The Ferrari California is the company's boldest model for decades, but is it worthy of the name?

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The Ferrari California might just be the firm's most radical model. It’s the first Ferrari road car to have a front-mounted V8 engine, the first to have a dual-clutch gearbox and, although not the first to have a removable hard-top, is the first to follow the current trend of having a fully retractable one that electrically folds into its boot.

Because it has so many Ferrari firsts, the Ferrari California has no direct antecedent, but this is not the first time Ferrari has used the California name. It first appeared on the 250GT California in 1957, a Scaglietti-designed take on the V12 250GT for the American market.

The California features a lot of Ferrari firsts, including direct injection and a front-mounted V8 engine

That model was replaced by a short-wheelbase version in 1960. Another departure for Ferrari here is that all California variants to date have been top-end models made to a very limited production run.

As such, the California opens up a new market to the brand. It’s a softer, more approachable Ferrari for those who like the idea but perhaps not the sharply honed execution of a normal Modenese car (and for those that do,there's always the option of the Handling Speciale pack, which brings stiffer springs, a more direct steering rack and more aggressive damper settings).

Thanks to the introduction of the HELE (High Efficiency Low Emissions) technology, which includes stop start, the California is also a more efficient Ferrari, emitting CO2 emissions of 270g/km.

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However, there is a fear that the California may be a little too soft, with not enough focus; a Ferrari that cannot perform as a sports car is like a Land Rover that cannot clamber over a muddy hill.

So is the fear justified? Or is the California every inch worthy of the badges that adorn its flanks?


Ferrari California folding roof

The California takes several styling cues from the original car, wing-mounted vents with vertical slats among them. Like the 250GT, the California has haunched rear wheel arches, but its rear deck is higher than that of the ’60s car. So details like this attempt to reduce the visual bulk around the rear.

Likewise, the California’s single, wide bonnet vent is a 250GT-inspired detail. Other modern front-engined Ferraris don’t get one like this, but it is functional too. 

You can't operate the roof on the move, which could frustrate some

Inevitably, as folding hard-tops become more commonplace they get more sophisticated. The California’s is one of the slickest, consisting of two rather than three key roof sections, which makes it more compact to stow than a three-piece roof.

The same system is used on the BMW Z4. During opening, the rear screen lifts and swings gently onto the roof panel, before the pair move together under the open bootlid. The California needs to be stationary for the roof to operate, but it does so with some precision, albeit with a little boot shimmy as it rises. 

Unusually, the exhausts are positioned vertically, which could add rather than detract from the impression of too much rear height. That’s why they’re right at the edges to enhance low-edge bulk.

Because the top-mounted tail-lights lift with the boot and become invisible from the rear, they can’t be allowed to do all the light functions. The lower cluster is relatively neatly disguised.

Nineteen-inch wheels are standard, but you can opt for nicer looking wheels that give a better view of the carbon-ceramic brakes. Optional caliper finishes include aluminium, red or yellow at a cost.

In 2012 the California received an upgrade which cut 30kg off the kerb weight and boosted the engine's output from 453bhp to 482bhp. Torque also increased, from 358lb ft to 372lb ft. Combined, these reduced the Ferrari's 0-62mph from 3.9sec to 3.8sec.

A 'Handling Speciale Package', which added stiffer springs, faster steering and 'Magneride' magnetorheological dampers, also became available in 2012.


Ferrari California dashboard

Other than the fact that the roof sometimes disappears, there’s nothing radically different about the Ferrari California’s cabin compared with other Ferraris.

Technically this is a 2+2, although as with most +2 seating types, the rears are strictly for small children or very short hops only. A luggage shelf can be specified instead but, either way, two flaps fold down to allow longer loads to creep through from the boot (the release catches are inside the boot, to aid security).

The driving position in the California is excellent

The front seats and the cabin layout are otherwise pretty standard Ferrari stuff, save for an electronic handbrake and a swooping central beam featuring the roof and gearbox controls. But the dials, major controls and layout will be familiar to current Ferrari owners. 

Materials quality is generally good, as is the ergonomic layout. To pick faults, you’re looking at small details: the analogue speedo is hard to read (although the LCD display in the binnacle is excellent) and some of the plastics on smaller switches such as the mirror adjusters could be improved. They don’t, though, significantly detract from what is an attractive and functional interior. 

The driving position is beyond serious criticism too; some of the optional seat surfacing is questionable, but there’s plenty of adjustment, the footwell is roomy, there’s no discernible offset and the steering wheel adjusts widely.

Boot volume drops from 340 litres to a still useful 240 litres with the roof down, but it would be all but inaccessible were it not for a boot that opens all the way down to the bumper.


Ferrari California V8 engine

Certainly the Ferrari California’s power output falls some way short of its stablemates, yet no one is likely to question the performance credentials of a car that will hit 60mph in 3.8sec. 

The reason the California manages such impressive numbers, despite its power-to-weight ratio, is in part a dual-clutch gearbox equipped with relatively short ratios, but also an ability to launch exceptionally well.

Ferrari’s dual-clutch gearbox is excellent and works well with the V8 engine

With a relatively soft set-up, sticky tyres and a particularly impressive launch control system, the California gets off the line with almost zero wheel slip. In gear, though, the California never feels quite as fast as the headline numbers suggest.

