Test Driven: 2011 Ferrari California (8/10)

Ferrari California

I have been rather critical of the Ferrari California in the past, saying it has a flawed appeal because it is the “baby” Ferrari. While I still do stick to many of these sentiments, I wanted to drive one for myself before closing the book on the car altogether. I found an opportunity to drive a California at New Jersey Motorsports Park with Imagine Lifestyles, and I started to really think about the car’s appeal. This left me with two big questions to answer; is the California a proper Ferrari experience? and, is a new California worth considering over pre owned Ferraris in the same price range? I also found that the Ferrari California is basically the “Mazda Miata Of Supercars”, in all regards both positive and negative. I will explain what I mean by that later on.  

The first thing you should know is that the California was an entirely new type of car for Ferrari when it came out. It was aimed at customers who would usually buy an Aston Martin DB9 or one of the Mercedes SL AMGs. They came up with a solid hard top convertible design that looks great with the top up or down. It was to be an entry-level Grand Touring car for Ferrari, with an MSRP a tad under $200k in an effort to bring these new customers to the Ferrari brand. It is definitely a car for the street in purpose because it takes on all the great boulevard cruisers, so the ideal way to experience a California would be on a nice sunny day having a drive through the countryside. I however had it on a racetrack on an overcast day in South Jersey, so I had to see how it handled as a proper Ferrari in a proper performance setting.

I have seen hundreds of Californias by now, so it is not a car that totally blows me away when I see one driving around. However, taking a minute to look at the car, I realize it is really something sexy. The California is the quintessential hot sports car, especially the red on I am about to drive. It has nice sleek lines that give it that classic Ferrari allure, and it is one of the only convertibles that looks just as good top up as it does top down. The California is a fantastic looking car, and it surely has sex appeal to spare.

On the inside the California is pretty standard for a modern Ferrari. It has many steering wheel mounted controls, but has a more basic mannetino than an F430 or 458. Paddle shifters sit behind each side of the wheel, although I have already been informed we will be staying in automatic for this drive (I know that sucks). The seats are tightly wrapped racing style buckets that hold me snugly, comfortable but mostly supportive. Everything is either fine Italian leather or is made from carbon fiber, and it still has that “hard” feeling I have talked about in other Ferraris. Overall the interior is a nice place to be, but the focus is clearly on driving the car over admiring its fit and finish.

We were supposed to have a warm up lap, but my natural pace kicked in once out there and I decide to see what that California was made of. I forwent braking into an oncoming right hander and threw the car in hard to see how it would do. I was delighted to find that the it was beautifully composed. I had figured Ferrari would do their part on the chassis, but I can never be totally sure with cars that are status symbols by nature. Through the next few corners I continue to be impressed by the car’s handling, it is very well balanced, a properly designed front engine- rear drive sports car. As in other Ferraris, steering is light and precise with tons of feel and razor sharp response. On one tighter bend I decide to test the limits of the traction control (in Sport), so I give the wheel a bit of a jerk mid corner while prodding the throttle a bit too. The car gives just a little bit of slip, nothing too dramatic, but a slight correction of the wheel is necessary. I love Ferrari Traction control because it is intelligent and doesn’t just cut out all the power going to the wheels like many other systems do.

Through the next few tight corners I hold back some to let the Subaru WRX pace car get a nice lead on me before the main straight. Once through the tight bends I get on the throttle hard, carving straight through two chicanes before the final bend onto the main straight. I lift for just an instant, line up the turn, then give it full throttle through the bend at 90mph and attack the main straight with all guns blazing. The car howled as the revs climbed, speed was gaining quickly, and I was gaining rapidly on the little WRX pace car. I saw 130mph on the speedo before I engaged the powerful carbon ceramic brakes well before the braking zone for corner #1. I am sure I could have seen 140mph had it not been for the pace car, but I was told I would max out around 100-110mph by their people, so I was plenty happy with 130.

The California is very quick though, and on the street it is far more than fast. It is definitely faster than a DB9, but I would say it is right on par in straightline speed with the likes of a Corvette Grandsport. The car I drove was a 2011 model with a 453hp 4.3L V8 and weighed around 3800lbs. The new 2012 California has received a bump up to 485hp and has lost some weight, so it will be even quicker than the car I drove. That engine makes a proper Ferrari sound too, and nice resonating wail that echoes off of everything. The California is a brilliant visceral car, and I must say a proper Ferrari experience all around.

