x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Ferrari California T. T for Turbo

Ferrari has added a turbo to its grand tourer, which is a taste of things to come for its Italian stallions.

Ferrari California T. Courtesy Ferrari
Ferrari California T. Courtesy Ferrari

This is a watershed moment for Ferrari. The company, which for so long has championed naturally aspirated power, has finally conceded that turbos have an important part to play in its future. This is the Ferrari California T, and yes, that “T” stands for turbo – and while Ferrari is playing its cards close to its chest, it’s likely to be the first of a wave of new turbo-powered cars to roll out of Maranello over the coming years. There are already rumours circulating that the next 458 Italia will be fitted with a version of the engine.

Right now, the prospect of an even more insane 458 Italia is the furthest thing from my mind. I’m behind the wheel of the new California T on a twisty stretch of Tuscan tarmac in Italy, with the throttle pinned to the carpet – and the combined noise of the engine’s induction roar up front and the unfiltered exhaust exploding from the twin tailpipes is simply glorious. There was only one thing that Ferrari really needed to get right on the California T, and it has nailed the soundtrack perfectly.

It shouldn’t come as any real surprise. Ferrari has always had a finger on the pulse of its customer base and, even when faced with uncertainty from others, has forged ahead. The launch of the California in 2008 was an enormous gamble, because the car wasn’t designed for the traditional Ferrari customer. It paid off, too: more than 70 per cent of the 10,000 cars sold during its six-year production run were to first-time Ferrari customers, drawn to its compact size, elegant lines and proper Ferrari DNA.

Ferrari learnt a thing or two from its new customers as well. It was clear, from reasonably early on, that the California owners love driving: 30 per cent of them clock up more miles than the average 458 Italia or Spider driver, and more than half of them drive their California daily. The California is the biggest-selling V8-powered car in Ferrari’s history. Combined, it has sold more 458 Italias and Spiders – but the California is the biggest-selling single model in the company’s history. Improving it wasn’t a job that was taken lightly.

That said, the decision to go turbo was a reasonably straightforward one. Ferrari has traditionally eschewed turbo power for highly strung, naturally aspirated engines, but the main goals for the new California included a boost in power and torque, and a cut in fuel consumption – two things that could reasonably easily be managed with a new turbo engine. Ferrari isn’t without form when it comes to turbo power. The twin-turbo, V8, 470hp F40 remains one of the most sought-after and revered supercars ever produced, and its predecessor, the 288 GTO, is an increasingly rare and expensive find for collectors. But they’ve been the exception rather than the rule – rare glimpses into the sort of extreme performance that Ferrari is capable of should it wander down the path of forced induction – and there’s a very good reason for that. Throttle response of early turbo engines wasn’t the most encouraging, and laggy turbos meant controlling the huge dollops of torque that arrived at the rear wheels in one enormous rush wasn’t for the faint-hearted or slow thinkers. Even experienced racers could be caught out by the F40, and, in the wet, the car was lethal. Turbo engines also lacked the emotion that the company felt was such an important part of the whole Ferrari experience.

To cut emissions and fuel consumption, Ferrari reduced the engine capacity from 4.3L to 3.9L by using a block based on the one fitted to the Maserati Quattroporte V8 and fitting it with dedicated heads. The engine internals were beefed up to cope with the increased loads of the twin scroll turbos (about 12 to 15 per cent higher than a non-turbo engine), and a special three-piece cast exhaust manifold was fabricated. It’s a complex piece of engineering that essentially makes all the exhaust headers even length, which means that exhaust gases arrive at the turbo in nice, even ­pulses.

Despite the drop in overall engine capacity, the California T makes a lot more power. At 560hp and 755Nm of torque, that’s about 70hp and a staggering 270Nm more than the larger, non-turbo engine.

The engine itself is shorter in both height and length than the previous mill, which has helped reduce the unit’s overall centre of gravity by 31 millimetres when bolted into the engine bay. It’s about 20mm ­wider, but that includes the new turbos and plumbing, making for a cleverly packaged power plant. Ferrari explored every part of the engine to reduce friction and improve power delivery, and even moved the timing chain from the front of the engine to the back to save a few grams of weight and marginal power losses through engine inertia. It also beefed up the oil pump, and fitted the head with cooling oil jets on the exhaust and inlet sides of the ­manifold.

