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A Ferrari For The Non-Racer


When I first learned about Ferrari’s new California model, I had a similar reaction to its specifications as many ardent Ferrari aficionados have expressed. Here was a Ferrari that could hold two occupants plus two rear seats, had a folding hardtop, and was not offered with a standard gearbox and a manly clutch pedal. Was this to be the car for those who cross shopped a Mercedes-Benz SL?

Driving the California is not at all like an SL, even the 6.3-liter AMG version. But the experience is also less sporty than a Ferrari F430 and not as Grand Touring as the automaker’s 612 Scaglietti, although the designers clearly had a big GT feeling in mind. On the other hand, this is a nicely balanced Ferrari that can do some track time without embarrassment or pack golf clubs to the club.

My greatest surprise was when I first started the lusty V8 and encountered an exhaust rap that seemed a few decibels louder than a 430 Scuderia. In fact, it appeared that Ferrari overreacted to the street chat that the California was too soft and decided to use Harley Davidson for sonic inspiration. I may have missed the mute button, but the same basic engine in the Maserati Gran Turismo convertible sounds much more sophisticated in both normal and sport settings. That exhaust note is hardly a deal breaker, but it bordered on annoying when the top was down.


Like all Ferrari models, the California is the kind of sports car that rewards enthusiastic driving. The engine sits up front, sending its prodigious power to a seven-speed, dual clutch transaxle at the rear of the car, providing a near perfect 47/53 front-to-rear weight distribution. And it’s all contained in an aluminum space frame with alloy panels and top to keep the weight in check.

While Ferrari has improved its automated manual gearshift scheme over the previous F1 system, it still is most rewarding when using the magnesium paddle shifters instead of the automatic selection. The latter shifts up too quickly for my taste and this is the kind of car I want control over. And unlike a fully automatic transmission, if you stop in traffic or at a light too long, the F1 gearbox may self-select neutral, causing a bit of embarrassment for the unwary.

Along with a host of performance components, from ceramic brakes to the sophisticated engine and chassis control system, the California has all the creature comforts inside for the busy executive. The navigation system, Bluetooth, and stereo are all contemporary and well integrated, but not necessarily easy to use. That seems to be a hallmark of every sports car in the upper price stratosphere, from Aston Martin to Porsche.

I haven’t yet located the $200,000 of disposable income to be able to hang on to this sexy red Ferrari for more than a long test drive, but there are other choices in the low $100,000 category. Maserati’s new Gran Turismo, Aston Martin’s Vantage, Mercedes-Benz’s SL63AMG, and Porsche’s Turbo Carrera are all convertibles that are quite competitive. But none have the fabled name or prancing horse on the flanks.   BRIAN DOUGLAS


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