Now for the transmission issue: While I was a bit disappointed, I suspected that a large number of California owners may actually use the auto mode on a daily basis, so it at least seemed relevant. I had never driven a Ferrari in automatic mode before, and I actually found it to be quite decent on the track. The real trick to it is staying on the gas so that it won’t upshift into the higher gears early. It did a pretty good job of holding gears, and most of the time it was in the gear I would have been in anyway. The only real trick is anticipating the car having to downshift on larger straights when you give it full throttle. I cured this by going full throttle very early before the bend before the straight, but I heard many people who waited wasting precious time downshifting on the straight because they did not gas early enough. When it shifted, it shifted quick because of its dual clutch design. The red lights on the steering wheel lit up as the revs climbed, obviously borrowing from other Ferraris but a nice touch. So, in a nutshell, the Ferrari automatic function on the California is pretty good, but you have to know what it is doing in order to use it properly for performance. Staying on the gas is a must.

The rest of the drive was taken just as hard, and I was having an absolute blast. The people in the pace car kept getting pissed at me for constantly being up their ass, but hey I was in a Ferrari and they were in a Subaru, I could only hold myself back so much. The California handled brilliantly; it is so well balanced and has so much grip to exploit through corners. In the tight section of the track I listened spot on to my instructor’s commands and threw the car into a tightly decreasing apex at around double the speed I would have though possible. The car gripped and held everything together, the G forces were mind numbing and I felt like I was just hanging on for dear life. I just kept focusing on keeping the car pointed in the right direction, and to my astonishment we pulled through. The California has some very serious performance ability, and is quite the driver’s car despite all of it’s boulevard appeal.

So about the whole “Miata Of Supercars” analogy; I see many parallels between these cars at their different levels. Both cars are used as fashion accessories by many of their owners and they both have a sort of “girly” image as a result. Such owners tend to not be car enthusiasts, and especially with the Ferrari, have the car purely as a status symbol for their own personal image. Such use gets no respect from real car enthusiasts, and has tarnished the images of both of these cars greatly in the eyes of many. However, for those who can look past each car’s general image, a fantastic automobile is to be found. Both cars deliver a great driving experience that can be enjoyed on the track with tires squealing, or on the open road with the wind in your hair. They both have that roadster appeal that makes them perfect for those back road blasts on sunny days. They are also both a bit underpowered for their class, making them more approachable to more drivers and giving them a wider appeal. So, given all this I believe the Miata and the California, despite being at opposite ends of the market, share a certain character trait between them. Many people have them for purely superficial reasons, and many other people hate these cars because of that, but for those who really know what they are looking at each car is exceptional.

As for my questions the answers are as follows. Yes the California is a proper Ferrari. It is a brilliant dynamic experience, with a glorious engine, razor sharp response, and unbelievable handling, all wrapped up in a sleek Italian body. It gives you the right emotions while you drive it, that all-important symbiosis between man and machine is present and accounted for. Now for the question of whether the California is worth considering in comparison to used F430s, 575Ms, 612 Scagliettis, etc. I would say it is worth a serious comparison because the California has all of the most modern Ferrari technology in it as well as a factory warranty to cover any mishaps. It may not be quite as fast as a those others in a straight line, but it is a great overall driving experience, and its hardtop convertible design offers more versatility than any of the older Ferraris. Also, the new 2012 Californias won’t be quite so down on power by comparison as they now match the likes of the F430 and 550 Maranello. So compared to other, pre owned Ferraris, a new California is definitely worth a look for around $200k.

As for me personally I came away from this with a new respect and appreciation for the Ferrari California. I stick to my past criticisms of the car’s poser appeal for all of the reasons I discussed in prior articles, but in doing this drive I realized that it is a very good car. Take away all the stigmas, and you are left with a great overall sports car that is just as good on the track as it is on the street. Sure it may be “the Ferrari you buy your wife”, but the key word in that phrase is not “wife”, it is “Ferrari”. Would I buy a California? Not new because for $200k I would rather have an SLS AMG, Audi R8 V10, or a Porsche 911 Turbo S. If I was only interested in Ferraris though, then I would definitely look into it, and I would absolutely recommend one to someone looking in that price range. It is a more capable driver’s car than either an Aston DB9 or a Merc SL65, and it has the extra Ferrari appeal that adds to its price. I just wish it had started around $150k instead of $200k because then it would be decent value for money, but I understand Ferraris will always command a hefty premium when new. Lets just hope Californias depreciate like gangbusters so that they may come into a reasonable price range soon. I really like the Ferrari California having driven it now. Hopefully true enthusiasts will wind up buying them from the posers once the next fashion fad hits, and the California can be appreciated for what it really is, a fantastic, new breed of Ferrari GT car.

WoM Score: Ferrari California

Primary Function: Performance: 2………. a little slower than other 200k cars, but makes up for it with crisp dynamics, and handling
Secondary Functions: Practicality(2), Luxury(2): 2
Visual Appeal: 2
Build Quality: 2
Value for Money: 0

Final Score: 8/10

-Nick Walker


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