Two turbos generate a lot of extra heat, so a larger air intake at the front was required to help cool a 20 per cent larger radiator. A new fan was installed to help draw air through it at low speeds, and two more air-to-air intercoolers mounted under the headlights to provide the turbos with cool air. Almost every exterior body panel has been changed – the overall effect is a sleeker and more nubile GT.

The California T is a lot more than a simple cosmetic blow-over and a nominal hike in power. Ferrari has taken great pains to eke out every little performance advantage that it could.

The really clever bits reveal themselves when you’re out on the road. Longer gears mean that you’re able to cruise at less than 2,000rpm for most of the time, and if you poke the A for Auto button, the car will quickly climb through all seven ratios and settle into a low murmur. Gear changes are 250 milliseconds faster than before, which not only means that you accelerate quicker, but they’re much smoother, too. Cog down to second or third, and you’ll get that flat-plane crank wail that we all love. If you’re going to do that, then spending 14 seconds to retract the hard top is well worth the effort to receive that sound ­unfiltered.

Variable boost management is designed to make twisty roads more fun and motorway driving more ecologically sound, but a heavy right foot in any gear will seriously compromise the car’s claimed 10.5L / 100km economy figures. By increasing boost and torque as you ratchet through the cogs, you’re able to exploit the car’s longer gears by running lower engine speeds. That means the car sips through its tank and the exhausts channel fewer emissions into the atmosphere.

It does mean that the shift from third to second can be a little jarring on low-speed bends, and it takes a mental adjustment to stop yourself from grabbing second and driving through the bend a gear higher than you may otherwise use. The engine is so torquey that you’ve always got plenty of power on hand – but it takes a bit to train your brain to do it.

If you want to dial in full hooligan mode, then the California will pin your head to the seat-back and kick you like a mule. Ferrari says that it’s a GT, so maintains a little more composure than an out-and-out sports car, but it certainly shifts when you want it to. Launch control is ridiculously easy to operate and should push the car to 100kph from standing in just 3.6 seconds and on to 200kph in 11.2 seconds. Top speed is 316kph, if you’ve got the space to do it legally.

The suspension layout is broadly similar to the outgoing California, but the entire system has been revised, with 11 per cent stiffer springs and the latest low-friction magna-ride dampers, which are controlled with faster software. It’s deeply impressive – at no point do you feel the car is out of its depth. The dampers are constantly being adjusted, and can run from fully soft to fully hard in half the time of the previous car. That, and the drop in the car’s centre of gravity, mean that handling is precise and agile. The steering rack is faster and requires less effort to turn, but it retains the feel and precision of the outgoing California.

Brakes are enormous carbon ceramic discs (390mm front, 360mm rear), and the callipers are stuffed with brake pads made from a new material. The revised ABS will haul the car to a stop from 100kph one metre sooner than the old California, and Ferrari says that if you never track the car, the brakes will never wear out. Certainly, I never felt the car struggle to shed speed, and the brake pedal feel is nowhere near as stiff or uncompromising as you may expect from a car that claims to have brakes that will last as long as the car itself.

The interior is a lavish place to spend a few hours. You can, at a squeeze, get four adults into it (we tried it with the roof down) for short trips, but it’s really designed as a 2+2, with back seats large enough for preschoolers or overnight bags. Ferrari makes a golf-club bag to fit the car, but you need to fold the rear seat-backs forward and post it through the slot and into the boot. If you’re taking a friend to golf, he’ll need his own California T.

Ferrari has eliminated all the steering-column stalks and moved every single function to the steering wheel. The horn buttons are still on the thumb grips, and the turn signals are still push-button ones on the arms of the steering wheel, but the biggest change to the interior is the Turbo Performance Engineer that sits on the dash between two air vents. It has a touch-sensitive surround that can be tapped to scroll through the kind of info that is relevant to people who want to know what turbo pressure the car is producing at any given point. It looks nice, but it’s not an essential piece of kit, and something that you’ll largely ignore.

That’s my only gripe in a Ferrari that again raises the performance benchmark for GT cars the world over. If you loved the California, then the California T is going to blow your socks off. It’s better in almost every measurable and conceivable way imaginable. And it sounds exactly as it should: ­intimidating.

• The Ferrari California T is available to order in the UAE now. Prices start from Dh810,000

weekend@thenational.ae