Ferrari California T Handling Speciale: Review

Can the California T really be considered Speciale enough to carry a name that now carries with it more than a little expectation?

This isn't a California T Speciale of course. It's a California T Handling Speciale, Ferrari retreading the path it took with the original California to prove its arch boulevardier can be as rampante as any other cavallino. To that end the £5,568 package stiffens springs (16 per cent front, 19 per cent rear), offers new calibration for the SCM3 Magneride dampers, dual-clutch gearbox and F1-Trac stability control as well as fitting a new exhaust system with completely redesigned gas flow and silencers. You also get a little Handling Speciale plaque on the centre tunnel and Grigio Ferro Met (matt silver to you and me) colouring for the grille and diffuser.

Enough for we driving gods and purists to welcome it with open arms then? There may be some 'not a proper Ferrari' snobbery aimed at the California but those who actually buy into the dream seem to love it, just over 10,000 of the previous naturally-aspirated versions helping bring new buyers into the fold. Cameron Diaz's character in The Counselor was certainly a fan, the evolution into the turbocharged era with the California T received with (thankfully just platonic) enthusiasm by Chris Harris when he drove it for PH on launch in 2014.

You want noise? You got noise!
You want noise? You got noise!
Movin' on up
Ferrari reckons those moving across from equivalent cars - perhaps an Aston Martin Vanquish Volante, AMG SL or 911 Turbo S Cabriolet - appreciate the existing California T's more GT-oriented pitch. Meanwhile those moving up and into their first Ferrari want something with a little more attitude and, for want of a better word, Ferrariness. And that's where the Handling Speciale comes in.

First thing you notice is the noise. There's nothing subtle about the start-up bark of the twin-turbo V8 and, unlike some, it never really subsides either. Combined with the whistles and whooshes of the forced induction system it's a showboater's delight; if you're actually going to use it as a daily drive rather than a metropolitan posing pouch it might actually be a little much. Or maybe we're just getting old.

Those who rarely leave the city limits won't be enjoying the best of the suspension modifications either. The dampers may have a broader range than before - the gap between Comfort and Sport much wider on the HS than it is the standard car - but the increased spring rates mean a degree of harshness over the pitter patter of drain covers and speed bumps is inescapable. Occasionally you detect just a sense of shimmy through the body or steering column too, something notably absent in the revised (motoring journalist cliche alert!) hewn from solid Mercedes SL we drove recently.

Looks great, but some rivals are better
Looks great, but some rivals are better
National pride
At mooching speed you can't help but notice also that the interior is a step behind both the SL and 911 Turbo S in terms of touchy feely quality and tech. They're subtle, but the signs that it's a Ferrari built to a price point are there, be it superficial stuff like the switchgear or quality of the nav graphics. The latter would just about pass muster on a supermini but against the slick OE systems from the Germans it's second rate in looks and operation.

And that's the thing, isn't it? If you're buying an SL or 911 Turbo S you're at the very peak of the respective manufacturers' ranges. The California T overlaps on price but is the very first rung of the next category up - are you happier with a brand at its very best or the entry level of a fancier badge?

Such existential musings seem less significant as you leave the traffic behind and get onto the kind of roads where you might want your handling to be a little more speciale. In the modern Ferrari style the steering is fast and light, turn-in helped by a balance tipped more in favour of front-end bite than safety understeer. It's still no 488 GTB in this respect and the inertia of the front-engined layout means it can't match the mid-engined car's agility through rapid direction changes.

Not a proper Ferrari? Don't be daft!
Not a proper Ferrari? Don't be daft!
Speciale school
But it feels more nimble than the somewhat blunt SL and more honest in feel and feedback than the Porsche, effective as its tech overload of active anti-roll, four-wheel steering, four-wheel drive and torque vectoring might be. A point-to-point comparison between the three would be very interesting; the Porsche would likely be the quickest especially on a wet day or traction-limited surface, the SL's huge torque advantage over the Ferrari - a massive 664lb ft against 557lb ft - likely giving it more corner-exit grunt too. You'd wager the California T driver would be having the most fun though.

