Italy's Passo della Cisa, or Cisa Pass, has a special place in the country's history: medieval pilgrims from northern Europe crossed it on their way to Rome, it marks the division between the provinces of Tuscany and Liguria - and Enzo Ferrari began his motor-racing career on it.

Ferrari finished fourth in class in his first event, a hill-climb. He was driving and working for CMN, a small company that made passenger cars based on reworked truck bodies.

The event that October day in 1919 was won by Antonio Ascari, father of Alberto Ascari, who won the World Formula One championship in 1952-53 - driving a Ferrari.

Ferrari himself had a lifelong love affair with the Cisa Pass. He continued to compete over its twisting 128km past Parma towards La Spezia, first when he worked and raced for Alfa Romeo in the 1920s and 30s, and later when he started the company which bears his name. Those at the company today say that he tested Ferrari prototypes on the Cisa Pass.


It was over this spectacular road that the carmaker the other day launched its latest product, the 458 Spider, the open-top version of the mid-engined 458 Italia coupe.

Ferrari has strengthened the chassis to compensate for the lack of a structural roof, a change which has added 50kg to the car's weight. Because of the stiffer chassis, structural rigidity is unchanged, it says.

The Spider comes with a fully retractable aluminium hard-top roof that Ferrari says has several advantages over the traditional folding soft-top, including being 25kg lighter than the fabric equivalent.

It is fully integrated into the styling of the car and was engineered to fit ahead of the engine bay without compromising aerodynamics or performance.

The roof folds in 14 seconds, with just two moving parts that slot into a gap between the engine and the seats. The small space needed to house the roof enabled designers to include a rear bench for luggage behind the seats.

An adjustable electric wind stop diffuses the air in the cockpit, allowing, says Ferrari, driver and passenger to hold a "normal" conversation at high speeds.

The 458 Spider must be stopped to open or lower the roof via a switch on the console. I lowered the roof going over the Cisa Pass, mostly to hear the glorious sound of the exhaust note.

New software for the magnetorheological dampers improves body control, enhancing feedback. The accelerator pedal mapping and engine soundtrack have been calibrated to guarantee maximum driving pleasure with the top down.

Engineers modified the exhaust system to suit. You don't have to change down a gear to play with the exhaust note. Simply pour on the power or lift off the throttle and the engine tells the exhaust to play the right tune.

There's not a car in the world that sounds as good. The car and its noise go together like Romeo and Juliet, not the eternal lovers but two robots in the Ferrari factory that make ring-like valve seats for engines. Staff nicknamed them Romeo and Juliet because Romeo hands Juliet a ring ...

The 458 Spider is powered by a naturally-aspirated, direct-injection 4.5-litre V8 which delivers 425kW at 9000rpm with peak torque of 540Nm around 6000rpm. It has a top-speed of 320km/h and accelerates from zero to 100km/h in just over three seconds.

Power goes to the rear wheels via Ferrari's dual-clutch Formula One paddle-shift, seven-speed transmission, produced for Ferrari by Getrag.

A sophisticated electronic differential, E-Diff, integrated with the F1-Trac traction control and high-performance anti-lock carbon-ceramic brakes ensure maximum handling dynamics and stopping power.

The rear of the car is characterised by buttresses designed to optimise the flow of air to the engine intakes and the clutch and gearbox oil radiators.

There are a variety of set-ups for the car using the Formula One-style manettino device on the steering wheel, allowing for a harder or softer ride.

In go-faster Race mode, where the dynamic control systems are on full alert, the dual-clutch software quickens gear changes and the F1-Trac traction control grips to hurl the car out of corners.

In comfort damper mode, the suspension provides a very agreeable ride, soaking up ruts in the road better than some classy sedans.

Regardless of the setting, the 458 retains a supple ride. It feels surprisingly agile, too, thanks to fast, light steering, at 2.0 turns lock to lock.

The optional HELE (High Emotion Low Emission) system includes stop/start that cuts town-and-around fuel consumption to a claimed 11.8 litres/100km (24mpg) with CO2 emissions of 275gr/km.

The Ferrari 458 Spider will arrive in New Zealand late next year, priced upwards of the coupe's $534,000. It looks fantastic and is a formidable presence on the road. There's nothing quite like it, open or closed.