Road Tests

First Drive: 2018 Ferrari Portofino

Entry-level Ferrari just got better in every way

PUGLIA, Italy—Ferrari decided to introduce the 2018 Portofino, the company’s new entry-level model—of course, with a base price of $214,533, “entry level” means different things to different people—at a beachfront resort on the Adriatic Sea. That’s about 471 miles southeast, as the European magpie flies, from the now-trendy namesake fishing village of Portofino, Italy, on the Mediterranean Sea.

This being winter, Ferrari executives figured the weather would be much warmer and possibly drier farther south, which is why we ended up not in Portofino, but in the Puglia region of Italy, which constitutes the boot heel in Italy’s profile. (Puglia’s motto, roughly translated: “We hope you like olives!”)

Unfortunately, it wasn’t much warmer, and it sure wasn’t any drier, but as we took the stylish red keys to a cluster of Portofinos, the clouds parted and the temperature warmed to the point where we could drive with the retractable hardtop down (and the heat on), which is a pretty important aspect of the Portofino which, this summer, replaces the Ferrari California T.

This lucky change in the weather suggests that despite Enzo Ferrari having died in 1988, he still runs Italy, and likely controls the climate. After all, the airport we flew into, Bari International, is located on Enzo Ferrari Street, even though Bari is a seven-hour drive from Maranello.

This was also lucky for us, because the drive route for the Portofino would have been nearly unusable in the rain. Not because the Portofino couldn’t handle it—the traction control and windshield wipers work quite well—but the roads we were on, even dry, had to be some of the slickest, most potholed pavement the Land of Olives has to offer. And since many of the roads were lined with sturdy, up-close rock walls, we had to be especially careful, since Ferrari had already written off a Portofino that was driven by a European journalist on an earlier wave of test drives. He reportedly tested the wall’s sturdiness and was impressed.

In one sense, this test drive route was advantageous, since we got to gauge the Portofino’s ride on very rough roads (the ride was surprisingly good, even with the steering wheel-mounted Manettino switch dialed to Sport rather than Comfort). We got to test the carbon-ceramic brakes when dogs, buses, farmers on tractors, and street gangs clad in matching Lycra skinsuits riding bicycles suddenly appeared around the next corner.

What we didn’t get to test much was the Portofinos’s at- or near-the-limit performance. The plethora of polished asphalt and potholed concrete did test the electronics, because most every time we’d get through a roundabout and hit the throttle, the fat 20-inch Pirellis (245/35 front, 285/35 out back) would search for grip, the rear end of the car would slip a little to one side, and the traction control would intervene. Thankfully.

Late in the drive we did find what we thought was a deserted, very suitable straight to test Ferrari’s reasonable claim of 0 to 62 mph in 3.5 seconds, but regardless of what kind of launch we chose, we could barely get it done in less than 4 seconds. Incidentally, these are the electronic controls as listed on the Portofino’s spec sheet: “ESP, ESC with F1-Trac, E-Diff 3, SCM-E with twin solenoids.” We probably could have used three or four solenoids. And yes, twist the Manettino all the way to the right and you can disable some of those electronic acronyms, but be sure you want to before you do.

With more torque than the California T, and noticeably more horsepower (38, with the outgoing T rated at 553, the new Portofino at 591), we have no reason to doubt Ferrari’s claim of a top speed of 198.838782 mph (yes, a slightly awkward number, due to our overly detailed translation from kilometers to miles per hour), and a 0 to 124 mph time of (we’ll spare you the .274238 conversion carryover) a very quick 10.8 seconds. But we just didn’t get a chance to prove it. This time, anyway.

If this all makes our drive sound miserable, it was far from it. The scenery was gorgeous, and the Portofino was cheerful both chugging through villages at single-digit speeds, and, when we got the chance, carving up corners. The electric power steering is better but not quite there yet. In corners, there is less body lean than found in the California T, but without a little track time, it’s hard to say how much less. Top up or down, the chassis and body did not flex, squeak, rattle, rock or roll on roads that would not be out of place in Detroit or Newark, so that’s saying something.

The seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, a carryover from the California T, responds immediately when shifted up or down by the two fixed-position paddles behind the new steering wheel, but if you leave it in automatic mode, the transmission is often slow to downshift, likely due to the quest for improved fuel mileage, and a teachable transmission algorithm that was learning that we weren’t able to go all that fast, thus deducing that we were in no hurry for it to downshift. A suggestion: When passing tractors and tourists sightseeing in rented diesel Fiats, downshift manually.

We asked the Portofino’s powertrain engineer about the possible future of manual transmissions, since the pre-T California (T standing for Turbocharged) actually offered a manual, but he just shook his head sadly, as if we had inquired about the health of an aging but beloved family pet, only to learn it had died. And had been replaced by a robot. This also brings up an interesting, and mildly puzzling factoid: The handful of Californias sold with manual transmissions now command far more on the used exotics market than the Californias with manu-matics …

The Portofino’s engine is mostly the California T’s 3.9-liter, twin-turbo, flat-crankshaft V-8, with the extra 39 horses mostly the result of electronic tuning, a new exhaust that includes a one-piece header, new pistons and connecting rods, and redesigned intake manifolds. Open the hood and behold a work of art: We’re so tired of seeing engines covered by massive pressed-plastic burkas, and that is not the case here.