Harris went into some detail about the clever torque management through the gears and the same applies to the Handling Speciale version; response, reach and character really are spectacular for a turbocharged engine and significant for introducing us to the age of the new-school forced induction Ferrari. Unlike the German cars it's easy to enjoy without getting bogged down in driver modes and configurability too; fundamentally the transaxle layout and 47:53 front to rear weight distribution means the car is inherently well balanced and doesn't need to hide behind an electronic smokescreen. Sure, the dampers actively stiffen to control roll but the limited-slip diff is predictable in its response and the whole car feels natural and instinctive in a way the rivals can't.

SL, Vanquish and 911 - the rivals are tough
SL, Vanquish and 911 - the rivals are tough
Comfort mode remains cautious, the frequency of the stability control interventions even at a moderate pace on dry tarmac pointing to its conservative GT remit. Sport mode slackens the leash a little and the car instantly feels keener and more readable - here a small a small amount of slip actually increases your faith in the chassis. ESC off isn't as scary as it sounds either, the car instead retaining a predictable balance and friendliness you don't get in a 488 GTB with all the nannies sent packing. That does make it very, very easy to go extremely fast though, the clever torque management through the gears, huge flexibility and lightening quick gearshifts giving you the option to just lean on in-gear grunt or make more theatrical progress through the gears as you wish.

Proper job then, or simply papering over the cracks? For cars of its type the California T is a convincing Ferrari spin on the theme. But Handling Speciale or not, it's still not quite the red-blooded sports car it desperately wants us to believe it is. A perfectly sound and respectable product, executed with some flair. But we're talking gentle evolution here, not revolution.

: 3,855cc, V8 twin-turbo
Transmission: 7-speed dual clutch auto, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 560@7,500rpm*
Torque (lb ft): 557@4,750rpm (in 7th gear)
0-62mph: 3.6sec
Top speed: 196mph
Weight: 1,625kg (with lightweight optional equipment)
MPG: 26.9mpg (NEDC combined)
CO2: 250g/km
Price: £160,798 (OTR, including Handling Speciale package)
*With 98 octane fuel











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Comments (30) Join the discussion on the forum

  • toppstuff 16 Mar 2016

    Of course it is a proper Ferrari !

    Ferrari have always, always made GT cars. It is ignorant to suggest otherwise.

    This happens to be a very good GT car.

    It is also one of the few Ferrari's where you can put some miles on it and use everyday, without fear of running the miles up and having the dealer pull your trousers down if your precious 458 has more than 12 miles on the clock.

    The tiresome sensitivity of more rarified Ferraris to even moderate use ( watch your dealer run for the hills if you try to sell a leggy 458 ) , makes the Cali T one of the most attractive, for me anyway.

  • zerovira 16 Mar 2016

    Even as a lifetime Ferrarri fan and GT lover, I find hard to justify this car in front of an Aston. It is too ugly to be a Ferrari.

    Great car, but not in the supercar level.

  • Honeywell 16 Mar 2016

    Were I in the market for a Ferrari this is the one I would buy now I am in my forties with small children.

    I think it looks fantastic and has interesting tech, a lovely sound and an acceptable image for a middle aged man. I probably wouldn't choose red. I think it will age well.

  • sealtt 16 Mar 2016

    I drove a lot of the original (well, the original-recent) Californias. It was a good car, but not quite good enough. Certainly wouldn't take one over a 911 or AMG SL unless I was just in it for the looks / badge, car just wasn't as good.

    The California T however fixed all the slight defects of the original California and is as a result, a genuinely great car. I went to the launch in Italy and at Millbrook and I was very impressed with the car, now really worth buying for more than just the badge. Would love to give this handling speciale version a go!

  • CGJ0 16 Mar 2016

    zerovira said:
    Even as a lifetime Ferrarri fan and GT lover, I find hard to justify this car in front of an Aston. It is too ugly to be a Ferrari.

    Great car, but not in the supercar level.
    I think to use the word supercar in respect of GTs is unhelpful anyway... looks are pretty subjective but Aston certainly aren't winning any points on the looks inside their cars, so dated.

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