The general consensus around the Ferrari California has long been that it's not the model you'd aspire to own. It is, by the Italian brand's own admission, the cheapest and, well, softest vehicle it offers. The four-seater is considered more of a grand tourer than a genuine supercar.
But with a new hard-edged Handling Speciale pack fitted to the California T we recently had at our disposal just outside the home of Ferrari, Maranello - in the beautiful Emilia-Romagna region of Italy - we wanted to find out if the most affordable model from the iconic Italian brand is actually any good.
The pre-facelift Ferrari California was a car that, for Ferrari, represented a bold move away from what buyers had known.
It was the first front-engined Ferrari with a V8, the first with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, and the first with a metal folding roof.
And when the Italian maker updated the car late in 2015, it became the California T, as it was now known, became the first car from the brand with a turbocharged engine since the F40 from the 1980s and ‘90s.
Under the bonnet – yes, remember this a front-engined Ferrari – lies a 3.9-litre bi-turbo V8 that produces 412kW of power and 755Nm of torque. As you’d expect by adding turbos, there’s more power in the new engine than there was in the previous non-turbo V8 model.
Because turbocharged vehicles – particularly V8 models – are somewhat robbed of exhaust noise, the tailpipe note alone could be enough to turn some buyers off the California T. But the California T Handling Speciale includes a revised exhaust that’s designed to make it sound better at higher revs – a bit more volume.
What better way to assess that claim than to lower the roof and give it a lash on some of the magnificent twisty roads around Compiano and Castelnovo ne' Monte to the west of the Reggio Emilia.
From the driver’s seat the exhaust note is alive and well, even with windows up when the lid is lowered. But it gets even better when you’re banging through the gears at close to the limit, because the seven-speed F1 (as Ferrari calls it) dual-clutch transmission is, without doubt, one of the fastest-shifting transmissions in the business, if not the fastest.
There’s nothing quite like it, up or down. As you pull the exquisite carbon-fibre paddles, you feel like a proper F1 pilot, and mostly it's down to the shift speed and perfectly synchronised throttle blips on the downshifts.
And if you come into a corner hot, pull the downshift paddle and hold it, it’ll drop three gears in the blink of an eye, and quicker than it’s ever done before. It's downright intoxicating. That’s because Ferrari has tweaked the gearbox software for even more involvement, but the power outputs of the engine go unchanged if you choose the $15,750 Handling Speciale option pack. Take it from me, the California T doesn't need any more power. It's got more than enough go to satisfy even the keenest enthusiast who wants to have a good crack.
But if you're not in Italy driving some of the best roads in the world, just leave it in auto and it will do it for you. And I reckon it’s one of the most intuitive transmissions too,despite the fact that in auto mode – and with 'Comfort' mode selected on the Mannetino dial - it's nowhere near as manic, and can have a tendency to aim for the highest gear to help save fuel.
We may have said this is more of a GT car, but let’s be honest, any hard-top convertible that can seat four people, yet still be capable of hitting 100km/h in 3.6 seconds, and that has a top speed of 316km/h, is well and truly pushing into supercar territory.
It’s deceptively quick off the mark, with no obvious lag, and it has massive mid-range punch. It is, after all, still a Ferrari. Which leads us to the next thing to talk about: the brakes. Because at 1730kg, as you’re hurtling towards the next bend, you’d better have some serious stoppers. And the California T certainly has that covered, with huge carbon-ceramic brakes as standard, as they need to be.
As you may have guessed from the name, the Handling Speciale pack is more about sharpening up the chassis than anything else. There are stiffer springs up front (16 per cent) and at the rear (19 per cent), and the adaptive dampers have been up-rated too.
The result is that – in 'Sport' mode – you can lean on it more in corners and it holds its line brilliantly and that gives you even more confidence to get on the power earlier on exit without too much nannying from the electronics. Several times we drove the same twisty stretch, and with each run we felt comfortable in upping the commitment and pace, such is the confidence this thing instills in a driver.
There’s no question that the Handling Speciale package trades some ride comfort for that enhanced cornering ability. But if you’re not going hammer and tong on roads like the ones we tested near Castello nei Monte in the hills to the west of Reggio Emilia, you’ll definitely want the Comfort setting, which is able to absorb bumps like a traditional GT.
But on the roads we drove it, comfort wasn't the goal, so Sport mode it was.
The steering is just so naturally quick, but it’s also quite light – you could almost use just your fingertips to drive this California T. And forget about arm-twirling, you won’t need to – it’s ultra direct in that go-fast mode.
And there’s an amazing amount of feedback through the immaculately designed steering wheel, to the point where you can feel those front tyres seeking out every available millimetre of contact. It allows for pin-point accuracy through the endless apexes these roads present. Combine that with the sticky Pirelli P Zero Corsa tyres, and you'll understand why the Ferrari California T Handling Speciale is, well, special.
Another thing worth mentioning is flex, or the complete lack of it. This thing generally feels like you’re driving a coupe, even with the roof down. Though, there is that trademark steering wheel quiver over sharper bumps.
Disappointingly, the California T requires you to be at a complete stop to open or close the roof, which proved a bit of a pain when we were caught in a sudden downpour in the mountains. You get quite wet sitting in a car in the rain, even if the operation is relatively speedy at 14 seconds.
The cabin of the California T should really be considered as a two seater, with a decent storage area behind, rather than a 2+2 seater, as the level of back-seat space is minimal, even for kids. Further, taller drivers may find themselves feeling a bit hemmed in when the roof is up.
The seats offer amazing support and good comfort though, and they even have ventilation for when the sun is out and the lid is down. And there are other conveniences such as satellite navigation, front-and rear-view cameras and front and rear parking sensors, surprisingly good storage, and a fast-acting touchscreen media system with Apple CarPlay.
It might be the least expensive Ferrari on offer, but the usual Ferrari level of craftsmanship is certainly evident. The metal and hand-stitched leather accents are perfectly matched, and the semi-cylindrical climate control vents are beautifully designed and integrated - particularly when fashioned in carbon-fibre as on our tester.
To answer the question we posed at the beginning of this review, whether the enhanced Ferrari California T Handling Speciale is any good, it doesn't even come down to the cost. The HS option box should be the first one you tick if you’re in the market for the Ferrari California T.
In fact, it would be hard to recommend shelling out $400k-plus and not adding it to the bill.
Click on the Photos tab for more 2016 Ferrari California T Handling Speciale images by Igor Solomon and Matt Campbell.