About £11,000 (Rs 9.9 lakh) and 40 PS… Ferrari’s “entry-level” car is back; harder, faster, prettier, and more expensive. Is it now a truly great Ferrari, and not just a great first Ferrari?
‘Entry-level’ is now far away from California, and starts at 600 PS
Tt’s about 6,000 miles (9,655 km) from the coast of California to Portofino, a fishing village on the Italian Riviera. One glance at the new Ferrari Portofino’s taut aluminium bodywork — and a quick scan of its specification — suggests there’s a similarly large gulf between Ferrari’s new entry-level model and its predecessor, the California T. Squeeze the throttle, feel the twinturbo V8’s huge swell of mid-range torque morph seamlessly into a frantic rush to the red-line, then pull back on paddle-shifters that engage gears like they’re firing ammunition. And suddenly the subjective gloss of style and the empirical detachment of stats become real with one noisy burst of acceleration.
If foot-to-the-floor first impressions suggest the Portofino is a sizeable step on from the California T, it promises to be better at the sensible stuff too. Slow down to 40 km/h and you can now drop the roof on the move (the California had to be stationary), with the new roof and mechanism motoring away beneath the boot with impressive civility in 14 seconds, inviting overseas readers to soak up winter sunshine, or Brits to realize you don’t feel the rain so much at 110 km/h.
This is all good news, because while the California T never was an entirely bad car, it was Ferrari’s weakest model, failing to set pulses racing like the more sporting, midengined Ferrari coupés and Spiders above it.
Ferrari haven’t thrown the bambino out with the bathwater, so here the basic concept remains unchanged. That means a V8 engine positioned low down and far back under the long bonnet, two-plus-two seating and a folding metal hardtop. Even the wheelbase of 2,670 millimetres remains identical. Price goes up by £11k (Rs 9.9 lakh) to £166,180 (Rs 1.5 crore), though that’s still a chunky £38k (Rs 34 lakh) shy of the 488 Spider, Ferrari’s other folding hardtop.
More relevant is the market the Portofino parachutes into, which is as busy as it is diverse. McLaren offer a folding hardtop for a fraction less, but the 570S Spider is essentially a cheaper Ferrari 488 Spider/McLaren 650S Spider (Woking is still working on a droptop 720S). Buyers might also choose the Aston DB11 Volante, a fabric-roofed V8 two-plus-two for £160k (Rs 1.44 crore), or a Mercedes SL, the two-seat folding hardtop that’s £50k (Rs 45 lakh) more affordable in SL 63 trim.
With the competition becoming more competitive than ever, Maranello has drilled down into the detail, stretching the California’s already broad remit like it’s been strapped to a rack. Sharper to drive and more powerful, but more comfortable, more efficient, and more usable, too — that, at least, is the idea. And Ferrari insist that those last three traits really are crucial to owners, 70 per cent of whom were new to Ferrari
Feel the V8’s huge mid-range torque morph seamlessly into a frantic rush
The Portofino’s Design is a better fit with Ferrari’s V12s, echoing the 1970s Daytona
when they bought a California. They still want the heady buzz of driving an exotic, but they daily-drive their cars 150 per cent more frequently than owners of sports models, and 30 per cent of them regularly use the rear seats. They’ll particularly appreciate the five centimetres of extra rear leg-room, that 8.5 km/l has become 9.3 km/l, and that there’s now 292 litres of luggage space, 52 litres up on the California T. Being 40 PS stronger at 600 PS and 80 kg lighter at a still chunky 1,664 kg won’t hurt either.
Naming the Portofino after a northern Italian fishing port might have fitted nicely with the new model thanks to its connotations of class, style and discretion, but it’s no place to launch a folding hardtop in February, so we hop to non-patented Bari, in the far south of Italy, greeted by a fleet of Portofinos in greys and whites and reds flanking the entrance to a luxury hotel.
Off-season, this south-eastern corner of Italy is eerily deserted, its faded, empty towns almost monochrome with pastel-coloured shutters and doors and weather-worn brickwork bleeding together like mixed laundry carelessly tossed in a hot wash. We drop the roof to better enjoy the blue sky and the warm fuzz of sunshine, and park up on the beach for our first chance to properly appraise the Portofino as a piece of design.
