While many of us are armchair racing enthusiasts, few are genuinely capable of handling today’s high-performance vehicles at their limits. The bar has been set very high by advances in technology and materials, and unless you have access to your own racetrack or private highway, you’re unlikely to have experienced the true capability of today’s performance cars. And yet we still want more.
When I had the opportunity to drive the Ferrari California shortly after its introduction in 2009, I was impressed with its balance. Stepping into any Ferrari is an event, even if it’s your daily transport. And here was a car with all the racing and motoring heritage you could want, borne of a passion for performance automobiles that only the Italians are truly able to demonstrate. It combined all the latest technical wizardry—the dual-clutch gearbox, composites to compensate for the lack of rigidity inherent in convertibles, a roof that opened or closed in 14 seconds at the flick of a switch, and an exquisite soundtrack generated by the engine and exhaust note, that intangible aspect that can make all the difference to perceived speed and your enjoyment behind the wheel. The California seemed to tick all the boxes.
Unfortunately, the public reception was mixed, for many felt the California was too soft for a modern Ferrari. Bear in mind that it still produced 453bhp and could accomplish 0–100km/h in four seconds. But its stablemates, the 458 Italia and 599 Fiorano, overshadowed it in terms of performance, regardless of whether that level of speed and roadholding was ever attainable on most public roads.
Ferrari addressed these concerns in 2012 with a small upgrade, the California 30, which notably boasted a bump in power to 483bhp and technical tweaks to make it more track-worthy. Acceleration improved to 3.9 seconds for the 0–100km/h dash. But the tweaks didn’t change many minds and the quest for more power continued.
Today, the California sees its biggest transformation yet, driven not only by the desire for more horses under the bonnet, but also by stricter environmental regulations. To achieve a more powerful, cleaner engine, Ferrari, like other manufacturers, has turned to turbocharging—the forcing of extra air into the combustion chambers to boost power and efficiency—and hence the addition of T to the California badge.
Turbocharging has been around for a long time and has occasionally been applied to sports cars and in motorsport, but it has a problem known as turbo lag. After the accelerator is pressed, it takes a few moments for the airflow to build up and deliver the desired power boost. This lag makes it difficult to drive turbocharged cars, particularly road cars, smoothly. As a result, manufacturers have generally focused on improvements in normal aspiration to generate more power rather than resorting to forced induction.
However, technology has advanced and there are now many electronic and mechanical devices that can be applied to minimise turbo lag to the extent that it’s almost imperceptible. Hence Ferrari presents the California T as the model’s next evolution. While the V8 engine’s displacement has shrunk from 4.3 to 3.9 litres, the power output has increased significantly to 552bhp. More importantly, torque, which is ultimately what gives the initial “kick” when you press hard on the accelerator, goes from 505Nm to 755Nm. The improvement in acceleration sees 0-100km/h achieved in 3.6 seconds, a very impressive figure for any car—and this is Ferrari’s entry-level model.
I was intrigued to see and feel for myself what difference a few years has made to the California. Aesthetically, there has been a subtle but noticeable evolution. The bonnet in particular has very different air outlets that give the California a more aggressive stance. The retractable hardtop remains, as does the 2+2 configuration; it must be said, though, that the +2 should be reserved for quite diminutive passengers, which are more likely to be parcels, for the rear legroom has not increased and adults are likely to fit only when the roof is down.
From behind the wheel, the mechanical and dynamic improvements are easily perceptible. While the car seems familiar, there is a sharpness in the turning and a stability in the cornering that makes the California T feel more aggressive. It’s all very positive, for it maintains that careful balance between high performance and usability that I’ve always found so appealing with this model. Except for one point: the sound.
It’s not that it’s not a “good” sporty sound; get the engine revs up and the exhaust note is there. Unfortunately, it takes greater speed than in the original California to get there. Even with the roof down, I was left wanting for more noise, that spark that makes you feel you’re driving an exotic sports car even though you’re abiding by the speed limit. At normal speeds, the California T is relatively quiet, a little bit too quiet for my taste.
This is by no means a problem only Ferrari faces; many of today’s turbocharged sports cars are less raucous, even if they are actually much faster and better cars than their predecessors. Even the pinnacle of motor racing, Formula One, which switched to turbocharging last year, has the same issue—a certain lack of noise. In isolation, you may not notice it, save for the fact you might no longer need earplugs when trackside. It’s when you hear the normally aspirated junior formula cars that you start to wonder about the impact this technological evolution has had on the spectacle of motorsport.
I sense the manufacturers are well aware of this, but there are certain barriers that are inherent not only in forced induction (increased power delivered at lower revs means less sound in any case), but also in noise regulations applied to the industry.
The Ferrari California T continues to represent what is one of the best balances of power, flair and drivability in a sports car on the market today. A few short years has seen its performance at every level improve. It’s unfortunate that the advantages afforded by forced induction, the boost in power and efficiency, mean the exhaust note has been degraded because the engine no longer needs to rev as fast. In spite of this, the California T is still very much a Ferrari at heart and deserving of the prancing horse.