Ferrari improves the already successful California by turbocharging its engine.
Early this millennium, when Bentley, Mercedes-Benz, and Aston Martin ruled the luxury gran turismo class, Ferrari executives were pondering a gap in their portfolio. The company’s small stable was rich with unusually expensive and very seductive coupes, spiders, and V-12 supercars seeking autostrade to scorch.
There was the flagship 599 GTB Fiorano, which was priced at a lofty $310,000; and the V-8 F430, which was potent enough to become the basis for a gentlemen’s racing series. Adding calm and dignity to the mix was the rather portly and more relaxed 612 Scaglietti fastback. Still, at $313,000, it was priced as high as a modest house in a desirable part of town.
Absent was a less pricey, more accessible model for almost ordinary blokes. So in 2008, the company built the California, a hardtop convertible GT that, with a starting price of $194,000, became the entry-level Ferrari.
The California had the looks and panache of the brand’s more expensive models, with performance numbers that were only fractionally smaller. It also offered the pride of owning an automobile of status and the tummy tingling that is unique to driving any Ferrari.
Though purists sniped that this heavier and softer 2+2 was not a pure-blooded, race-biased Ferrari sports car, more than 10,000 examples of the California were sold in the first six years of production, making it the company’s best-selling model ever.
Now, for the 2015 model year, comes the model’s second generation, the $198,000 California T. The T signifies “turbocharged,” a venerable system (Gottlieb Daimler invented it in 1885) of forced turbine-driven engine aspiration that has been only a dalliance for Ferrari. The company’s last car to employ the process was the Ferrari F40 of the late 1980s; before that was the limited-production 288 GTO of 1984.
The California T’s completely new twin-turbo 3.8-liter V-8 develops 553 hp, which makes it 63 ponies stronger than the old California’s larger, normally aspirated 4.3-liter power plant. The new engine also produces 557 ft lbs of torque, compared to the old one’s 372 ft lbs. This power output enables the car to achieve a top speed of 196 mph and to accelerate from zero to 62 mph (Ferrari measures speed with kilometers per hour) in 3.6 seconds.
Ferrari engineers say that thanks to turbocharging, which typically enhances an engine’s efficiency as well as its power, the California T burns 15 percent less fuel than did the previous model, and produces 15 percent fewer carbon emissions.
With the California T, Ferrari has sharpened the edge of a boulevard cruiser, moving it closer to being a sports car without sacrificing its capability for midtown dawdling. The car’s low-end exhaust note is a few octaves lower than those of most Ferraris, and the exhaust does not deliver the brand’s signature shriek until the engine revs nudge the 6,000 mark. Furthermore, the manettino dial on the steering wheel cannot be turned to the Race setting, because the California T does not have such a driving mode.
The exterior design, by Pininfarina, makes the car appear to be lower and wider than its predecessor, giving it the look of a feral animal without revealing that it is missing a few teeth. Horizontal lines flow the length of the car and blend into the fenders. Cooling vents atop the hood and along both flanks add to the fierce look. And Ferrari’s traditional egg-crate grille has been replaced by three sparkling strips that stretch across the front of the car. While its predecessor’s tailpipes were stacked vertically, emphasizing that car’s Rubenesque figure, the California T’s four pipes are paired horizontally. Long, narrow, doe-eyed headlamp covers add to the car’s streamlined shape.
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The new car’s 90-degree V-8, which was four years in development, is paired with a creamy dual-clutch 7-gear box. The transmission is fully automatic, but it includes paddles that enable manual juggling—and millisecond shifts—just for fun. To appease more laid-back owners, the gear ratios are higher than those of the old California.
The new car’s suspension is about 12 percent stiffer, but it includes a comfort setting and a rough-road setting that soften things up. Also, the steering rack is quicker, allowing drivers to make turns that arrive fast.
There is little need for drivers to lift their right foot in those quick corners, thanks to the exceptional grip and balance created by the car’s rear-biased, 47/53 weight distribution. Ferrari engineers attained this weight ratio by positioning the hefty transaxle as rear ballast and by snugging the engine as close as possible to the front firewall.
The interior features handpicked leathers and thoughtful ergonomics. Almost everything is positioned to make first-day drivers feel as though they have been sitting in this cozy cockpit for months. Though the rear seats are absurdly lacking in space, the front seats are wide and comfortable.
The only carp about the interior design concerns Ferrari’s insistence on positioning all driving controls on the steering wheel. This configuration serves as a reminder of the company’s Formula 1 heritage, but F/1 drivers do not need to engage turn signals and turn on windshield wipers. For a road car, the design is counterintuitive.
Conversely, the California T’s fabric-lined, aluminum-paneled hard top is as convenient and practical as any car lid. The touch of a button initiates a velvet clatter and a whirr of motors, struts, pumps, and hinges that raise or lower the top in 14 seconds.
Instead of freighting test vehicles to the car’s eponymous U.S. state, Ferrari chose northern Italy, under the Tuscan spring sun, for the global launch of the California T. The headquarters for the two-day event was La Bagnaia Resort, deep in Chianti country and a short drive from the cobblestoned streets of Siena. The driving route traversed the Val d’Orcia hills in a switchback-filled loop of two-lane byways that included every curve and angle known to geometers.
The California T proved delightfully overengineered for the drive. No hairpin or succession of snaking turns challenged it. The car was in complete control, and, as most modern Ferraris do, it exhibited more skills than most of its drivers will be able to offer.
When the transmission was shifting automatically, travel was nearly lethargic, with languid gear changes. The leisurely intervals between shifts were just right for tootling around the countryside on a sunny spring day, when there was no hurry to be anywhere. But on the final stretch of rural SP48, approaching the village of Paganico, the California T showed that it can be ferocious when prodded.
The road there was as straight as a string but clogged by an elderly Lancia and a dusty Alfa that were stuck behind a fully laden truck. Time to pass, con brio. Two flips of the left paddle and a stomp on the right pedal had the California T slicing into high velocity—with hardly any turbo lag—and making a secure, blinding Le Mans pass around all three vehicles.
The maneuver in particular and the drive as a whole confirmed that the California T’s performance—along with its exclusivity relative to other grand tourers, though not other Ferraris—makes it a member in grand and noble standing of the GT aristocracy.