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18 April 2005

Ferrari is set to give the green light to a new entry level model that will directly take on Aston Martin’s V8 Vantage and should give a massive boost to the Italian company. Powered by a front-mounted 400bhp 4.2-litre V8 driving a rear-mounted transmission, the new model should sell for around £85,000 in coupé form and could lift Ferrari sales from just under 5000 cars per year to as many as 8000. Rumoured to be called Project California, sources in Italy say Ferrari engineers are already working on the new car, which will also come in drophead form. It is the first tangible evidence of a new dawn for Ferrari after its recent split from Maserati.

The California is believed to be based on Maserati’s planned replacement for the Spider and Coupé models. Scooped by Autocar last year (21/28 December), development of these new cars was halted just before control of Maserati was handed over to Alfa Romeo in February.

The proposed ‘baby’ Ferrari is the first concrete sign that Maranello is preparing to break free of its self-imposed production limits and take a risk on exploiting one of the most widely-recognised brands in the world. The California is based on conventional steel monocoque chassis, although it uses a transaxle transmission, located on the back axle. With the engine mounted well back in the nose, the combination gives a near-perfect front/rear weight distribution. This front-mid engine layout (though without the transaxle) is also employed by the California’s closest potential rival, the Aston Martin V8 Vantage. Although engineers have been working on two wheelbases for the new Maseratis, it’s expected that Ferrari will utilise the shorter chassis, which would have underpinned the Spider.

Insiders expect the California to use a Ferrari-modified version of today’s 400bhp 4.2-litre V8 Maserati engine (right), which would confirm the California’s position below the F430 in the Ferrari line-up, with its 490bhp 4.3-litre V8. And in the UK the F430 coupé is priced at £118,000, which means there’s a gap in Ferrari’s market for an £85,000 coupé. However, there’s little chance of the California simply being a worked-over version of the Mk2 Maserati coupé. Senior insiders told Autocar that cash-strapped Ferrari had not committed to tooling up the new Maserati designs, so Ferrari’s designers will have to start from scratch on the styling, inside and out.

After the controversial styling of the front-engined 612 Scaglietti, Ferrari bosses will surely be looking for a coupé that has the appeal of the new Aston Martin models as well as the legendary day-to-day usability of the Porsche 911.

Meanwhile, with the replacements for the Maserati Coupé and Spyder put on hold, it’s thought that Maserati may turn to new partner Alfa Romeo for help to replace its entry-level models. Alfa’s sophisticated ‘Premium’ platform could provide the basis for a new coupé and cabriolet model. The new Alfa Romeo Brera could provide the bare bones of the new models. And according to the terms of the recent split between General Motors and Fiat, GM will supply Fiat Auto with a version of its Northstar V8 engine that can be transversely mounted. Insiders say this will be modified by Maserati engineers and hooked up to a full-time, rear-biased four-wheel-drive system. Maserati had been a millstone around Ferrari’s neck since late 1999, and it was blamed for dragging it substantially into the red last year. Despite a respected three-model range, Maserati sold just 4600 cars last year, and although that was a massive increase over previous years, it is said to need to make 10,000 cars per year at its refurbished Modena factory to move into healthy profit.

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Ferrari bought Maserati from Fiat in late 1999. Fiat, in turn had bought the ailing brand in January 1990 from De Tomaso. Despite investing in a unique platform and sophisticated engineering, Maserati has been taking too long to show a return on Ferrari’s investment. Autocar has been told that the marriage of the two supercar makers ultimately failed because Ferrari’s components were too expensive to use in the cheaper Maseratis.

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