Ferrari California: almost perfect but for the transmission

These days, transmissions are computer-controlled, and by and large, they’ll do whatever you ask of them. From redline downshifts to full-load, low-RPM upshifts, they’re all completed quickly and smoothly. We often underestimate the importance of a good transmission. It’s easy to forget that an insubordinate gearbox that ignores your commands can downright ruin a car.

I have a term for transmissions that neuter the engine whose power they’re supposed to be delivering: 850-syndrome. 850-syndrome is primarily characterized by an automatic transmission’s outright refusal to downshift into a gear that would result in maximum acceleration. The term comes from the beautiful BMW 850i of twenty years ago. The 850i had a powerful V-12 engine, but its computer-controlled automatic transmission positively neutered the big GT’s performance. Try to drive quickly through traffic in an 850i, and you’ll be slamming the gas pedal against the firewall constantly, furious that this allegedly fast car can’t seem to get out of its own way.

Contrast that with Volkswagen’s DSG twin-clutch gearbox. Part of what makes the DSG so special is the willingness with which it gives you gears. Mat the throttle at slow speeds, and it downshift-instantly-all the way to first gear, even if that means there’s only 1000 rpm left before it has to snap off a redline shift into second. It never seems to get lazy and think ‘oh hell, I’ll just stay in second-what’s the point of downshifting, I’ll just have to upshift again later?’ The result is that you can use all of the VW’s power all the time.

These days, most transmissions will obey your every command. So when one comes along that isn’t nearly perfect, it stands out. I recently had the pleasure of reviewing the magnificent Ferrari California. Like all Ferraris, this V-8-engined superstar is a rolling celebrity. And like all Ferraris, it’s obscenely fast. Unlike other Ferraris, though, the California is equipped with a twin-clutch transmission. This is Ferrari’s first, and like many Version 1.0s of this world, it’s not perfect. It-shock of all shocks-suffers from a bit of 850-syndrome.

If, for example, you’re cruising along in the California in automatic mode at 60 mph, the transmission will be in seventh gear. Floor the throttle, and you’ll get a smooth, instantaneous downshift straight into fourth gear, with the engine somewhere around 4200 rpm. The California starts accelerating, but nowhere near as quickly as it’s capable of. Had the transmission shifted instead into second gear, the engine would have shot to 7000 rpm, and the California would have rocketed forward. Of course, you can override the transmission’s programming by pulling the shift paddles for yourself, but you shouldn’t have to. There’s a reason it’s called “automatic” mode.

I spoke with Roberto Fedeli, Ferrari’s chief technical engineer, about what seemed to me like a glitch in the shift mapping. He defended Ferrari’s decision, stating that the transmission would chose fourth gear as the best compromise between acceleration on one side and fuel economy and noise on the other.

That’s admirably environmentally conscious, but I don’t know of a single Ferrari driver who cares about his screaming monster’s fuel consumption or keeping the beast quiet. And the first time a California owner gets dusted by a BMW 335i, Ferrari’s going to have a PR nightmare on their hands. That infuriated driver will wind up in a dealership insisting that something’s wrong with his car-when in reality, nothing’s wrong at all.

Single-clutch automated manuals, like Ferrari’s old F1 gearbox, have a long interruption in power delivery during shifts, and as such are inherently ill-suited to automatic-mode driving. Since the driver can’t accurately predict when the shift will occur, and thus can’t ease off the throttle to smooth out the shift, the F1 causes passengers’ heads to bob forward during every shift. And that’s despite the F1’s near-perfect programming that almost completely smooths out low-load shifts (itself an engineering feat that should not be underestimated.) By far the most important reason for Ferrari to equip the California with a dual-clutch unit is so that the shifts can now be seamless-and the car can be driven smoothly in automatic mode. I’m really surprised that this automatic mode wasn’t programmed to perfection.

A further problem with the California’s transmission concerns the gearbox’s hill-holder and creep functions. When at a stop, if you let your foot off the brake pedal, pressure is held on the brake calipers for two seconds to allow you to move your right foot to the accelerator pedal without rolling backward. Many other cars have this function, but there’s one key difference: the Ferrari unit then freewheels, where other two-pedal systems immediately engage a “creep” mode to emulate a torque-converter automatic when you pull your foot off the brake pedal. The California will creep forward, but only after you’ve touched the gas pedal. As a result, several of us on the press drive rolled backward a few inches at traffic lights unintentionally-a mistake that could easily result in a scratched bumper. Ferrari should reprogram the system to either keep the hill-holder active until the driver hits the accelerator pedal (like the Lexus auto-hold system on the LS) or, ideally, program the transmission to begin creeping forward immediately when in gear with your foot off the brake pedal like every other twin-clutch setup.

Are either of these problems big enough to ruin the California? Of course not; they’re fairly minor issues. But it shows that even the Gods of Ferrari aren’t perfect. The great thing about computer-controlled transmissions is that they’re easy to fix: Mr. Fedeli said he’d consider changing the shift mapping on future versions of the product-and in fact, a couple lines of code would fix both of these problems entirely.

After a recent drive in the new Z4, it’s obvious that BMW, too, has fixed some of the teething problems we noticed in its first twin-clutch transmission, the M3’s M-DCT. That transmission would occasionally dump the clutch off the line, resulting in a wheelspin-riddled, smoky launch when all you wanted to do was leave the line smoothly. (And one M3 convertible did this to me right in front of a police officer who did not seem amused.)

Ferrari did such an incredible job refining the single-clutch F1 transmission over the years that there’s little doubt that the twin-clutch gearbox will eventually be just as good. Or better, given its; far more sophisticated two-clutch hardware. But for those of you who wondered what “programming issues” I was talking about in my review of the California, here’s more information. And if you’ve ever been to a drag show, you’ll know: it only takes one great tranny to turn a good party into a great one.

Photo of Miss Understood by David Shankbone; courtesy of Wikipedia.