Pragmatism gets a bad rap, seen as a cop-out in the face of adversity to one’s dogma, a submission. I tend to see it more as an acceptance of often uncomfortable facts and the willingness to make the best of things.
I appreciate the passion that drives dogma, but slavish adherence to corporate dogma isn’t necessarily a viable business plan — just ask Lotus.
Ferrari is faced with just such a dilemma. The largest luxury auto markets in the world all have emissions and fuel-efficiency regulations of varying degrees, and they’re only getting stricter. This is the world we live in and the world Ferrari must sell cars in to remain a going concern. Purists will bemoan pragmatic decisions as betrayals of heritage, but they rarely suggest a better alternative. This, then, is why the new 2015 Ferrari California T is turbocharged. Ferrari claims its new V-8, which has lost nearly half-a-liter of displacement and gained two turbochargers and their accoutrements, is both cleaner and more efficient while providing significantly more power. In fact, at 557 lb-ft, it’s the torquiest engine in Ferrari’s lineup (LaFerrari included). Not bad for the company’s least expensive car.
It’s better, but is it any good? This is really what you want to know. Have the turbos wrecked the Ferrari character? The short answer, for those who are more interested in numbers and pictures than anything else, is no. The turbos have not ruined the California, but they have changed it. The California has always been a pragmatic car. It’s a GT car from a company revered for its exotic sports cars. It’s the least hardcore, the least track-focused. It was, until now, the least powerful. More than 70 percent of its buyers are new to the brand, more than ever are women, and a great number of them drive the car daily. For this reason, the quite capable California has been looked down on by the brand purists as a poseur’s car, one for people who don’t really care about Ferrari but rather simply the horse on the hood. But as has happened in so many other brands, the model denigrated for straying from dogma has become the brand’s best-seller (of all time, in this case).
That kind of success begets more pragmatism, because no one wants to spoil a winning formula. As such, the 2015 California T is trying its absolute hardest to be as much like the old one as possible while still being new. The chassis is mostly unchanged from the California 30 special edition, modified to accept the new engine and tuned as needed. The dimensions inside and out are all about the same. The body is all-new (save the folding hardtop), but the shape and many individual elements are similar to the outgoing model. The interior also looks mostly the same. Despite all these similarities, though, it’s a better car in most ways.
Starting where it counts, the new twin-turbo V-8 is an impressive engine. Its 3.9 liters are augmented by two twin-scroll turbochargers that employ a Variable Boost Management system that artificially limits the maximum boost depending on the gear selected in the transmission. Ferrari says the point of this complicated system is to make the car accelerate with the same longitudinal g force in every gear when you drop the hammer, and it seems to do that, more or less. I think there’s more to it, though. Given Ferrari’s efforts to make this car look and feel like the old one, the real trick of this variable boost system is in making the engine’s powerband feel like that of a naturally aspirated car. Rather than feeling as though the engine has turbo lag, Ferrari has tuned it so that the boost comes on progressively, allowing the engine’s power to build linearly as revs rise rather than coming on all at once.
Effectively, the engine feels like any other high-rpm screamer. It doesn’t have a wall of torque down low that kicks you in the back, it builds up to incredible power at the top end, just the way the old California did. Despite the convincing effort made to not feel like a turbocharged car, there is one giveaway: it’s not a screamer. Sure, the rev limit has only been lowered by 500 rpm (to 7500 rpm), which is impressive for a turbocharged car, but there’s simply no getting around the fact that turbos change the exhaust sound. Ferrari’s done everything they can to make it sound as a Ferrari should, but expensive, three-piece, equal-length headers be damned, it doesn’t sound the same. Imagine listening to a recording of the 458’s exhaust, but someone’s gone into the equalizer and turned all the treble down. That’s what the California T sounds like. The wail or scream or whatever you want to call it is gone. This is not to say it sounds bad, though. In any other car, this would be a fantastic exhaust note, all grumbly and growling, popping on up- and downshifts. It’s just not what you expect from a Ferrari, even a California.
