New Car Reviews

2016 Ferrari California T Handling Speciale Review

Maranello attempts to turn the California T into a corner carver, with mixed results

CAMOGLI, Italy — I love Ferrari for so many reasons: the vision of a NART 250 LM screaming along the Mulsanne at Le Mans in ’65; memories of striding across Europe in a 575M Maranello at wild speeds made easy; Mario Andretti in a 712 at Watkins Glen; every second I’ve spent in the sublime F50 and the searing, angry, delectably balanced 458 Speciale. Basically, if Ferraris came with a driver’s seat modeled on a bed of nails, I’d still want to be in there. No air-conditioning? No problem. Crappy sat nav? I’ll buy a map. Noisy, hot, harsh, physically demanding? All of these things would be a price worth paying.

Of course Ferraris aren’t like that these days. A 488 GTB rides beautifully, the F12 is comfortable and usable every day, and Maranello even builds a four-seater, all-wheel-drive coupe that accommodates four full-size human beings. You might still want to buy a map, though. Anyway, the point is, Ferraris don’t require huge sacrifice to enjoy, save for the big hill of cash you need to actually buy one.

2016 Ferrari California T Handling Speciale rear three quarter in motion 04

However, there are people who wouldn’t know a 250 LM from a 904 GTS and people who might get into a 458 Speciale and wonder where the carpets went and then complain of a headache after 10 minutes. They still want a Ferrari, though. Because, well, it’s a Ferrari and it’ll make them feel good and successful and their friends will admire them. For these people there’s the California T. A small skip and a jump up from a Porsche 911 Turbo S or an Mercedes-AMG SL63, it’s been an unqualified and huge success, accounting for 30 percent of all Ferrari sales — and with 50 percent of those buyers new to the marque. It’s a good car with a fantastic turbocharged engine that seems to fit the brief more fully here than it does in the 488 GTB.

Drive it how you might expect to drive a Ferrari, though, and the California T feels rather soft and heavy. Its body control is slightly lazy, and the fast steering isn’t a great fit because the initial turn-in response isn’t backed up by matching agility. It has good ultimate balance, but it’s a bit fuzzy around the edges. Compared to that other great usable supercar, the 911 Turbo, it’s more of a cruiser. To address these issues and to connect with a buyer who wants a sportier, more “emotional” drive, Ferrari has now introduced the Handling Speciale package for the California T. It’s an $8,120 option on top of the asking price of $202,723, and is said to transform the driving experience.

The package is made up of suspension revisions, a new and much more vocal exhaust system, recalibrated F1-Trac stability and traction control systems, and new programming to dramatically improve shift speed for the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. It’s distinguished by a grille and rear diffuser finished in Grigio Ferro matte, black tailpipes, and a little badge on the transmission tunnel. The front springs are 16 percent stiffer, the rears 19 percent, and Ferrari also retuned the magnetorheological dampers to suit the more aggressive settings. Those shift times are cut by 30 percent on upshifts and 40 percent on downshifts. Power from the 3.9-liter, twin-turbo V-8 remains the same, a wholesome 545 horsepower at 7,500 rpm and 557 lb-ft at 4,750 rpm. As before, Ferrari only gives you the full complement of torque in seventh gear, with the lower gears running different maps to create the illusion of a normally aspirated power delivery and to ensure the rear tires aren’t overwhelmed.

2016 Ferrari California T Handling Speciale front view in motion

The California T HS sounds good when it rips into life in the beautiful town of Camogli on Italy’s northwest coast. It sounds deeper and more powerful, but a throttle blip reveals a high-energy, pure tone as the revs rise. It’s a good start. By the time we’ve wended our way up into the hills nearby, the HS has proven that it can still do the easygoing GT thing pretty convincingly. Leave the familiar, steering-wheel-mounted manettino switch in Comfort mode and the ride is firm but not unyielding. The exhaust is perhaps just a tiny bit boomy, but the drivetrain’s response and manners are pure class. How Ferrari makes its turbocharged engines so utterly free of lag astounds me, and indeed none of its rivals seem to have figured it out, either. Only the faint whistle that overlays the V-8’s rich voice betrays its turbochargers. In terms of throttle response it’s simply fantastic, and that creates an immediacy and intuitiveness that’s very appealing. It’s also pretty useful when dodging fast-moving Fiat Pandas that come at you from all sides on narrow lanes that gradually climb up and away from the artful chaos of Italian traffic.

Finally the battered little Fiats subside, the road opens up, and the HS is free to be a real Ferrari. Or at least to show whether the California T has sharpened up to discover the authentic Ferrari within. The engine really is phenomenal. It lacks the crazed rush to the redline of the old normally aspirated V-8, but for many the payback in terms of sheer performance will be more than a fair trade. And in terms of throttle response — even on a great road where you want your right foot hard-wired to the engine and hence the chassis balance — it’s supreme. The gearbox is much improved too, fast and punchy on upshifts and smooth and precise on downshifts.

2016 Ferrari California T Handling Speciale cabin 02

Like all modern Ferraris the steering is very fast but there’s decent weight to it, and a bit of texture rumbles up through the wheel’s thick rim. Ferrari says it has effectively rebalanced the chassis so the HS is more neutral and agile, and that certainly rings true. Turn in to a second- or third-gear corner, and the response is sharp and accurate, and the car’s rear doesn’t just follow behind obediently. Instead it gives a bit of attitude, effectively pointing the car into the apex. So much so that you’re soon instinctively turning into a corner and then unwinding a bit of lock as the rear takes its natural stance. This is all achieved well within the boundaries of the stability control programs, and it does create a very fluid, adjustable gait.

Having said all of that, the HS doesn’t entirely eradicate the California T’s usual foibles. There’s still plenty of body roll. Along faster sections of road, you also get a sense the body is floating slightly beyond the springs’ control. At these times the fast steering isn’t such a boon because inputs set the HS on edge and it can feel like there’s a disconnect between the road and the car. The constant dialogue and locked-down feeling you get with, say, a 911 Turbo or Audi R8 are not there. In fact, an SL63 has more consistent body control in extremis, which seems an odd thing to say of a Ferrari. Howling along an empty Italian road with that engine snarling and crackling away remains a very fine experience, but there are other cars for similar money that offer greater control.

If for a moment you can forget the California T HS is a Ferrari and just take in the surroundings, the looks, and the dynamics, then something like an R8 or 911 Turbo S Cabriolet is just as usable, faster, more exciting, and also blessed with better detailing and quality. Of course the Handling Speciale package enhances the experience to such an extent that it’s a bit of a no-brainer to tick that box on your order. But if you love Ferrari for the history, for the racing heritage and, most importantly, for the way the road cars traditionally drive, the California T remains an outlier. This is Ferrari’s Cayenne or Urus or Bentayga. Put it like that, and the California T is a very beautiful thing indeed.

2016 Ferrari California T Handling Speciale Specifications

On Sale: Now
Price: $210,843 (base)
Engine: 3.9L twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8/545 hp @ 7,500 rpm, 557 lb-ft @ 4,750 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Layout: 2-door, 2 passenger, front-engine, RWD convertible
EPA Mileage: 16/23 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H: 179.9 x 75.2 x 52.0 in
Wheelbase: 105.1 in
Weight: 3,813 lb
0-60 MPH: 3.4 sec (est)
Top Speed: 196 mph