From £152,116
Chassis and engine updates, and weight-saving redesign, put Ferrari’s entry-level model on a stronger dynamic footing

What is it?

The new and improved version of the Ferrari California – a car that divided opinion like few others from Maranello in recent years when it was launched in 2008. Some didn’t like the idea of it: thought that this grand touring coupe-convertible, like the 1980 Mondial, somehow cheapened Maranello’s world-famous brand.

Read our review of the 2016 Ferrari California T Handling Speciale here

Of those who could get past that philosophical misgiving, plenty weren’t particularly taken with the initial execution of the car – specifically in reference to its handling. And in the latter respect, we’ve been amongst the critics.

As have a decent proportion of California owners, it turns out. The V8 drop-top has sold strongly through a challenging time for Ferrari, hitting 8000 global units in four years. Seven out of ten California owners are new to the Ferrari brand. Most are won over by the idea of a car they can use everyday, for a wide variety of occasions, and need to make very few allowances for.

But feedback from many of those owners – those giving up AMG Mercs and Porsche 911 Turbos, for example - also suggested (perish the thought) that a little more outright speed and dynamic poise from this £150k supercar wouldn’t hurt.

What’s it like?

The mid-life revisions to the California run deep. The car gets a redesigned aluminium body-in-white now made of sixteen different alloys, which contributes to a 30kg overall weight saving for the car without compromising rigidity. The California’s suspension and power steering has been retuned, and its 4.3-litre atmospheric V8 updated to produce 30 additional horses, and 14 extra footpounds of torque. Ferrari’s 0-62mph claim drops by a tenth to 3.8sec, while the weight-saving and suspension update promise cleaner dynamic responses, improved body control and a slightly quieter, more comfortable ride.

Those who still find the California wanting can also now specify Ferrari’s ‘Handling Speciale’ pack, which brings with it stiffer suspension springs (15 per cent up front, 11 per cent at the rear), a more direct steering rack (2.3 turns lock-to-lock rather than 2.5) and a more aggressive setting for the car’s magnetorhelogical dampers. Costing less than £5000, it seems a well-priced option by Ferrari’s standards – and many will probably have it just because they can. But should they?

Ferrari had both standard and ‘HS’ specifications to try at the 2012 California’s launch, and while the latter certainly has greater lateral grip and agility, it’s not quite as sweet a drive as the new ‘basic’ model.

The ‘HS’ steering setup in particular is hard to take confidence from; it picks up speed off centre quite suddenly, but without any corresponding increase in steering weight. It’s the kind of rack that makes a smooth cornering line hard to follow; that encourages you to throw the California around energetically, but that also makes it all-too-easy to bring about unnecessary understeer. It doesn’t help that the ‘HS’ model’s body control is similarly non-linear: there’s a little body roll at first, but very little detectable build-up of cornering forces thereafter until the car starts to slide.

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The new regular California, by contrast, is an easy and enticing machine to drive, and a much more poised one for its chassis changes. Suffering with none of the nervous hyper-responsiveness of the ‘HS’, it also has much less of the 2008 car’s tendency to roll and dive under duress, and communicates its handling limits clearly.

Should I buy one?

It’s certainly a much simpler car to recommend than it used to be. With a little more fury from its already impressive and uproarious V8 engine and a fine twin-clutch gearbox, the California is now a car that few could argue is anything but a credit to its maker, and a strong and appealing alternative to any high-end open-top.

Our only serious caveat, now, would be to stop short of ticking every last box on the options list. The ‘HS’ pack should certainly be sampled before order; in this tester’s opinion, the additional grip and composure it brings isn’t worth corrupting the standard car’s pleasing new handling and ride compromise for.

And if you’d rather not take my word for it, look to Maranello’s chief test-driver Raffaele de Simone. Asked whether he’d have an ‘HS’ spec car or not, he says he prefers the standard car: that “it represents a bigger improvement over the 2008 car than the ‘HS’ does over it.”

Ferrari California

Price: £152,086; 0-62mph: 3.8sec; Top speed: 194mph; Economy: 24.6mpg*; Co2: 270g/km*; Kerbweight: 1735kg; Engine type, cc: V8, 4297cc, normally aspirated petrol; Installation: Front, longitudinal, rwd; Power: 483bhp at 7750rpm; Torque: 372lb ft at 5000rpm; Gearbox: 7spd twin clutch

* figures for car fitted with optional HELE start stop system

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Join the debate

Add a comment…
Leslie Brook 23 April 2012

Re: Ferrari California HS 4.2 V8

The Special One wrote:
It's a fantastic looking beast with searing performance. Bravo Ferrari!
You say that, but secretly you'd prefer a 911 wouldn't you?

TBC 20 April 2012

Re: Ferrari California HS 4.2 V8

Lesia44 wrote:
Average Ferrari milage is 2250 a year, so even if this is a DD it's not going to be too far north of that.

Not exactly 911 turbo territory then................

herbie911 19 April 2012

Re: Ferrari California HS 4.2 V8

I actually prefer the looks of this Ferrari than the 458---I hate those fairy lights. I just wonder which got more rear seat space--911 turbo vs California! Still a touch too heavy for my liking!