Not too many years ago, buying a Ferrari meant you would be open to certain trade-offs - it was a beast of a car with a heavy clutch, way too much power for most people to control, and comfort levels akin to a real Formula One car. It was for fun, not for practicality, and it was most certainly a second (or third, or fourth) car. Driving to the office was best left for the Mercedes; the Ferrari was good for a few hours on the weekends whipping around twisty roads, or simply cruising downtown for precious "look at me" time.
But things have changed. Nowadays, you might work out of your home, what with this new "internet" thing that seems to be catching on. But if you did have to go to the office, or even pop down to the shop for some milk, you wouldn't think twice about using the Ferrari California. What? A Ferrari to do daily chores in? It almost sounds like blasphemy, especially from such a storied, no-limits sports car company. But the California represents quite a few departures for Ferrari, not the least of which is the company's acceptance of making its cars more user-friendly.
Sitting inside, four passengers are ensconced in the usual leather opulence. Oh, yes, you read correctly - I said four. Because the California offers two tiny seats in the back for a true GT experience. Of course, for that experience, the rear passengers will have to be small children, because that's all that will fit there. Or, you can opt for the luggage rack instead; either way, it's best for two in the front.
Ferrari engineers developed a new, multi-link rear suspension designed to combine sporty handling with a comfortable ride; the secret is in the bushings, which are designed to be stiff laterally but allow the wheels to move back when hitting a bump, and it all works beautifully. The car is stiffer than your average road car, but bumps that would normally jar your backbone in another sports car are soaked up in the California. With big, bolstered seats that adjust just about every way imaginable, it's a car that would be comfortable enough for a ride to Oman or a drive downtown.
Oh, don't worry about your "look at me" time as you do glide downtown. It's still a Ferrari, so you'll have the badge envy. But it's also a good-looking car, better in person than in pictures even, with hard edges mixed in with the typical swoopy lines. The rear end is bulkier than you might expect, but that's to hide the folding metal roof, which will ultimately help you be seen. With the flick of a switch, it goes up or down in 14 seconds - with the top down, it makes for even more driving enjoyment, as you get a visceral sensation of the engine noise and the wind blowing.
Yes, I agree: this review sounds like those of any number of other, more normal cars so far; but this is a Ferrari, and it's really meant to do much more than put around town. And the company has taken care of that part, too. The California is Ferrari's first car with a front-mounted V8; with 460hp, it actually seems at the lower end of power compared with other high-end GTs, but it's hard to argue with a zero-to-100kph time of under four seconds. You'll not want for more. The roar coming from the four tail pipes is distinctively Ferrari, and it only helps goad on a driver to find an empty road and push the throttle. The power is routed through a seven-speed, dual-clutch gearbox - another first for Ferrari - and it's one of the best transmissions I've experienced in a car. Its automatic mode is silky smooth, but you'll hardly want to leave it there when you find how delightful it is to pop through lightning-quick gear changes with the paddle shifters, holding the engine in a lower gear to hear it scream.
The Manettino switch on the steering wheel doesn't just look cool, it controls the gearbox, stability and traction controls, with Comfort (maximum traction control, slower shifts), Sport (performance-oriented traction control) and CST-off (you'd better be a very good driver) settings. While most people would be happy to keep it in Comfort around town, the change in shift speeds and the lowered traction nannies makes the Sport mode my choice.
But the true soul and performance of a sports car can only be found on the track. At Yas Marina, Ferrari was kind enough to host a track event with the California and bring in some of its best driver trainers and test drivers. (By the way, driving a Ferrari around a track at speed with a driver trainer guiding you in that lovely Italian accent is akin to the feeling of finding true love.) And racing around the kerbs and apexes provided some eye-opening revelations about the California.
First of all, power is not a question, nor are the brakes, with carbon ceramic discs proving a match to the engine's horsepower. But what Ferrari engineers have done with the handling is superb. Racing around in Sport mode, the traction control was barely awoken. The car is so well balanced mechanically that it can dive into the tightest of corners on its own and come out of them screaming without electronic help, and all the while giving as much feedback through the steering wheel and the seat as to what the car is doing that the driver can decipher.
And when the driving does get far too hamfisted for the car's limits, the traction and stability controls blip on, then off, almost unnoticed. In fact, a further glimpse at the traction aids is found on a wet skid pad slalom course. The car retains much of its balance without the driver aids on, even in the tricky conditions. And with them activated, the traction controls are barely noticeable even when they're working overtime in those conditions. The system was derived from Ferrari's traction controls when they were in use in Formula One, and it's one of the best on any road car.
Here is a possible typical day in the life of a Ferrari California owner: drive to the office, drive to pick up the kids after school, drive to the track, smoke the tyres for a little while, then drive home to bed. The California might be as close to an all-around car as Ferrari will every make, but, thankfully, it's still a true Ferrari.
Base price Dh770,000
Engine 4.3L V8
Gearbox seven-speed, dual clutch sequential manual
Power 460hp @ 7,750rpm
Torque 785Nm @ 5,000 rpm
Fuel economy, combined 13.1L/100km