Enzo Ferrari’s love of racing was well known. Racing is part of the very DNA of the company he founded, for its development of road cars was to help finance Ferrari’s racing activities. Scuderia Ferrari entered the very first Formula One championship in 1950 and is the only team to have participated continuously.
You can understand, then, that Ferrari’s performance standards are expected to be very high at every level. While other manufacturers have expanded their product range to include sports utility vehicles or other brand extensions, Ferrari has steadfastly focused on exotic sportscars, and has gone on record to say that it has no plans to do otherwise.
That doesn’t mean, however, there’s no room to manoeuvre. Take the Ferrari California. Designed specifically as a grand tourer (GT), it was not designed to push into the extremes of performance. It was meant for a multipurpose existence, a Ferrari that can be used on a regular basis, whether for the daily commute, a weekend away or a leisurely Sunday drive to the country club. Some of the marque’s more performance oriented enthusiasts have looked down on the California as a softer, less capable Ferrari. But the technical details leave little to desire. The California T has a 552bhp, 3.9-litre bi-turbo V8 engine that generates a very significant 755Nm of torque for a 3.6-second 0-100km/h dash and a top speed of 316km/h.
While it may be the “slowest” member of Ferrari’sroad going stable, those figures still place it very firmly in thehigh performance category, perhaps just short of a supercar. Bear in mind that the California T is a four-seater, is fully convertible and has sufficient room in the boot, even with the hard top retracted, to accommodate the gear required for a weekend getaway. It very ably full fills the goals Ferrari had in mind in developing the California.
There are drivers, however, who would like to push the GT concept further and make the California sportier. It’s for these customers that Ferrari has developed a new version, the California T Handling Speciale. The “Speciale” does not match the “track special” Ferraris developed for clients who want to drive their car on the nearest racetrack on a regular basis. Handling Speciale refers to a specific formula developed to change the character of the car on the road, making its performance sharper and more aggressive, without changing the basic recipe for a GT. The configuration of the engine is unchanged, with the same power figure as the regular California T, but the suspension, gearbox programming and exhaust systems have been modified.
New settings stiffen the front springs by 16 per cent and the rear springs by 19 per cent, while revised programming makes the dampers react faster to road conditions. The dual-clutch gearbox gets new programming to give it a livelier character, with upshifts 30per cent faster and downshifts 40 per cent faster, and traction control is massaged to give better grip when exiting a turn at speed. The exhaust system has also been tweaked to give a noticeably louder note.
When I had the chance to take the wheel of the California T HS in Camogli, Italy, not far from Portofino, the first impression on starting the engine was rather good, for the difference in sound is immediately perceptible. I’d driven the standard California T a few months earlier and remembered its exhaust note left something to be desired, particularly at regular driving speeds. The difference with the HS package was instantly audible—and very welcome. It sounds like a sports car, albeit different from its normally aspirated predecessors.
The beginning of the drive took place on the autostrada and through numerous small tunnels criss-crossing the mountains. It was an ideal environment for sampling the sound of the V8 and its new exhaust system, with the top both up and down. It’s no longer necessary to get into the higher rev range to achieve a satisfying exhaust note. Even at regular highway speeds, within legal limits, the engine and exhaust system produce a more than satisfactory symphony.
Once onto the side roads and climbing through various passes, the HS package came into its own, giving the California T a more spritely and aggressive character. It didn’t deliver the barnstorming performance of the 488GTB, but it’s not intended to; it is resolutely a GT before anything else. The slight loss of ride comfort due to the stiffer suspension was hardly perceptible.
With the new Handling Speciale package, Ferrari has given prospective California T buyers an appealing option. It goes a long way towards addressing the performance criticisms of the California by adding the handling characteristics of the higher performance Ferraris. Unfortunately, the HS package cannot be retrofitted; it must be specified when the car is ordered. Suffice it to say, Ferrari has successfully tweaked the California to make it highly desirable as a real-world Ferrari, imbued with the founder’s racing aspirations but also with day-to-day usability that will ensure it’s driven and enjoyed on a regular basis.
(Text by Sean Li)