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Friday, October 31, 2008

Another First Drive in the Stunning(To me) Ferrari California

The sky is a brilliant Bugatti blue, winding Sicilian mountain roads beckon, and a nice man has just given you the scarlet-red key to a new Ferrari. If Uma Thurman turned up with a bottle of Krug champagne and a pot of Stilton for two, life could hardly get better. Yet, be warned, today's drive may disappoint. The Ferrari we're about to sample is no beauty, with its fussy flanks, fat hips, and elongated trunk-more bustle bum than bikini bottom. This is disappointing, if not surprising. The days when Ferraris were beautiful, sculptures for the street, poetry in motion, Rembrandts on the road, are gone. For gorgeous Italian automotive design, today it's better to turn to Maserati or Alfa Romeo.

The California is heavier than the bigger and much more powerful 599 GTB. Yet the 4.3 V-8 under the hood is some 30 horses shy of the output of the F430, currently Ferrari's least-muscled car. The motor is closely related, though the bore and stroke are different. It's direct injected, a first for a production Ferrari, primarily to boost fuel economy. The downside is not only less power but a lower redline than the F430's: 8000 rpm isn't bad, but it's 500 rpm short of the blood-curdling top-end wail of the F430 at full whack.

The push-button automatic hardtop roof does the usual up-and-down gymnastics, and in only 14 sec; Ferrari claims it's lighter than the fabric alternative. Yet most hardtop convertibles do not promise great driving experiences. They're typically cars for West Coast boulevards, Shanghai freeways, or Middle East highways, not sinuous mountain roads where Ferrari first earned its stripes.

Ferrari says 70% of buyers will be new to the marque: It's targeting top-end AMG Mercedes SL, Bentley Continental GTC, and Aston DB9 Volante, none of which is a serious driver's car. Even more than the current bunch of Ferrari owners, California customers are not likely to be road racers. A good weekend's sport for them is a leisurely 18 rounds at the Riviera Country Club, not 18 frantic laps of Laguna Seca (roof up, two sets of clubs fit in that fat fanny). What next, a California Cross Country?

The omens, then, are not good.

And even when the drive starts, when you first open that big aluminum door and settle inside the fragrant leather-lined cabin-today it's mingled with the rich resinous scent of pine, for the roof is down and graceful trees overhang-there's further evidence that we may be in an effete Ferrari. Press the starter button on the steering wheel and the V-8 barks its first welcome-and the twin-clutch gearbox defaults to automatic. Schumacher-at-Spa it is clearly not.But the sun is shining, the nice Ferrari man says there's little traffic on the road ahead, the traffic police apparently are appreciative of Ferraris-so no state troopers hiding behind reflective glasses are likely to spoil the fun-and there are one or two bits of good news to be found in the technical debrief to suggest that today's drive may not be the letdown first feared. A 0-to-60 of around 4.0 sec clearly hints at acceleration beyond those soft-bellied convertibles from which the California is trying to pry customers; so is a 193-mph top speed, never mind its real-world irrelevance. Plus, the race-style flat-plane crank design of the F430 has been retained. As we shall soon see (and hear), this gives the V-8-Ferrari's first front-engine V-8, incidentally-a marvelous hard-edged race-car rasp. It would've been easy to fit the softer conventional crank, just as Ferrari does for Maserati. There are also cross-drilled carbon ceramic brakes to ensure that it can stop as well as it can go.

Another nugget of good news: That V-8 may be front-mounted, but it's fitted tight against the front bulkhead behind the front axle line, so this California is technically a mid-engine car. The seven-speed twin-clutch semi-auto transmission is fitted out back, and the rear transaxle promises a delicious 47/53 front/rear weight distribution: evenly balanced but with a hint of tail-out bias, just as a good sports car should have.

So you settle down and admire the cabin, a class above the F430, proof that Ferrari continues to improve its craftsmanship and quality and comfort. Select "sport" on the manettino switch on the steering wheel to hold engine revs longer between gear shifts, firming the dampers and giving more latitude to the stability and traction-control systems. ("Comfort" and "CST off" settings-the latter removes the electronic safety nets-are also available). Click once on the right-hand alloy paddle and we're off, the engine already rasping and eager.

As we head toward those open mountain roads, where the car's real proficiency will be tested, those early doubts-can this really be a proper Italian supercar?-start to evaporate. The engine sounds magnificent, part-growl, part-wail, a racing engine for the road, superbly throttle-responsive and with that lovely fast-revving motorcycle-style eagerness that only the best free-flowing engines display. The double-clutch gearshift is fabulous. The change is instant, jerk-free, has none of the thump that blights one-clutch F1 systems, and does not interrupt acceleration one jot: It's one continuous jet-powered thrust. Upshifts are preselected thanks to those twin parallel clutches. Change to a higher gear and there is no interruption of torque. Only the loud, menacing crack of the exhaust betrays the gear change; and each is a magic Schumacher moment. The shift is so magnificent you'll do it over and over again, savoring each finger click of the paddle. Only one disappointment: There is no auto throttle blip on the downshift.

And, boy, can it play road racer! Turn off the CST electronic nanny; you're on your own; all electronic controls apart from ABS are neutered. Deploy launch mode-further proof this Ferrari is no soft-centered sports car. Race up and down those Sicilian mountain roads, the Ferrari now digging in its heels when most rivals would be dancing gently on their toes; the steering is beautifully linear; those big carbon ceramic discs strong and eager. Power hard out of the tight corners, the rear tires yelping, your buttocks and backside now deep in the embrace of the leather seat, feed in the opposite lock and hold the Ferrari in a power slide as you gently dial up more horses to those spinning back alloys with their yellow-and-black prancing horse hubs. The car is astonishingly maneuverable. It's more predictable than an F430, if not quite so agile. And cowl shake, the Achilles' heel of so many drop-top cars? There is none to speak of, not with this big stiff alloy space-frame chassis.

The sun still shines, but it's time to play roof-up. The top quickly seals you off from the outside world. Rear visibility is poor, but the car looks much better in this guise; the roof better balances that heavy rump.

So as we head back to our hotel, there are smiles all around. We expected the worst; instead we experienced one of the best Ferraris of all. What's so impressive is the range of this car's abilities: It can play drop-top sun-worshipper-all supple and comfortable and easy to drive-as well as the easy-driving Mercedes and Bentley rivals, a Ferrari that will not intimidate or frighten those new to the marque. A Ferrari that is easily accessible to those whose motoring aspirations may exceed their abilities.

Yet the flip side, the hard-edged side, is a sports car of great pedigree and panache; a car that's fast and beautifully balanced and so beguiling, in soundtrack and driving behavior, that it can stimulate just as richly as it can soothe. There has never been a Ferrari of such breadth of ability. And if the steering is not quite so quick as an F430's, and the agility not quite so razor sharp, then that's okay; this is not a car designed for the racetrack. Rather it is a sporting Gran Turismo totally fit for the purpose, a car of rare ability: a truly great Ferrari.

Base price $200,000 (est)
Vehicle layout Front-engine, RWD, 4-pass, 2-door convertible
Engine 4.3L/454-hp/358-lb-ft DOHC 32-valve V-8
Transmission 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Curb weight 3800 lb (mfr)
Wheelbase 105.1 in
Length x width x height 179.6 x 74.9 x 51.5 in
0-60 4.0 sec (mfr est)
EPA city/hwy fuel econ N/A
On sale in U.S. June 2009

2010 Ferrari California Rear View