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Ferrari California Handling Speciale (2012) review

Published:19 April 2012

Ferrari California Handling Speciale (2012) review
  • At a glance
  • 4 out of 5
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By Chris Chilton

Contributing editor, ace driver, wit supplier, mischief maker

By Chris Chilton

Contributing editor, ace driver, wit supplier, mischief maker

Ferrari has revised its entry-level car, the front-engined and folding-hardtop California, stripping out weight, adding power and introducing an optional handling package.

Pass me the electron microscope, I’m struggling to see the difference between this revised Ferrari California and the one you drove back in 2009...

Forget the microscope, it’s an x-ray machine you need because the important mods are all beneath the skin. Ferrari redesigned the load paths on the California’s aluminium body structure, chopping 30kg from the kerbweight while retaining the same torsional rigidity, and extracted another 30bhp from the 4.3-litre for good measure. The top speed climbs to 193mph, and the 0-62mph time drops from a smidgen to 3.8sec.

And what about this optional handling pack?

It’s proper name is the Handling Speciale package, it costs £4320 and the idea is to give the 70% of California buyers that are new to the brand and the 30% that already have another Ferrari, a driving experience a little more extreme without compromising the usability and general friendliness.

With the latter in mind, unlike the HGT packs offered on the 575 and 599, the HS package focuses purely on the chassis, and doesn’t include exhaust mods. There’s a 10% quicker steering rack, reducing the number of turns from 2.5 to 2.3, while the springs are 15% stiffer up front, 11% at the rear, and the magnetorheological dampers are retuned to suit.

Does that turn it into a baby Ferrari 599?

No, that was never the aim, but it definitely feels more alert, more up for a pasting than we remember the original car being. The ride is certainly a little firmer and the quicker steering feels slightly edgy going into high speed coreners unless you’ve summoned the extra damping support by flicking the California’s dumbed-down manettino (only three settings) from Comfort to Sport. That rack also makes the California slightly less fun to slide around because it can get a little snatchy as you try and measure out minute amounts of opposite lock, although that’s hardly likely to trouble the average (and often female, remember) buyer.

But the body control is way better than that 2009 car’s and once you adjust to the steering’s speed, learn to just nudge the wheel into corners rather than trying to take big chunks out of them, you start to appreciate how tidy the HS is. The engine might be at the front, but with the excellent dual-clutch ‘box over the rear axle, traction is very good. The biggest impediment to going fast across country is the girth of the A-pillars. It’s like having a giant redwood at each side of the windscreen.

So the HS kit is definitely worth the premium?

I would have said yes, until I drove the updated standard car afterwards. Because that too benefits from noticably improved body control (if not as strong as the HS car’s), but its more pliant ride and more relaxed steering arguably better suits a car that is, after all, the cruiser in the Ferrari range. The HS is definitely more fun, more like the front-engined sports car we might have expected Ferrari to make, but it’s still no 458, and not just in the way it goes around corners. The kick in the back, the yell in the ear, the firmness of that brake pedal underfoot: the California, even in HS guise, is less overtly sporting in every way.

So why on earth would anyone choose a California over the 458 Spider?

Well there’s the small matter of the £50k price difference. When you consider that the 458 Spider costs £198,906 before you’ve even glanced at the options list, a California at £152,086 looks pretty good value. It’s also got a vast boot and the option to add two (admittedly tiny) rear seats.

As Ferrari always intended, they’re very different cars aimed at very different customers, yet both have proved massively succesful. More than 8000 Californias have been sold in the last four years, and most were conquest sales. 

Verdict

Bottom line: if you’re the sort of person who gets a kick out of a car like the 458, even the HS California won’t quite do it. It’s not that the California is a bad car – far from it – it just fulfills a different brief, and thanks to these new changes, it’s now even better. The HS pack ups the fun quotient, but given the California’s intended role, we think the improved standard car is probably the better bet for most buyers. Us? We’d be looking down the back of that sofa, hoping to turn up the extra £50k for a 458.

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Specs

Price when new: £152,086
On sale in the UK: Now
Engine: 4297cc 32v V8, 483bhp @ 7750rpm, 372lb ft @ 5000rpm
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch, rear-wheel drive
Performance: 3.8sec 0-62mph, 194mph, 24.6mpg, 270g/km CO2
Weight / material: 1735kg/aluminium
Dimensions (length/width/height in mm): 4562/1909/1322mm

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  • Ferrari California Handling Speciale (2012) review
  • Ferrari California Handling Speciale (2012) review

By Chris Chilton

Contributing editor, ace driver, wit supplier, mischief maker

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