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First drive: California is just a dream for most

California dreaming: Newest Ferrari has already attracted 200 takers - despite its circa-$450,000 price tag.

We drive Ferrari's first front-engined model, the folding hardtop California

3 Nov 2008

FERRARI has officially launched its California convertible, but don't expect to see it in action any time soon.

The 200 local orders so far - around 170 from Australia, the rest from New Zealand - will take two years to satisfy, with customers paying according to the exchange rate at delivery time.

They're taking a gamble, for this is not an entry-level Ferrari. It'll cost around $A450,000 - or just under $NZ450,000 given no luxury tax there - at least in theory. Order now, and who knows what your car will cost.

But Ferrari's not worried world economic upheavals will dent its sales, and the California's longer-than-average waiting list proves its strategy is spot on.

The plan is to beat Aston Martin at the GT game, pitching California as a mature option to the 430 - as the 612 is to the 599 - while Aston buyers wanting hard-core cars remain unsatisfied.

Still, Ferrari's marketing men seem unconvinced by their pitch that this is a practical Ferrari for family outings - and no wonder.

Those vestigial rear 'seats' were not designed with humans in mind, so perhaps it's fortunate Australian ADR child seat regulations mean we'll get the arguably more useful rear bench instead.

But forget the practicalities. This is Ferrari's first mid/front-engined V8 road car first direct fuel-injected road car and the first with a double-clutch transmission and with seven gears.

34 center imageThe 4.3-litre engine is an evolution of the family V8 in the 430, its fuel-injection co-developed with Bosch. Powertrain V8 engineer Vittorio Dini says the direct-injection set-up is similar to that used for the A1GP cars, with the injectors - one per cylinder - installed between the two inlet valves.

Two pumps, one per bank, are mounted in the cylinder-heads and driven by the inlet camshaft with pressure topping out at 200 bar. That's high, but the engine spins to 8000rpm, and such pressure is vital to maintain efficiency at those speeds.

Otherwise this is a typical Ferrari flat-crank set-up, but the fuel-injection and high 12.2:1 compression ratio has increased performance efficiency - and thus reduced both thirst and CO2 output.

The 305g/km CO2 emissions figure is 15 per cent lower than the 430's, Dini says, and the first step in Ferrari's road map to reduce emissions by 40 per cent over the next few years.

Meanwhile the car's 338kW at 7750rpm and 485Nm of torque from 5000rpm - or 112Nm per litre, which Ferrari says is a world record - is controlled by that new transmission. Supplied by Getrag to a Ferrari design, and fitted to the rear axle to better distribute weight, it's a dual-clutch set-up with seven gears on three shafts not two, to help keep size down.

There's a manual on offer of course, but not at the launch, because the vast majority of buyers are expected to prefer autos.

The automated manual offers lightning-quick changes and holds gears for longer when 'sport' is selected via the California’s lovely red steering wheel-mounted thumb-lever. The most serious mode switches stability control off - aimed at track play rather than real-world conditions.

As for aerodynamics, at 0.32Cd this car's drag coefficient is the lowest for a production Ferrari and downforce is 70kg at 200km/h. Chassis and platform engineer Andrea Binotti says his team concentrated on the front bumper to feed air flow beneath the car, while the rear diffuser helps push it forward - its size mandating the vertical pairing of the muffler outlets.

The California’s comfort features, clever transmission and folding hard-top roof, which takes just 14 seconds to deploy, makes for a heavy Ferrari.

Given it's not the most powerful, you wonder whether this horse has pranced too far towards more conservative owners - read Americans.

Drive impressions:

FERRARI insists the California has the performance its buyers want and need to offset the weight of its electric roof and complex transmission.

Zero to 100km/h in less than four seconds a 310km/h top speed 100km/h to zero in 34 metres 80kW and 112Nm per litre.

It's also fond of quoting practicalities, and product marketing man Andrea Ferrari (no relative) mentions four seats and golf clubs.

He's an optimist, but these excitable Ferrari folk have a point, for though it won't seriously seat four, the California is impressively easy to enjoy.

It wasn't as impressive to look at, however. It's not as graceful as expected, with the door crease being a rather clumsy device to minimize the flanks' depth, and to disguise the height of the rump.

There's a reason for the height - the folding roof, which tucks away to reveal a beautifully-finished cabin. It's easy to get comfy in there, with the supportive seats proving as effective for my smaller frame as for the more heroic proportions of my co-driver.

But we're not here to get comfy - we're here to drive. Fire her up and there's the head-turning gut-churning sound of a Ferrari V8. Surprisingly quiet on a trailing throttle despite the suggestion of throaty undertone, the soundtrack's every bit as wild as you expect once you slip its leash an ear-lashing guttural howl that raises goosebumps and had us frolicking through the gears at the slightest hint of a tunnel.

As amusing was the message that traffic police would turn a blind eye since we're working "If you want to break the speed limit do it, but be a bit safe," we were told in a dramatic contrast to our speed enforcement culture, less surprising in Sicily, where everyone turned to vocally admire these cars.

Certainly there's much to admire - not least the array of homely comforts. The shallow under-armrest tray that includes a compact cup-holder is more suited to espressos than take-away sodas. The vanity mirror is a passenger-only luxury.

And the wind-deflector that folds neatly but is better left fitted without it wind buffet is wearing at high speeds with it in-cabin conversation was easy at 110km/h, and possible at double that while hair remained if not unruffled, then at least unthrashed.

Initially we barely noticed the suspension, incredibly compliant in comfort mode and still impressively so in sport. At 170km/h and 4000rpm it proved possible to make readable notes.

Our mostly motorway route was poorly thought out, but useful to prove how well suited this car is to real-world conditions. The short stretches of switchback bends revealed a car that's delightfully responsive the 53 per cent rear weight bias settling the driven wheels and allowing just enough movement from the multi-link rear to impart life without getting dangerously carried away.

This car's impressively stiff too, with very little scuttle shake despite the often pothole-pocked roads.

As for speed, there's plenty on offer, the car sticking flat to the road until truly silly numbers, when poor surfaces and gusting winds finally cause it to wander.

The California may not be the prettiest Ferrari, or the hardest. But it's arguably the most forgiving and best-balanced of the breed. It offers the outrageous sound track and joyous acceleration you expect along with the GT talents you don't.

That its stability control system can only be switched off at its most extreme setting, and that its cabin ergonomics aren't perfect, is small beer compared to this car's strengths.

With numbers pinned below demand and performance barely dented by the compromises made, the California remains a true Ferrari. But its relatively softer focus does leave an opening expected to fill with a more aggressive sports car - a 430 Scuderia Spider likely soon.

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