A mid-life refresh brings a new name, looks, revised setup and a brand-new turbocharged engine. We see what it’s like
What do we have here?
Launched in 2008, the California has played the role of entry-level into the Ferrari stable. In 2014, it received a thorough refresh that including the move away from a naturally aspirated engine to a 3.9-litre turbocharged unit, a move so significant that a T (for turbo) was added to its name, making it the California T.
It retains the 2+ seating configuration and folding metal roof of the original while the facelift sees revisions to the looks, steering (10% quicker rack) and suspension. It gets 11% stiffer springs and revised dampers to improve handling while retaining a comfortable ride.
In 2016, for those after a fruitier driving experience, a California T Handling Speciale was launched. Aimed at those more interested in handling, performance and the driving emotion.
Its bodyshell and chassis are made entirely from aluminium and 47% to 53% front to rear weight distribution, the Handling Speciale gets 16% stiffer front and 19% stiffer rear springs, new gearbox programming, revised damping and a new exhaust arrangement. Gear changes are faster and more aggressive while the ride is firmer to improve body control.
Design features include black tailpipes, a front grille finished in Griogio Ferro matt and California T Handling Speciale badges. There are three standard colours to pick from; Rosso Corsa Met; Nero Daytona; Giallo Triplostrata; all of which get a Nero Matt Black contrasting roof.
Under the long sloping bonnet is a turbocharged 3.9-litre V8 with twin-scroll turbines developing 552bhp and 557lb ft of torque. The power unit is fitted with a variable boost management system that restricts full power until the car is in seventh gear.
The new engine is mounted 40mm lower than before to help lower the California T’s centre of gravity while its now 15% more fuel efficient with CO2 dropping to 250g/km.
There’s an upgraded ESP with Ferrari F1-Trac traction control which allows the Cali to accelerate 8.5% quicker out of corners while the seven-speed F1 dual-clutch gearbox improves acceleration by 4.3%.
Transforming the lines of the sleek coupe into a sexy convertible is an electrically operated metal folding hard top roof that collapses into the boot in just 14 seconds.
We’re testing the Handling Speciale edition which costs £155,244. However, our test car has come laden with extra kit, pushing the asking price to £215,011.
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How does it drive?
Driving a Ferrari gives most of us the impression that we are stepping into a road going version of what Sebastian Vettel chucks around a racing circuit every other weekend.
Well, that’s not quite the case with the California T. It’s a Grand Tourer rather than a thoroughbred sports car and this is quickly realised as you glide down the first few hundred meters of road.
It has a comfortable ride that cossets you from pretty much the worst of what UK roads have to offer. Even potholes and speed humps are neatly dispatched, although you’ll be consciously avoiding the first and taking the latter slowly as that humongous asking price ticks over in your head and the £5,800 worth of alloy wheel flirt perilous close to the razor sharp edged potholes.
On the steering wheel, there’s a red rotary switch called a manettino dial for your driving settings. Select between Comfort, Sport and ESC OFF. Sport firms up the ride and your view of life becomes a little blurrier than before.
However, push the damper button on the opposite side of the wheel and you’re notified by the instrument panel that you have activated the ‘Bumpy Road’ setting. This gives you a half-way house ride setting between Comfort and Sport and is judged excellently well for UK roads.
It means you still get the benefits of Sport mode, so more aggressive gear changes, louder exhaust note, reduced body roll but all without the overly harsh ride.
And it’s the Sport setting you’ll have activated if you want the Fezza to perform in accordance with your preconceived notion that you’ll be inheriting Kimi Raikkonen's driving prowess.
In Comfort mode, there’s enough lean and body movement as you enter a quick bend to cause your right foot to lift off the accelerator. It rarely entices you to drive like you’re in a go-cart. However, Sport mode successfully reduces the roll and allows you to commit to a series of sweeping bends with added gusto.
What does make you feel like you're strapped in waiting for the lights to go green on the start finish straight at Monza is the performance. It has biblical grunt the turbocharged 3.9-litre V8, sending its power rearwards.
Matching it’s GT character, in Comfort mode, the engine is quiet(ish), refined and well behaved. Turn the manettino dial to Sport and all hell is unleashed. It accelerates with ferocity, sending you and the Cali T towards the horizon at barely perceivable speeds.
The F1 seven-speed dual clutch gearbox offers the same trick, transforming from sedate cog shifter to a whiplash generating brut. Use the F1 paddles for instantaneous gear changes while the optional steering wheel complete with Formula 1 rev lights on the top, will let you know when to shift gears.
However, this is so powerful and fast that you’ll only get to light two or three before your in danger of setting a new land speed record through Dorking high street.
Stopping the California T is a set of Brembo carbon-ceramic brakes that perform with grace, avoiding snatching or grabbing. They offer strong and consistent braking that’s easily adjustable.
What's it like inside?
Inside is plush, sporty and elegant. There’s oodles of leather, Alcantara and carbon fibre trim (mostly optional) to make the experience truly magical.
Yet, everything works well, is suitably positioned and surprisingly practical.
Slip into the electrically operated seats which coddle you just right and use the plethora of buttons and switches to adjust your seat position, lumbar support while you can also adjust your seat bolsters to really pin you in place.
You sit in a legs out sports car position but the California doesn’t feel ridiculously low that you need to stretch the appropriate muscles before attempting entry. It feels little lower than a BMW 4-Series and as easy to climb in.
The dashboard is dominated by two central round air vents and the Turbo Performance Engineer as well as a 6.5in infotainment touchscreen. There are some delightful touches such as the Prancing Horse logo on the centre of the air vent controls.
Add to that the embossed Ferrari name on the dash, the California T inscription in front of the passenger and the drilled pedals and you’re left in a little doubt this is a premium machine.
The Signature F1 bridge that rises from between the seats to meet the dashboard is beautifully executed. Complete with storage tray underneath, it houses the main controls for the gearbox.
Wrap your hands around the steering wheel and then learn it. The wheel houses the controls for the indicators, headlights, flash, horn, wipers plus the manettino dial, damper setting and start button. It’s a lot to take in and even more troublesome when driving.
In a straight line, everything feels brilliantly positioned but try to indicate when circumnavigating a roundabout and you’ll be trying to figure out where the controls are as the wheel has turned or your arms have crossed. You’re left with a quandary whether to take your eyes off the road to find the indicator or to not indicate at all, neither of which is a good solution.
The rear seats are only suitable for small toddlers as knee and leg room is all but non-existent. However, the seats fold down meaning the boot capacity can be extended.
With the roof up, the boot offers 340-litres of storage. With it down this drops to 240-litres which is still enough to take a couple of carry-on suitcases.
It’s not going to save the planet but an official combined cycle figure of 26.9mpg is pretty impressive in such a powerful car.
Emissions have been improved to 250g/km of C02.
However, neither of these take away the fact that the California T is an expensive car to fuel and tax.
Where it really shines is the impressive warranty and servicing that Ferrari offers.
The California T comes with a four-year or 55,800 miles (90,000 km) manufacturer’s warranty, whichever comes first.
All servicing for the first seven years, yes seven, is covered free of charge by the Italian firm with no mileage restrictions, covering all standard maintenance items.
The California T is a terrific GT car with a supple ride, luxurious interior, coupled with blistering performance.
It’s not an out and out handling champion but it can hold its own and entertain.
What’s special about the Ferrari though, particularly in this colour combination is the attention it commands. All of which is genuine love, intrigue and admiration for the Prancing Horse. It’s a very special feeling.
Driver's Seat Rating:
8 out of 10
It's worth considering:
Bentley GT Convertible
Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet
2017 Ferrari California T Handling Speciale Stats: