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Faster, more agile and perhaps more authentically ‘Ferrari’, but the Portofino lacks the dynamic sophistication of a great GT car, just like its predecessor

What is it?

When you’ve been making sports cars for as long as Ferrari has – and it was seven decades last year – you’re bound to have become quite good at it. Maranello’s 488 GTB is outrageously ballistic and joyously exciting proof of that.

The company’s pedigree in modern drop-top grand tourers like the new Ferrari Portofino is, shall we say, somewhat less convincing. It introduced the Portofino's predecessor, the original folding hard-top California – its answer to the Mercedes-AMG SL63 and Porsche 911 Turbo cabriolet – ten years ago. But straight away it became clear that The Prancing Horse was dipping an elegant equine ankle into waters that couldn’t even be thought vaguely familiar, even with the existence of likes of the 575M Superamerica and Daytona Spyder nestled deep in its back catalogue.

The task was to reconcile opposing requirements by creating a car with the dynamism and excitement of an authentic Ferrari but also the versatility, refinement and convenience necessary of a car you’d use every day. To do it, also, in something burdened with the added mass and structural compromises of a folding tin-top convertible. Not easy. The company’s main reason for taking on the challenge, meanwhile, was that a really successful effort could probably double the breadth of the base of Ferrari’s sales volume pyramid.

But the California’s story didn’t pan out like that. Although the car was revised, lightened, tweaked and turbocharged through the course of its life, it never quite delivered success on that scale. While it’s very rare indeed for Ferrari’s V8 mid-engined cars not to hit 1000 sales in a calendar year in Europe, the California only cleared that threshold once. Time to take a fresh swing at it, then.

What's it like?

The Portofino, like its more export-market-savvy model name, is all-new. The car’s styling may be characteristically dressy, but it undoubtedly makes for a much better proportioned and visually appealing car than the California was. With the roof up, there are even shades of the Daytona about the Portofino’s recumbent silhouette.

Underneath the attentively creased body panels, meanwhile, there’s a body-in-white that’s at once lighter and 35% more rigid than the California’s. The car’s suspension has been stiffened, its magnetorheological adaptive dampers retuned and its steering system both quickened and switched over from hydraulic power assistance to electromechanical.

Under the bonnet, a reappraisal of induction and exhaust design of the car’s 3.9-litre, 90-degree, flat-plane-crank, twin-turbo V8, together with the adoption of some new internals, conjures an additional 38bhp of peak power. The Portofino’s V8 is unusual among the latest force-fed equivalents because the exhaust sides of its cylinder heads are the outer ones, and so its turbos are mounted low and wide rather than in the configuration that Audi and Mercedes-AMG call a ‘hot V’.

Ferrari says it experimented with both layouts but this one packages best in both the Portofino and 488, and delivers less exhaust back pressure and a lower centre of gravity than the alternative would. And while Ferrari may only have liberated 4lb ft of additional torque here, given that it has also saved 80kg in the car’s kerbweight, this car trumps Aston Martin’s equally new DB11 Volante on power to weight ratio by more than 75bhp-per-tonne.

Remember when Maranello’s idea of an infotainment system came with a two-inch-wide monochrome display strip and navigation instructions harder to follow than the thinking behind Donald Trump’s international trade policy? How things change. The Portofino’s driver gets the familiar duo of 5in colour instrument displays flanking the central analogue rev-counter (which remain a bit busy and unintuitive), and the passenger gets their own widescreen touch-sensitive display too (though only as a £3300 option).

But the whole collection is dominated by a 10.3in central display that carries navigation mapping you can easily browse; that displays routes that you can easily follow; and that generally collects digital consoles for the car’s variously configurable systems that make mastering them uncharacteristically straightforward. For a convenience-minded GT car, that’s not a bad start.

Here’s another surprise: comfy leather seats with extendable cushions which, fair’s fair, are certainly less of a steep drop to get into than a 488’s. The Portofino’s cabin remains a way off the level of Mercedes-AMG or Audi for perceived quality, but it gives little up to either McLaren or Aston Martin.

