Ferrari California (2009) review

Published:28 November 2008

  • At a glance
  • 5 out of 5
  • 5 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5
  • 5 out of 5
  • 5 out of 5

By Chris Chilton

Contributing editor, ace driver, wit supplier, mischief maker

By Chris Chilton

Contributing editor, ace driver, wit supplier, mischief maker

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It’s not exactly the new Dino some were expecting, but the launch of any new Ferrari is worth getting excited about. Yes, even if, like the new California, it’s poles apart from the brilliant Scuderia.

CAR broke new e-turf back at the California launch in October 2008, when we filed a real-time test drive, blogging live from the Sicilian event with our first impressions of Ferrari's new coupe-cabriolet.

So if it’s not a Dino, what is the new Ferrari California?

The California is a front-engined GT, Ferrari’s first front-engined-V8, its first coupe-cabrio and its first to be fitted with a dual-clutch gearbox. That’s a lot of firsts. Here’s another one: it’s the first Ferrari that has been designed specifically to attract women to the brand.

Excuse the misogynist tone, but you had me all fired up until that!

We’re with you. There are plenty of women who appreciate drivers’ cars just as there are many men who don’t. But when Ferrari says it’s hoping that 50% of California buyers will be women and that they’ll be choosing the car instead of top-spec SLs and Bentleys, you can’t help but worry that this Ferrari isn’t going to feel anything like a Ferrari.

Anything to suggest it does?

Plenty, thankfully. Let’s start with the engine: Ferrari could have fitted a conventional cross-plane crank V8, like the one it makes for Maserati, instead of the race-style flat-plane crank it uses in the regular F430. But Ferrari says that the latter was essential both to develop the required power and ensure that the finished car felt like a proper Ferrari. Sighs of relief all round.

So instead of making a soft woofly noise, the California's V8 screams, In fact it sounds exactly the way you’d hope a Ferrari would. And instead of cranking out 420bhp and topping out at 7000rpm, it kicks out 453bhp and revs to 8000rpm. Nice.

>> Click 'Next' below to read more of our Ferrari California first drive review


That’s still less than the F430 produces though...

It is, because the two engines are not exactly the same. Although both displace 4.3 litres, the California’s V8 has a wider bore and shorter stroke. And while you might expect that to make it more of a screamer, it actually produces 30bhp less than the F430 but slightly more torque. Incredibly, against the clock the front-engined car manages the same 4.0sec 0-62mph time, despite weighing 300kg more and in theory having less traction.

But perhaps the biggest difference is that the California’s engine has direct injection which has brought the CO2 emissions down to 306g/km  – not bad for a Ferrari – and improved fuel consumption from around 18mpg to 22mpg. That’s not going to save the planet, but it is progress.

But it’s sprung like a blancmange to appeal to American businesswomen, right?

The California is definitely softer than an F430, but then this is a GT car. So it rides incredibly well, at least on the optional magnetohorological suspension fitted to our test car. Ferrari first used this system on the 599, but the California is far more supple. But before you go getting the wrong idea, let’s make it clear that this Ferrari still feels like a real Ferrari. The steering is too light (as it is on the 599 and F430), but it’s quick, accurate and does send subtle messages back to your hands.

You’ll be picking up other messages too, particularly from your posterior which will very quickly notice how easy is to balance this car through corners. Siting the engine well behind the front axle line means it turns in sweetly and can be drifted through quicker corners with ease. (Want proof? Check out Georg Kacher's sideways shot here). No other luxury convertible is so much fun to push hard on roads more suited to a Lotus Elise.

Sounds like the Ferrari California might be worthy of the name after all. But how does it stack up as the luxury cruiser it will be bought for?

Very well. The new seven-speed dual clutch gearbox is an incredible bit of kit: lightning fast between the cogs when you’re on it, and with a well judged auto mode that will give non tech-head buyers no reason to suspect that this is anything other than a conventional epicyclic automatic as fitted to their old Bentley.

The cabin quality is excellent and the rear seats are at least as spacious as those in a Porsche 911 – which means that they’re fine for kids and even adults could probably handle a couple of minutes until deep vein thrombosis sets in.

>> Click 'Next' below to read more of our Ferrari California first drive review

What about the California's roof?

Works brilliantly, giving a genuine coupe feel when raised and storing beneath the rear deck in just 14sec. Even in cabrio mode, the structure feels incredibly stiff and there’s still a generous 240 litres of boot space – which is essentially the reason that the back end looks so ungainly. That rises to a massive 340 litres with the roof up, while buyers not needing rear seats can swap them for a luggage platform.


Admit it, you were worried that the California was going to be too soft and sully the name of the world’s most evocative car maker. If we’re honest, so were we.

But the reality is a car that perfectly captures the essence of a great Ferrari while simultaneously successfully appealing to a new breed of luxury car drivers.

These are people who wouldn’t dream of driving a car without carpets no matter how good you told them the Scuderia was to drive. That even Scuderia fans will find something to like here is testament to the great job Ferrari has done.

>> Click 'Add your comment' below and let CAR know what you think of Ferrari's new California


Price when new: £143,000
On sale in the UK: Now
Engine: 4297cc 32v V8, 453bhp @ 7750rpm, 357lb ft @ 5000rpm
Transmission: Seven-speed twin clutch, rear-wheel drive
Performance: Sub 4sec 0-62mph, 193mph, 22mpg, 306g/km CO2
Weight / material: 1725kg/aluminium
Dimensions (length/width/height in mm): 4228/1777/1437


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By Chris Chilton

Contributing editor, ace driver, wit supplier, mischief maker