In the past few years we’ve become accustomed to Ferraris arriving in quicker succession, but never before have we seen a Ferrari quite like this one.
This is the new California, named after the 250GT California of 1957, and it opens up a new market to the brand. It’s a softer, more approachable Ferrari for those who like the idea but perhaps not the sharply honed execution of a normal Modenese car.
The California is Ferrari’s fourth current model series – and its most radical. It’s the first Ferrari road car to have a front-mounted V8 engine, the first to have a dual-clutch gearbox and, although not the first to have a removable hard-top, is the first to follow the current trend of having a fully retractable one that electrically folds into its trunk.
However, there is a fear that the California may be a little too
soft, with not enough focus; a Ferrari that cannot perform as a sports car is like a Land Rover that cannot clamber over a muddy hill. So, is the fear justified? Or is the California every inch worthy of the badges that adorn its flanks?
Like all other current Ferraris, the California’s chassis and body are both constructed from aluminum, while its layout is typical of front-engined Modenese cars: the motor is set well back in the chassis and drives through a transaxle gearbox. Coupled with the roof mechanism, the California has a slight weight bias to the rear.
In other areas it is a radical departure for Ferrari. The 4.3-liter V8 engine, although sharing its block casting with the F430 and the engines Ferrari makes for Maserati, is Ferrari’s first motor with direct fuel injection. It is not its peak power figure (of 453hp) that’s the most impressive, but a peak torque figure of 357lb ft. Coming from a high-revving, flat-plane crank V8, this is a record specific output for a naturally aspirated gasoline engine of 83lb ft per liter.
The engine drives through a rear-mounted seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox with automatic and manual modes. Ferrari does not quote a shift time (the time during changes when there is no torque being transferred to the wheels) because the next gear is always pre-engaged.
The California is suspended at the front by double wishbones, as is typical on Ferraris, but there’s a further departure at the rear, where you’ll find a multi-link arrangement. Ferrari says this allows the small degree of longitudinal sway necessary to provide the California with the desired amount of comfort.
The California’s two-piece folding top retracts into the trunk in 14 seconds. As we’ll see, it’s this as much as any other mechanical aspect that defines the Ferrari’s personality.
Other than the fact that the roof sometimes disappears, there’s nothing radically different about the California’s cabin compared with other Ferraris. Technically this is a 2+2, although as with most +2 seating types, the rears are strictly for small children or very short hops only. A luggage shelf can be specified instead but, either way, two flaps fold down to allow longer loads to creep through from the trunk (the release catches are inside the trunk, to aid security).
The front seats and the cabin layout are otherwise pretty standard Ferrari stuff, save for an electronic handbrake and a swooping central beam featuring the roof and gearbox controls. But the dials, major controls and layout will be familiar to current Ferrari owners.
Materials quality is generally good, as is the ergonomic layout. To pick faults, you’re looking at small details: the analog speedo is hard to read (although the LCD display in the binnacle is excellent) and some of the plastics on smaller switches such as the mirror adjusters could be improved. They don’t, though, significantly detract from what is an attractive and functional interior.
The driving position is beyond serious criticism too; we’d steer clear of the optional seat surfacing of our test car, but there’s plenty of adjustment, the footwell is roomy, there’s no discernible offset and the steering wheel adjusts widely.
Is 453hp enough for a modern-day Ferrari? Certainly the California’s output falls some way short of its stablemates, the F430 (333) and 599 GTB (362). And yet no one is likely to question the performance credentials of a car that will hit 60mph in 3.9sec and 100mph in 9.2sec.
The reason the California manages such impressive numbers, despite its power-to-weight ratio, is in part a dual-clutch gearbox equipped with relatively short ratios, but also an ability to launch exceptionally well. With a relatively soft setup, sticky tires and a particularly impressive launch control system, the California gets off the line with almost zero wheel slip. In gear, though, the California never feels quite as fast as the headline numbers suggest, and especially so from low to middling revs. In fifth gear 40-80mph takes 7.7sec, whereas the Mercedes SL63 in fourth (still taller than the California’s fifth) needs 7.3sec.
