may not have smashed the McLaren Senna’s dry handling track lap record, and it may not be quicker into three figures than a McLaren 720S – but by prioritising accessibility and vivacity of driver appeal, it arguably beats its rivals for sheer excitement and instant fun factor, without perhaps beating all of them for deep-lying driver reward.

Unmatched in on-track handling vivacity, but not in all other ways

Compared with its direct predecessor, the car’s greatness will be debated long and hard. The 458 Speciale was less brutal, but the major components of its driving experience seemed more harmoniously balanced. The 488 Pista is faster and more visceral, but it’s different: as though the engine and chassis are in competition for superstar status rather than acting in perfect harmony. You, as the driver, feel like you are the glue holding everything together – and having a whale of a time in the process.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Ferrari

Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017 and like all road testers is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests and performance benchmarking, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found presenting on Autocar's YouTube channel.

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Ferrari 488 Pista 2018-2020 First drives