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Driven: 2010 Ferrari California

Through a fluke in timing or just plain luck, I'm fortunate enough to have now been behind the wheel of every single current Ferrari currently on sale. That's a rarity even for automotive journalists, and it's an honor I don't take lightly. Today's drive of the California marked a special occasion, since this was not just the only Ferrari I haven't driven, it's also an all-new kind of Ferrari.

The California is full of firsts: it's the first-ever front-mounted V-8-engined Ferrari, it's the first use of direct injection in a Ferrari, and it's Ferrari's first dual-clutch automated manual transmission. It's also the first Ferrari built on a modular architecture, and the first built on a new production line that is downright spooky in its modernity. I was able to tour the facility last month, and the California's production line is spotlessly clean, eerily quiet, and freakishly automated. On the one hand, computerized, precise mass production makes the California seem somehow less special; on the other, it ensures the highest level of quality. I think it's a worthwhile tradeoff, especially for a Ferrari that's inherently less special than some others.

Screeeetch -- less special? I mean the California no insult by that. It's the least expensive offering in Ferrari's stable, but that's only part of the reason why. The other reason is that I equate "special" with "insane." I, a certified automotive nutcase, adore the F430 for its insanity. I love the way it crackles and barks and screams. I love how it scares small children and grown men alike with its acoustic assault; how it accelerates and shifts with such violence that it renders its passengers hysterical. I love how its occupants are assaulted with the feel of every pebble on the road after luring them in with the sight and aroma of the world's finest materials.

Some, however, might find the F430 a bit much. For these people, Ferrari makes the California. The California is a softer, milder, less insane Ferrari. Ergo, it's less special to crazy people like me, but it's no less special in the real world. A grand tourer in the traditional sense of the word, Ferrari's hard-top convertible is smooth and luxurious. Its sound level and ride are sedate by Ferrari standards, and its cabin elegant and luxurious.

From the driver's seat, the experience is typical of today's Ferraris, which means a big red start button, a Mannetino controller on the steering wheel, and a paddle-shifted transmission. Upon first driving off, you notice that the suspension is supple, the gearchanges are smooth, and, like all modern Ferraris, the steering is Cadillac-overboosted and lacking in feel.

I drove the California in traffic for almost a hundred miles before I finally flung it into a corner-and became quickly aware that, like the 599 GTB and the 612 Scaglietti, it has two very distinct personalities. The California turns in with amazing immediacy-likely a result of having most of its weight between the axles. To that end, the V-8 is mounted completely aft of the front axle and the dual-clutch transmission is a transaxle mounted in the rear. Not much feedback comes through the steering wheel, and the brakes are somewhat wooden, but this is a car that knows how to dance. Chassis balance is spot-on perfect, serving up high-speed drifts that are easily controlled with the throttle.

The dual-clutch transmission shifts with no interruption in power; it's nothing like the old F1's brutal, neck-snapping full-throttle shifts. But I actually prefer the single-clutch transmission, at least until Ferrari's software engineers get around to a Version 2.0. Even though the dual-clutch box provides mostly seamless shifts, making for more comfortable driving, it's not quite as well programmed as the old F1 box, and a few glitches are apparent. (Read my blog on Transmissions for more detailed information about the Ferrari dual-clutch transmissions.)

Like all modern Ferraris, the California's suspension is able to filter out small road surface irregularities without compromising body control. Lateral body control (lean in corners) feels, from the cockpit, to be nonexistent, but the suspension does allow a lot of brake dive.

The 453-hp, 4.3-liter V-8 is deeper in pitch and less sonorous in note than the F430's engine. The California's V-8 still uses a Ferrari's trademark flat (180-degree) crankshaft, so it sounds like two manic four-cylinders instead of the deep, distinctive burble that you get from 90-degree V-8s. The California's exhaust note is certainly impressive, but it achieves that more by virtue of its volume than its pitch, especially from inside the car. That's exacerbated when the transmission is in automatic mode-the lack of interruption in power during shifts makes the engine's note change sound just like a conventional automatic. I think Ferrari needs to program in a very quick misfire during shifts to interrupt the exhaust note momentarily. Other sports car manufacturers do this.

Speaking of fuel delivery interruption, one other area that could benefit from additional programming is at very light throttle openings. All modern cars cut fuel to the engine when you lift completely off the throttle-and the transition between very light load cruising and fuel-cutoff is quite rough in the California. It's especially noticeable when you're trying to coast down a hill or when you're in stop-and-go traffic, as it makes for considerable jerkiness. On the other hand, Ferrari has done a fantastic job of hiding the ticking sounds that high-pressure injectors make at idle. The injectors are located under a big, red, and gorgeous intake plenum, and the underside of the hood is lined with a sound-deadening material that makes the ticking almost completely inaudible. And lest we forget the important part-the California's big, wide, flat torque curve. This is a V-8 that never feels soft; it pulls hard from idle to its 8000-rpm redline.

The California's navigation system is the same Harman/Becker unit used by Chrysler. It's a decent touch-screen unit with great usability, but the screen's resolution is a generation or two behind the best, so the map itself is of limited use. The sound quality is only fair (it doesn't come close to the JBL sound system in the Scuderia Spider 16M, for example), but the system offers easy-to-use Bluetooth phone integration, a hard drive for music storage, aux-in jacks, and full iPod integration.

The California also comes with two-zone climate control and air conditioning that kept the cabin cool even in 105-degree desert sun. The seats are supportive, and without exception every interior material is top-rate. The folding hard top refuses to rattle or creak, and even though it required a few ticks longer than Ferrari's quoted fifteen-second time to open or close, it's quick enough to operate if you're the first to arrive at a red light. The mostly aluminum structure is so incredibly robust that at no time did I notice any scuttle shake or chassis flex.

The California looks best in darker colors, which help hide its homely rear end. The stacked exhaust pipes supposedly made more room for underbody airflow management, but they're not pretty. I also don't care for the frowning horizontal opening that contains the supplemental rear lights. Fortunately, the front of the California is far better resolved, although the car appears tall and narrow, rather than having the wide and low stance that one expects from a sports car. The long front overhang is very reminiscent of the Maserati GranTurismo, a more elegantly styled piece of automotive jewelry. As always, styling is subjective-you might look at the photos and love it.

Visibility to the rear is acceptable, and what can't be seen is detected by standard parking sensors. The trunk is easily large enough, at least with the roof up, to accommodate a large suitcase. The California's rear seats are 911-sized (meaning two things: the same size as the back seats in a Porsche 911, and that you'd have to dial 9-1-1 to have emergency personnel extract any adult who tries to squeeze into the back.) The rear seats can be replaced with a beautifully finished cargo shelf at no cost, but in either configuration, the space can be used for additional storage, and the California even offers a trunk pass-through for long items.

All of the usability means the California can easily be driven daily, and for long distances. That is, of course, the very purpose of a Gran Turismo. This Ferrari is a few programming issues short of true perfection-but the important stuff is all there. The California hits 60 mph in about four seconds, tears up back roads with impeccable balance, and cruises quietly, smoothly, and comfortably. It's an F430 with a Vulgarity Reduction Program, which is exactly what Ferrari set out to achieve and exactly what its buyers will expect. People like me will still prefer an F430, but those of sound mind, body, and pocketbook needn't look past the California in their search for a Maranello masterpiece.