The engine produces a peculiar, distinctive yowl at full throttle. The Portofino’s exhaust system has a new electronically controlled bypass valve that moderates the sound depending on the situation, and on the Manettino switch position. In Comfort, the valve opens to “a moderate degree,” says Ferrari, to produce a “marked, recognizable sound that still will not be out of place in an urban context.”

In Sport, the valve produces “a sportier, more seductive sound from the lowest engine speeds all the way up to the redline.” On the rough roads we tested the Portofino on, you’d think Comfort would be the way to go, but the ride in Sport is so good, even on really uneven pavement, that we just left it in that setting and forgot about it. So just enjoy being sporty and seductive.

Still, Ferrari didn’t seem to worry about its sound this much with its normally aspirated engines, because it didn’t have to. There’s no question that turbos are here to stay for high-performance exotics, but we’re afraid when we talk about this Gran Turismo we sound like Walt Kowalski in “Gran Torino” (“Get off my lawn!”). Refer to the Good Old Days, when an accelerating 458 Italia could peel skin with the downright erotic siren call of its 562-horse, 4.7-liter V-8 at full song. It’s like when Michael McDonald joined the Doobie Brothers: Yeah, he’s good and all, but it wasn’t the Doobie Brothers anymore. (Is that a dated-enough reference? Should we talk about when lead singer Tony Williams replaced Cornell Gunter in The Platters in 1953? We thought not.)

Outside, Ferrari stylists haven’t broken any new ground with the Portofino, but they’ve certainly created a very handsome, slightly understated profile that has a nice sense of Ferrari family looks. The Portofino looks a little like a California T that the designers took a second crack at, in the process fixing the T’s main issue, a rear end that stuck up like a cat in heat. That was to make room for a folded-down hardtop, but the Portofino’s complex top sits low enough to avoid the need for a raised deck. And even when folded—which takes 14 seconds, and now can be done while driving at speeds up to 25 mph—there’s enough room in the trunk beneath the top to cram in soft luggage sufficient for a weekend. Well, a weekend at the beach, anyway.

The design cue that may be the most controversial is the sculptured horizontal vent that starts behind the front wheels and leads into the doors. At the front of the vent is a black plastic insert. From some angles it all works, from others it looks like a piece of the body fell off. You can’t ignore it especially with the big yellow Ferrari badge perched on the front fenders, right above the vent’s largest separation. At least the vent is mildly functional, like the pair of vents on the hood.

Inside, this is one of the prettiest, most intuitive Ferrari interiors yet. Switchgear is properly placed and easy to use. Displays are packed tight but don’t seem crowded. Attention to detail is impressive, so very far removed from the era when Ferrari just shrugged at criticism of how the interior looked, much less whether or not you approved of where the company put the heater-fan control.

Designers and engineers worked to lower the Portofino’s weight—successfully, as it weighs 3,668 pounds, while the California T was 3,813 pounds—and the front seats are an example of how they accomplished the task. The seats’ frames are magnesium, and they seem impossibly thin, but they are 18-way adjustable and quite comfortable.

That thinness also makes for a little more room for the rear seats, and Ferrari points out 30 percent of customers are expected to actually use those seats. For what, we aren’t sure, whether it is a place to put groceries or kids, but unless a couple of jockeys have to get to the Kentucky Derby right now, don’t expect a lot of repeat Uber customers.

Bottom line: The Portofino is an improvement over the California T it replaces in every way, and it seems very comfortable in its role of introducing new buyers to the Prancing Horse, and providing them with a fun, fast GT experience. While the performance is an improvement over the T, the Portofino is not a serious track day car—that would be the 488 GTB’s role.

It’s also difficult to overstate the Portofino’s importance to Ferrari. Though the company is reluctant to provide actual numbers, the California T represented close to a third of Ferrari’s output, which is about 8,500 cars a year. Until the inevitable Ferrari SUV arrives, Portofino sales—along with a lot of red hats, Puma sneakers, and Scuderia Ferrari Ray-Bans—will be expected to fund a lot of Ferrari’s ultra-niche limited-edition models.

The Portofino is up to the task. It’s ideally positioned as the company’s entry-level car, as well as its internal exit-level model, as new customers become old customers and move up from the Portofino to other, more expensive Ferraris. In the U.S., there’s little doubt Portofino sales will help Make Italy Great Again. And there must be a reason we’re craving olives.

2018 Ferrari Portofino Specifications

PRICE $214,533 (base)
ENGINE 3.9L DOHC 32-valve twin-turbo V-8/591 hp @ 7,500 rpm, 560 lb-ft @ 3,000-5,250 rpm
TRANSMISSION 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
LAYOUT 2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, RWD convertible
L x W x H 180.6 x 76.3 x 51.6 in
WHEELBASE 105.1 in
WEIGHT 3,668 lb
0-60 MPH 3.4 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 199 mph