2011 Ferrari California

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Review: 2009 Ferrari California

This 2009 review is representative of model years 2009 to 2014.
By Peter Burgess of MSN Autos

Folding aluminum hardtop, direct injection gasoline-powered engine, dual clutch transmission, multi-link suspension, even a folding rear seat — the California is packed with first-time innovations for a Ferrari. It's pitched as a touring car in the mold of the 599 GTB, but it costs F430 money. Well, almost. The California is intended to be a less demanding Italian Stallion in hopes of broadening the automaker's appeal, especially with women. But regardless of how Ferrari tames the beast, it's going to take a tidal change to ramp up female ownership levels.

Model Lineup
The 2009 California is, like most Ferraris, offered as a single model with the opportunity to customize the car to death. What you do get as standard is a folding aluminum hardtop that, remarkably, weighs in at about 11 pounds — less than the equivalent soft-top on the F430 Spider. It's fully automatic, of course, as long as you remember to keep the luggage cover in place in the trunk, and takes a mere 14 seconds to complete the open or close cycle. That's six seconds quicker than the F430.

It features a new dual clutch transmission of the type first seen on the Audi TT and more recently on the 2009 Porsche 911. Technically this is completely different to the F1 system of previous Ferraris, though in practice the operation is very similar. There are paddle shifts for manual changes and an auto button when you want to take things easy.

Diehards will be able to specify a manual shift later in 2009, but even in Europe Ferrari reckons the mix will be less than 10 percent. Regular wheels are 19 inchers with 20 inch as an option. Tire widths are the same whatever diameter you choose, 245/40 front and 285/35 rear. The optional Manettino suspension gives three chassis settings instead of one, but the option we especially like is the set of three tailored leather cases to maximize storage space, which sell for a mere $6,500.

Under the Hood
Though the California's 4.3 liter shares some similarities with the engine from the F430, it's actually quite different. Direct gas injection, as Porsche recently launched in the latest 911, offers improved low-down torque but more importantly it's Ferrari's first nod towards the rapidly increasing importance of emissions and fuel economy. The California promises to average 17.9 mpg, a 15 percent improvement over the F430, with a similar reduction in CO2 levels.

It is, of course, a naturally aspirated V8. Ferrari, as yet, has no need for anything as grubby as a turbocharger in its road cars, though that may have to change in the future. Power is 453 horses at 7750 rpm, with the maximum torque of 357 lb-ft peaking at 5000 rpm. So a touch less power but up to six percent more torque, all at lower revs than in the F430. It's a clue to the less racy nature of the California.

Choose the double clutch transmission, and you get seven instead of six gears. The big deal about this type of gearbox is that it has the next gear already engaged, so when you work the paddle it's a matter of clutches operating rather than gears having to move. All the power, naturally, goes through the rear wheels.

Inner Space
There's no mistaking a Ferrari interior — the combination of fluid curves, double-stitched leather and that steering wheel. The California can pull punches with the vastly more expensive 599 GTB Fiorano and 612 Scaglietti models, and with such a wide pallet of colors to choose from it can be as dark or as bling as you fancy. What's inescapable is the quality of the seats; there's comfort and superb support whether you are cruising or gunning it.

A couple of tiny seats have been squeezed behind. Ferrari calls it the 2+ concept and it provides enough room for a schnauzer but not a Labrador. In a pinch you might even fit small humans, though the more sensible option is instead to opt for the simple rear bench with luggage tie downs. Either way you get a fold-down backrest that allows a set of golf clubs to be pushed through from the trunk — another Ferrari first.

The instrumentation is slightly curious in that the enormous central rev counter forces the speedometer so much to one side that it's out of the direct line of sight. The paddle shifts and stalks are great to use, though again the light switch is almost completely hidden. And another thing: Couple the noise of the engine and the weakness of the turn-signal indicators and you risk driving for miles while flashing misleadingly to other traffic. Cupholders? There's none in the Euro version; perhaps U.S. buyers will be luckier.

The folding metal roof could be contentious. "The retractable hardtop is not a Ferrari decision, it's a market trend" is the official and remarkably honest line on the change. But it's a no-brainer and works extremely well; even the higher trunk line that this type of arrangement demands stays reasonably well disguised.

On the Road
There's a suggestion that the California is the car for those who would like to be a little more discreet. Forget it. The engine howls and the exhaust blares better and louder than almost any any car on the street. Search out a tunnel and you're in a Ferrari Formula One race car. Believe it. Push hard to the 8000 rpm redline, grab the paddle and you're in the next gear in an instant. There's a never-ending sequence of rising frequency and sound levels followed by a thump as the next gear engages.

It can take a while to zone into the California, and you could drive all day without ever getting close to exploring the depths of this car. Find the right road, though, and the performance is explosive. The combination of the thump in the back, the noise and the bang and sharp crack as you change up is simply intoxicating. The auto mode is now as good as a regular box, though there's sometimes a reluctance to kick down. Carbon ceramic brakes haul the car back to reality with a real sense of confidence.

The multi-link rear suspension (another first on a Ferrari) is designed to provide a compliant ride appropriate to a grand tourer. With the Manettino option the results are exceptional. In Comfort, the California deals with road imperfections with distain, and few flaws make their way through to the cockpit. An advantage not only in terms of comfort, it makes this Ferrari very fast on roads that would have other supercars slowing to avoid being thrown off line.

It's a situation that makes switching the Manettino to Sport a debatable indulgence. Sport speeds up the throttle response as well as alters the threshold of the F1-Trac traction control system. Ferrari is particularly proud of F1-Trac, because instead of cutting the engine power when the computers detect the car is starting to slide, it first brakes individual wheels to bring the car back into shape.

It's works extremely well, and in Comfort the rear wheels will kick out just a touch before the computers save you from disaster. In Sport lots more oversteer is possible and that oh-my-God moment is just an incautious stab of the throttle away. It's brilliant that Ferrari offers the option, but a little surprising that the boundaries are so extreme.

Right for You?
Is a car costing almost $200,000 right for anyone in the current climate? It would seem so, with two years' worth of orders apparently already on the table. With sales in freefall Bentley Continental in the U.S., a fresh Ferrari available in limited numbers is always going to stand a much better chance. And buyers are highly unlikely to be disappointed. Not only does the California promise to bring in new buyers, current 430 owners are going to be surprised by the thrilling experience this GT can provide.

Peter Burgess started off as an aerospace engineer but moved into motoring journalism 30 years ago. He writes regularly for MSN Carsin the UK, runs an old 911 but really needs another baby Lotus Elan.


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BB05 - 9/20/2014 1:04:02 AM