Driven: Ferrari California Handling Speciale

If there's such a thing as a Ferrari with suspect PistonHeads credentials, it's the California. The front-engined V8 with the folding hardtop seems more a rival for that king of cruisers, the Mercedes SL, than 'proper' sports cars.

Lighter, (much) stiffer in chassis and 30hp more
Lighter, (much) stiffer in chassis and 30hp more
In one way it is. 70 per cent of buyers are new to the marque, which must show that Ferrari has judged it right. There are a whole bunch of drivers out there who no longer need to be scared off by Ferrari ownership.

But a few demand more. The California's mid-life makeover is far more radical than seems to make sense. The aluminium chassis gets a total reworking, 60 per cent of the parts new with 12 types of aluminium alloy in place of eight, all to get a weight reduction of a mere 30kg. That represents a saving of less than two per cent. It does, though, give Ferrari the opportunity to explain again, yet again, and once again, how much better aluminium is as a chassis material than a carbon fibre monocoque like the Woking boys use.

Still no stunner but bringing new buyers in
Still no stunner but bringing new buyers in
Step in the right direction
Although 8,000 Californias have been built so far, the unit cost of this redesign is high. But the constructional changes are also a step in the direction of the next generation California, something that will be lighter still with increased use of bonding in places of welds. The 2012 model also gets another 30hp, now reaching 490hp. Not so sissy, then, when 0-62mph is reached in 3.8 seconds. Two changes - a reed valve in the crankcase to reduce pumping losses, and a revised exhaust manifold - account for the most of the difference.

Of greater significance is the £4,320 Handling Speciale pack. It's aimed at serial Ferrari buyers who want an extra dose of magic from their California driving experience. The steering is nine per cent quicker, stiffness front and rear is up 15 per cent and 11 per cent respectively, and new logic to the SCM suspension control reduces body roll.

Handling Speciale pack stiffens chassis
Handling Speciale pack stiffens chassis
Teeming wet roads north of Maranello are not the ideal place to evaluate the handling characteristics of an uprated chassis, but we had a go. Initially it's the faster steering that grabs your attention. Back-to-back with the 'ordinary' 2012 California, the Handling Speciale instantly feels more alive, with the need to cross arms reduced by far more than a mere nine per cent increase in rack gearing would seem possible.

Degrees of discomfort
My co-driver thought it too twitchy but I loved it. We were more in accord about the suspension, which once again seemed to have changed more than the numbers suggest.

Firm or super-firm, depending on where the Manettino is set, it probably does the right thing on a circuit but seems frankly unnecessary on public roads, particularly the ones we get in the UK. Still, you have to respect Ferrari for offering buyers the choice. Porsche sells enough GT3s on a similar principle.

Just the weather for testing a stiffer cabrio
Just the weather for testing a stiffer cabrio
It was, as mentioned, too wet to make fine judgements about the differences, except to know there was little wrong with the original California chassis and suspension. It has a clever trick of feeling like a grand tourer with the transmission in Auto and Manettino set to Comfort, yet move to paddle shift and Sport and it's a different beast.

This is a genuine, balls-out supercar, eye-wincingly fast with a chassis that will move around enough to make your heart miss a beat, yet ultimately pull everything back into line. It's very satisfying. The changes for 2012 will, one suspects, go unnoticed by that 70 per cent of customers new to the brand, probably others too. But the modifications will be enough to encourage an upgrade to the latest California, while the handling pack will excite a few more. Not sure we'd go down that route though. We'd keep our California in standard spec and use the 458 for track work.

4,297cc V8, direct-injection
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 490@7,7500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 372@5,000rpm
0-62mph: 3.8sec
Top speed: 194mph
Weight: 1,735kg
MPG: 21.5mpg (NEDC combined)
CO2: 299g/km
Price: £156,436 (before options)




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Comments (43) Join the discussion on the forum

  • BarbaricAvatar 23 Apr 2012

    Well done, you've found an angle from which the California actually looks pretty good; head-on!
    The rest of the pictures ruin it somewhat and it still fails to spark any small-boy fascination from within me. Extraordinary talent sure, but modern Ferrari's are no longer pin-up's. Desire for one = 0.

  • Luca Brasi 23 Apr 2012

    I quite like the Cali's looks boxedin

  • mikebradford 23 Apr 2012

    I have seen a few of the original spec ones, a white one in otley owned by khan. And a black one in Leeds, have to admit in black with the roof up I liked it in the flesh.

  • SrMoreno 23 Apr 2012

    You didn't get Chris Harris to test it, then....

  • fozzymandeus 23 Apr 2012

    My favourite car you can buy new, considering I haven't driven it.

    Journalistic input suggests it'd be up my boulevard though.

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