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Week at the Wheel: Ferrari California. Image by Syd Wall.

Week at the Wheel: Ferrari California
Even Britain's winter couldn't take the shine off Ferrari's California - one of the best-rounded cars from the Prancing Horse yet.


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| Week at the Wheel | Ferrari California |

Inside & Out: star star star star star

Any reservations we initially had about the California's looks have been dispelled with familiarity. It's a busy design, but there's no denying that there's some real drama to its lines. It works best roof up, which is just as well as December in the UK means there are few (i.e. zero) opportunities to drop the top except for a few seconds for photography.

The front and profile are its best angles, the rear somewhat over-done in our opinions with the stacked rear exhausts - though Ferrari does claim that this allows better control of airflow under the car. We'd happily sacrifice a bit of never to be used top-speed ground effect for more conventional looking pipes. No complaints inside though, where the optional chocolate leather covered cabin looks fantastic - even if Ferrari has tried to ruin it by fitting a satnav system shared with Chrysler.

The rear 'seats' are laughable though; even Ferrari can't bring itself to claim that it's a 2+2 - instead calling it a '2+'. Plus what is a mystery, as you'll not need it for luggage - even with the roof down the California has a decent amount of space in the boot. Roof up it's remarkably practical.

Engine & Transmission: star star star star star

There are plenty of badges inside to remind you it's a Ferrari but pressing the big red button on the steering wheel makes sure you're left with no doubts. The 4.3-litre V8 starts with the distinctive flat-plane crank flare, the revs rising then settling to an even intent-laden idle. Pull the large right hand paddle and the transaxle located seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic (a first for a Ferrari) selects first. Touch the accelerator and the California pulls away with none of the jerkiness of Ferrari's robotised manual systems, the dual-clutch unit a serious boon in low-speed manoeuvres. The gearbox retains its smoothness through all its changes though, shifting seamlessly in either automatic or manual modes - regardless of the engine speed.

With seven gears to choose from you're kept busy at the paddles. Not least as you'll want to wring the 4.3-litre V8 out as long as possible. Doing so allows you to hear its intense tones at high revs. It's not quite the maniacal sound its 458 Italia relative makes, nor is it as insanely fast, but it's still unmistakably a Ferrari. The figures show it'll reach 62mph in 3.9 seconds, but fast as it feels its performance never feels savage or as if it needs to be reined in, the California's demeanour remarkably benign even when you're in the upper reaches of the engine's rev range. Four hundred and sixty bhp is a healthy number, but with cars like AMG's SL 600, SL 63/65 and the BMW M6 achieving comfortably more it's a bit surprising that Ferrari hasn't delivered more from the front-mounted V8 - its 458 relative delivering a more potent 570bhp.

The California's V8 doesn't rev as insanely high as the 9,000rpm 458 Italia's though, the California's smaller capacity unit's delivery suiting its more all-round remit than the racer-edge of its mid-engined relative. It's unlikely anyone will find the California's performance lacking; it's just not quite as intoxicating an experience as can be found in the Italia - nor as brutal in the mid-range as some of its rivals. It's difficult to criticise it for that though, as Ferrari admits that the California is aimed at drivers looking for greater day-to-day driveability than outright lap times. That being the case it's a shame that very light throttle inputs result in a blare from the exhaust; it's not often you'll find us complaining about the noise a Ferrari makes but it makes gaining pace gradually at motorway speeds an unnecessarily loud experience.

Ride & Handling: star star star star star

With a more useable brief you might think that the California offers a benign, anodyne experience. While it's certainly not in the other-worldly league of its 458 relation the California is still a proper sports car. The ride is remarkably composed though, the California riding bumps and ripples with real ability, the steering light yet incisive. The front-engined, rear transaxle layout creates near-perfect weight balance, and the California reveals some real talent from its chassis when you dig deep. You need to break through its initial layer of civility to do so, the cruiser edge to its set-up overcome by playing around with the Manettino dial and upping the thresholds of the traction and stability systems, as well as speeding up the response of the gearbox and throttle.

The result is a car of impressive ability, the California revealing a side to its personality that's worthy of the badge on its bonnet, wings, steering wheel and rump. It's a Ferrari, not as we've known before, but more accessible, friendly and useable. That it excelled over everything from motorways to slippery winter back roads, providing impressive grip and traction in all conditions, demonstrates its impressive roundedness, though there's no denying that to achieve this Ferrari has dialled out some of the intoxicating character usually associated with its cars. In many ways it feels like a scaled down 612 Scaglietti, when really we were perhaps looking for a miniature 599 GTB.

Equipment, Economy & Value for Money: star star star star star

With a 140,000 starting price you'd expect a car with equipment. You'd be right, but then the expectation is that you'll spend about 10-20 percent more on extras. Things like the glorious to look at - if not that comfortable - Daytona leather seats in the optional chocolate leather interior of our test car. Then there are the Ferrari shields on the wings and the painted rev-counter, as well as a number of other small details that you can pick to make the California unique to you. Go daft and Ferrari will paint it in any colour and trim it in any leather and carbon combination you like, though you'll need pretty deep pockets to do so. Economy for a 460bhp V8 supercar is acceptable, but just try and get close to the 21.5mpg combined figure...

Overall: star star star star star

There's no doubting that the Ferrari California is a very impressive car. It's fast, composed, easy to drive, comfortable and capacious - so long as you're not intent on using the rear seats. It's difficult to get really excited about it though, but then that's perhaps the point. With the mid-engined 458 Italia moving to a completely different stratosphere in the performance world there are certain to be plenty of Ferrari customers out there - and those coming from other brands - wanting something a bit less intense, a little less extreme. The California is exactly that, a car you really could use everyday.

Kyle Fortune - 24 Dec 2009    - Ferrari road tests
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- California images

2009 Ferrari California specifications:
Technical specifications for 2009 Ferrari California

2009 Ferrari California. Image by Syd Wall.2009 Ferrari California. Image by Syd Wall.2009 Ferrari California. Image by Syd Wall.2009 Ferrari California. Image by Syd Wall.2009 Ferrari California. Image by Syd Wall.

2009 Ferrari California. Image by Syd Wall.2009 Ferrari California. Image by Syd Wall.2009 Ferrari California. Image by Syd Wall.2009 Ferrari California. Image by Syd Wall.2009 Ferrari California. Image by Syd Wall.

2009 Ferrari California. Image by Syd Wall.

2009 Ferrari California. Image by Syd Wall.

2009 Ferrari California. Image by Syd Wall.

2009 Ferrari California. Image by Syd Wall.

2009 Ferrari California. Image by Syd Wall.

2009 Ferrari California. Image by Syd Wall.

2009 Ferrari California. Image by Syd Wall.

2009 Ferrari California. Image by Syd Wall.


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