It was only a matter of time until Ferrari SpA would take its new F430 coupe to the next level.

After all, the 360 it replaced was available in both coupe and Spider (convertible) bodystyles. Thus, it was easy to assume the F430's top was slated to come off eventually.

Those assumptions were correct, as Ferrari provides a drive through sunny southern Italy to get a real feel for the drop-top. The F430 Spider keeps the overall shape and exterior styling that debuted on its coupe sibling, with the new automatic fabric top the biggest change.

Ferrari worked alongside partner Car Top Systems (CTS), a subsidiary of Porsche AG, to develop the soft top (dubbed “capote” in Italian), which features a pressed-steel and aluminum frame that works in concert with seven electrohydraulic actuators to deploy and retract.

The roof system uses many of the same components found in the previous 360 Spider. Operation takes as little as 20 seconds to open or close. The roof folds in half before lowering into a compact well in front of the rear-mounted engine. Ferrari and CTS deserve kudos for designing a soft top that preserves the swoopy roofline of the coupe, thus keeping the overall shape of the F430 intact.

Engineers also concentrated on improving the car's aerodynamic properties to keep it in line with the coupe.

After months of testing in the Formula 1 wind tunnel at Ferrari's Modena headquarters, engineers managed to obtain a 40% increase in downforce compared with the 360 Spider. This was achieved with a new spoiler at the front bumper, a new spoiler design on the rear engine cover and new diffusers at the rear wheels.

“We wanted to achieve the same behavior with the top closed or open when it comes to vertical load,” says Patrizio Moruzzi, project leader-V-8 engine vehicles at Ferrari.

Engineers lengthened the springs on the Spider by 0.4 ins. (1 cm) to obtain an identical ride height with the coupe. The team managed to limit the weight difference between the Spider and coupe to just 154 lbs. (70 kg), thanks to the extensive use of aluminum structural components.

Like the coupe, the Spider is powered by a 4.3L DOHC V-8 producing 490 hp at 8,500 rpm and 343 lb.-ft. (465 Nm) of torque at 5,250 rpm. The similarities between the fixed-roof and soft-top variants continue, with power channeled through either a standard 6-speed manual or optional, Formula 1-inspired, 6-speed clutchless automated manual.

Another carryover from the coupe is the Manettino adjustable vehicle dynamic system and the “E-Diff” electronic differential. The Manettino does have one minor change: a new “low grip” option on the toggle switch.

While in low-grip mode, the operator still can use the F1 paddle shifters. But the suspension is tuned to provide a comfortable ride, and the traction-control and stability-control systems operate in maximum restriction mode.

Picking its way through the streets of Modena, Sassuolo and Parma, the F430 Spider lives up to the high bar established by its coupe stablemate. With the top closed, the cabin remains relatively quite, while the rumble from the V-8 over your shoulder offers little intrusion.

Unlike some convertible versions of ultra-high performance cars, top-down driving truly is a pleasure with the F430 Spider. It is even more thrilling than its hardtop counterpart — no mean feat in a Ferrari.

The car upholds the reputation for continuous improvement Ferrari has built over the last several years.

It is solid and remains firmly planted through the twists and turns of the backcountry roads, and clicking the F1 paddles elicits an immediate response from the gearbox.

Downshifting is particularly sweet, as the throttle blips automatically to match engine rpm with road speed. Nothing like a little “audible courage” from the engine bay.

Ferrari says it expects to build 15,000 F430 Spiders during the run of the model (traditionally about five years), with U.S. availability starting in May.

Patience must be a virtue for prospective owners when deliveries begin in June or July, as the coupe already is sold out until 2007.

While pricing has yet to be finalized, it's expected to be north of $200,000.