The Portofino’s exhaust, meanwhile, has an electronically controlled bypass valve, making it louder or quieter depending on the drive mode you’ve selected on the familiar ‘manettino’ switch. It remains quietish in ‘comfort’ mode, until you use more than about 50% throttle – but makes a lovely, brash, brassy racket if you engage ‘sport’. The engine revs to a tremulous 7500rpm; it has a huge swell of mid-range torque; and it responds crisply at all times and feels unusually progressive in its power delivery for a highly stressed turbo. It’s always a cut well above an AMG or Audi V8 for dramatic character, in other words. Very Ferrari. But is it very grand tourer? Perhaps not.

The gearbox, too, gives further impetus to the slowly coagulating sense that the car’s identity is slightly muddled, and permanently at odds with itself. The twin-clutch unit is at its best when you’re shifting gears manually using the column-mounted paddles, when it thunks each up- and down-shift through with real speed and vigour. But it’s unconvincing when you just leave it in ‘auto’ mode, often timing its shifts with frustrating hesitancy, feeling a touch clumsy on step-off and when manoeuvring, and refusing to creep as you lift off the brake pedal. In a mid-engined supercar, all of those quirks are easy to overlook. But in a grand tourer, effortless ease-of-use matters much more.

In typical Ferrari convention, the Portofino has three driving modes which variously configure its powertrain, dampers, steering and stability control – but it also has a separate ‘bumpy road’ suspension override button so that you can have most of the systems set for optimum driver engagement but the dampers set to soft. Suffice it to say, the car has obvious, regular need of that ‘bumpy road’ button. 

The Portofino’s ride too easily becomes jittery and restless on a vaguely undulating surface in ‘sport’ mode. It calms down a bit when you dial down the suspension, but never quite avoids a clunk or fidget for long enough, whatever sort of road you’re on, to successfully create the easy long-striding aura of a proper GT car. There’s a touch of body shudder, too, over the worst, sharpest lumps and bumps.

The car’s handling also helps to rob it of the breadth of ability needed to make it seem suited to any journey; relaxing, at times, as well as exciting. The new electric steering’s very direct – hardly less so than is a 488’s – and while it has weight, doesn’t manage that weight cleverly enough to give you something to push against as the front wheels bite. There’s almost no stability-minded ‘dead zone’ to the Portofino’s rack around the straight-ahead, and so it demands as much of your concentration on the motorway as a 488 would.

Away from there there’s better news. Ferrari’s habitually effective lateral body control and incredible handling response is absolutely in evidence in the way you can so readily flick the Portofino into fast corners. The car’s on-throttle handling balance has plainly been taken to new heights by that active diff – to the point, however, that the whole dynamic mix now seems a touch over-seasoned. There’s no need for owners to worry: the stability controls work well to make the car feel incisive but obedient when they’re active, and there’s plenty of fun to be had with them on. But Ferrari’s remarkable side slip control oversteer-tamer isn’t fitted here – and without it, you just never feel sufficiently at ease with the car’s steering pace, or have the confidence you’d need in the predictability of the rear axle, to be inclined to get stuck into that final layer of the driving experience.

Should I buy one?

There is certainly quite a lot of added alertness and attitude about this car’s dynamic character, and for a great many owners it may very well feel like the authentic Ferrari roller-coaster-ride that the California perhaps failed to serve up. In some ways this is a more versatile, better luxury sports car than a California, too.

But be it by design or accident, this is a car that seems to me little easier-to-drive, easier-going or broader-of-bat, if at all, than several mid-engined supercars I could mention – and one of them built by Ferrari itself. If someone asked me to drive 300 miles on ordinary roads and in uninterested fashion in one or the others right now, I don’t think I’d pick the new boy.

