The Ferrari California T is no mere face-lift. With an all-new 3.9-litre twin-turbo V8 in its nose, it represents a step-change in the company’s ethos, as it caves to pressure for lower emissions by introducing turbos.
This is something that Ferrari has shunned for decades, even though rivals such as the Mercedes SL63 AMG, Bentley Continental GTC and Porsche 911 Turbo S Cabriolet have brandished them proudly for years.
Ferrari’s turbo V8 produces 70bhp and a sizeable 185lb ft more than the 4.3-litre naturally aspirated V8 it replaces, despite being considerably more economical, with a much lower CO2 output of 250g/km.
Further upgrades over the old car include stiffer springs and new, magnetic adaptive dampers, which are an option that Ferrari expects will be fitted to most (if not all) cars, at a cost of £3126. This should also ensure that the California T is more comfortable and sharper-driving than a predecessor that was criticised for handling that was blighted by too much body movement. The dual-clutch seven-speed automatic gearbox remains, but gets longer ratios.
It’s all-change for the California’s styling, too, because only the roof remains the same. Inside, the option of having a long parcel shelf in place of the rear seats has been dropped, so you now get space for you and three passengers, whether you want it or not.
What's the 2014 Ferrari California T like to drive?
The two turbochargers have blown none of the vivaciousness from the California, that’s for sure.
Mash the throttle, and the engine spins up smoothly, pulling strongly and with no sudden surges right through to its 7500rpm redline, before shifting up with a sharp crack from the exhausts.
That noise is one of the telltale areas where the turbocharging shows. Ferrari has gone to great pains to try and make the exhaust note evocative of the classic, high-pitched V8, but the California T does sound distinctly different. The engine stays at very low revs whenever you’re just out for a mooch, which results in a menacing, bass whuffle that reverberates and crackles – or, if you want it to, fades away into the background, provided you’re driving in Comfort mode. Put it in Sport and rip toward the high redline, however, and it suddenly breaks out into a full-throated, banshee howl.
More importantly, the engine is flexible enough that you can accelerate from those low revs, gathering speed progressively while the auto gearbox snaps up and down the ratios at the opportune moment. Even so, it’s more satisfying and - inevitably - gives you a greater sense of control to change gear yourself using the sizeable, well-damped, column-mounted shift paddles.
Granted, the California never delivers the sort of kick-to-the-head shock of acceleration that the 911 Turbo S can churn out, but the new V8, aided by the fast-shifting auto, is a wonderfully elastic and accessible powertrain that is arguably just as fun (if not more so) to use.
Despite all that pace and the wickedly fast, precise gearbox, the California remains a car that feels more boulevard cruiser than pin-sharp sports car. With the optional dampers fitted and in Comfort mode, there’s a fair amount of dip and roll over undulating surfaces, and even in Sport it needs a dab of brakes to balance the nose for a sharp turn-in.
Having said that, things do feel more taut with the dampers set to Sport, with less lean through corners, as the California seems to hunker down and grip, proving that it really can be a thrilling, engaging car.
The steering doesn’t always help matters, though. It’s a touch faster than it was previously, so feels darty and responsive through shallow corners, and the rack has a delightfully smooth, oily-feeling movement. However it lacks mid-corner bite, leaving you feeling less confident than you want to be at the apex.
Without a doubt, the new car handles significantly better than its predecessor, but ultimately, the California T still feels best at a fast canter, and begins to feel less composed if you really wring it out.
The flipside is that the California T will be easy to live with. Those dampers do a fine job of soaking up the patchwork of potholes, and scruffy surface repairs that make up the hillside roads around Maranello; even sharp-edged ridges are dealt with easily, and it takes a major mid-corner rut to unsettle the California, suggesting that it will translate well to the UK’s similarly pockmarked roads.
Wind buffeting is well-controlled even at high speeds with the roof down, and slightly boomy tyre noise and distant, easily ignored wind-flutter is all that creeps into the cabin with the roof up. Even the brakes – carbon-ceramic as standard – offer good pedal feel and make it easy to stop smoothly around town.
What's the 2014 Ferrari California T like inside?
The interior feels cosseting; the driver sits low in an electrically-adjustable leather bucket seat, faced by a chunky-looking steering wheel, complete with F1-inspired Manettino switch (which allows you to flick between Comfort, Sport and all traction-aids off). It takes a lot of time to get used to the indicator, headlight and windscreen switches also being on the wheel, but with plenty of practice it does become easier to use, partly because you can control everything without needing to take your hands off the wheel.
There’s also a standard colour touchscreen complete with nav, which responds quickly, but falls short of the ease of use and graphics quality offered by the best systems out there. A new digital readout perched on top of the dash shows various turbo-related information, amongst other useful info, which you toggle through by touching the outer casing - a bit of a gimmick, but a nice bit of gadget one-upmanship to impress your friends.
Even very tall drivers will be able to get comfortable, and visibility is fine by the standards of big roadsters, though it can be hard to judge the extremities of the long bonnet that stretches out in front of you. Front and rear parking sensors are included, so it's not a big problem.
Those two seats in the back should be reserved for designer handbags only, though. Even with a very average-height driver installed up front, there’s so little legroom that anyone with a knee joint is going to be uncomfortable, if not in pain. Even if this were less of an issue, those in the back would still have little headroom, and the backrests are very upright. Describing these as occasional seats is pushing it.
Fortunately, the boot is more useful. Even with the roof down, there’s room for a couple of cabin bags in the deep, letterbox-shaped space, so you'll be fine for a weekend away.
Should I buy one?
Why not? This is a rarefied sector that’s full of potent rivals, all of which have subtle flaws that few people will care about given the ‘want one’ factor that decides a purchase like this.
Yes, the California T is still a bit of a softie by the standards of Ferrari’s other, more highly-strung models, but it now promises to be just as good to drive, if not better than its equally GT-oriented peers.
Perfect it isn’t, but adding the 'T' to the California has made it a whole lot more comfortable, more fun, and generally a whole lot more recommendable, and it's still the most affordable way into Ferrari ownership.
What Car? says...
Engine size 3.9 V8 twin-turbo
Price from £154,490
Torque 557lb ft
0-62mph 3.6 seconds
Top speed 196mph
Fuel economy 26.9mpg
CO2 output 250g/km