Ferrari’s electrified era starts with a 987bhp plug-in supercar of epic capabilities

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Viewed through the great prism of electrification by which the automobile is currently framed, the subject of this week’s road test, the SF90 Stradale, would seem to be most significant, because it’s the first plug-in hybrid model to be launched by the world’s defining purveyor of supercars of all shapes and sizes: Ferrari.

But while it is accurate to think of it like that, this car has much greater and wider-reaching ambitions than simply to make the modern mid-engined Ferrari concept more responsible, more sustainable and more socially conscious.

SF90 is the first mid-engined Ferrari since the 360 Modena to depart from that car’s proportions. It’s longer in the wheelbase and more cabin-forward, with a shorter nose and overhangs; less classic but not unappealing.

Make no mistake about it: the SF90 is out to totally reinvent the technical rulebook that has governed the way in which Maranello has designed and executed so many of its cars over the past 30 years. It uses electrification innovatively and with real commitment in an attempt to surpass any dynamic expectation you might have of it, and not just to ace a lab emissions test or to keep the combustion-engined Ferrari alive for another decade or so. And that commitment, as you’re about to find out, becomes manifest in some pretty spectacular ways when you seek to gauge it with satellite timing gear.

The SF90 is billed by its maker as a paradigm shift for the supercar; something extreme on every level. And rather than some super-rare collector’s item or a fleeting special-series halo model, it becomes a long-term addition to the firm’s showroom range. With this car, Ferrari has put a V8 engine in its top-dog series-production model for the first time in 72 years. This is also the first four-wheel-drive sports car in Maranello’s history (if we count the FF and GTC4 Lusso as grand tourers). It also comes at a time of wider renewal for the brand of the prancing horse, with the line of mid-engined V8 models that started with the 360 Modena of 1999 and culminated with the Ferrari F8 Tributo of 2019 about to bow out and the all-new 296 GTB V6 hybrid set to succeed them.

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We’re on the cusp of a new electrified era for one of the world’s most revered car makers, then. Time to find out how it begins.

The SF90 line-up at a glance

Ferrari offers the SF90 in closed-roof Stradale and convertible Spider bodystyles, the latter priced more expensively than the former and nudging through the £400k barrier.

The most significant optional feature is the Assetto Fiorano specification, which can be had on either body and adds uprated dampers, extra weight-saving body panels and suspension hardware, a larger rear wing and sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres. It will add just under £40k to your car’s price.

Other key options that might also be considered trim levels in their own right include carbonfibre wheels (£19,200), carbonfibre bucket seats (£5760) and two-tone striped paintwork (£20,160).

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2 Ferrari SF90 Stradale 2021 road test review tracking side

The SF90 – named in reference to its debut in the 90th anniversary year of the creation of Enzo Ferrari’s ‘ex-works’ Alfa Romeo racing team in 1929 – is based on a monocoque chassis tub built just over the road from Ferrari’s Maranello factory, by the company’s wholly owned Scaglietti coachworks subsidiary.

The chassis is of an entirely new design. It uses hollow aluminium castings and consists of new lightweight aluminium alloys and a carbonfibre rear bulkhead. It’s 20% stiffer in bending and 40% more torsionally rigid than any comparable tub that the company has used before, but it’s no heavier.

Active aero includes what Ferrari calls a ‘shut-off gurney’ flap under the rear wing. When extra downforce is needed during cornering or braking, this surface flips down, creating drag but boosting the effectiveness of the aerofoil above.

The car’s powertrain consists of a redesigned and enlarged F154-family, mid-mounted, twin-turbocharged 770bhp V8 engine, three AC synchronous electric drive motors and a 7.9kWh lithium ion drive battery, along with some very sophisticated power-control electronics.

The biggest and most powerful of those motors, the ‘motor-generator unit, kinetic’ in Ferrari-speak, is a three-phase axial flux motor sandwiched between the car’s V8 engine and its eight-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox. That it’s said to be derived from the matching component in Ferrari’s current Formula 1 car says all you need to know about the way in which technology can still transfer from race track to road, even from the very highest reaches of motorsport. It makes up to 201bhp all on its own, but there are two more drive motors (radial flux, rated for a combined 266bhp between them) mounted in the front of the car, which drive the front wheels through independent, per-motor transmissions and which form a fully asymmetrical torque-vectoring electric front axle.

