Ferrari has brought a more focused edge to its California model. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
It's hard to believe that some people view the V8 engined Ferrari California as a bit soft - but perhaps understandable. The Italian brand, after all, does have such a glittering performance car heritage that it was easy for some to see a model featuring a front-mid-mounted engine, a dual-clutch automatic gearbox, a folding hard-top roof and optional rear seats as a product built to pander to the huge American market. Ferrari reckons this car isn't anything of the sort, underlining the fact with this revised version, lighter, more powerful and with the option of a hard core handling pack if you want it.
Ferrari has always been a hard core brand. A purveyor of cars for which only serious drivers needed to apply - or at least those who wanted others to think they were. Yours were the challenges - but yours too were the rewards. But even Ferrari isn't recession-proof. To survive in the modern era, Maranello also needed to offer a car that was a little more accessible, if not in price then certainly in the way its performance could be mastered. A real Ferrari certainly, but one not necessarily requiring Schumacher skills to master. And this is it, the California. Named after the Italian marque's now almost priceless 250 GT California of the late 1950s, this has proved to be a landmark car for the brand in almost every way. The first Ferrari with its V8 mounted in front of the cabin rather than behind it. The first with more efficient direct injection. The first to feature a double-clutch sequential semi-automatic gearbox. And perhaps most noticeably, the first to feature that trendiest of modern sportscar features, a folding aluminium roof. It's a crowd-pleasing package guaranteed to sell in the US but has it diluted the very formula that makes a Ferrari what it is? The Italian maker says not, wheeling out this revised faster, lighter version as conclusive proof.
Settle into the beautifully finished cockpit and it certainly seems like a real Ferrari, an impression underlined by the glorious flare of power released by pressing the big red starter button on the steering wheel. It's a V8 that beats in front of you of course, a 4.3-litre unit borrowed from the marque's old F430 but improved by the addition of direct fuel injection. It's not quite as insanely fast as a 458 Italia - but then that car has 570bhp. Here, there are now 490 braked horses (up from 453) and that combined with a 30kg weight reduction is enough to see sixty from rest flash by in just 3.8s. Flat out, nearly 200mph beckons if you've a test track, an empty autobahn or a very good lawyer. Maranello is also keen to emphasise this improved California's dynamic prowess too, offering an optional 'Handling Speciale' package encompassing modifications to the suspension set-up that minimise body roll and make the car even more responsive to driver inputs. The package includes Magnetorheological dampers controlled by an even faster ECU running patented Ferrari software. The package also features stiffer springs for more precise body control combined with a comfortable ride. Lastly, the California benefits from faster turn-in with smaller steering wheel angles thanks to a new steering box with a 10 per cent quicker steering ratio.
Design and Build
There's a lot going on with the California from a styling perspective, disguising a chassis and body both fashioned from pure aluminium. At the front, there's a slim bonnet scoop and a wide grille with the prancing horse at its centre. As you move to the side, attention switches to this vent behind the front wheelarch from which an indentation sweeps back over the car's haunches rising over the door release en route. As for the rear, well it's rather less successful thanks to the awkwardness of the stacked exhaust pipes, so styled to improve the airflow. Overall, you may not feel this to be one of the most beautiful Ferrari shapes - I certainly don't - but there's no denying that the louvers, grooves and curves have all been very cleverly used to hide the bulk of that retracting two-piece metal-folding roof, which takes just 14 seconds to perform its electro-hydraulic acrobatics. At the wheel, it's all beautifully fashioned, the days being long gone when Maranello machines featured Fiat switchgear and cheap plastics. The Italian brand describes the California as a '2+', which is a reference to the fact that the area directly behind the front seats can either play host to a couple of tiny occasional seats or an optional luggage shelf. Either way, should you need extra space, two flaps fold down to allow longer loads to creep through from the boot, increasing the capacity from 240 to 340-litres.
Market and Model
This may be Ferrari's most affordable model line but it still comes at a proper Ferrari-sized price. You'll need a budget up around the £150,000 mark that's around £25,000 less than a fixed-top 458 Italia, but most owners make up much of that difference by dipping into the huge and expensive options catalogue. Many will want the extra cost Handling Speciale pack to bring a sharper edge to the car. So what else could you have for this kind of cash? Well, the only other comparably priced and powered alternative with a metal folding roof is Mercedes' SL 65 AMG. That'd cost you a little more but isn't as much of a sportscar. For that, you'd need something like a Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder, also a little pricier but no faster, despite its extra 100bhp. Combining the attributes of both these rivals is Porsche's 911 Turbo S Cabriolet, just as fast and £13K less. But crucially, not a Ferrari. Which for most California buyers will matter terribly. Almost all California customers will find a little extra to specify the 7-speed dual clutch semi-automatic gearbox. This apart, the sky's very much the limit with the options list. At least leather trim, satellite navigation, parking sensors, a high quality stereo system, metallic paint and gorgeous alloy wheels are all standard, as well as the airbags, the retracting rollbar and various electronic safety systems a car like this should have by right.
Cost of Ownership
Ferrari has pledged to reduce the CO2 output of its cars by 40% over the next few years and sure enough, this California's CO2 output, though still considerable at 299g/km, is a little lower than some of its rivals. The same applies to the fuel consumption - 21.6mpg on the combined cycle - though unless you drive like a saint, you'll still struggle to get more than around 260 miles out of the 17-gallon tank. At least residual values should prove strong, provided you strictly adhere to the service schedule. Insurance is inevitably group 20. Replacement parts though will be inevitably pricey. Drive enthusiastically and you'll need tyres regularly and I don't even want to think about just how much those ceramic brake discs might cost to replace. Happily, the average Ferrari California customer won't give two hoots but for the few that do, there's the peace of mind of a four year warranty.
Ferrari says that the California harnesses the sporty flavour of the prancing horse brand while also adding greater versatility and comfort that we've come to expect at the more affordable end of its model range. A few took issue with that when this car was first launched, but they've got less to carp about now. Faster and lighter, this revised model offers up the California we should have had from the start, especially when fitted with the Handling Speciale package that sharpens its road manners without detracting too much from the car's comfortable, relaxed demeanour. Here's a car that proves Ferrari quite able to take all the technology used by its rivals - and do it better. Here's a brand no longer just trading on its heritage, no longer selling only to billionaires with private test tracks. The California proves all this while at the same time funding the kind of focused performance cars that schoolboy Ferrari fans can stick on their bedroom walls. Everyone's a winner.