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Car reviews - Ferrari - California - HELE coupe-convertible

Our Opinion

We like
Undiluted performance, worthwhile real-world efficiency gains, outstanding handling and performance, impeccable design and build quality, refinement, ergonomics, styling
Room for improvement
HELE should be standard, inconsistent idle-stop function, pedals still offset, ride still too firm for target audience, still not cheap

24 May 2011

FERRARI shocked educated fans and traditional customers alike when it presented its first coupe-convertible in 2009.

Never before had the world seen a front-engined Ferrari V8, let alone one that also came with a folding hard-top, dual-clutch transmission and direct-injection engine all in the one sleek coupe-convertible package.

Built on a new production line at Maranello, the four-seater California was designed to attract a new larger, younger and more female-oriented audience than the more focussed – and more expensive – mid/rear-engined models that preceded it, including the discontinued F430 coupe and its equally hard-core Spider sibling.

Initial fears the Italian supercar brand had gone soft and turned its back on its high-performance roots were dispelled by the appearance of the radical new 458 Italia, which represented the single biggest technological advance in the history of Ferrari’s entry-level two-seater coupe model line.

And after driving the California for the first time last year we defied anyone else lucky enough to do so to claim it is a poor excuse for a Ferrari.

Yes, its engine V8 is concealed beneath a long bonnet up front rather than being proudly on display behind the front seats, and therefore sounds slightly more subdued that its rear-engined brethren, even with the windows down.

But the all-new 4.3-litre V8 remains the heart of this Ferrari, spinning so quickly to its stratospheric 8000rpm redline that it’s easy to overlook its ability to trundle effortlessly around in top gear at just 60km/h, or to deliver startlingly muscular acceleration in the same gear from just 2150rpm at 100km/h (three-quarters of peak torque is on tap at just 2500rpm).

And at no time can the direct-injection alloy V8, which maintains Ferrari’s traditional flat (180-degree) crank angle to make its sound like a pair of shrieking four-cylinders rather than a hairy-chested 90-degree V8, be mistaken for anything other than a Ferrari engine.

Bursting with aural appeal even at fast-idle start-up, it goes about its business with so much charisma it’s difficult to resist revving it in tunnels, cuttings, alongside buildings or even Armco just to hear it reverberate.

Matched with a super-slick seven-speed Getrag dual-clutch transaxle, the shrieking V8 can shift cogs seamlessly in full auto mode and makes previous single-clutch automated manual Ferraris feel clunky in comparison. Like all DCTs it still isn’t as smooth as a conventional torque converter automatic at parking speeds, but its advantages by far outweigh its shortfalls.

Providing the best of both auto and manual transmission worlds via the steering column-mounted shift paddles (which are long enough to be more intuitive than wheel-mounted items), it can deliver uninterrupted full-power acceleration right up and down through the rear-mounted gearbox.

Just for good measure, the automated manual transmission flatters its driver with a Schumacher-style throttle blip during downshifts and you can also generate a cracking exhaust backfire by lifting off quickly just after upshifting.

Besides the party tricks, this Ferrari walks the walk with a 0-100km/h time of less than four seconds with or without launch control, making it blisteringly quick and putting it among the world’s most rapid production cars – despite its relatively corpulent 1735kg kerb weight.

Yes, the folding metal roof severely compromises boot space (the 458 offers more cargo space up front, with luggage limited to a medium-sized suitcase in the California with the roof stowed) and represents a radical departure from fabric-topped Ferrari roadsters of the past.

But as with all coupe-convertibles, the fully automatic California roof – which opens and closes at the touch of a button in a slower than claimed 19 seconds – provides superior security, refinement and noise insulation.

Unlike some, however, it doesn’t compromise the sleek proportions of the California, nor conceal the lack of structural rigidity so common in open-top cars. As expected for the best part of half a million dollars, Ferrari’s newest convertible is completely creak and flex-free at any speed, on any road, with the roof up or down.

