Ferrari press conferences can feel like death by PowerPoint. Before a journalist is given keys to the car, the marque wants us to know everything. And I do mean everything. From the downforce generated by the rear diffuser to cornering speeds around the Fiorano test track, every nugget of data is converted into brain-melting graphs and infographics.
The new 296 GTS is one of the most complicated Ferraris ever, with a plug-in hybrid power-train configuration, a retracting hard-top roof and state-of-the-art chassis tech. And the spec sheet contains more acronyms than a teenager’s text message. You’d expect an arduous PowerPoint marathon, then, but not this time. There’s a video, then a short discussion with the development team . . . and that’s it.
So, why the brief introduction? I suspect it’s partly because the drop-top 296 GTS doesn’t differ much from the GTB coupe, on paper at least. Its convertible roof only adds 154 pounds in weight, so performance stats are almost identical: zero-to-62 mph in 2.9 seconds, zero-to-124 mph in 7.6 seconds and a top speed of 205 mph.
Yet it’s also because the GTS is billed as “the most fun Ferrari in the range”—a car more concerned with “pure emotions” than numbers or bragging rights. Forget point-and-click presentations: the proof will be in the driving.
On a crisp Maranello morning, the sight of Ferrari’s newest sports car certainly gets the endorphins flowing. Its arrowhead nose takes cues from the SF90 Stradale, while its voluptuous side scoops are a homage to the classic 250 LM. Two elegant flying buttresses sweep downwards from the “air bridge” rear spoiler, culminating in a chopped Kamm tail. My only gripe versus the GTB is that you can’t see the low-mounted V-6 engine so clearly through the rear deck.
Officially, this is Ferrari’s first V-6 spider, since the Dino 206 GTS and 246 GTS—from 1967 through 1974—never wore the Prancing Horse badge. However, it also joins a distinguished bloodline, all with V-8 engines thus far, that includes the F8 Tributo, 458 Italia, F355 and extends all the way back to the 308 GTB of 1975. As Ferrari stretches its brand credibility with the Purosangue SUV, that heritage is more important than ever.
The 3.0-liter V-6 has a 120-degree angle between its cylinder banks, just like the McLaren Artura, to lower its center of gravity. It develops 663 hp on its own, but the addition of an electric motor, mounted between the engine and eight-speed dual-clutch gearbox, boosts combined output to 830 hp. Yep, a “baby Ferrari” with 203 more horses than a McLaren F1; it’s a daunting prospect.
The cabin of the 296 GTS doesn’t immediately put you at ease, either. It’s beautifully trimmed in rich leather and carbon fiber, but Ferrari’s insistence on moving nearly all the controls—including those for the indicators, headlights, wipers, power-train modes, dynamic modes and infotainment—to the steering wheel is bewildering, not helped by “hidden” touchpads that only illuminate when pressed. I suspect owners will get used to it, but I’m due at the Italian beach resort of Forte dei Marmi later, so there’s no time to waste.
Commuter traffic is dense around Maranello, so I start off in E-Drive mode, which draws on the 7.45 kw battery to offer a zero-emissions range of 15.5 miles. The experience of driving a Ferrari in near-silence, with only the ethereal hum of an electric motor for company, is an oddly disconcerting one. Yet I can see its appeal, particularly in city centers, or for discreet early-morning getaways. Throttle response is as instantaneous as you’d expect from an EV, too.
Merging onto the autostrada, I switch into Hybrid mode and the V-6 bursts into life. Its sudden bark actually makes me jump the first time, but there’s no sense of shock through the drivetrain. As the sea of European hatchbacks parts ahead, I give the Ferrari a squirt in fourth gear, quickly and near-effortlessly getting to a speed that necessitates hitting the by-wire brakes. Wow, this thing is fast.
Soon I’ve reached the rolling hills where Ferrari test drivers do much of their development work. The early chill has now evaporated and the sun has risen in earnest, so I slow down to retract the roof—a process that takes 14 seconds and is operational at up to 28 mph. Hold down a switch and the aluminum panel above your head does a graceful backflip before disappearing beneath the buttresses.
Ferrari calls the model’s V-6 the “piccolino V-12” (little V-12) due to its hard-edged snarl at high revs. Yet the 296 GTS sounds aggressively turbocharged, too: it chirps and chatters, it gushes and gasps. Overall, it can’t match the sheer bombast of the Lamborghini Huracán’s naturally aspirated V-10 (what can?), but it certainly has a vocal range equal to Ferrari’s recent V-8-powered lineup.
Having no roof obviously turns up the volume, although not to the extent you might expect as the 296’s “hot tube resonator” already pipes noise into the cabin. And there’s just something about driving an open-top sports car; you feel in touch with the elements and better connected to the road.
Those roads have become tightly coiled switchbacks now, so I skip past battery-preserving Performance mode and straight to Qualify. As its rather brilliant name suggests, this is the all-guns-blazing mode, with full power available from the engine and electric motor. I also twist the manettino dial to Race to sharpen up the chassis, and take control of the transmission via the long carbon-fiber paddles.
What does 830 hp feel like? Breathless, exhilarating and slightly overwhelming is the answer. Unleashing the full fury of the hybrid system is like lighting the fuse on an afterburner. Some people will tell you electric cars have normalized wild acceleration, making supercar levels of performance feel commonplace. But the 296 raises the bar yet again, with a mania of electro-enhanced torque that simply keeps on building. I can’t imagine it ever seeming normal.
Besides, no Tesla or other EV can connect a series of corners like this. The Ferrari’s true magic is that it makes that mighty power output (fed through the rear wheels, remember) feel manageable—malleable, even. The steering is full of detail and the whole car feels light and up on its toes. All those acronyms are hard at work, of course, including electronic Side Slip Control (eSSC) and the six-way Chassis Dynamic Sensor (6w-CDS), but the combined effect is voracious turn-in, balletic balance and slingshot traction.
After the criticisms leveled at the SF90 (not to mention the controversy around Ferrari’s SUV), the 296 GTS feels like a righteous redemption. It’s more powerful and a lot more expensive than rivals such as the Huracán and Artura, yet it’s also probably the best all-round supercar you can buy. Oh, and the most fun Ferrari in the range.
Click here for more photos of the Ferrari 296 GTS.