It is also worth remembering the weight of options when specifying your California. Ferrari supplied two cars for our review, one with few options weighing 1785kg, and one that was more lavishly specified and weighed 1905kg. 

Still, the California remains a fast road car and, perhaps more important for the target market, one that is easy to drive. Ferrari’s first application of a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox is entirely successful. In automatic, the shifts are well timed and, with the possible exception of slow downchanges from cold, are as smooth as a conventional torque converter’s. There’s plenty of control in manual mode, too. 

A less clear-cut issue is that of the engine note. At times it is certainly loud (on start-up and under load from low revs), at others suitably refined (at cruising speeds). But some of us missed the mechanical intensity and top-end wail present in Ferrari’s other V8 engines. 

As with all Ferraris, the California gets ceramic brake discs as standard. Like all such systems, pedal feel is not great from cold, but this improves with a little temperature. Outright stopping distances in both wet and dry are impressively short, and in track use the brakes stand up well to hard use.


Ferrari California cornering

This is where the Ferrari California departs from any other current Ferrari. Although a few familiar traits remain – chiefly the light, direct steering – the California has an entirely different set of ride and handling priorities from, say, an F430 Spider

The first surprise is how well the California rides. We tried both the passive dampers and the optional Magneride units, and both (even with the latter set to Sport) coped impressively well with our road network, and especially so for a convertible. Such is the California’s comfort that you could easily use one to travel significant distances.

The California is seriously competent and capable

That suppleness doesn't mean you have to compromise on poise and control anymore, either. A significant overhaul early in 2012 produced an updated car, with changes including a significantly lighter chassis, reworked suspension and steering and engine upgrades. The main area the car benefitted was in its dynamic performance, especially with the optional Magneride system fitted.

Where once the chassis set-up worked fine driving at four-tenths and fell apart slightly at seven-tenths, it is now an accomplished all-rounder, with very little roll and dive, and a credit to its maker's heritage.

The Handling Speciale pack is a diversion in our view; it's hard to take confidence from, picking up speed off centre quite suddenly but without a corresponding increase in weight. It encourages you to throw the California around energetically, but it makes a smooth cornering line hard to follow, and it's all too easy to introduce unnecessary understeer.


Ferrari California

The Ferrari California may be an easier Ferrari to live with than most, but don’t think that it’s a great deal easier to get into the ownership experience, which begins with a proper-Ferrari price and can easily be increased by dipping into a typically extensive (and expensive) options list.

Ditto prices for insurance, which are on a par with other cars in Ferrari’s range. If you drive enthusiastically and often, you’ll need tyres regularly, while residual values are best maintained by strict adherence to the service schedule.

A 260-mile range will necessitate regular refuelling stops on longer trips

The good news on the servicing front is the introduction of the Ferrari Genuine Maintenance package – essentially free servicing for the first seven years that’s included in the California’s list price. It covers all standard maintenance items outlined in the car’s service schedule, while there’s no mileage restriction.

If you happen to be a high-mileage driver who reaches the 12,500 mile service intervals regularly, you can have the car serviced more than once a year at no extra cost. All-in-all, this could save you many thousands of pounds, no matter what mileage you do. And it’s transferable should you sell the car.

Initially at least, the California’s desirability and newness will help it to hold its value well. Five years down the line, though, it will probably become subject to the same steep depreciation that afflicts all but the rarest, most expensive cars. However, that service package will help to firm up residuals when compared with rival supercars.

The California’s economy is less than great. The 14.9mpg we averaged gives a range of less than 260 miles, despite a 17-gallon tank – not ideal, especially when the car has the ability to be an exceptionally good tourer. The introduction of the HELE tech to the Ferrari California should yield a 10% improvement in this.


4 star Ferrari California

Ferrari treads a fine line with the California. If it had made it as pure a Ferrari sports car as an F430 Spider, it risked failing to win over the customers at whom it is aimed.

Made too soft, however, it might as well have a Maserati badge on its nose and be £50,000 cheaper. Such are the dilemmas that face companies attempting to broaden their appeal without cheapening their brands.

The California is not always as much fun as we would like it to be

The California is cleverly positioned in the burgeoning Ferrari line-up – doing things that other models don’t do at a price they’re not either. There’s very little overlap, model-wise, which is why 70 per cent of California buyers so far have been new to the brand.

On the whole it’s a line Ferrari has trodden well. No, the California is not always as much fun as we would like it to be and, flattering headline acceleration figure apart, we’re unconvinced that it feels entirely fast enough.

However, none of the California’s rivals manage to do much better – the Ferrari is certainly a whole load more fun than a similarly-priced Bentley Continental GTC and it’s just about as comfortable, too.

We’d also take it ahead of a Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder and even an Aston Martin DBS Volante – both more expensive than the Ferrari, both similarly quick, but both without the blend of everyday usability and outright enjoyment. 

But despite the inevitable compromises that come from a folding metal roof, the California feels more like a ‘proper’ Ferrari than, say, a Porsche Cayenne feels like a proper Porsche. And for that Ferrari deserves much credit.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Ferrari California 2008-2014 First drives