It’s turbocharged rather than traditional, but the news isn’t all bad | by Andrew Frankel
Even before it was chosen to mark the point at which Ferrari abandoned its near life-long devotion to normal aspiration, it was easy to be sniffy about the California. This is the least expensive Ferrari on sale, the entry-level Ferrari, the Ferrari you buy because you cannot afford any other. It’s also a convertible designed not with that laser-sharp focus on driving dynamics that comes as standard in any other two-seat Maranello product, but a rather misty mélange of considerations.
It must be quick, for sure, but it must also offer the outside world the best possible view of the predominately middle-aged men masquerading as cool cats at its wheel. It must ride well enough not to annoy your passenger on long journeys, and offer sufficient luggage space because at this level it’s not a given that you’ll be able to send your things ahead. Most of all, though, it must be packaged in such a way that the entire metal roof section can fold and stow behind the seats leaving a vast aperture, regardless of the deleterious effect this might have on weight and structural rigidity. This is not merely Ferrari’s cheapest car, it is by some distance Ferrari’s most compromised.
And that was before they turbocharged it. I wonder who took that decision. It was made on di Montezemolo’s watch but has the whiff of Fiat, or Fiat Chrysler Automotive as we must now call it, behind it. Porsche is quite open about being railroaded into forced induction by VW insisting it must bear more than its fair share of the drive to reduce corporate emissions, and I wonder if the same is true at Ferrari.
I wonder too, now that Maranello is to be spun off and back into effective independence, how long the policy will last. Lamborghini has steadfastly and heroically resisted the urge to pervert the performance of its cars and time alone will tell whether Ferrari’s move to turbocharge all its V8 models was correct. Before I drove the California I simply couldn’t see the sense in losing all that rev-range, that throttle response and that noise, simply to eke a few extra notional miles from every gallon of petrol. Now I am not so sure.
The car looks like a merely facelifted iteration of the machine that made its debut some six years ago and has since found 10,000 homes, more than 70 per cent of them belonging to people who have never owned a Ferrari before. But Ferrari says it’s more than that, claiming only the windscreen and folding roof mechanism have survived the transition. But it’s still the same size give or take a nip here and a tuck there, and while better-looking, is far less striking than any other Ferrari model, which is probably intentional.
The new engine displaces 3.9 litres, exhausts via two turbochargers and produces some 552bhp, a 70bhp rise on the output of the old, normally aspirated California. Predictably, and in theory at least, there’s more torque and far lower down, though because Ferrari has elected to mete it out bit by bit, increasing the amount available in each gear but only allowing maximum torque to be reached in top, that’s not how it transpires in practice. Ferrari says this has nothing to do with transmission preservation and everything to do with trying to make a turbo engine feel as if it were normally aspirated.
And that would be a neat trick. Ferrari has kept a high red line of 7500rpm and retained a flat-plane crankshaft as found in all its road-going V8s (save the 3-litre motor used by the Lancia Thema 8.32; I’ll get my anorak).
The cabin design is beautiful, even if ergonomically it remains something of a nightmare: putting all the major controls on the steering wheel has never looked more out of place than in this softest and slowest Ferrari, while the emasculated manettino switch – which has been reduced to a mere three settings – serves to do little else than remind you that this is very much the junior model. The test car did however come with the ability to integrate my iPhone so totally that all its relevant icons appeared on the screen, which meant I was able to use Google maps rather than Ferrari’s own eccentric navigation for a trip down to the South Devon coast.
The moment you fire it up, something unexpected happens. It doesn’t whoosh, whirr or rumble as you might expect a turbo car to; it barks. Like a Ferrari. This is encouraging. You pull a paddle (there’s still no manual option) and ease away wondering if you’ve managed to misjudge this car before driving it a mile. The first straight provides the answer where, with just the merest pause to gather breath, the California cannons up the road, engine now snarling as you throw one instantaneous gearshift after another at it. This is clearly the slowest car Ferrari makes, but that does not make it anything less than one hell of a fast car.
In fact the powertrain I’d worried so much about is actually perfect for this car: you don’t need race track throttle response in a California, but you do need plenty of torque and a rousing soundtrack and it has both. I’ll wait to be convinced that turbo power remains the right way for a pure Ferrari sports car to go, but for a quick cruiser like this it might actually be better than the normally aspirated engine it replaces. And I never thought I’d write that.
For me greater question marks surround its chassis ability. Ferrari is asking a lot of a design whose convertible architecture is inherently prejudicial to structural rigidity, but on smooth Italian roads I imagine it would still prove up to the task of providing both the handling and ride quality you’d hope for from such a car. In the UK, on bumpy and often wet roads, it gave a good account of itself, but not the dynamic tour de force you might presume came as standard with any car with that horse on its nose. Ferrari has judged the set-up well, but not even the best-damped suspension could stop occasional structural shimmies on poor B-road surfaces. And while the chassis is well balanced, it’s held back by Ferrari’s ongoing insistence of fitting needlessly quick steering with only limited feel.
In the wet, however, it was highly entertaining, offering just enough softness for proper traction followed by any amount of oversteer you like, at least until your passenger’s patience runs out, which in my case was not long.
The California is many things Ferrari won’t want to read. It is not just Maranello’s least expensive car, it is its least desirable too, and probably its most flawed. In the UK at least it cannot occupy with conviction the twin roles of sports car and grand tourer. I have no doubt that a 911 Turbo Cabriolet is a quicker, more capable car.
But I liked it, both the way it looked and the way that new engine makes it drive. It felt genuinely special, as all Ferraris must, and for those looking for the image of a convertible Ferrari without the hullabaloo, it will probably serve Maranello better than ever.
Engine: 3.8 litres, 8 cylinders
Power: [email protected]
Torque: 556lb [email protected]
Transmission: seven-speed paddle shift, rear-wheel drive
Top speed: 196mph