The car’s drive battery actually marks the limit of its power generation capabilities: it can only supply enough energy to coax a combined 242bhp from those three electric motors at any one time. In general running, the hybrid system as a whole is limited to a peak power output of 217bhp. Between all four power sources, the SF90 makes a homologated 987bhp at 7500rpm and an undisclosed amount of torque. (That said, in its fiercest ‘Qualify’ driving mode, it can actually produce slightly more power than that, if only for a short period of time.)

The management of weight was always going to be key in making this car perform, handle and feel like a modern Ferrari. Considering all that has been added, Maranello has met that challenge very effectively. With every lightweight option fitted, the company says the SF90 has a dry weight of 1570kg, which is remarkably low, considering
the hybrid system adds 270kg all by itself. Fully fuelled and with plenty of options on board, our test car weighed 1698kg on the scales, making Maranello’s claim realistic enough. And it’s a claim that gives this car a power-to-weight ratio of 629bhp per tonne – right up in the territory of the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport and LaFerrari, if not quite on terms with the very latest all-electric hypercars from Lotus and Rimac.

The SF90’s 4.0-litre piston engine has been reconfigured to sit lower in the chassis than in Ferrari’s existing mid-engined models, getting a new cylinder-head design, completely rerouted induction and exhaust systems, bigger intake valves, bigger cylinder bores, more efficient turbos and a higher-pressure fuel injection system than that used by the 3.9-litre unit in the F8 Tributo. The eight-speed dual-clutch gearbox that it drives is new too, being 33% quicker-shifting than the seven-speeder in the F8 Tributo and 10kg lighter. (It needs no reverse gear because the SF90 simply reverses under power from its electric front axle.)

For suspension, the SF90 uses similar axles to the F8 Tributo, with double wishbones at the front and multiple links at the rear, as well as coil springs (rising-rate at the rear) and adaptive dampers as standard. Opt for Ferrari’s Assetto Fiorano specification and you get firmer titanium springs and uprated passive dampers (supplied by racing specialist Multimatic), as well as a higher-downforce rear wing and some extra weight-saving carbonfibre panels. Carbonfibre wheels are another option, carbon-ceramic brakes are standard, and while Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres are fitted as part of the Fiorano pack, grippier Cup 2 R tyres (which appeared on our test car) can be specified at extra cost.


13 Ferrari SF90 Stradale 2021 road test review front seats

The SF90’s cabin is slightly lower-slung and carried farther forward within the car’s wheelbase than in Ferrari’s more typical mid-engined models, but you’re unlikely to notice either difference. There isn’t a particularly tall or wide sill to vault on the way in, and space at the steering wheel is respectable. Only the very tallest might feel short- changed for outright leg room, and you’re likely to need a helmet on to find the limit of head room.

Ferrari’s latest-generation, 16in, multimode digital binnacle screen ahead of the driver serves as instrument panel, infotainment display and navigation system for the car all at once. There’s no secondary portrait display on the centre stack here as you would find in a Ferrari Roma, for example. To access the vast majority of the car’s trip computer information or to interact with its secondary control functions, you use touch-sensitive controls on its steering wheel spokes. (There are smaller consoles on either side of the column to adjust heating and ventilation and the door mirrors.)

Gear selector panel is supposed to reference a classic Ferrari gearshift gate, but it feels plasticky and flimsy, and it’s prone to fingerprint smudges.

The control logic becomes fairly intuitive without too much practice, but it makes for a very busy steering wheel layout – and one whose controls can be triggered accidentally when passing the rim through your hands. This is Ferrari’s new ‘eyes on the road, hands on the wheel’ ergonomic philosophy, though – like it or not, it’s likely to proliferate across its model ranges – and at least it makes the major controls (gearshift paddles, indicator toggles, wiper and headlight controls, drive mode manettino) easy to flick without fumbling for them.

Storage spaces are small in size and number but not entirely absent. There’s a cupholder ahead of the gear selector control on the transmission tunnel and a shallow lidded cubby behind it. (The optional lightweight carbonfibre door skins mean the removal of the regular car’s door pockets.) There’s also a narrow storage shelf at head height behind the seats, but it’s not wide enough for anything larger than a purse or maybe a lightweight jacket.

