From £152,116
A brilliant mix of GT, convertible and sports car with true Ferrari pedigree

What is it?

A fourth model series for Ferrari - and the first new production Ferrari with no direct antecedent since the Dino 206GT was launched in 1968.

It is, says Ferrari, a convertible, a GT and a sports car all under one retractable hard top roof. It is Ferrari’s first ever front-engined, V8 road car, the first with a directly injected engine, the first with seven gears, and the first with a double clutch transmission. In short and for Ferrari, it is a revolution.

Some things, however, remain the same. Its chassis and body are all aluminium like every other Ferrari in production and, while Ferrari claims the 4.3-litre V8 is all new and cites the fact that even its bore and stroke are different to the 4.3-litre V8 in the F430, it does at least concede the two engines share block castings in common as, indeed, they do with the 4.7-litre engine Ferrari makes for Maserati and Alfa Romeo.

In the California it develops 453bhp at 7750rpm and 357lb ft of torque at 5000rpm. Ferrari claims this latter figure when quoted as a specific output (83lb ft per litre) is a world record for a normally aspirated, petrol-powered car.

The new gearbox is made for Ferrari by Getrag and, following a generation of front-engined Ferrari practice, sits as a transaxle between the rear wheels.

Ferrari does not quote a gearchange time because as the next gear is always pre-engaged, the shift is ‘effectively immediate.’ A manual transmission will be available later next year but Ferrari anticipates a less than 10 per cent take up.

There’s a small philosophical shift in the California’s suspension, which now comes with the double wishbones you expect at the front, but eschews them at the back, preferring a multi-link arrangement. Like all other new Ferraris, carbon ceramic disc brakes are standard.

The hard-top folds fairly conventionally, by stacking the rear windscreen on top of the roof, whereupon both sections disappear under the boot cover; but this being a Ferrari, it has to do it quicker than everyone else. For most convertibles, a time of around 20 seconds to turn into a coupe is the norm. We timed the California at 14sec.

What’s it like?

Spend too long in the company of the spec sheet and you’ll start to ponder whether it even deserves to have a prancing horse on its nose.

With 30bhp less than an F430, but a kerbweight higher than a 599GTB, the California could be accused of having not enough power and being asked to do too much.

Even Ferrari concedes that its claimed sub-4sec 0-62mph time has more to do with the efficiency of its launch control, the non-existent gear shift intervals and the closeness of its ratios than the punch from its engine.

Visually the California looks reasonably well proportioned in the metal, but poorly detailed inside and out: the crease going up the door doesn’t work, the back of the car is rather too busy while in the cabin the main analogue instruments are unattractive and not helped by an adjacent screen for relaying less important information.

Not the most prepossessing of starts for such a car, you’ll agree. What is needed is five minutes at the wheel on a decent road. Then all those concerns and fears vanish like a wisp of smoke in a stiff breeze. This car doesn’t just deserve to be thought of as a Ferrari, it is a fine Ferrari at that.

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It feels quicker by far than its power and weight figures suggest, and more than capable of matching Ferrari’s lofty performance claims. The engine has a truly split personality, gently stirring at part throttle, riotously enthusiastic when summoned to real work and outrageously, subversively, gloriously rude as you grab another gear at 8000rpm.

And Ferrari is right about the shift: if there is a pause between gears, I could not detect it. But, and for once, the engine of this Ferrari is forced into a supporting role by its chassis.

There are, of course, many cars that will grip harder than this: cars with highly specialised rubber, cars with engines behind their drivers, cars that weigh a whole lot less than this. Indeed at times, on slippery road surfaces, the California can fail quite spectacularly to follow your intended path through a corner.

But where, in a mid-engined car, this might lead to one of those sudden-trip-to-the-dry-cleaners moments, in the California it’s just an excuse for it to show its natural balance and the progressive nature of its breakaway characteristics.

Whatever its other limitations may be - and if you believe only one thing from this review - believe that this is the most forgiving, best balanced car Ferrari makes.

And when you’re done reminding yourself of what it’s like to feel really alive, you can stamp on those carbon brakes, pull over to the side of the road (infuriatingly the California lid won’t work unless the car’s at a standstill), raise the roof and potter on your way in your instant GT car.

Problems? You can’t turn the electronic safety nets off without first turning on the sports suspension, the rear seats are a joke, the satnav is quite unforgivably bad for a car of this price and the A-pillars are too thick. Not a long list, you’ll agree.

Should I buy one?

If you are fortunate enough to have the means to do so, it should be right at the top of your list.

When I think of driving the California, and then of driving any of the cars that could possibly stand as a rival to it, I can conclude only that if anything is worth that level of outlay, this is.

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The fact I'd even have one over the undoubtedly quicker F430 Spider, because of its better balance and its superior usability, should tell you everything you need to know about whether this is a worthy bearer of Ferrari's prancing horse.

Indeed, it's a stretch to see how the qualities of a convertible, a GT and a sports car could be combined better than this.

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Add a comment…
tommallett 28 April 2009

Re: Ferrari California

Just had a drive of the California and thought it was very good. I thought the gearbox worked very well and felt smoother than DSG even. The steering, while light was communicative and the ride quality despite being shod with 20s was very good all things said and done. It also feels beautifully made, more so than any other modern ferrari i can think of.

However, it didn't tug at my heart strings, I wasn't smiling when i got out of it. In facty I was a bit bored. I actually quite like to have to think about my gear changes and it was so competent cross country and so refined that I did not hahave fun at normal speeds. Therefore, and despite its excellence, i'll leave it thanks. My mother on the other hand thought it was lovely - makes me think it probably caters for the 95th percentile, - and i'm just not in it.

JenkinsComp 23 October 2008

Re: Ferrari California

Frankel is a notorius Ferrari apologist, and probably why he was selected to write the review. Ferrari don't give out test cars to magazines unless they gets a glowing review and a cover shot, at least not more than once anyway! Autocar "knew what was expected of them", as Raikkonen would say!

The California turns out to be a massive 280kg heavier (1735kgs vs 1450kgs) than the Corvette C6 Convertible whose excellent drivetrain layout it copies (all aluminium engine mounted behind the front wheels, rear mounted transaxle for excellent weight distribution) so the heavy weight together with a smaller capacity engine and weak torque output will struggle in the real world to match the performance of the basic C6.

I guess that the extra £100,000 that the Ferrari will cost in comparison to the C6 pays for all those logos - there are 5 visible on the magazine cover shot; grille, bonnet, both front head rests and the moulding behind the miniature rear seats. The watch that goes with the car costs a further £8,000.

I suppose the kind of buyer that Ferrari are after will love it, those hoping for something half as beautiful as the original 250 California won't.

jl4069 17 October 2008

Re: Ferrari California

Why does Frankel write the way he does. Why did he write this article this way? Can someone please tell me?