A morning chill nips the Napa Valley air, but it doesn't matter. We're going topless. With a touch of the start button, the F430's big engine comes to life. Another tap and the Ferrari's hardtop folds up like Italian origami, neatly stowing away. A third touch and the Formula One-derived transmission electronically shifts into gear. This time, a squeeze on the throttle. The 4.3-liter V-8 emits a resonant roar as we begin our run up the Oakville Grade, a diabolically twisty stretch of tarmac, barely wide enough for two cars, that connects the Napa and Sonoma valleys.
The F430 is the long-awaited successor to the best-selling model in Ferrari's storied history—the 360 Modena—and it's proving its legitimacy as the rightful heir.
As traffic and homes thin out, we push this prancing pony to its limits—no easy task with this 490-horsepower two-seater. On a road like this, muscle matters, but handling—and braking—are even more crucial. The suspension glues us to the Oakville Grade's rough pavement. Steering is absolutely precise and predictable. And the optional Brembo ceramic brakes scrub speed off like a Navy jet grabbing a carrier's arrest cable. Better yet, they're effectively fade-free, a real concern on a long and winding course like this.
As we race up on local traffic, drivers instantly pull out of the way. It's a menacing sight to see the F430 charge up in your rearview mirror, its huge air intakes flaring like the nostrils on a bull. As it races by, you'll briefly catch its long, low profile, tapered to cheat the wind, while providing the incredible downforce needed to preserve stability at a top speed of 193 mph.
The F430's racing roots are apparent everywhere you touch and turn. The steering-wheel-mounted controls let a driver adjust key performance settings, firming or softening the electronic shocks, and tweaking the level of intervention from traction and yaw controls.
If there's any downside to this sports car, it's the F430's long overhangs and low ground clearance. As we reach the end of the Grade, we can't help but calculate the cost of repairing the scrapes and dings we've likely put into the underbody from crunching through ruts and potholes. On smoother pavement, though, this shouldn't be much of a problem, and with a twist of the steering wheel controls, the adjustable suspension provides a surprisingly pleasant ride.
It isn't easy living up to the 360 Modena's reputation, but if our daylong drive is any indication, the F430 is everything Ferraristas have sought. It's visually striking and an absolute blast to drive. The "base" car sells for $197,334. Add about $10,000 for the F1 transmission and $15,364 for the Brembo brakes. We expect the F430 to give the old 360 Modena a serious run for the sales crown.