Of greater disappointment, though, is the lack of storage elsewhere. While most mid-engined Ferraris come with a usefully large front-mounted boot, the SF90’s is only shallow. It might take a small soft bag or rucksack, but it certainly wouldn’t accommodate any kind of suitcase, and what space it does offer is partially taken up by the car’s charging cable, which you would be unlikely to want to remove.

Even if you wanted to carry only a couple of racing helmets to a track day, then, you would struggle here, and managing luggage for two on a weekend away, the SF90’s practicality might well be stretched beyond tolerance. That’s a key shortcoming for a car that, as we will explain, at least aims for a greater breadth of usability than many supercars in other respects.

Infotainment and sat-nav

Ferrari says its 16in digital dashboard is the biggest curved digital screen anywhere in the car industry. It has several display modes: one relays a digital rev counter centrally and arranges trip computer and sat-nav screens around the periphery, one devotes most of the screen to a navigation map and one has a larger bar-style rev counter and electric boost/charge meter.

A head-up display shows other useful information close to your line of sight. There’s no secondary central display, so you will need to make headway with the steering wheel controls, which aren’t the most responsive or intuitive and are prone to being brushed by your wrists.

Expecting clients to pay £2400 for Apple CarPlay phone connectivity is a liberty. The software is usable, though. Swiping between menu screens quickly becomes familiar, information is relayed clearly and the navigation system, although a little tricky to program, can be followed without too much difficulty.


23 Ferrari SF90 Stradale 2021 road test review battery

Anyone familiar with modern Ferraris will recognise this car’s manettino drive mode selector, which is used to switch between the usual Wet, Sport, Race, CT off and ESC off settings. Opposite that on the SF90’s steering wheel is a touch-sensitive panel, where you select its powertrain operating modes. The car ‘starts’ in its default Hybrid mode (and so the V8 piston engine doesn’t typically fire when you hit the starter, which seems very odd at first). But it can then be switched to all-electric eDrive mode if you like, or into Performance or Qualify modes. 

Dial up Qualify mode and you tee up every shred of power the car can muster and its most aggressive traction and launch control regimes. Warm its tyres first and in that mode, if you find somewhere appropriate to sample it, the SF90 can accelerate phenomenally quickly.

I was sceptical of PHEV tech for supercars, but the SF90 is encouraging, and not just because the integration is so good. Its ability to do the first and last mile or two of every journey in silence and relative subtlety is brilliant.

Until this road test, the fastest car to feature in a full Autocar road test – the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport, in 2011 – hit 60mph from rest in 2.6sec, 100mph in 5.0sec and a standing quarter mile in 10.1sec. Those numbers have survived for a decade, unbothered by cars such as the Ariel Atom V8, McLaren P1 and the Porsche 918 Spyder. The SF90 managed 2.5sec, 4.8sec and 9.9sec respectively. The Veyron was quick, but it didn’t record a single 20mph in-gear acceleration increment, in any gear or from any speed, in less than a second; the SF90 did so twice.

This is a car of unprecedented performance, then, at least as far as our timing gear has ever verified it. It feels enormously potent from within, but smooth more than savage. Launching some turbocharged supercars might be compared to bumping down a steep rock face; this one feels more like freefall on a horizontal plain.

Traction is huge but immaculately managed; torque is instant and unrelenting until you’re well into three figures on the speedo. The gearchanges are much easier to hear than to feel, and once your body has got used to the longitudinal g-forces, you look down and you’re doing 120mph. And then, somewhere along the line, you remember to breathe.

On the road, that kind of outright pace and supreme, undiluted and responsive torque can feel borderline obscene – but it’s not all the SF90 can do. Drive the car in Hybrid mode and its character softens; you can use more of its accelerator travel without feeling so sociopathic.

The integration and blending of motors and engine and the way they combine under your right foot really is sophisticated. The by-wire braking system juggles friction braking and motor regen just as cleverly, even at low speeds, and so much better than many ‘performance hybrids’. The car feels natural and consistent whether its V8 engine is running or not.