A barely discernible bobble through the steering column over extremely rough surfaces was the only concession to its lidless body we could find during our time in the California, which feels as stiff as any Ferrari coupe we’ve driven and stiffer than even a Boxster or SLK.

Yes, the California is technically a four-seater and even offers a through-load function via a small ski-port if the roof is up, but the twin rear seats don’t fold down as in a 911 and are perhaps even more tokenistic, because even carrying small kids in the back dramatically restricts space for front occupants.

And, yes, the California’s a little plusher around town than Ferraris of old, but only slightly because even when the steering wheel-mounted ‘Manettino’ is set to ‘Comfort’ mode some may find the ride unbearable on Sydney’s pock-marked suburban roads.

Of course, the upside is almost non-existent bodyroll even during the most violent cornering manoeuvres, enormous grip levels and an ability to fling this low-slung roadster into bends later than you might think possible.

That’s aided by standard ceramic brakes, which make for a super-firm pedal and feel initially hard to modulate, but offer incredible outright braking power time after time – just as in a Porsche 911 with its optional ceramic brake package.

Okay, so in relative terms the California isn’t quite as lithe or neutral as its rear-engined forebears, feeling slightly heavier overall and more willing to push its front-end at the limit. But in Sport or CST (control for stability and traction) mode – which turns off the stability control safety blanket – it’s probably more adjustable in mad tail-out power oversteer situations, if you’re brave enough to attempt it.

It’s true, too, that the California is sumptuously appointed inside, with soft-touch leather or carpet surfaces gracing all but the A-pillars and window sills, deeply sculpted all-electric seats and a fully power-adjustable steering wheel bringing new levels of Ferrari ergonomics and a central colour touch-screen with all the latest infotainment technologies for the first time.

The only omissions here are instantaneous and average fuel consumption read-outs, which in lieu of time to physically check fuel consumption prevented us from ascertaining the real-world benefits of HELE, the optional fuel and emissions-reducing technology pack released for the California in Australia this week.

But if the HELE-equipped California can indeed achieve anywhere near the efficiency gains Ferrari claims while actually increasing performance, it should be standard. After all, while other makers charge a premium for dedicated ‘green’ models, few charge extra for the privilege of being more environmentally friendly.

And, given the California’s pricetag has been reduced from $472,000 to $459,650 since launch, who wouldn’t be happy to pay a further $2750 – or just 0.0006 per cent of the purchase price – to reduce their CO2 emissions?

Naturally, Ferrari’s new idle-stop system works like any other, switching off the engine at standstill then restarting it the instant that brake pedal is released – or in this case by pulling the downshift paddle, pushing the red steering wheel starter button or simply pressing the accelerator pedal, making it suitable even for left-foot brakers.

It can be disconcerting to both drivers and other road users when the piping-hot Ferrari V8 fires back up in city traffic, but the California is likely to go unnoticed in the first place – in fact, it’s more like a magnet than any other car we’ve driven – and the system can be switched off without negating all the other benefits of HELE.

Unfortunately a recalcitrant brake pedal sensor prevented ‘our’ California’s idle-stop system working at all initially, and even after it was fixed it never operated consistently, switching off the engine at some traffic lights not others, for no apparent reason.

Ferrari says the system must meet a number of parameters before it operates, including an engine oil temperature of at least 70 degrees C, but for whatever reason the California’s idle-stop system failed to work for us more often than not.

That said, idle-stop was effective when it worked and is bound to save those who spend plenty of time in traffic a worthwhile amount of fuel, adding yet another dimension to what is already the most user-friendly Ferrari ever produced.

Make no mistake: Despite a few concessions to give it broader appeal than any Ferrari before it, the California remains a consummate driver’s car with a rarefied level of poise, panache and presence, but its roof system gives it a split personality that makes it as pleasurable to drive around town in the rain as it is on a sunny day on a twisting mountain pass.

Without detracting from any of that, for a relatively small price the clever new HELE technologies now allow even Ferrari drivers to do a bit more for the environment.

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