2009 Ferrari California

Don Sherman
Mark Bramley

Beyond the name and a sunny spirit, the new and old Ferrari Californias have little in common. Half a century of technological progress has revolutionized every aspect of Ferrari's chassis, powertrain, and suspension engineering. The new California's motorized roof disappears in fourteen seconds, and its interior is a grand salon of magnificently tanned and stitched cowhide accented by polished aluminum castings. While the California Spiders of the 1960s were the last Ferrari convertibles suitable for both road and motorsports use, the twenty-first-century successor's distinction is that it's the first-ever roadgoing Ferrari powered by a front-mounted V-8. But is the new California worthy of one of the most illustrious names in the Ferrari pantheon? Is it a truly capable sports car or an Italian-speaking Chevrolet Corvette?

Sicily is the perfect place to resolve these doubts. In 1919, Enzo Ferrari visited the soccer ball off the Italian peninsula's boot to compete in the Targa Florio, his second-ever race. From a humble start-ninth overall and third in class behind the wheel of a CMN motor buggy-Ferrari went on to achieve a total of thirteen outright victories (with both Alfa Romeo and Ferrari teams) on this volcanic island.

Bathed in the brilliant Sicilian sun, the California looms larger than photos would suggest, a half-size grander than both the Ferrari F430 and the Corvette. But, as its maker is quick to point out, the California ventures beyond sporting intentions to provide two distinct personas in one convenient package: a comfortable and lavishly trimmed top-down cruiser plus a race-bred coupe capable of running hard when pressed.

Twist the key, press the red button on the steering wheel, and the pageant commences with the authoritative din of 453 prancing horses stampeding through pipes that run nearly the full length of the car. The cockpit is a button-puncher's delight, with the direction of travel, the shift mode, the nav screen, and even the parking brake all commanded by an index finger.

The 110-mile autostrada run from Mazara del Vallo at Sicily's western edge to the local roads consecrated by the Targa Florio provided an excellent opportunity to savor the California's softer side. With the manettino controller set on Comfort, the ride is poised and rarely perturbed by uncouth pavement. With the top stowed and the wind blocker on guard, the cockpit is surprisingly tranquil well into triple-digit speeds. What the shoulder-high beltline borrows from beauty, it repays in ruffle-free alfresco pleasure.

The California's V-8 hums placidly while cruising, then roars to life with a few clicks of the downshift paddle. Blasting through tunnels with the throttle down and the revs up, the serenade is more baritone than bugle and nothing like an F430 V-8's piercing shriek. Ferrari engineer Vittorio Dini, the new V-8's godfather, revealed two tricks that trained the engine's vocal cords and inflated its torque curve: injecting fuel in two doses per combustion cycle and using an H-shaped connector between the pipes to help accelerate the exhaust flow. Compared with the F430's V-8, the newfound torque amounts to a gain of between 13 and 23 percent through the critical 2500-to-4500-rpm range.

Without that extra urge, the California would have been hopelessly burdened by the climb from sea level to the 2100-foot altitude at Caltavuturo, halfway through the Targa Florio course used from 1932 through 1936 and again from 1951 until the final run in 1977. Weighing nearly 4000 pounds, this hefty grand tourer needs all the powertrain and chassis help it can get from Ferrari's latest technological strides.

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