Of all the colourful phrases tossed around our office like wedding confetti, none is treated with greater reverence than ‘fitness for purpose’.
It is the bedrock on which any Autocar verdict is built, the reason we can gush convincingly about a people-carrier one week and a three-wheeler the next, and easily the best justification for lending us your credence every week.
Manufacturers like it, too. They measure it with micrometers. They devote small armies to the business of probing, canvassing, questioning and comparing. They agonise over positioning with the sensitivity of a Mars orbiter mission planner. Their failures tend to play out similarly, too – no visible mushroom cloud, just a shoulder-shrug fizzle of disappointment.
The previous Ferrari California could be characterised thusly. It was a smorgasbord of brand firsts – first fully retractable hard-top, first dual-clutch automatic gearbox, first front-mounted V8 – but it came across as only a middling effort, probably made to look softer than it was by the outgoing 430 Scuderia and incoming 458, both hewn in purpose like carbon-ceramic arrowheads.
Its replacement lobs in another first: the first Ferrari in nearly three decades to feature forced induction. Turbocharging increases accessibility, but that was not the California’s underlying fault. It lacked not functionality but a convincing character. And for a Ferrari, being under-endowed with soul is like discovering the Land Rover Defender’s replacement is thwarted by wet grass.
To find out whether or not the new, vastly more powerful V8 engine has solved the problem (or compounded it), we’re plunging the California under the Brecon Beacons microscope side by side with two carefully selected slides: a Porsche 911 Turbo S Cabriolet against which to measure its heady, all-round GT talent and, as a pleasure-giving benchmark, the atavistic Aston Martin V12 Vantage S Roadster.
Circumstance means covering most of the M4 between London and Wales in the 911, but the obvious question occurs inside the M25: is there another car, currently on sale, that goes from congenial to utterly cuckoo quite as rapidly as the 991-generation 911 Turbo?
There ought not to be any secret about it by now: the most expensive 911, at £149,668, is an upturned bucket of vents and wide-bodied arches mated to Porsche’s latest asymmetric all-wheel drive system and a twin-turbocharged flat six developing, in its S guise, 552bhp.
But the 991’s transition from butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-its-mouth, Volkswagen Golf R-style good manners to a magistrate-infuriating, superbike-rivalling clip is so self-assured, oily and proficient that it almost feels necessary to summon a shaman to Leigh Delamere services and have its otherworldliness properly investigated.
We don’t have time for that, though, so I pucker up for the Aston instead. Immediately, it’s clear just how much of the burden the 991’s ZF-sourced PDK gearbox must be shouldering. The distance from its dual-clutch slipperiness to the Vantage’s robotised seven-speed Sportshift manual is best measured in light years.
The Aston’s upshifts eventually get quicker, but low down, in auto mode, the car – or more specifically, its phantom menace clutch – remains a head-nodding nuisance. The AM28 engine to which it’s connected, of course, is a peach: 12 cylinders of splendour, not much less tractable than the Porsche and as sumptuously evocative as you’d assume anything producing both 565bhp and 343g/km of CO2 would be.
It makes light work of the Vantage’s heft, but can’t help with the occasionally jagged ride quality or the now overwhelming, inescapable age of the car. The odd interior creak is forgivable (it’s hand-built, after all), the disobliging nature of the switchgear and patent lack of instructive LCD screens less so in a car which starts at £147,000.