Text: Vince Pornelos / Photos: Kelvin Christian Go | posted November 04, 2016 18:31
The Alternate Universe
I'm a firm believer that there is another plane of existence out there. It's a place where politics do not flood our Facebook feeds with hate, where religion or culture are not sources of social divide and conflict, and the word “race” refers not to the tone of your skin but the exhilaration of performance.
That plane of existence -that alternate universe- is where all Ferraris live, breathe, and thrive. And here is one of them: the new Ferrari California T... in HS (or Handling Speciale) trim.
Maranello markets the California line as the entry-level Ferrari, but that's like saying you have a basic Patek Philippe for daily use or live in an humble Hyde Park apartment in London. It's an oxymoron; there is no such thing as “entry-level” with Ferrari, and any California customer would feel insulted at the use of such a phrase to describe their cars.
But strictly speaking, in the hierarchy of Ferrari's stable (or scuderia), the California is the starting point for those who desire having an SF badge on the fenders of the car they drive. The California T HS the first step on a staircase that includes the 488 GTB (which replaced the 458), the GTC4Lusso (an update of the FF), the F12berlinetta, the LaFerrari, and even the FXX K; the latter two having just ended their already very limited production runs. But hierarchy be damned; there really is no feeling in the world like waking up in the morning, preparing a hot cup of coffee, and walking into your garage where a Ferrari is waiting for you.
I pulled up a chair, enjoyed my coffee, and admired the lines, curves, and purposeful stance of the California. The current model is actually an update of the California that Maranello offered from 2008 to 2014 and as such it features body panels that have been revised.
The front radiator intake is wider and the headlamps made slimmer. They've removed the ram-type air-intake on the hood and replaced it with dual vents, and gone too are the slats on the fenders in favor of the more modern single vent. The wheels are new, but what I really liked was the revision in the back; gone are the vertically stacked tailpipes on either side as they made way for horizontally-oriented matt black pipes (for the Handling Speciale). And if you get bored with having a roof over your head, the top can be easily dropped for unparalleled open-top Italian motoring.
I can spend all morning just admiring the California T HS as it sits in my garage, but too much coffee won't be good for a car that needs to be respected by the driver. Given the price point, I half-expected a transponder-type keyfob; you know, the ones you can keep in your pocket as you drive. But no, this Ferrari has a traditional key that you slot in and twist, but you still have to press that red starter button on the wheel, giving the stallions under the hood a tickle to spring to life.
I look around the cabin, absorbing the experience that is delivered by the craftsmanship of Italian artisans. You really have to take some time to appreciate the work that went into the car; the the many man hours of craftsmanship and quality that you can really only see if you visit the factory or catch the documentary on National Geographic.
All the carbon fiber you can see and touch from the center panel to the paddles are real; no faux or imitation CF here, as all are formed in autoclaves to a stiffness that sounds like glass when you tap them with your fingernail. The choice of leather is impeccable, and all are formed and stitched to wrap around certain parts of the dashboard perfectly. The front seats hug you snugly, but not so tight as to be uncomfortable; this is a grand touring convertible after all. There are seats just behind for another +2 people, but really, it's best left for luggage.
Really, the focus of your interest in a Ferrari -especially modern Ferraris- has to be the steering wheel and the primary controls as the layout takes quite a lot of getting used to. It's easy to miss the starter button, and the controls for the high beam, wipers, and the indicators are all there as well and not on a stalk like most cars. There is also a button for the suspension settings and the now-traditional Ferrari Mannetino switch, but we'll play with that later. Even the horn button is not in the middle; there are two of them on the grip at the 10 and 2 o'clock positions.
Perhaps the most alien is the way the gearbox is manipulated. To drive forward, you need to pull the righthand paddle while stepping on the brake. To put it in neutral you pull both paddles at the same time. To go in reverse, you press the R button on the CF arc on the center console which also has the buttons for automatic mode and launch control. Much like a relationship status, operating this car is very much complicated, but it serves another purpose: if anyone ever tries to steal your California T HS, you'll probably be able to catch them at the parking lot as they try to figure out the controls.