And then, when it’s permanently shut down and the SF90 is running in eDrive electric mode, the SF90 will cover about 16 mixed-road miles before its battery is fully depleted and will hit about 85mph before the engine restarts. It’s not a fast or exciting car to drive thus, feeling somewhat estranged from its usual dramatic persona, but it has enough performance to deal with most everyday situations and negotiates the urban environment well.

You could, in short, use this car in any number of settings. Unlike some of the world’s fastest production cars, it needn’t feel brutish in, or ill-suited to, heavy traffic or city streets – the real world, as you might think of it. And yet it’s not the versatility of the SF90’s character that really strikes you; it’s the way in which it wields its electrified mechanicals to create truly incredible outright speed, all the while imbuing that with the usual V8 drama and soul.


27 Ferrari SF90 Stradale 2021 road test review on road front

Ferrari’s press material for the SF90 makes a promise that stands out somewhat among all the technical description around it: that the car’s hybrid system “does not make for a more complicated driving experience” than a conventional supercar might offer. The driver simply selects whichever power unit mode he or she likes and then concentrates on driving while the electronics take care of the rest. 

It’s a fine theory, and it holds water up to a point. There are, however, some compromises to acknowledge here with regards to the handling purity and agility of the SF90 compared with Maranello’s modern mid-engined dynamic template, and the car’s associated drivability and capacity to entertain on a track.

SF90 is composed and stable on fast A-roads, but inconsistent responses from its chassis systems can mar its capacity to engage when it’s pushed hard on a circuit.

This is certainly a fast and effective supercar when it comes to generating a lap time, and its handling balance, outright grip, body control and all-round precision aren’t remotely open to question at road speeds. If you like getting from A to B quickly, picking off slower-moving traffic with a torque-rich ease and ready composure that even a Nissan GT-R or Porsche 911 Turbo S driver would struggle to fathom, this supercar is quite emphatically for you. There is welcome extra weight about its characteristically fast power steering beyond what most modern Ferraris offer, and there’s a slightly dampened but still keen sense of accuracy and composure about this car that makes it feel unexpectedly intuitive and reassuringly stable on a fast, weaving A-road.

Approach the car’s adhesive limits on a track, though, and the uncanny equilibrium of power, traction, agility, poise and handling adjustability that you expect of a mid-engined Ferrari has been driven out. Instead, in its place lies an occasionally brutish and often slightly unpredictable, one-dimensional mutant compromise. Keep the car neat and tidy, drive within its limits and leave its electronics active and it works strikingly well and carries plenty of speed. It’s agile and balanced, stable and true to a fast cornering line, and there’s huge traction to match the equally huge power.

When you investigate its potential to entertain, however, and attempt to indulge with a sliver of power oversteer, or by swivelling its hips on turn-in, you find muddled dynamic characteristics. The V8 engine and electronic rear differential are clearly still capable of flicking the chassis into a positive, playful cornering attitude. The torque-vectoring front axle’s response to that, though, is sometimes to counter it aggressively and quickly before you can really settle into a controlled drift, while at other times it lets you tidy up more of the angle on your own. Either way, the satisfaction of knowing what’s coming, and knowing that you’re in a car that makes dealing with it so easy, isn’t comparable with the mid-engined Ferrari norm.

That only goes with the electronics deactivated, of course. Leave them on and the SF90’s handling is more predictable, albeit perhaps less complex and interesting than you might ultimately like.

SF90 Stradale track performance

Having deposed the mighty Bugatti Veyron on straight-line acceleration, the SF90 Stradale took no prisoners on MIRA’s Dunlop circuit. It lapped 0.2sec quicker than the incumbent lap record holder, the McLaren Senna, smashing a benchmark that had stood for more than two years.

Getting top performance out of the Cup 2 Rs is key to its pace. As with all super-soft road-legal tyres, there’s only a limited number of laps possible before the grip starts to drop away. On a fresh set of rubber running at optimum temperature, Ferrari claims peak grip lasts only up to lap four or five on a typical circuit. After that, grip level will be at least comparable for 10-15 laps, and then it gradually drops away. (Less soft Cup 2s have better longevity.) On regular Cup 2s instead of Cup 2 Rs, it’s unlikely the Senna’s lap record (set on Pirelli Trofeo Rs) would have been beaten.

The SF90 feels heavier on track than the F8 Tributo or 488. It rolls more in fast corners, isn’t quite so agile on turn-in and works its brakes harder.

