Prancing Around Topless

A new twin-turbo V8 and a raft of upgrades means Ferrari’s California is finally a drop-top for more than just shirt-lifters.


Ferrari California T

$409,880 plus on-road costs
3.9-litre V8, 40v, twin turbo
412kW @ 7500rpm
755Nm @ 4750rpm (7th gear)
7-speed dual-clutch
3.6 seconds
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ET'S be clear – there is no such thing as a dud modern Ferrari. The fabled Italian car maker is on a product role like at no time ever in its 67-year history, and each model in its seven-car range is somewhere between exceptional and mind-bendingingly brilliant. That still leaves a pecking order, though, and leads us to the California. Launched in 2009, it’s gone on to be the company’s best-selling single model ever, shifting 10,000 units in five years. And yet to us, as proper petrol heads, it’s our least favorite modern Ferrari. So they turbocharged it, just to really test our patience.

Some of our very favourite cars are turbocharged, including Ferrari’s own seminal F40. But when you think of all the things that are great about modern Ferrari engines (laser-sharp throttle response, orgasmic soundtrack, soaring top-end power) and then all of the traditional turbo downsides (throttle response like a 1980s satellite linkup news broadcast, stifled soundtrack and the high-rev capability of a malaise-era V8), you can see why we’d be concerned. And if you’re thinking, “C’mon, who cares? This is only the California,” it’s worth remembering that the replacement for the sublime 458, which is due late next year, will get a version of this same engine.

The engine in question is still a V8 and still fitted with a flat-plane crankshaft that gives it the character of a pair of screaming fours. At 3.9 litres, it loses 400cc of capacity to last year’s model (handily slipping below China’s punitive 4.0-litre tax limit) but gains a pair of twin-scroll turbos. Seems like a fair trade, seeing as power leaps from 360kW to 412kW and torque by 250Nm to 755Nm.

Here’s where it gets interesting. You only get that 755Nm in the seventh ratio of the California’s mandatory seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. In third gear, for instance, the maximum is 600Nm and reached much further up the rev range. It’s a result of Ferrari tailoring the torque curves to give the best of both worlds: the rev-hungry feel of a naturally aspirated engine in the intermediate gears, and the torquey kick of a turbocharged engine in top gear for easy freeway performance.

Stab the throttle at 80km/h and there’s an unmistakable pause before the turbos start doing their thing, but it’s so brief that it’s soon forgotten. The 7500rpm redline is 500rpm lower than the last V8’s, but the way Ferrari shaped the power mountain makes a trip to the summit worth the effort. And it’s quick. The 0-100km/h time only falls a couple of tenths to 3.6 seconds, but it feels like more. And it probably will be more when the world’s chip-tuners inevitably undo all of Ferrari’s hard work to release the full 755Nm across the entire rev range. Consumption figures aren’t available yet, but Ferrari claims the T is 15 percent more frugal in real-world conditions.

And the noise? No point pretending it isn’t compromised by the presence of the turbochargers, because it is. There’s plenty of sound, but it’s a fatter, bassier sound than we’ve come to expect from a Ferrari eight, like a 458 sample fed through a low-pass filter. To be fair, the old California didn’t sound nearly as sonorous as its supercar cousin, either. But it will be fascinating to see how Ferrari changes the character of this engine to suit the 458 replacement, because while it works adequately as a GT engine where demands and expectations are slightly lower, it doesn’t sufficiently make the music or pull your neck hairs to attention to cut it in a car like the 458.

The engine is the big news here, but the rest of the driving experience is much improved. The most obvious changes are a quicker steering rack (though not quite as zippy as the 458’s), 12 percent stiffer springs and massively tighter control of body movements. Ferrari did offer a stiffer, quicker-steering Handling Speciale option on the old California, but it was an edgy thing, and ride comfort went out the window. The T is far better judged. Ride comfort is astonishingly good, yet this car really is fun to hustle. The secret is the 53 percent rear weight bias, achieved by tucking the engine tight up against the front firewall and ballasting out back with the gearbox and diff, merged into a single transaxle. So instead of plowing out of turns like some big-front-engined GTs do, this one neutral-steers like a 1950s racer.

It’s also a far more handsome machine this time. The overall dimensions are identical, but clever detailing, including swapping the stacked tailpipes for horizontal pairings, makes the matronly rear look much lighter. It also gets the maniacal grin of its sister cars thanks to tightly-swept back headlights and a more aggressive grille, plus a pair of bonnet vents for good measure. The folding hardtop mechanism is unchanged, disappearing under the rear deck in 14 seconds while still leaving room for a couple of big bags. And when you need more space, the minuscule rear seats double as a secondary spot to load your stuff. The cabin is only mildly tweaked, the main difference being a circular boost gauge located between the two central air vents.

The California T is better to both drive and look at than the old California, 70 percent of which went to first-time Ferrari buyers. Chances are it’s still your least favorite Ferrari, but this one deserves a shot. Would we rather have a 458 Spider? You bet. The real question is whether we’d rather have an AMG SL65 or Aston Martin DB9 Volante instead of the California T occupying that second spot in the garage alongside it. The California T — and in particular, its new turbo engine — isn’t perfect, but this time, I reckon we would.