I actually had one goal for this test: try out how a Ferrari performs on the daily drive to and from work. Prancing about town (pun intended) is a breeze. With the gearbox in auto mode and the Mannetino set to comfort, you can easily go about your daily life without a hitch. The transmission is relatively smooth even in low-speed traffic; an unusual aspect for most (if not all) dual-clutch gearboxes.
Cruising around the city really is easy and you can even take on a Starbucks drive thru given that there is a single cupholder that reveals when you push back a carbon fiber lid. You can theoretically take it grocery shopping if you want, as there's a decent amount of trunk space with the roof deployed. You do have to be mindful that any frozen groceries will probably be thawed out after an hour in the trunk; it can get mighty warm in there, more so than any other car I've driven.
Of course it's not all fun and games when it comes to living with a Ferrari. If you don't like attention from others on the road, you won't like the California T HS; you will get a lot of stares wherever you go. You also won't like it if you have to park inside a mall; the wide doors require parking that's wider than your average slot. It's also quite loud; the deep note that emanates from those quad pipes when you drive in your village at night will wake every dog from their slumber, much to the annoyance of your neighbors. There's also a fair bit of bumpiness to the ride, but that's expected; this is a Handling Speciale after all, meaning it has the stiffer suspension to make the cornering more speciale.
I could go on about how a California T HS performs on a daily routine, but that's not why you opened this story right? When the roads did clear up, it was time to unleash all the thoroughbred horses that the front-mid mounted, twin-turbo, 3.9-liter V8 can muster. All 560 of them.
With (or without) launch control on, there's a guttural roar that explodes from under the hood of the first turbo Ferrari since the F40 every time my right foot lays down the law, sending all that power and torque through a seven speed 'box to light up those rear tires. And that roar switches to a high pitched scream at high revs; a great experience when you're sitting inside, but has an operatic quality when you're standing by the side of the road as it blasts past. Yes, I still prefer the older naturally aspirated Ferraris (including the 2008-2014 California non-T) but regardless, there really is no greater or more exciting example of the Doppler Effect in practice than a Ferrari flyby.
A hundred on the speedometer is easily dispatched in just 3.6 seconds, and a top speed of 315 km/h is very much attainable, but I wouldn't do that on a public street or with the top down. You don't really need to go to extreme speeds to appreciate what the California T HS can do. You can find a tunnel, drop the top, and floor the pedal. You can head to the racetrack and legally (and safely) stretch its legs. Or you can put on your driving gloves and find a nice stretch of winding road like I did.
Up in the mountains it goes without saying: the California T HS really can run. There's a balance in handling that front-mid engined cars with rear wheel drive can provide. No, this doesn't handle like the GT-R with its intelligent all-wheel drive system. Neither does it handle like a Porsche 911, a car that behaves unusually on the limit and delivers a different kind of challenge for the driver. The California T HS promises a drive that is simpler, relying not on trick electronics (even though it has them) to deliver visceral driving thrills that usually only comes from high performance sportscars of Italian origin.
The Handling Speciale suspension that can be a burden in town shows you why it's such a worthy option to tick on the list. The California T HS' cornering limits are quite high, and all 560 horses have the ability to come into play progressively if you have your footwork down pat. The carbon ceramic Brembo brakes are so well tuned that an experienced driver can brake late for a corner, then transition to the steering and make the entire car dance on the limit on turn in, hold the throttle at the apex, and rocket out on the corner exit. That is how a Ferrari is supposed to be enjoyed, and that's why driver training -especially high performance driving- is very much recommended even before stepping up to a car of this caliber.
On the way back to Autostrada Motore, the official Ferrari dealer in the country, I'll be honest: I didn't want to give it back. Nevermind that the suspension isn't comfortable, that it can really wake the neighbors, that you feel paranoid of every motorcycle that zips past, that this has an 8 digit price tag that starts with the number 2, or the fact that I just filled up and consumed over 50 liters of fuel in the last 48 hours, none of that matters.
This alternate universe that this Ferrari California T HS exists in introduces you to a higher pedigree of motoring, entry level or not.