Comfort and isolation

Even on Ferrari’s Fiorano-pack Multimatic uprated dampers and lightweight springs, the SF90 is a pretty civilised and comfortable supercar. It rides complex country-road surfaces with just enough compliance, and although it feels firmer and fussier when hitting bigger inputs at lower speeds around town, it never jostles you around in truly hardcore fashion. Considering that this is a car capable of lapping a circuit faster than a McLaren Senna, its on-road ride is praiseworthy indeed.

Anyone looking to use this car as the future-proofed, electrified, town-and-country Ferrari of their dreams might still be well advised to avoid that Fiorano pack, though, if only because its high-performance tyres don’t make for a quiet cabin. On the stickiest Cup 2 R rubber, we measured 50mph cruising refinement at some 73dbA, which
is as much noise as most of today’s passenger cars make at maximum engine speed in third gear.

Configured for the track, then, and set with its engine running, this would be yet another modern exotic for earplugs and not for easy conversations. But those concessions apart, it’s a car in which you could tackle long distances very easily. The seats have base height adjustment as an option and decent padding to match their strong lateral support, while visibility out is reasonable, except to the rear. The four-point harnesses of our test car, although fiddly, aren’t fitted as standard.


1 Ferrari SF90 Stradale 2021 road test review hero

This car’s mid-engined mechanical configuration may make it seem like a natural successor to the 488 and F8 Tributo, but that isn’t how it’s intended – and thinking about it in those terms certainly won’t make the SF90’s near-£400k starting price easier to stomach.

When the V6-engined 296 GTB comes along to dovetail with this car next year, the positioning of the SF90 should make more sense. For now, though, since it’s the kind of supercar whose competitor set simply doesn’t yet exist, the SF90 is probably doomed to seem expensive even to the lucky few, and also way out of reach of the vast majority.

If in doubt when specifying your SF90, get the Fiorano pack (£39,360), because it will probably pay you back eventually.

Owners can be reasonably confident of strong residual values, but only the car’s frankly monumental performance is likely to justify its price positioning, and its limited cargo practicality certainly won’t help. For what it’s worth, Ferrari continues to offer a four-year warranty, which can be extended at extra cost, along with seven years of
complimentary scheduled servicing and maintenance.

As far as fuel economy and emissions are concerned, this clearly isn’t your average plug-in hybrid. Expect just under 25mpg at a typical 70mph motorway cruise after the battery is fully depleted. 

With CO2 emissions from 154g/km, the SF90 clearly won’t qualify for every ULEV scheme or incentive in the same way a sub-50g/km operator might. But this is a supercar, so don’t expect that fact to put many owners off – especially when reasonable electric-only running in urban environments is indeed possible.

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30 Ferrari SF90 Stradale 2021 road test review static

The Ferrari SF90 Stradale has just catapulted its way into a special place in the Autocar road test archives. No other car has ever accelerated harder with our timing gear attached to it and not one has ever lapped our benchmark handling circuit as quickly as this.

Those facts are monuments to the way Maranello has set out to tackle the challenge of electrification. The company could have entered the market with a mid-engined hybrid sooner than it has, but it chose instead to bide its time as others made the leap. On the basis of how fast it is, the slickness with which it operates, how robustly it can keep on lapping and more, the SF90 vindicates that decision in so many ways.

There’s room for the dynamic improvement of this new electrified breed of Ferrari, but now there may also be time. The SF90 is only a first step, but it’s a really positive one in a vital direction for the company

Many ways, but not quite every way. While it handles as a Ferrari should on the road, the SF90 isn’t better than a conventional mid-engined F8 Tributo on track. Relying heavily on the electric motors that give it such phenomenal pace, the handling feels electronically manipulated and managed on the limit of grip. This isn’t the flattering, free-flowing delight we hoped it might be and, although fast, it could be more fun.

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Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017, arriving from Evo magazine, and is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests, performance benchmarking and supercar lap-times, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found on Autocar's YouTube channel

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year, and focuses mainly on the more driver-orientated products, as is tradition at Autocar. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Away from work, but remaining on the subject of cars, Richard owns an eight-valve Integrale, loves watching sportscar racing, and holds a post-grad in transport engineering. 

Ferrari SF90 Stradale First drives