The exterior can only be seen as a huge improvement. Far more overtly masculine, the Portofino is a better fit with Ferrari’s V12-engined GTs, the F12/812 Superfast, and echoes the 1970s Daytona in its proportions. Hardtop closed, the roofline flows from header rail to tail, visually disguising the raised rear deck that afflicts large folding hardtops — all that metal has to have somewhere to fold into while still leaving space for luggage, after all. Roof down, with the metal and glass stacked away, the compromise, and the raised rear, is more obvious, but there’s no doubting that the Portofino is a neat, convincingly honed package.
Open the Portofino’s door — same odd, rodent-ear little door handle as before — and you sink into new seats built around magnesium frames that can get your backside right down on the deck, race-driver style. Optional 18-way adjustment supports and squeezes and cossets via a new 10.25-inch infotainment screen subtly angled at the driver. Crucially, that new touchscreen
also means the navigation and infotainment functions are far more intuitive than before, not the California’s sub-aftermarket meanderings that baffled and infuriated in equal measure.
A new steering wheel is still busy with buttons, still lumpy like a flat tyre, but it’s actually attractive and nice to hold all the same. It frames a central rev counter, the 7,500-rpm red-line a target, like this is the whole point of the game. Speed? It’s in there somewhere. A Merc SL still wins for quality and equipment — the climate controls feel flimsy and there’s no heated steering wheel or Airscarf to blow hot air on your neck here — but the Portofino cabin makes for a nice spot to while away an afternoon. And, of course, the Merc doesn’t do rear seating, even if the Portofino’s rear seats make adults feel JFK vulnerable.
Thumb the starter button and the Portofino wakes with a surprisingly raucous growl, its balls-drop drone promising the synapse-like responses of a race-bred flat-plane crank. When the California evolved into the California T in 2014, it heralded Ferrari’s return to turbocharging for the first time since the F40. Technically impressive, that engine lacked character and wheezed like an out-of-puff sax player at higher revs and always paled in comparison to the similar, but slightly larger, V8 introduced into the 488 shortly thereafter.
The Portofino retains the same 3,855-cc capacity, but it’s reworked with new pistons and conrods, a new variable-displacement oil pump that reduces hydraulic power losses by 30 per cent, a single-piece cast turbo manifold, a new intercooler with larger pipes and a new exhaust with fewer bends and reduced back pressure. That’s why the V8 now delivers 600 PS and 760 Nm, up 40 PS and five Nm on the California T, and enough to drop the 0-200 km/h sprint by 0.4 seconds to a claimed 10.8 seconds.
Throttle response is so sharp it’s actually hard to maintain a constant speed in third gear at times, as if Ferrari’s engineers were so fearful of a soggy, laggy throttle response from the V8 that they made this one fizz like a cartoon toaster tossed in the bath. A shift to fourth takes the edge off and you quickly adapt, but it’s quite striking at first.
We head out from the coastal lowlands, manettino drive mode control on the steering wheel set to Comfort, and on to the autostrada to test just how capably the metal roof seals out the roar of wind when closed — it’s impressive, going a long way to justifying that bulky design — then off through more deserted towns. We burble past Piaggio Ape three-wheelers and FIAT Pandas that line narrow back streets, washing strung out on balconies, out into the countryside where the road eventually starts to climb up into the hills. Veteran cyclists with sun-beaten skin that could upholster an entire Ferrari roam these parts, and a local stops when we pull over, clip-clopping over to check out the Portofino, me lifting his carbon-fibre bicycle aloft like someone’s just switched off the gravity, him poring over the Portofino’s carbon-fibre-festooned interior.
‘Do you like it?’ we ask. ‘No,’ he replies with such politeness and honesty it’s hard to take offence. He’s the exception. There are numerous ‘ Bella macchinas!’ as passing traffic pauses for a gawp and we apologise for being English.
