Photos Copyright ©2008 Noah Joseph / Weblogs, Inc.
From a technical perspective, the California certainly lives up to Enzo's idiom. The product of ceaseless development, racing dominance and collaboration with its technical partners, the California comes standard with all the bells, whistles and bar-room bragging rights you can shake an aluminum-alloy stick at. The brakes, developed with Brembo, are carbon-ceramic. The 460-horsepower 4.3-liter V8, based on the same engine architecture that motivates such lust-worthy machines as the Alfa 8C Competizione, Maserati GranTurismo and Ferrari's own 430 Scuderia, incorporates direct injection for optimal fuel delivery. The lightning-quick transmission, specially developed by Getrag, features seven speeds and twin clutches. The ingenious roof mechanism is the fastest and lightest in the industry. We could go on and on, but like many of the finer things in life, the whole of a Ferrari is more than the sum of its parts.
The styling of contemporary Ferraris is a divisive issue, some remaining enamored with Pininfarina's pen, others deriding an incongruity to their design. Critics point to rival Lamborghini's more aggressive styling, Aston Martin's more classical design, and Porsche's cleaner and simpler lines. But telling a Gallardo apart from a Murcielago, a Vantage from a DBS or a Cayman from a 911 remains a relative challenge even for the trained eye, while each Ferrari looks completely different from one another, yet still remaining unmistakably and instantly identifiable as a Ferrari. And that's no mean feat.
The California, for its part, is not immune to the controversy. Initial public reaction focused primarily on the rear end, which had to rise to the challenge of accommodating the complex folding roof mechanism while retaining a usable trunk. But like its stable-mates, the California's is a design that grows on you. Although to many, Ferrari remains inextricable from its iconic red livery, the subtlety of the California's lines comes into its own better in darker hues, a trait it shares with other gran turismo Ferraris of late, including the previous 456 GT and the current 612 Scaglietti. That may be more than mere coincidence considering the ethos behind the California.
Understanding the California's position requires proper historical perspective. While its racing cars were racking up trophies and championships in the early years on circuits across Europe and around the world, Ferrari earned its reputation on the road with the iconic 250 series of the 1950's and 60's – including the eponymous 250 GT California – that remain the epitome of the classic GT. But even after the later Daytona gave way to the mid-engined supercars of the 80's, Ferrari never lost touch with its stoic GT heritage. The California, for all the cutting-edge technology, is the latest embodiment of that legacy, not as a superfluous sibling to the F430 but as a more compact alternative to the elongated Scaglietti.
Any lingering questions over the vehicle's purpose or styling instantly slip away as soon as you slide into the cabin, thanks in part to the thousand hours Ferrari's aerodynamicists spent honing the California's shape in the wind tunnel. Coddled in the most exquisitely-crafted hand-stitched leather, you're instantly met with a sense of occasion. A grand tourer it may be – in juxtaposition to the track-focused 430 Scuderia – but it's clear from the start where the California's cockpit places its emphasis. The seats are aggressively bolstered. The tachometer dominates the instrument binnacle, framed by over-sized shift paddles. The steering wheel, though fully adjustable, sits right in your chest for optimal control, its prancing horse dominating the hub flanked by the manettino chassis control switch and bright red starter button.
The engine comes alive with the sweetest rasp that only grows more vivacious under way. Feathering the throttle hints at how much power lies under the command of your right foot, and summoning up even just half demonstrates vividly and instantly that the California has earned its Prancing Horse as much as any that have come before. Throttle response is instant and speed builds urgently with the next corner coming up fast as you thank the boys from Maranello for including state-of-the-art carbon-ceramic brakes as standard equipment.
Brake feel is as tactile as its grip is astounding. Speed scrubs off as fast as it built up and you turn in to discover the steering as precise, communicative and direct as the splendid brakes. It's a sensation with which the driver becomes intimately familiar as the miles pass by like mere meters. The chassis is poised and smooth, but make no mistake about it: the California is eager to demonstrate its pedigree. Even with the manettino set to "comfort", the tail is all too happy to step out, leaving any skeptics flattened by an arc of burnt rubber. "Sport" mode lets it play even more, but on unfamiliar public roads, we were happy to leave the "CST off" setting to Ferrari's legendary test drivers Dario Benuzzi and Luca Badoer who joined our team for the drive.
After showing its more playful side, the California is happy to oblige more relaxed cruising, dismissing highway miles with authority. Our minds soon wandered to epic cross-continental journeys, leaving us with little doubt that the California would be a rewarding choice for such an adventure. With the roof up, the California slips through the air like a hot knife through warm butter, only the roaring engine note and a faint whisper of the rushing wind permeating the cabin. With the roof down, the experience becomes more visceral, but not so disruptive as to prevent civilized conversation even at highway speeds.
Ferrari calls the California a 2+. That's not a typo, and while the California is homologated as a four-seater, the rear seats are severely short on leg room – like those found in the Aston DB9 Volante, Porsche 911 Cabrio or Lexus SC430 – leaving them usable only by small children or for a spin around the block with friends. They're more useful for extra baggage and can fold flat to allow pass-through from the generous trunk, which together with the trick folding hard-top makes the California the most versatile Ferrari in the company's range, if not in its history.
A removable wind deflector screen can be snapped into place over the rear seats to reduce wind buffeting, but its removal did little to impede our discourse over the pleasure of the experience. When we stepped out of the car we found the prevailing currents, which hadn't so much as budged the cap from atop this writer's head, had comically turned up the collar on our polo shirt like some divine welcome to the world of Italian open-air motoring.
Reluctantly walking away from the car also gave us perspective to answer the essential question: Was Enzo right? Is the next Ferrari really the best Ferrari? After spending a day behind the wheel of the latest to roll out the factory gates at Maranello, we're left with little doubt. But even that would be erased if one day behind the wheel turned into every day. Of course that's just one writer's opinion... but opinion can count for a lot.