NECESSITY, IT'S SAID, is the mother of invention – and if there’s a new car that exemplifies the proverb it’s surely the Ferrari California T. Like the previous California grand tourer of 2009, the T is a V8 and thus belies a long-standing rule for Maranello’s front-engine cars, which had always been V12s. This latest incarnation, however, breaks the mould for volume-produced Ferraris even more radically, for in a heresy that will likely affront all ferraristi who believe forced induction to be anathema to the brand, it employs a brace of turbochargers.
So why these departures from tradition? Look no further than increasingly stringent regulations in the world’s major car-buying markets that demand ever-greater fuel economy and lower exhaust emissions, and have resulted in the widespread adoption of smallercapacity, high-output and high-efficiency engines right across the automobile industry. Being no more immune to such strictures than any other car manufacturer, the Italian company has sensibly opted to comply, though typically it’s found a unique way of interpreting – or perhaps that should be “Ferrarising” – the requirements.
Thus, the engine capacity of this best-selling, “entry-level” GT has been reduced to 3.85 litres from the outgoing California’s 4.3, resulting in marked improvements in both thirst and cleanliness. Yet thanks to the pair of twin-scroll blowers, variable-boost management and a host of other tweaks, power is up by almost 70bhp to a robust 552, while maximum torque – of which more a little later – has swelled to a humongous 755Nm. That’s greater than for an F12berlinetta, greater even than for the fabulous LaFerrari hypercar, and mighty impressive when you remember that the T is easily the least expensive Ferrari currently on sale.
Moreover, the buzz is that in the effort further to slash the average emissions and consumption figures, forced induction will be increasingly employed throughout the model range. A turbocharged revision of the 458 is likely to be revealed at the 2015 Geneva show, and a blown-V8 option for the FF coupé/estate could well see the light during the following year.
As well as the above-listed benefits, the switch to turbo power for the California has even helped inject stylistic drama to a car that looked plain and even frumpy beside its lithe and lovely stablemate, the Italia. Although there are strong resemblances between the previous and current models, and the latter’s retractable hardtop is identical to its predecessor’s, in every other respect the T can be regarded as a brandnew design.
It’s much the better for it, too, with a frontal aspect that’s sharper and more aggressive, due partly to the larger grille and intakes required to feed cold air to the turbochargers, intercoolers and carbon-ceramic brakes, not to mention the wickedly slanting headlight clusters and pair of big cooling vents on the bonnet. A scalloped indent along each flank references the cantilevered front-wheel arches of the classic 250 Testa Rossa (at least that’s how it’s explained to us at the pre-drive briefing, and I sort of see the resemblance), while the pronounced backside bustle has been cleverly slimmed by a lower boot line, with no apparent reduction in space for luggage or the collapsed roof.
Granted this revised California would still be an outside bet to win a beauty contest, but at least you wouldn’t question its inclusion in the line-up. That’s especially the case when the top is stowed beneath the rear deck, a one-touch operation that takes less than a quarter of a minute and makes the car appear from most angles surprisingly svelte (and particularly so in metallic blue). Indeed, so resolved is the styling that there’s been speculation of Pininfarina involvement in the makeover, though Ferrari insists it’s the work of an in-house team under Flavio Manzoni, formerly design boss at VW.
I touched on torque earlier, but not on how it’s achieved, for in the effort to deliver the experience of a normally aspirated engine, Ferrari has made maximum twist available only in top gear (at 4,750rpm, to be precise), with each lower ratio mining progressively fewer Newtons-per-metre. This offers buckets of high-gear grunt at motorway cruising speeds, yet on back roads encourages keen drivers to explore the upper reaches of the rev band, as well as the full spectrum of gears on the superb seven-speed, dual-clutch box (there’s no longer a manual option). It seems to work pretty well – and that alone indicates this second-generation California is a very different proposition from the first, which in temperament was far more boulevardier than bolide.
Our 200km test route on the byways of the lovely Brunello wine country south of Siena has presumably been chosen to highlight the Cali’s dynamic abilities, and it’s soon evident that while it’s everything a proper grand tourer should be in terms of comfort, refinement and speed, it also serves up far more involvement and enjoyment than I’d ever have expected. At more than 1.7 tonnes it’s something of a heavyweight (though it is marginally lighter than the earlier car), but there’s a lightness, poise and sharpness about the way it moves and changes direction that many a smaller vehicle would kill for.
That’s partly due to weight distribution – though the engine’s at the front, it’s set way back towards the cockpit – and a low centre of gravity, so with balance slightly biased towards the rear there’s no alarming tendency either to overor understeer. A revised steering rack means the helm is quick and accurate: it goes exactly where you point it and feels far sweeter and more agile than a car this size ever should. Ride is waftingly comfortable, too, and the brakes seem never to be less than brilliant. Granted it’s not as nimble as an Italia, but it’s still a revelation.
Being a Ferrari it’s fast, of course – not epically so but definitely rapid enough to impart a genuine frisson when you floor the accelerator. The engineers have managed to tune out turbo lag almost completely, so the response is pretty instantaneous, especially when the manettino on the button-festooned steering wheel is switched to Sport. Zero to 100km/h is cut to 3.6 seconds, which is way quicker than, say, a DB9 Volante, and it finally runs out of steam at the fair old clip of 315. The only disappointment here – and to be fair it’s hardly a major one – is aural, for though the engineers have laboured heroically to make this turbo engine sound like a Ferrari’s should, it’s again neither as spine-tinglingly majestic nor as tuneful as a 458.
Nor is the absence of surprises in the cockpit any real shortcoming, as the California has always been a great place in which to sit. Although I’ve never been wild about Ferrari’s multifunction steering wheel I really can’t fault either the ergonomics or the build quality and materials (almost every surface that can be is wrapped in soft, tan Poltrona Frau leather) – and even the infotainment system appears to work fine. I can’t comment on noise insulation as we only raise the roof when parking the car, but under the bright Tuscan sun and with the top down, it really does feel and look the business.
Naturally, this being Italy, we get waves, whistles, thumbs-ups and cheers wherever we go, a good-natured expression of enthusiasm and pride for a name that’s rightly regarded as a national treasure. We revel in the attention, happy to share in the appreciation and even more delighted to be driving this much-improved Ferrari on its home turf. For the California T represents such a quantum leap forward from its forebear that it’s now beginning to nudge GT greatness – and with those yellow-and-black badges on its nose and sides, it’s nigh on irresistible.