The road surfaces are epically fragmented round here, but the suspension — while erring strongly on the side of firm and
focused — soothes the worst bumps, especially in “bumpy road” mode. The steering also impresses, this only Ferrari’s second electrically assisted system after the 812 Superfast. There are none of the driver aids that this technology enables — selfparking, lane-keeping — and that the Portofino’s client base would probably appreciate, but its lightness is both unintimidating at a dawdle and engaging when you hustle. It makes the Portofino feel light and nimble through direction changes, and when you add an armful of lock it gathers weight progressively to convey the loads building through the chassis, and even manages some tingly road chatter from the 20-inch Pirelli rubber. The ratio is quick, if less hyperactive than some of Ferrari’s sportier models.
As the roads open, the strides that Ferrari have made with this powertrain become increasingly clear. It’s just so much richer and fuller-bodied at higher revs, the torque cleverly drip-fed in to encourage you to wind out the revs just as before, but you now revel in hitting those high notes. It also feels significantly stronger in terms of performance, certainly more supercar than sports car.
Climbing up through the hillside, roof dropped, the treeline coagulates with speed like we’ve plunged into a tunnel. Manettino in Sport, scorched tarmac textured like coarse sandpaper, the Portofino’s nose feels nimble and alert as it swings eagerly from left to right, the suspension composed as it compresses over the outside wheel, steering weighting up but encouraging me to push and lean on the grip, gear-shifts breathlessly punctuating the power delivery.
The Portofino does the stopping stuff just as well: the carbonceramic brakes and ruthless downshifts combine to haul the Portofino down, the pedal strong and feel some, downshifts flicking the revs up frantically with each shorter ratio, particularly when you call for first gear at what feels like much too high a speed. It’s equal parts aggressive and satisfying, like the Portofino’s happy to indulge your every whim.
This new Ferrari is a good car to drive quite quickly, but it can only indulge for so long the kind of extrovert driving its siblings lap up, and it simply doesn’t feel as composed when really pushed. A low-frequency jiggle that persists through the structure is an early warning sign. Ferrari point out that this is a new body-in-white, with welds 30 per cent shorter to save weight, a new aluminium undertray that helps both aerodynamics and stiffness, and greater efficiency chased from every element: the A-pillars now contain just two components, not the 21 previously employed, for example. It all adds up to a claimed 35 per cent increase in torsional stiffness.
But there’s no disguising the fact that a 488 Spider rides better and feels more structurally cohesive than this. So does McLaren’s droptop 570S for that matter. And when you really turn the Portofino all the way up to 11, metaphorical cracks start to appear in the chassis. It’ll smear black lines all over the tarmac with its new third-generation E-diff, and you can have all sorts of rear-drive fun, there’s no question of that, but there’s quite a lot to manage — the front pushes into understeer a little too readily, and when you sling the thing sideways the rear end feels pretty soft, in terms of both the rear suspension and the body structure. It’s as if either side of the rear end is wobbling around in a shiny tracksuit telling everyone to ‘calm down, calm down’ like a Harry Enfield Scouser. With the space and speed of a track, it’d probably feel pretty terrible.
The electrically assisted steering also has a bit of a wobble — releasing a little opposite lock through one corner, it suddenly dials in a load of extra weight, like all the noughts and ones can’t compute what’s happening quickly enough.
Does any of this matter? The typical Portofino owner probably won’t drive beyond six or seven tenths, in which case this new entry-level Ferrari will do everything they dreamed it would. But most 488 Spider owners won’t push their cars beyond the limits, just as most Range Rover owners won’t regularly venture off road, yet both those cars excel if used hard. When I last drove the California T, I said its replacement needed to feel more like an F12 on a budget, a car that can do the long-legged GT thing then switch into hooligan mode like it’s forgotten to take its meds. The Portofino comes closer to that, but it still leaves me craving more.
Turn the Portofino all the way up to 11 and metaphorical cracks start to appear
Cleaner, classier cockpit still won’t worry the folk at Mercedes-Benz
Prod for a quick squeeze Modern Ferrari design has its haters — but we’ve no idea what they’re talking about
Choose red paint to go with the herd
( Above) Folding roof is faster now. Ben remains as fast as he’s ever been
Engine gains are modest on paper but massive in terms of on-the-road drama