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.
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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.
The California, mounted at Magor, feels every bit a decade its junior. Mostly that’s because Ferrari, having suffered its own problems with infotainment, has finally grasped the nettle and fitted a 6.5in touchscreen full of features – even including, optionally, Apple’s new CarPlay system.
At the business end of the M4 motorway, such toys are welcome, and together with that hard-top and armchair-style seating, it’s apparent without moving an inch that this is a Ferrari fettled with serious range in mind. It’s still, though, a hard setting to adore. To these eyes, the flagrantly prettier Vantage still has more panache and the Porsche, apparently constructed to the tolerances expected of a vacuum chamber, seems better built.
Mercifully, the steering wheel and clay-red rev counter live up to expectations; the first because it’s nicer to hold than your first girlfriend’s hand, and the second because its readout doesn’t turn scarlet until 8000rpm. It isn’t unusual in a Ferrari to feel like most of your cash – £154,490 in this case – has been spent under the bonnet and, turbochargers or not, that’s the way it is in the California.
Anyway you cut it, the all-new 3.9-litre engine is a remarkable lump, one part cutting-edge technological oddity, three parts old-school flat-plane-crank V8. It feels precisely as it is: a very expensive attempt to make a square peg entirely resemble a round hole.
Thus it revs with agitated enthusiasm, howls through a gauze and draws breath like it were trapped in a Regency corset. Its Variable Boost Management system, a fiendishly clever software method of progressively increasing the available twist in higher gears, is best appreciated on the motorway, where the final ratio of the excellent F1 dual-clutch transmission – and all 557lb ft of torque – gives the California a super-cruise to almost rival the Vantage’s big-displacement largesse.
In ride quality, it trumps the Aston Martin outright. Ferrari points to the deployment of its latest generation of magneto-rheological dampers, but the old-fashioned truth is that the Vantage feels like a sports car compromised by the loss of its roof. The California doesn’t and, in Comfort mode, it is the closest here to modulating long-frequency undulations in the manner of a grand tourer.
The 911, in comparison, feels tacked down like linoleum. The bump absorption and noise suppression are phenomenal, considering, but the weightiness of its steering can make it wearing on the wrists over time. With only one hand clamped to the wheel, the Ferrari can be aimed with the floating accuracy of iron sights.
Once at the foot of the Brecons, however, where the roads are varnished with a cruel slick of salt, fast-melting snow and grime, the advantage swings decisively back the other way.
These cars have been delivered on a wildly different Pirellis – the California on wintery Sottazeros, the Vantage on summery Corsas – so a totally unbiased evaluation of handling is tricky. But it doesn’t feel like a stretch to suggest that caterpillar tracks would have been required by the rear-drive contingent to keep up with the 911 west of Crickhowell.
Roof ajar, you sit in a tiny pocket of calm amid the massive squall, and continually work your neck muscles lest your head fall off. Even a 0-62mph time of 3.1sec fails to properly characterise the brutality of the car’s acceleration through the low gears.
Consequently, the nicest thing to probably say about it is that it still feels very much all of a thing, which is a massive testament to the steering, brakes, adaptive chassis, dynamic mounts, diffs, clutches and traction management that keep it all kerbside. It is as much a test of nerve as skill, although the visceral, aerated reward is undeniable.
The courage demanded by the Vantage, on the other hand, verges too close to foolhardiness for most. Even in ideal conditions, the V12 is the sort of car you deliberate over unleashing.
On the B4560, at dusk in February wearing track-friendly tyres, it feels vastly more prudent to tiptoe about the place. Unfortunately, the sensitive approach doesn’t really suit the Aston. Its hydraulic steering feels inconsistent at modest speeds and the engine sneers at you above 2000rpm, its exhaust valves audible even over the gale greedily sucking warm air directly from the vents.
It’s a shame, because (much) later, on drier, Surrey-based B-roads, the model’s palpable finesse returns. There its traction is negotiable rather than precarious; parleyed though the suddenly spot-on steering, amenable LSD and brontide emulator upfront.
So all credit to the California that it doesn’t require extracurricular context to render a quicker pulse. Partly, of course, this is a trait of the tyres. But it also has much to do with the way the car has been set up.
Regardless of the congeniality displayed elsewhere, Ferrari has clearly worked hard – with mildly stiffer springs and a lower mounted engine – to deliver a more convincing version of the seemingly highly strung, invariably pointy dynamic that characterises its current generation of road cars.
In Wales, this works far better at seven-tenths effort than the Vantage, where its slightly flightier poise and tremendous eagerness to turn in are complemented by the superior deployment of its power – a virtue of the surprisingly nannying F1-trac system.
Granted, it’s not in the relentless 911’s league, but the V8’s peak effort comes at a heady 7500rpm nonetheless, and turbo lag is arguably even less perceptible than in the Porsche.
The shortfall, only hinted at atop Brecon, is that at nine-tenths, the playful naturalism conjured up later on by the Vantage is possibly not in the California’s repertoire, its leggier body control, lighter steering and less assured front end poking through the veneer of its hitherto dainty balance.
That’s fine and fitting, but it does make the podium places tricky. Truthfully, the Aston, hobbled by age and inclemency, struggled in Wales. That it shone in more conducive conditions speaks directly to both its intrinsic charisma and the now patent limitations that bookend it. Irrefutably, the Vantage chafes when not engaged with. And if we’re going to end where we started, that makes it fit primarily for a narrowband audience.
Attune yourself to its frequency, though, take it from the box when all is warm and right with the world, and it dazzles like a lead-weighted Caterham. For the final 12-cylinder hurrah on nirvana’s roundabout, I’d except no substitute.
Nonetheless, back in the real world, with year-round use in mind, I’d now be tempted to invest in Ferrari’s rekindled West Coast vision. In the final analysis, the California isn’t searingly brilliant, but with that space-age V8 and sharper handling, it feels at last like there might be real blood coursing through its metaphoric veins.
Where the Vantage tantalises sporadically, it gratifies consistently, being both the most usable Ferrari I’ve driven and yet now, tangibly, a product of the Prancing Horse stable rather than the profitable ringer it was.
However, by the same standard with which the California trumps the Vantage, it is thoroughly trounced by the 911. ‘Weapon’ was the word most frequently brandished as night descended in Wales, as ferocious and true a descriptive as I can summon up here. Yes, the weather favoured it, but the next day I drove the car back to the office, and could have happily driven it straight through London, Kent, Antwerp and Dusseldorf, too.
Porsche calls the Turbo its benchmark, and with no roof to take the edge off, that’s precisely what it threatens to be. Fitness for purpose? The 911 is the car I’d choose, post-apocalypse, to check on the sky. It’s that preposterous.