Ferrari Portofino

Engine V8, 3855cc, twin-turbocharged, petrol; Power 591bhp at 7500rpm; Torque 561lb ft at 3000-5250rpm; Gearbox 7-spd twin-clutch automatic; Kerb weight 1664kg; 0-62mph 3.5sec; Top speed 199mph; Economy 26.4mpg; CO2/tax band 245g/km; Rivals Aston Martin DB11 Volante, Mercedes-AMG SL63 

Join the debate

Comments
17

14 February 2018

Gone are the days when Autocar had, shall we say 'sphericals'. The article ends by suggesting the author knows of numerous better alternatives to the Portofino but kindly (to Ferrari) refrains from mentioning them. The 'star' rating suggests, as does the headliner, that this is in the reviewers mind a good car, but not a great car. Why, because it's not as sharp as a 488? This car was created specifically to be less 'Ferrari' than a 488. The 488 is already available in hard top and soft top, this was intended to be a more useable, less focused version of the 488, and with a price advantage. We, the consumers can see this as an 'entry level' Ferrari - why can't Autocar's journalists? There are many potential buyers of this car who cross shop Merc SL's and Porsche 911's. They are not AMG Black Series buyers, or 911 Tiurbo S or GT3RS buyers, they are just wealthy individuals wanting the brand and the less 'focused' option. Why do motoring jounalists think the average buyer of these cars want's to drive the nuts of it?

14 February 2018
Well said, spot-on!

14 February 2018

I don’t think the writer says that the average buyer wants to "drive the nuts off it".  On the contrary, he’s saying that this car is pitched at the more relaxed, golf club and back, grand tourer type, but it’s still got all that nervousness in the steering that doesn’t let you relax and a ride that never settles down into comfortable, continent crossing mode.  He’s complaining not that it is “not as sharp as a 488”, he is saying that it retains too much of that sharpness.

14 February 2018
The new GTC4 Lusso shows that Ferrari can build a car that delivers both the engaging driver's car experience and the relaxing GT cruiser. I'm left wondering if this car is deliberately engineered to be less sophisticated than its pricier stablemates (after all, for a Ferrari, this car is cheap). Or maybe Ferrari got caught in two minds having been stung by criticism that the California was too soft?

14 February 2018

It might just be me but I can't see a price for this anywhere. It looks good, not quite as good as the Aston but much better than the car it's replacing. The roof treatment is lovely. The interior though, like every other Ferrari is an overstyled mess. Why can't they ever get this right? They all look like they've been designed by a 1980's cheap midi hi-fi obsessive. 

I also struggle to see how this can be over 200kg lighter than the very similar and modern Aston. Ferrari always seems to use the most flattering scales and mags like Autocar rarely pull them up for it. It's so easy to prove as well. Just weigh the thing and have the gonads to publish the results. I might be wrong of course but are they really that strict?

14 February 2018
jmd67 wrote:

... The interior though, like every other Ferrari is an overstyled mess ...

Quite so. Wonder why Ferrari decided on the 'amusement arcade' approach to its interior design.

The exterior looks fine, a rare achievement for a contemporary Ferrari, but oddly unmemorable. For a truly memorable shape there is the gorgeous Alfa 8C where confident simplicity of design wins decidedly.

19 February 2018
jmd67 wrote:

It might just be me but I can't see a price for this anywhere. It looks good, not quite as good as the Aston but much better than the car it's replacing. The roof treatment is lovely. The interior though, like every other Ferrari is an overstyled mess. Why can't they ever get this right? They all look like they've been designed by a 1980's cheap midi hi-fi obsessive. 

I also struggle to see how this can be over 200kg lighter than the very similar and modern Aston. Ferrari always seems to use the most flattering scales and mags like Autocar rarely pull them up for it. It's so easy to prove as well. Just weigh the thing and have the gonads to publish the results. I might be wrong of course but are they really that strict?

The Portofino is objectively a better looking car than the DB11 Volante.

14 February 2018

Well, at least they ditched one of the greatest car nomenclatures in history, casting the ghastly over-designed TVR lookalike into the dustbin of 'Occasional crappy Ferraris'....along with the 348....and we can now breathe again that 'California' is associated (mosly)t with the 250 spyder of yore.  I think they've got the new name spot-on. Portofino: the place where ol' Sir Phil Green and chums hang out - ie. glossy, shallow, ostentatious and lacking thoroughbred class..... 

BertoniBertone

14 February 2018

There is a problem. Where is the NA V8 ?

 

14 February 2018

But it remains a bit more dynamic than the next SUV.

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