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Ferrari 458 Spider, California deliver unmatched experience for price of 15 Honda Civics

The Ferrari Spider 485, left, and the Ferrari

The Ferrari Spider 485, left, and the Ferrari California, right, are pictured. Credit: Ferrari

The parking valets at my Santa Monica hotel know me by name. I’ve stayed here a number of times, but that isn’t the reason for my popularity. No, it’s clearly the Ferrari effect.

"Good morning, Mr. Harper. Will you be taking out one of the cars today?" An expectant smile. Any excuse to fire up one of the two Ferrari convertibles parked prominently out front (and the expected tip). Together, these two red cars are worth more than $600,000.

If you are in the market for a new Ferrari convertible, you have only two choices: the $203,000 California and 458 Spider for $263,000. Both have V-8 engines and retractable hard tops, but offer vastly different characters: the easy-going California or the full-frontal-attack 458.

I thought it would be illuminating - and a bucketful of fun - to drive the convertibles back to back during five days in Los Angeles.

Up early on a Tuesday, I opt for the California and chase the rising sun toward the Pacific and Highway 1. Released in 2009, the California was pilloried as being less than a "real" Ferrari. All other front-engine Ferraris have V-12 motors, and the California has an overly ample rear to accommodate the folding aluminum roof.

This updated version is known as the California 30, as it has shed 30 kilograms (66 pounds) and gained 30 more horsepower. Just listen to the Italian engine - tuned like a Stradivarius ready for a duel with the devil - it’s a Ferrari all right.

The one I’m driving has more options than a Greek diner, raising the price to $284,221, equivalent to the cost of 15 Honda Civics. Still, the California is the easiest Ferrari to live with. It traverses regular curbs and has two back seats.

By comparison, the front end of the 458 is so low that you live in constant fear of scraping it. The car owns you as much as you own it.

You can no longer buy a Ferrari with a stick shift. Leave the California’s seven-speed double-clutch transmission in automatic and it purrs through gears sweetly. The 458’s breath catches every time it changes a gear in automatic mode.

On my way to a breakfast meeting in Malibu, I detour onto narrow canyon roads. The California is a bit heavy, a bit less than poised. It’s a ballroom dancer, happiest when given plenty of room to sweep and glide across the asphalt. Ask it to jitterbug and it sweats.

You will elicit two reactions while driving a Ferrari: 1) That’s awesome! 2) Rich jerk. Which side of the divide you fall on depends on both who’s watching and your attitude as a driver. (Offer spectators a chance to get inside themselves. It helps.) Being in a top-down Ferrari means being even more on-display. Try and perfect the art of looking happy, but not too self- satisfied.

In Malibu, however, the California is on home turf. Locals nod to me as one of their tribe. Perhaps I could be Chuck Lorre, or Charlie Sheen’s assistant.

Still, I can’t pretend otherwise: I’m much more excited about the 458 Spider. Even as a convertible, it is a hammer-of- the-gods sports car, with the 562-hp engine located in the center, behind the two-seat cockpit.

The Spider is based on one of my most-favorite cars, the 458 Italia coupe. Sequels are rarely as good as the originals, but this convertible looks better than the coupe both top up and down. And you give up almost nothing in terms of speed and overall performance.

There are real world issues such as the price, which including options is an angina-inducing $356,987. And it isn’t so easy to live with. Super wide and very low, it has no cup holders, not much interior storage space, no comfort setting and the controls are clustered on the steering wheel, including button-operated blinkers. The car turns with only a hint of steering wheel twist. It basically demands that you re-learn how to drive.

It’s worth it. Wind it up - and you’ll always want to wind it up - and a hot roar of dragon breath blasts the hairs on your neck. The caterwaul from the 4.5-liter V-8 may be one of the best things created by man, ever.

I spend one evening suffering through West Hollywood traffic (where the Spider is studiously ignored in the same way that New Yorkers pretend not to recognize celebrities) before regaining my senses and heading back out to desolate mountain roads.

A Porsche-driving buddy and I spend the day chasing each other up and down the roads. He eventually gets out of his 911 and into the Ferrari, and I watch his mouth make an expressive "O" the first time I punch the gas. "That’s seriously fast," he allows.

"That’s a Ferrari," I reply. And so the day goes, the sun baking our faces and engine noise blasting our ears as the ocean glitters on the horizon. I’m in California heaven.

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