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Car reviews - Ferrari - California - T Handling Speciale

Our Opinion

We like
Superb engine, stunning steering, ride and handling, flawless body rigidity
Room for improvement
Price nears 488 GTB territory, exhaust dominates V8 decibels with roof down

Ferrari logo6 Jul 2016

By DANIEL DEGASPERI

THE word ‘squeezed’ certainly comes to mind when peering over Ferrari California T HS specifications. The name of this roadster has long conjured images of US west coast cruising, and the California was indeed designed to bring new, and especially female, buyers to the brand as its entry drop-top sportscar.

Suddenly the latest California T shifts from a standard $409,888 (plus on-road costs) proposition to one asking $425,638 after (an expected) 75 per cent of local buyers tick the $15,750-optional Handling Speciale package. With that comes the promise of a sportier drive, perhaps a change of character and plainly a narrower pricing gap to the company’s $469,888 488 GTB hardtop.

Whether the muscled-up California T HS also muscles in on 488 GTB territory to present itself as a more affordable alternative, or is simply left looking like the poorer sibling, remains to be seen.

The 3.9-litre twin-turbocharged V8 engine and seven-speed dual-clutch automatic are shared between them, positioned up front (rather than mid-ship) in the case of the California T that has unchanged outputs of 412kW at 7500rpm and 755Nm at 4750rpm.

Compared with a 488 GTB it is less powerful (by 80kW/5Nm), 309kg heavier (at 1729kg) and slower as a result, but that is all relative when a blinding 3.6-second 0-100km/h claim remains.

Outright acceleration is not the first startling realisation as we navigate the California T HS through sluggish Sydney traffic, onto the freeway and into the NSW Southern Highlands countryside, however.

With the roof up the California T HS is incredibly silken and rigid with the sort of low road and wind noise properties many hardtop coupes fail to achieve.

The dual-clutch auto slurs with impeccable smoothness on light throttle, while the seats are comfortable and the driving position and ergonomics are spot on, making this Ferrari no harder to drive than a Ford Fiesta.

Despite our test car wearing optional 20-inch forged alloy wheels with low-profile 35-aspect (and 245mm-wide front/285mm rear) tyres, the adaptive magnetic suspension in its Bumpy Road mode filters out small bumps, deftly absorbs larger ones and resolutely ignores freeway expansion joints.

Even the steering offers the same creaminess as every other Ferrari of the modern era, from the 488 GTB to the V12-engined F12 Berlinetta, except with a fraction extra vacancy just off the centre position.

Even when the Ferrari’s steering wheel-mounted ‘manettino’ dial is flicked from Comfort to Sport, extra drivetrain aggression is only on-demand when more immediate throttle and braking inputs are detected. Suddenly the gearbox primes itself for action and becomes immediate and snappy.

When urban crawl gives way to country sprawl the California T HS very quickly sheds its polite personality. Ferrari has developed a twin-turbo V8 with staggeringly crisp throttle response teamed with a pervading but intelligently staggered torque surge.

The engine specifications may read 755Nm, but this number is only achieved in seventh gear with each higher gear the car permits more and more twist.

While this sounds limiting, this Ferrari is astonishgly fast and responsive anywhere in the rev range, while ensuring that chest-beating numbers do not turn to wasteful wheelspin, that driver communication is maintained and the California T HS does not turn twitchy on light throttle.

The ethos gels flawlessly with handling that is, well, rather special.

The front in particular feels pinned to the surface to a greater degree than the regular California T, though it is actually the rear suspension that has copped extra stiffening in the HS (spring rates are up 16 per cent front/19 per cent rear).

Perhaps the front-engined, and heavier California T HS is not quite as malleable as a mid-engined Ferrari, in which the driver can smear its front tyres across an apex then add throttle to neutralise its attitude. Do that in the roadster and the transition from rear-end grip to slip can be more abrupt.

But the staggering response from this Ferrari’s front end – also thank the 53 per cent rear-biased weight distribution – means expecting that additional dynamic is just greedy. The California T HS threads through corners never feeling like it weighs more than 1400kg.

The only real issue is noise. With the roof down a single-pitch drone accompanies the winding out of the tachometer to 7500rpm, but raising it silences some exhaust noise and allows crisper V8 decibels to permeate through the firewall when the engine is extended.

That word ‘squeezed’ becomes silenced by now, too.

The California T HS is a proper driver’s car that happens to double as a smooth top-down cruiser and occasional four-seater (if your rear occupants are toddlers, that is). For many it could be the ultimate do-all Ferrari with a broad character and personality all its own. It is certainly among the most complete roadsters-cum-supercars around.

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