BBC Autos

Review

Golden state: Ferrari California T strikes it rich

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For commuters in workaday Hondas and Chevys, calling a $198,000 sports car a fair deal might earn you a soaking at the water cooler.

But galloping through sun-kissed Tuscan hills in the Ferrari California T convertible, that’s exactly what comes to mind. A thoughtful redesign has turned this most affordable Ferrari into pure, hair-mussing pleasure – and a beguiling member of a lineup that otherwise starts around $240,000 and escalates rapidly.

The California already ranked as Ferrari’s fastest-selling model ever, finding 10,000 buyers since its introduction in 2008. Among those, 7 of 10 were buying a Ferrari for the first time. But despite the California’s road-tripping versatility – owners rack up 30% more miles on average than owners of other new Ferraris – the car attracted some critical dings. A tail-heavy shape that recalled an Italian turnip didn’t help. More unfairly, the California suffered the reverse snobbery of internet loudmouths who feigned outrage over a Ferrari that dared consider open-roofed comfort and drivability along with performance.

The commentariat failed to consider, however, that Ferrari’s reputation was largely built on classic GTs like the California: powerful, technically superior front-engine two-plus-twos designed for pleasurable long-distance travel. And don’t forget the custom fitted luggage.

The dirty whispers over the California’s status can now largely be washed away. The restyling – in collaboration with Italy’s Pininfarina – marries the dramatic, metal-slatted maw of the $350,000 F12 Berlinetta with a newly crisp and elegant personality. Wedge-shaped LED headlamps trace the spine of new pontoon fenders, the latter inspired by the classic 250 Testa Rossa. Signature round Ferrari taillamps now frame the trailing edge of the trunk. Throw in horizontal exhaust outlets and a more pronounced rear diffuser, and the design distracts the eye from the California’s stylistic Achilles’ Heel: the tall, bulging deck required to package the retractable hardtop (which folds away in a scant 14 seconds).

The California’s next big move is all about air, but it made enthusiasts hold their breath. A turbocharged engine, Ferrari’s first in a production model since the F40 supercar of 1987, sits behind the front axle. With its pair of twin-scroll turbos, this 3.9-litre unit musters 553 horsepower and 557 pound-feet of maximum torque, representing  a jump of 70hp and a boggling 185 additional pound-feet, compared with the previous 4.2-litre V8. The result is a 3.6-second romp from zero to 62mph (100kph), to 124mph in 11.3 seconds and a fearsome 196mph top speed. Yet real-world fuel consumption, Ferrari claims, is reduced by 15%. All bellissimo so far.

The potential downside is that turbo engines – they of the lagging throttle response, low redline and often strangled, uninspired sound – seem antithetical to the Ferrari ethos, which mandates fast-twitch throttles and heavenly rev peaks of 9,000rpm, accompanied by a Shangri-La soundtrack of cylinders urged into motion by a flat crankshaft.

But Ferrari strove to replicate the shrieking sound and rev-hungry nature of its naturally aspirated engines. Give Ferrari a solid “B” for that effort. The tuneful flat crankshaft remains. A hyper-expensive three-piece cast exhaust header integrates equal-length runners to preserve aural excitement. The results? The turbo’s voice is more a deep-lunged, baritone blat than the usual soaring tenor, but still forceful enough to make Italian villagers snap their heads for a look at the homegrown exotic coming their way.

The superlative dual-clutch, seven-speed automated manual transmission lends another helping hand. Oversize aluminium steering-column paddles deliver nearly imperceptible gear changes, yet crank off shifts 250 milliseconds quicker than before. Ferrari also dramatically lengthened the California’s gear ratios, particularly in lower gears, to ensure that peak power doesn’t arrive until well up the rev range. Instead of a typical turbo that delivers a blast of boosted acceleration and then requires a short shift around 5,000 or 6,000rpm, the California’s linear build-up of thrust encourages drivers to chase the V8 dragon to a fairly impressive 7,500rpm peak. Yet in the highway-suitable seventh gear, a press of the pedal summons fully 50% more torque than before.

Magnaride magnetic shock absorbers, their settings adjusted via the familiar red “Manettino” switch on the steering wheel, read and react to road inputs 48% faster, too. Ride feel is creamy gelato versus the 458 Italia’s crunch, but if you think that makes the California the Mr Softee of Ferraris, you’d be mistaken.

Performance bona fides extend to the latest Formula 1-bred chassis, suspension and brake technology. Standard Brembo carbon-ceramic stoppers work seamlessly, and can reel in the California from 60 to 0mph in just 111 feet.

Parking 53% of the car’s mass in the rear helps the Ferrari carve turns with thrilling balance and poise, and with a steering ratio quickened by 10%, the California dives into turns with newfound eagerness.

Blasting through endless Tuscan switchbacks, frolicking in its native landscape of hills, hayfields and cypress stands, the California’s overriding sensation was of a supercar glider that seemed to barely brush the earth; a melding of raw power and classic GT grace. However intoxicating that sensation could be, it was also a touch numbing. The Magnaride damping keeps the body almost too magically flat. Combine that with light (if deadly accurate) steering, and there’s little clue as to when the car’s prodigious tire limits may be breached.

But even in Comfort mode and the transmission in full automatic, the California is a rocketing delight to drive. Chalk it up to the similarity between Tuscan and Californian landscapes, but it wasn’t difficult to imagine a Hollywood producer pointing the Ferrari towards his Malibu pad, the steering wheel lightly balanced in one hand, a cell phone in the other.

This Ferrari will cruise or crush at will. The choice is entirely up to you.

Yes, the pricier 458 Italia, 458 Spider and their hyper-aggressive offshoot, the 458 Speciale, remain my fantasy Ferraris. But the Italia cannot ferry a couple to a weekend getaway, unless the luggage goes FedEx. And after hours in the Italia, even hardcore tifosi are grateful to give their ears and backside a break. Lastly, while Ferrari owners aren’t known for counting pennies, the California costs $40,000 to $100,000 less than the various Italias. That’s a lot of pennies.

If you are fortunate enough to shop in this stratosphere, some advice: the next time an internet wiseacre or cocktail-party know-it-all tells you the California isn’t a real, he-man Ferrari, just remind yourself: He’s just jealous. And he probably can’t afford one anyway.