Ferrari's Golden State

Other car makes fear the financial storm warnings, but thanks to its new California the sun still appears to be shining on Ferrari
By Andrew Frankel

Don’t let thoughts of a title won and lost in almost as many seconds make you feel too sorry for Ferrari this winter. For what it’s worth, I think justice was done for all: the team with the best car won the constructors’ title, the team with the best driver won the drivers’ title.

But perhaps more cogently, Ferrari seems to be a business in very good shape at the moment. I’ve been doing this long enough to remember the days when Ferrari said it would never build more than 3000 cars each year. Then it was 4000, then 5000… And in the first year of full production of this new California, the number of cars wearing the little yellow badge nosing their way out of the Maranello gates will approach 8000. Given that, at £143,320, the California is the cheapest car Ferrari makes, that can neatly be described as good business if you can get it. In volume terms it puts Ferrari on the same sort of plane as Bentley and Aston Martin, though if you expressed it in terms of revenue, I suspect it’s playing an altogether different game.

Also, the California is sold out until 2011, which is not something you’ll hear anyone at Bentley or Aston Martin saying about any of their mainstream products right now. Yes, the California is new, and of course some of those orders will evaporate before being fulfilled but, at the same time, I suspect fresh orders will also be received from those who have waited to see if anything as conceptually compromised as a 1735kg convertible with a retractable hard top can cut it as a Ferrari on the open road.

Perhaps surprisingly, it can. When you drive the California, what strikes you most is how Ferrari has used it to embrace a whole raft of new technologies, from that roof past its direct injection engine to the seven-speed, paddle-shift, double-clutch gearbox while, at the same time, never losing sight of the fact that, above all, it must be a Ferrari.

It’s a car I had grave reservations about – I didn’t like the way it looked when I saw the photographs and I didn’t like the way it read when I saw its specification. It seemed likely to be one of those strange and unsatisfying cars Ferrari feels the need to produce once in a while when its focus loses sharpness: the 348tb was one, the 360 Modena another, while the current 612 Scaglietti is a third.

The bad news is seeing the car in the flesh did nothing to allay these fears. I don’t understand why Pininfarina has struggled for so long with the styling of Ferraris: the last one I really liked was the F355 which itself was based on the 348 which would have been styled at the back end of the 1980s. That’s 20 years without a truly great original design for Ferrari, yet its work for Maserati of late has produced some of the greatest shapes ever to wear a trident. By contrast the California is fussily detailed and a little too big in the posterior. There’s an awkward homage to something going on at the front too – I thought an original California, though rumour has it that the name was not settled on until very late in the day – and the overall effect is not bad, just mildly disappointing.

Still, it’s not as if there aren’t good things to dwell upon here. There is more history under the bonnet where the California notches up another claim to fame: the first Ferrari ever to sport an indigenous V8 in its nose. Although its capacity might suggest it’s the same motor used by the F430, it’s actually only distantly related and comes not only with direct injection but even a different bore and stroke, leading to a capacity 3cc below 4.3 litres, rather than 8cc above. Somewhat confusingly Ferrari says its closest relative is actually the 4.7-litre V8 it casts in its foundry for use by Maserati and Alfa Romeo.

As with every Ferrari V8, with the sole exception of the 3-litre motor it adapted for use by Lancia in the unlovely Thema 8.32 of the late ’80s, the California uses a 180-degree crankshaft rather than the more usual 90-degree layout, retaining the sharp Ferrari bark and howl rather than a more Stateside rumble and thunder. Its 453bhp makes it convincingly the least powerful motor in Ferrari’s arsenal and, installed in a car whose kerbweight is exceeded only by that of the portly Scaglietti, hopes for explosive performance are not high.

But through the use of ultra-close gear ratios, a Getrag gearbox for which Ferrari is able to quote no measurable shift time and, in extremis, a highly effective launch control system, the California contrives to stretch this comparatively meagre resource a remarkably long way.

Bar-room bores will love to quote its sub-four second 0-60mph capability and 8000rpm red line, while I revelled simply in acceleration that seemed quite relentless up to the 140mph or so I managed to achieve while the Sicilian police kindly looked the other way. The gearchanges are, indeed, apparently immediate while the noise of the motor is vintage Ferrari V8. A three pedal option will be available next year, but Ferrari anticipates a minimal uptake.

The car also handles beautifully. A mid-engined Ferrari – even one as unfeasibly good as a Scuderia – is not a car in which to turn off all the electronics and start taking liberties: sooner or later it will find a way to repay your impertinence. But the California is not like this: its natural desire is to understeer just a little, which is exactly how it should be, but when called upon to be a little more demonstrative than this, it doesn’t skid, flick or lurch into a slide – it simply eases gently through a generous period of neutrality and flows into oversteer. I can’t remember when I last felt so confident driving a Ferrari with such abandon, but I suspect it was either in an original 550 Maranello or never.

But perhaps what I liked best about the California is that if you’re lucky enough to be on the right roads, you can behave like this all day until it’s time to go home, whereupon you can raise the roof in 14 seconds, soften the dampers and cruise back to base with a level of comfort and refinement that befits fully Ferrari’s claim that this is a proper GT. Writing about how enjoyable a Ferrari is to drive slowly might not be fashionable on the pages of magazine such as this, but it will be important to those in a position to buy a California: the more usable a car is, the more it is likely to be used.

Despite the looks, the weight and its apparent brief to be a Jack of all trades, the California turns out to be a fine Ferrari. Not a true great, perhaps, but one fully deserving its place in the stable. So if you show me someone who claims its only real home is the Santa Monica Boulevard in its adopted California, I, in turn, will show you someone who’s not driven one.

Ferrari California

Engine: 4297cc 90º V8 Direct Injection, petrol
Power/Torque: 453bhp at 7750rpm, 358lb ft at 5000rpm
Gearbox: F1, dual clutch, 7-speed plus reverse or manual 6-speed
Tyres: f: 245/40; r: 285/40
Fuel/co2: 21.6mpg, 305.6g/km
Acceleration: 0-62mph: under 4.0sec,
0-1000m: 22.1sec
Suspension: f: double wishbone; r: multilink
Brakes: carbon-ceramic discs f: 390x34mm; r: 360x32mm
Price: £143,320 (includes extras)
Top Speed: 193mph