Ferrari has recently shown environment-friendly concepts such as the Millechili (the 1000 kilo Ferrari) and the F430 E85 (with flexfuel capability), but the new Ferrari California is about as the green as the summit of Montblanc in winter. And that's fine by us. The California is a pleasantly and reassuringly old-school sports car, although there is plenty of sophisticated engineering hiding beneath the flashy, crowd-pulling skin. Says Amedeo Felisa, Ferrari CEO: "Less extreme than F430 and F599, the California still incorporates all the essential genes of the brand. It has style and presence, and it is fast and fun to drive. Unlike any other of our products, it is two cars in one, and it works equally well in coupe and spider mode."
True or false? Let's check out the light metallic blue test car, which is equipped with such extras as magnetic dampers, adaptive headlights, and the trick seven-speed F1 dual-clutch gearbox. Inside the wide, long and beautifully appointed cabin, there is plenty of legroom, shoulder room, and headroom. Thanks to the thin pillars, the visibility is good except for some distortions in the rear window. The steering wheel is a step down from other Ferraris. There are only three manettino positions instead of four (ASR off and CST on is missing), there is no integrated LED rev counter (as on the Scuderia), and the bottom is squared off, which can be nuisance when you're winding in more than three turns lock-to-lock.
Starting the engine is a two-handed job. Turn the igniton key, then push the red button on the steering-wheel hub. Now relish the noise, a high-pitch idle accompanied by various intake and exhaust tones which are busy sorting themselves out during warm-up. The digital display in the rev counter reads N auto. No, we don't want that. We much prefer to click in gears with our index fingers, wham-wham-wham. Pressing the auto button once makes the auto symbol go away. Good. What about the position of the manettino though? Comfort is for wimps, CST OFF is for heroes, Sport is for us. It strikes a decent balance between cotton-soft and razorblade-sharp, and it relays its mission to the engine, the transmission, the dampers, and the stability control system.
We click into first and take off. There is no need for a light right foot. The rear-transaxle layout puts 53 percent of 3593-pound curb weight of on the back wheels, which are shod with 285/40ZR19 Bridgestone Potenzas. When warm, these tires stick to the ground like Velcro straps soaked in superglue. Further traction assistance is provided by the F1-TRAC differential, originally developed for the F599 and the F430 Scuderia. Together with CST, it distributes the torque between the rear wheels in a way that allows the car to accelerate out of bends some 20 percent faster than a model fitted with a conventional limited-slip diff. Attached to the all-aluminum spaceframe body are the familar quadralink front suspension and a brand-new multilink rear suspension. Its key innovation is a blend of more generous longitudinal compliance for improved ride comfort and even less lateral play for enhanced handling precision. The optional magnetic dampers are not individually adjustable. Instead, their calibration changes with the manettino position.
Conceptually and visually, the 2009 California leaps back in time to the year 1957. Today just as way back then, Pininfarina was in charge of the design - even though the latest creation looks overstyled from certain angles and uses rather too many lines, curves, and controversial details such as the low-mounted rear brake light and indicator assembly. Traditionally, Ferrari customers could choose between hardtops and softtops, but the California is two cars in one, the fusion of coupe and spider, a so-called 2+-seater with rear buckets big enough for small children or mid-size dogs. Adds the senior project engineer Roberto Corradi: "Even within the Ferrari range, the California is a quite unique proposition. It's a sports car, but broader in character and appeal than F430 or F599. That's why there won't be a Scuderia or a Challenge version, and there won't be a second bodystyle like a fixed-head coupe or a speedster either. At 2500 units a year, the new model is going to be our most popular offering. We expect a high percentage of conquest sales, and we expect quite a few customers to subject this model to high miles and regular, year-round use."