The good news: This is the only potential disappointment in the car. The transmission that engine is bolted to is better than ever, happy to loaf around town in automatic mode and still be instantaneously responsive to the paddles in manual. Driven easily, it’s smooth and unobtrusive. Driven hard, it never makes you wish for a clutch pedal for any practical reason, but you will make work of those paddles. Even in Sport, the transmission’s automatic mode isn’t extremely aggressive with its shifting, preferring to let the torque do the work in higher gears rather than downshifting and bringing the revs up high. Of course, the drive-mode-shifting manettino (the little red switch on the steering wheel) does more than just play with transmission responsiveness. As you’ve likely guessed, it alters throttle sensitivity, steering weight, and ride and handling as well. Unlike other Ferraris, the California’s manettino has only three settings: Comfort, Sport, and ESC Off. There is no track mode, and “Wet” has been rolled into comfort, as Ferrari expects this car to see far more wet weather than any other model.
The biggest difference you’ll likely notice when twisting the manettino is not the transmission or throttle, but the ride. Ferrari’s latest magnetorheological shock absorbers carry the technology farther than ever before with additional sensors and faster response. Unlike some adjustable shock systems, you’ll absolutely feel the difference here. In Comfort, the car rides very, very well while still handling incredibly well and controlling body motions like a proper sports car. Selecting sport noticeably firms the ride, but without making it brittle or choppy. Appreciating that many people prefer to combine the best ride with the sharpest throttle response, Ferrari has finally given the California a “Bumpy Road” mode, activated by a steering wheel button. It only works in Sport mode, dropping the shocks’ firmness to a mid-point between Comfort and Sport.
Regardless of selected suspension mode, this car handles. Where the old California tended to understeer a bit when pushed (or wildly oversteer if you could manage to coax the rear end out), the California T is impressively neutral. What’s more, it has a ton of mechanical grip. Sure, if you hammer it with the steering wheel cranked over, you’ll get a flash of the stability control system (which feels more like turbo lag than traditional stability intervention), but it’s almost unnecessary. Switch to ESC Off mode and you’ll find that all the stability control was doing was preventing a very minor side-step from the rear end. This car doesn’t need its computers to handle well (though I suspect the variable boost system is also acting as something of a de facto stability control system by metering the raw power sent to the tires).
t does need a patient driver, though. Driving fast requires careful and deliberate inputs rather than wild flailing at the wheel. All of the inputs on this car, from throttle to brakes to steering, are incredibly sharp for a GT car. The new, quicker steering alone will force you to slow your hands down, lest you be darting out of your lane at every curve. Trying to rush this car will only result in frustration, as it works best when you’re calm and focused. Plan your corner properly, brake smoothly and firmly, turn in smoothly, and roll into the throttle smoothly and you’ll be rewarded. Try to manhandle the car and you’re just going to mess it all up. All that said, the steering could use more road feel, as it’s surprisingly numb.
As we’ve discussed, though, assaulting canyon roads and racetracks isn’t this car’s primary function. It’s not a 458, and it isn’t trying to be. It’s a GT car that’s also incredibly competent when you want it to be. To that end, Ferrari has made an effort to make the car even more livable than before. The front seats are thinner to increase rear seat legroom, to the point that with the roof down, a full-grown adult can ride semi-comfortably in them on a short trip. The rear seats themselves have been better sculpted to be more comfortable, but with the roof up, it’s children only back there as there’s simply no headroom for anyone significantly over four feet tall.
Overall, the new California T is a highly capable GT car and improved in every measurable way from its predecessor. Even in non-tangible ways, it’s better as well. Though I’m one of the few who liked the looks of the old car, I agree this one looks better. It’s more comfortable and it’s even easier to drive. Almost too easy. In fact, my initial impression of the car was that some of the passion was missing. It reminded me of the McLaren 12C in that it was incredibly capable, but didn’t make me fall in love. It was clinical. Where the California T has triumphed in pragmatism, it’s failed somewhat in instrumentalism. It’s a better GT car. It’s a better California. But is it a better Ferrari? I’m not as convinced. The better question, though, is does it matter? The prejudices I carry with regard to what a Ferrari is or ought to be are not necessarily those of the typical California buyer. If you’re like me, you’d be buying a 458. Not because the California isn’t a great car, but because it’s not what I want from a Ferrari. But the California is a wonderful car for its intended customer, and no matter what we purists think, that’s what matters. This California will continue to be Ferrari’s best-seller and it has every reason to be.