Is Ferrari’s California named for the US market? Yes, but not as recently as most might think. For the California convertible launched with such hoopla late last year is not the first Ferrari to carry that name. The 1957 250GT California Spider was also designed for export to the US. It used aluminium for the bonnet, doors and boot lid with steel elsewhere, though I believe some racing versions were aluminium-bodied.
Don’t remember it? That’s not surprising — only 45 were made, one of which was auctioned in 2007, reaching US$4.9 million.
Suddenly, the current car’s NZ$450,000 seems a bargain — though that price isn’t fixed. The waiting list is still around two years, and what you pay will depend on the exchange rate when it’s delivered.
What you’ll get is a car that when, it arrives, achieves a few firsts for Ferrari. Its their first front-engined V8; its first with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission — the only gearbox option; the first with a folding metal roof; a multi-link rear suspension; and with fuel injection.
This 4.3-litre flat-crank engine is an evolution of the unit fitted to the 430, the fuel injection co-developed with Bosch using a similar set-up to that used by the A1GP cars, with an injector per cylinder fitted between the inlet valves. It uses high pressure and a high compression ratio to maintain efficiency at the 8000rpm the engine can spin to.
The 338kW/485Nm thus delivered is controlled by that new transmission, supplied by Getrag to Ferrari design and fitted to the rear axle. Changes are quick — especially with ‘sport’ selected via the little red, steering wheel-mounted thumb lever.
The ‘hardest’ mode also switches stability control off — but we left it on for our road drive, for this is not just a boulevard cruiser, despite that folding lid. This car will sprint from zero to 100kph in less than four seconds, and reaches 310kph. I achieved close to that with shocking ease, the speed delivered with all the aural drama you expect from a Ferrari.
Yet this is also a surprisingly practical car. It’s not as graceful as I expected, the side view is especially clumsy as Ferrari attempted to mask the height of the rump, mandated by the need to tuck that roof away — it takes just 14 seconds to deploy. But the front, and front three-quarter looks just as you’d expect it to.
That high stern imparts extra drama to the rear three-quarter view; and the cabin’s been wonderfully built to please both the road-focussed driver and his or her passenger. There’s even a vanity mirror and a cup-holder, albeit one more suited to espresso than Starbucks, and tucked beneath the armrest.
There’s a wind-deflector too, which dramatically cuts wind-buffet to reduce the impact on your coiffure.
As you’ll have gathered, we initially barely noticed the suspension. Our mostly motorway route wasn’t designed to show it at its best, but the narrow, potholed switchback up the Sicilian hills revealed that it’s incredibly compliant in comfort mode and impressively controlled in sport.
The slight, 53 per cent rear weight bias settles those driven wheels, the multi-link rear set-up and driver-focussed stability control allowing just enough rear movement for liveliness, without getting hair-raising. Indeed, the car felt rock solid until the motorway’s silly speeds and gusting winds caused an almost imperceptible weave, at which my passenger suggested a more moderate pace.
Meanwhile our rapid climb had underlined the car’s stiffness, with very little scuttle shake felt.
In fact despite its nimbleness this Ferrari would almost have been insufficiently exciting were it not for the car’s soundtrack, wild enough to raise the hair on your neck without getting wearing over a long day in the saddle.
Ferrari’s made an impressive compromise with this car. It’s not the hardest of the breed, but it’s arguably the best-balanced and most forgiving without blunting the sharp edge too far.
The modern California isn’t the most powerful Ferrari, and it’s heavy — the roof mechanism and all the comfort and convenience features do exact a toll. But these days money is tight, and even the super-rich may think twice about which toys they buy. A Ferrari that offers the experience most drivers seek with a comfort they won’t expect, at the cost of losing the ragged-edge few will reach on real-world roads, is the car to build. Meantime the California’s softer focus leaves a gap for a more aggressive sports car, with a 430 Scuderia Spider likely to be waiting in the wings.
Price: $450,000 approx
Words and Photos: Jacqui Madelin