It is also worth remembering the weight of options when specifying your California. Ferrari supplied two cars for our test, one with few options weighing 3,935 lbs, and it is this that recorded the performance figures. The second car, seen in the pictures, was more lavishly specified and weighed 4,200 lbs. Go down a similar route, as many buyers will, and you’ll struggle to match our figures. By means of comparison, 50-70mph in fifth gear rose from 3.9sec to 4.6sec.
Still, the California remains a fast road car and, perhaps more important for the target market, one that is easy to drive. Ferrari’s first application of a dual-clutch gearbox is entirely successful. In automatic, the shifts are well timed and, with the possible exception of slow downchanges from cold, are as smooth as a conventional torque converter’s. In manual mode the fixed-position paddles, the absence of a kickdown function and (in Sport) no automatic upshifts give all the control you could want.
A less clear-cut issue is that of the engine note. At times it is certainly loud (on start-up and under load from low revs), at others suitably refined (at cruising speeds). But some of us missed the mechanical intensity and top-end wail present in Ferrari’s other V8 engines.
As with all Ferraris, the California gets ceramic brake discs as standard. Like all such systems, pedal feel is not great from cold, but this improves with a little temperature. Outright stopping distances in both wet and dry are impressively short, and in track use the brakes stand up well to hard use.
This is where the California departs from any other current Ferrari. Although a few familiar traits remain – chiefly the light, direct steering – the California has an entirely different set of ride and handling priorities from, say, an F430 Spider.
The first surprise is how well the California rides. We tried both the passive dampers and the optional Magneride units, and both (even with the latter set to Sport) coped impressively well with our test roads – especially so for a convertible. Such is the California’s comfort that you could easily use one to travel significant distances.
The reason for the suppleness becomes evident when you turn for your first corner, even before you happen to brake sharply. The California is set up incredibly softly, with noticeable roll on turn-in and dive under braking. Where fitted, switching the optional Magneride to Sport does reduce the roll rate, but only marginally so. Driven at four-tenths, this chassis setup makes sense, as does the light, direct steering, which helps to make the California seem lighter than its claimed 3,825 lbs. If perhaps not what we expect from Ferrari, this does make for a relaxing car to waft around in, occasionally dipping into the reserves of power.
Up the pace to seven-tenths and the setup is somewhat less successful. Even if outright grip levels are high, thanks to the soft-compound rubber, slowing and committing the California to a corner can sometimes feel like a clumsy affair. Because the steering is so light and quick, it demands precise inputs, which is not always easy when there’s so much roll. If you concentrate sufficiently it is possible to drive the California remarkably quickly, but the crunch is that it isn’t hugely engaging. Which for a Ferrari doesn’t seem right, and is also somewhat at odds with our experiences of the car at its launch.
The California may be an easier Ferrari to live with than most, but don’t think that it’s a great deal easier to get into the ownership experience, which begins with a proper-Ferrari price (from $192,000) and can easily be increased by dipping into a typically extensive (and expensive) options list. Ditto prices for insurance and servicing, which are on a par with other cars in Ferrari’s range. The California’s economy is less than great, too. The 14.9mpg we averaged gives a range of less than 260 miles, despite a 17-gallon tank. If you drive enthusiastically and often, you’ll need tires regularly, while residual values are best maintained by strict adherence to the service schedule.
To sum up, Ferrari treads a fine line with the California. If it had made it as pure a Ferrari sports car as an F430 Spider, it risked failing to win over the customers at whom it is aimed. Made too soft, however, it might as well have a Maserati badge on its nose and be $80,000 cheaper. Such are the dilemmas that face companies attempting to broaden their appeal without cheapening their brands.
On the whole, it’s a line Ferrari has trodden well. No, the California is not always as much fun as we would like it to be and, flattering headline acceleration figure apart, we’re unconvinced that it feels entirely fast enough. But despite the inevitable compromises that come from a folding metal roof, the California feels more like a “proper” Ferrari than, say, a Cayenne feels like a proper Porsche. And for that Ferrari deserves much credit.Words and photos by Autocar