If we were to classify automotive eras by the prevalence of engine type, the release of the new Ferrari California T makes one thing abundantly clear: We have left the Days of Displacement and entered the Time of the Turbo.
We weren’t shocked when BMW ended its dalliance with the naturally aspirated V-8 in the latest M3, opting instead for a force-fed inline six. But the crazy cry of a free-breathing Ferrari at 8500 rpm is all but sacrosanct. It is the heart and soul of the machine, whether firing twelve cylinders or eight. So when Ferrari goes the way of a turbo in its most-produced model, it is clearly the end of one era and the beginning of another.
As goes the California…
The California is Ferrari’s base car, and it is also the company’s highest production model, having sold some 10,000 of the first generation worldwide. So consider the Ferrari California T the canary in the mineshaft, tweeting of days when the latest mid-engine eight-cylinder will no longer crescendo to 9000 aorta-aching revs. (That may be very, very soon.)
So, Ferraristi, club your Cavallino hearts and bleed Maranello red. Fear the age of the turbo, right?
Rivers flow downhill, winter follows fall, and politicians are full of shit. There is simply no beating nature, and so it is with the twin-scroll 3.8-liter V-8. Power is expectedly good, with 560 hp and 557 pound-feet of torque. But there is also less sound and a different response than the previous 4.3-liter V-8. Still, while the spirit is altered, this is not the end of days—not nearly so.
Under the Tuscan sun
More than 220 miles of Tuscan roads in the Ferrari California T left us feeling pretty damn good about this powerplant, and even better about the car itself. Besting the first-generation California was beside the point: That would have been a low bar in terms of performance and aesthetics. Ferrari simply needed to create a car worthy of the brand.
Yes, the California is still a front-engine, hardtop convertible, with two semi-serviceable back seats. It still has no place on a racetrack. Despite all of that, it deserves to be called a Ferrari.
And if you are shopping, the much-improved car costs the same as the older California, starting at about $200,000. It’s almost a bargain, at least when it comes to the zero-gravity world of Ferrari economics.
Let’s talk looks (that’s what many would-be owners will talk about first, after all). The last California was as close as you could get to a frumpy Ferrari. The fat rear rump was a disaster, and the overall flow wasn’t exactly harmonious.
The T has panache, from the throwback grille—three horizontal bars that gleam in the sunlight in front of a black maw—to the aerodynamic air vents flowing from behind the front wheels.
Most important, the back end has been totally reworked, so that the rear deck slopes sharply, terminating in a crisp lip. The twin sets of tailpipes are horizontal rather than stacked, and the diffuser looks purposeful and functional. One might still wish for the leaner proportions afforded by a soft top, but let’s just be happy for these strides in the right direction, shall we?
Taming the turbo
Ferrari has gone to great lengths to make the engine sound and response as non-turbo-like as possible. Tip-in is precise and power buildup pleasingly linear. There are no jagged responses and turbo lag is nearly nonexistent. Come out of a deep corner and get hard on the accelerator, and it’s unclear if the tiny pause is due to lag or the traction control interceding. In fact, we’re pretty sure it is almost always the latter.
As far as usable power, the T bests the older California in every way. It has more power (560 hp at 7550 rpm versus 490 hp at 7750) and it gets you to 62 mph quicker (3.6 seconds versus 3.8). Ferrari plays tricks with the torque curve, artificially limiting the available 557 lb-ft to 7th gear. This is in the name of making the engine respond less like a turbo and more like a naturally-aspirated engine.
Even so, second and third gear make great work of back roads. There’s enough reach in both that it becomes a personal choice whether to apply liberal brake and power hard out of curves in 2nd, or carry momentum through in 3rd.
The first modern Ferrari California was ponderous in curves, handling like a much bigger, portlier car. The later California 30, which lost 66 lb and gained 30 hp, had less body roll, but take it to tight roads like those in the Santa Monica Mountains, as I did, and you’d soon back off the gas and simply enjoy the ocean views. Better that than understeering and plowing into rocks or guardrails.
The T is far more willing to make deft directional changes. The steering is tighter, the engine has a lower center of gravity, spring rates are up, and the computers that control the magnetorheological dampers are faster and smarter. Slinging hard on uneven roads, the ride is well controlled and yet compliant. (The bumpy road setting, which decouples the damping while leaving other systems in sport, is one of Ferrari’s brilliant technologies.) Passengers will enjoy both the thrills and the comfort.
We have two complaints about the dynamics: Unlike the 458 and the F12, the California T lacks race mode on the Manettino. Instead you’ve got comfort, sport, and ESC-Off. In sport, the electronic stability and traction controls skew too far conservatively when you push the potential of the chassis. The California is better than its nannies allow it to be.
The second complaint is the standard carbon ceramic brakes. They, too, are tuned for around-town noodling. They neither squeak nor bite down unnecessarily, but you’ve got to push hard on the pedal to even shift weight onto the nose of the car.
The sound with the fury
Which brings us to the heart of any Ferrari: The noise. The men (and women) of Maranello know better than to opt for a sad cop-out akin to the latest BMW M3, which uses a “synthesizer” to replicate the engine sound and then pipes it into the cockpit via the stereo speakers.
The California T uses a classic Ferrari flat-plane crankshaft, which helps maintain the sound integrity. More essential was the special crafting of the exhaust header. Engineers chose to use pipes of equal rather than different lengths, translating to better sound at higher rpm.
That complication meant they couldn’t make the assembly out of one piece, so they instead cast three parts separately, hand welded and machined them, and then bolted on the turbocharger and exhaust manifold. Essentially the process translates as Italian for “a major pain in the ass.”
And, yes, it’s pretty much the best sound we’ve ever heard from a turbo. There’s character there, and the noise builds from a wide rough timbre to a higher vocal scream as you wind it to higher revs. Unfortunately, the bartender throws on the lights abruptly at 7500 rpm, just the point when the Ferrari 458 Italia is really getting its groove on. Downshift in a mountain tunnel and it’ll make you grin, but it just ain’t the same thing as a shrieking 458. And for that, we’ll look back on the previous age of engines with longing.
After several hours in the car on rhythmic winding roads, though, we could mostly forgive the droptop Ferrari. That’s because you can throw all of the California T at a public road and feel like both you and the car are working. There’s a great difference between the more plebian California T and an uber Ferrari like the F12 Berlinetta: You can actually use all of the California’s power. The 731 hp in the F12 simply overmatches available asphalt. You’re always soft-pedaling the thing.
The California T, on the other hand, is a great way to slay a boring Sunday afternoon. Turbo and all.
2015 Ferrari California T
- Base Price $200,000 (est.)
- Engine 3.8L turbo V-8
- Power 553 hp @ 7550 rpm
- Torque 557 lb-ft @ 2750 rpm
- Transmission 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
- Drive Rear-wheel
- Weight 3813 lb
- Cargo Capacity 12/8.5 cu ft (roof up/down)