Maranello. Prancing horse. Yellow against red. There are some dreams that aren’t packed away in the toy box, hankerings that kids take with them into adulthood, and one is the idea that one day, you will drive a Ferrari. It makes no rational sense – supercars are about as useful as a sledgehammer for cracking peanut shells. Fine for that guy from Jamiroquai and his once-a-month blast down some leafy Home Counties lane, but pretty silly for the Sandton to Greenside commute.
Or they used to be. Thank the Audi R8 for the advent of the everyday supercar. Now, V8 muscle lurks in some very practical kit out there, and even Ferrari, that blood-red heart of purist petronalia, has heeded the call and turned its attention to the sensible supercar. Cue the California, which broke cover back in 2008, originally with a 4.3ℓ V8. It harked back to the heady days of Ferrari in the 1960s, when GT really did mean Grand Tourer and there was lots of grand touring done by some very grand people to places with unpronounceable French names starting with ‘Cap’ and ‘Côte’. The idea was simple – a 2+2 convertible with a folding metal roof, dual-clutch auto gearbox, direct-injection engine and multi-link rear suspension. These were all firsts for the Ferrari brand, modern innovations that ascended to Maranello from Fiat’s far less storied factories around Turin. But, it worked. Here, then, was a Ferrari that was as comfortable as an execu-barge, practical – with its boot and hard roof – easy to drive thanks to the slick auto ’box, and still fast. It sold well, and deservedly so.
Fast-forward and Ferrari has modernised even further – the new model ditches the 4.3ℓ naturally aspirated engine for a 3.9ℓ twin turbo. As with the Porsche 911, the rationale is economy and emissions, and again, as with the Porsche, the result is actually a better car.
So enough of the guff. Ferrari. Red. Noise. Yee-hah and showing off. That is what it’s all about. From the showroom floor, its retro roots are obvious. There
are design references to the heyday era everywhere, from the sculpted doors and boiled-sweet rear lights, to the stalked mirrors and flowing, curvy lines. The current industry trend of sharp Japanese origami folds is nowhere in evidence, here only that gorgeous organic fluidity of the 308 GTB and the Daytona before it. Open the door, slide inside (no gymnastics required) and settle in; accent stitching, padded leather dash and THAT steering wheel greet you. It’s the most intimidating aspect of your first Ferrari experience, and, we suspect, deliberately so. It suggests F1, a closed club, learning its ways being the only entry into a rare world of beautiful women and a jet-set lifestyle. Actually, it is all kinds of simple once someone has shown you what’s what. Bottom line, Ferrari hates stalks, so traditional functions are all on the wheel – wipers, sound (at the back), indicators, Start button and chassis setup…
The rest of the dash is fairly tame; ahead, the giant, heavily cowled yellow dial is the rev counter, tantalisingly red-lined at 7 500 rpm; to the right, there’s a smaller speedo promising 340 km/h and on the left, badly placed behind the steering wheel rim, the info screen you will never look at anyway.
Turn the key, then press the Start button and emotion floods the cockpit. It’s exactly what a Ferrari should sound like: a crackle and a thunder, followed by a rather belligerent burble as it settles into its idle. On the centre console is a button marked R. Thatis reverse; foot on brake, press button, prod accelerator. The 1.7-ton supercar eases backwards. Brake again, select 1st from the flappy paddle and accelerate again. Unlike in say, an old Lamborghini Gallardo, the dual clutch catches smoothly; there is no thunk or jump, just a flow of power. Catch second by pulling back the paddle and it engages instantly, seamlessly. This is child’s play. Heading out of town, press the other button on the centre console marked Auto and the car changes its own gears. Then just sit back and consider the surroundings.
It’s comfortable, for starters – even in Sport mode – and well insulated from bumps, so, luckily, no spinal surgery will be necessary. The steering is well balanced, a good middle ground between meaty and manageable, light enough in the city but heavier at speed. The brakes, too, are well modulated, not too sharp and certainly not mushy. As the traffic pelotons out of town, the sense is of an entirely normal car, almost disappointingly so, ordinary in the way it goes about carrying you home after work.
And then the traffic clears. Take it out of Auto, pull back the left flappy paddle – twice – and bury the accelerator to awaken the sleeping demons. The howl mirrors the flood of power, put down superbly without slippage, fishtailing or raucousness. There’s technology at work here – the California T is engineered to deliver no more than 80 percent of its power through the gears, only releasing the full 412 kW and 755 Nm as top gear is selected. This, suggests Ferrari, is to keep progress unbroken, rather than to protect the gearbox. Whatever the thinking, it works, and works well. The flappy paddles are simplicity to use, instantaneous, and in mere seconds
the world is a blur. If the roof is down (it folds away into the boot à la the Merc SLK), there’s plenty of wind and engine roar, until you raise the windows. Then,
it’s quieter. Which is hardly the point. Buy a hat, keep the windows down and enjoy the symphony.
The first Italian ergonomic oddity appears the moment you need to change lanes for the first time. The indicator is that arrow on the wheel. Press it to indicate an overtaking manoeuvre, press it again to cancel it. If you are using the flappy paddle at the same time, it is all fingers, fumble and swearing. Next time you see a Ferrari float into a lane without even indicating, cut them a little slack –it is tough to do the right thing.
But, ergonomic weirdisms are almost de rigueur for Maranello, and they’re not the point. The point is the whole package, and as the kilometres mount up, the package begins to look like a Christmas present. It is everything you could ever want – brutally fast, tenacious on a winding mountain pass, all Thelma & Louise on the long road, a lamb in traffic and even, by supercar standards at least, economical –
capable of 11ℓ per 100 km if you’re not too belligerent.
But, there’s a catch. As much as the California is a most beautiful beast that is capable of heroic feats, it is not a traditional Ferrari. It is missing precision in steering, and the edge, feedback and communication that underlines the race-car heritage of a true two-seater Ferrari. It feels like the love child of a Porsche 911 and a Maserati GranCabrio – solid rather than highly strung. That’s a very good thing for many, and one of the reasons it has sold so well. So, simple solution– a California T in the left garage for every day, a very shiny new, mid-engined 488 GTB in the right one. Sorted.
In a nutshell: Ferrari California T
Nothing sounds like a Ferrari, and it is as easy to drive as it is to live with
Purists will miss the Ferrari ‘edge’
- Engine: 3 855 cc, V8 twin turbo
- Power: 412 kW @ 7 500 rpm, 755 Nm @ 4 750 rpm
- Performance: 0–100 km/h in 3.6 sec, top speed 316 km/h
- Tyres: 245/40/ZR19 front, 285/40/ZR19 back
- Economy: 10.5 ℓ/100 km
- Transmission: 7-speed dual clutch
- CO2 emissions: 250 g/km
- Price: R4.4 million
Maserati GranCabrio MC
More boulevard than blaster, but a decent drive nonetheless. Beautiful inside. 0–100 km/h in 4.9 seconds, top speed 289 km/h, power 338 kW/520 Nm, price R3 million
Mercedes-Benz SL 65 AMG
Not nearly as track-orientated as the Ferrari, but a peerless cruiser; you get four more cylinders, 1 000 Nm of torque (true story), a superb soundtrack and R2 million change. 0–100 km/h in 4 seconds, top speed 300 km/h, power 450 kW/1000 Nm, price R2 009 600
Jaguar F-Type R Convertible
Delicious V8, slightly slower than the big Ferrari, nearly as much cache value, much cheaper. 0–100 km/h in 4.2 seconds, top speed 300 km/h, power 405 kW/680 Nm, price R1.9 million