The driver environment here is actually nicer than in other Ferraris. There is wall-to-wall leather with elaborate stitching, a decent navigation system with a large touch screen, 30Gb of MP3 memory, and Bluetooth. Lowering and raising the roof is a quick, almost noiseless affair with no creaks or grunts suggesting that the highly complicated mechanism might slip a disc. With the top up, the trunk holds 12 cubic feet. With the roof down, you may still carry 8.5 cubic feet of luggage plus what you can fit behind the front seats. In coupe guise, wind noise is not really an issue up to 125 mph when engine and tires play first and second fiddle anyway. With the roof stowed away, you will need one tub of hair goo every 100 miles to maintain your coif. Alternately, you can roll up the windows and install the collapsible wind deflector, but that looks a bit girlish in a serious car like this.
Riding al fresco provides unfettered access to the engine's idle-speed rumble, its mighty part-throttle roar, and its flat-out thunder all the way to the 8000-rpm redline. When you give this thing stick, paint chips fall from the tunnel ceilings and the roadside Roman temples tremble at their foundations. Fact is, the California has enough grunt to chase a F430 out of the fast lane. Its 4.3-liter V-8 develops 460 hp at 7750 rpm and 358 pound-feet at 5000 rpm. Even with the transmission in auto mode, the California needs only 3.9 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 62 mph. Launch-control mode reportedly shaves another tenth off that already-impressive number. The top speed is 193 mph. The Italians claim an average fuel consumption of 18 mpg.
Although Ferrari does offer optional twenty-inch wheels, the nineteen-inchers strike a compelling balance between traction, grip, and directional stability. We would also give the Magnaride option a pass. The standard, steel suspension is compliant, well balanced, and totally predictable in its responses. The only drawback concerns the disagreement between the somewhat harsh high-speed compression and the lazier rebound. No big deal, but an irritation nonetheless.
The dual-clutch transmission is the best gearbox of its kind we have tried so far. This has almost nothing to do with the shift times, which subjectively don't even feel as fast as in the Scuderia. Instead, it's the all-around performance. Take-off is spontaneous and totally devoid of hiccups or delays. Stop and go is commendably seamless. Upshifts are totally nod-free whether you drop the hammer or feather the throttle. Even in auto mode, the transmission comes very close to a conventional automatic in the way it reads the driver's right foot. Since the transmission always pre-selects the next gear, a split-second change of plan very rarely might find you in the wrong ratio, but the subsequent quick fix never entails undue harshness. Revs permitting, the gearbox will drop up to three ratios under kickdown. The only drawback we found is a short sixth gear, which runs out of steam at 181mph. You lose 2200 rpm on the upshift to seventh, and from that point it takes almost forever to reach the claimed top speed.
The steering is not Scuderia-fast, but its pace is spot-on for this kind of car. Better still, it is also weighted properly for optimum feel irrespective of lock and turn-in speed. On the very uneven Sicilian autostrade, where one would expect plenty of tugging at the helm when tackling the omni-present corrugated viaducts, the steering wheel of the California remained totally unperturbed. Other welcome touches include just enough self-centering and exactly the right dose of counterbalance when you hold the car on opposite lock. We're also inclined to heap praise on the standard carbon-ceramic brakes, but we have not yet really had the opportunity yet to test their stamina and high-speed deceleration. For sure, the pedal feel is communicative and correct in relation to the riveting stopping power it triggers. The footwell architecture is neatly arranged for heel-and-toeing.
As a nicely matched threesome, the steering, brakes, and throttle make it a delight to push this Ferrari to its dynamic limits, which I had the opportunity to do through the twisties from Trapani to Erice. Close to the sea, where the road was still wet with spray and fog, the Sport setting permitted enough fishtailing to warm up man and machine. Higher up, where the tarmac was dry, I disabled CST and quickly found a rhythm that was close enough to the Ferrari's limit and far enough away from the steep rock face. Unlike the F599 which needs a lot of road and momentum to waltz, the California is a more eager and in some ways even sportier machine. As long as you are prepared to boot the throttle, you can flick this car towards the apex amazingly early. But beware, because the arc it makes invariably uses part of the opposite lane, and any excessive throttle modulation will push you wide, big time. When exiting the bend, the F1-TRAC differential invites you to feed loads of torque to the sticky-soft Potenzas, which subsequently take a little longer than usual to get back in line behind the front wheels. Ferrari believes that only very few Californias will ever make it to a race track, but if this is the case the owners will probably never unearth its true talents.