Going Back to Cali

Ferrari updates the California with more power and less weight.

Going Back to Cali 1
May 31, 2013

At the 2008 Paris Auto Show, Ferrari introduced a new front-engined, V8-powered, retractable-hardtop Gran Turismo named the California. The car targeted customers who might have purchased a 250 GT PF Cabriolet in the 1950s or a Mondial Cab in the ’80s, and were now sniffing around the likes of the Aston Martin DB9 Volante and Mercedes-Benz SL. Among this audience, the California was a hit; among some Ferrari traditionalists, not so much.

The first and most vocal complaint from this faction was the re-use of the legendary California nameplate. While it was admittedly a stretch to equate the modern-day luxury machine to the minimalist Cal Spyder sports car of the late 1950s and early ’60s, repurposing monikers was certainly nothing new. Ferrari produced Mondials 30 years apart, for instance, not to mention two post-1960s GTOs.

The second major gripe focused on the California’s styling, particularly the bulbous rear end, which was needed to allow a bit of trunk space when the hardtop was folded away. Also criticized were the Cal Spyder-style hood scoop, stacked quad exhaust outlets and frowning rear fascia.

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The third big complaint centered on the car’s intended “non-enthusiast” audience. Numerous media outlets, and innumerable internet experts, opined that the company had lost its way/gone soft/sold out. But then people actually got to drive the car, and the story began to change.

Initially skeptical road testers applauded the California’s exceptional performance, handling and ride quality. While some media outlets labeled the driving experience “too disconnected” or “too computer-controlled,” or even complained that the car wasn’t “a real Ferrari,” the California mostly won over its critics.

Last year, with the California approaching its fifth birthday, Ferrari decided to give its baby GT a modest but meaningful update. The updated car didn’t receive enough hardware changes to warrant an M for Modificata model designation, but did get a new, unofficial (although still used by the factory) nickname: California 30. The logic will become clear shortly.

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The California’s 4.3-liter V8, which we first came to know and love in the mid-engined F430, received new exhaust headers and more aggressive engine mapping. Displacement remained the same and there were no other significant hardware changes, but the result was an increase of 30 horsepower, to a new total of 490 at 7,750 rpm. Peak torque grew to 372 lb-ft at 5,000 rpm, an increase of 15 lb-ft. The existing seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission remained unchanged.

There was another “30,” this one related to weight. The metal magicians inside the Scaglietti body plant reworked parts of the California’s chassis with additional aluminum alloys and new construction and fabrication techniques. This effort led to a weight loss of 30 kilograms, or about 65 pounds, with no reduction in structural rigidity or overall performance. The latter actually increased, with Ferrari claiming a 0-62 mph time of 3.8 seconds, a 0.2-second improvement over the original. (In various real-world tests, however, the car has proven even quicker.)

While the California 30’s styling remained unchanged, there were a number of new paint colors available, ranging from a palette of heritage-inspired hues from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s—including the dazzling metallic-red Rosso Fiorano on our featured car—to two-tone finishes and exotic three-stage paints.

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More interesting to driving enthusiasts was the optional Handling Speciale package, also fitted to our tester, which Ferrari described as “meet[ing] the needs of clients desiring a more dynamic, yet not overly extreme driving experience.” This setup’s mix of hardware and software changes consisted of a new ECU and sportier programming for the magnetorheological shocks, stiffer springs and a quicker steering rack, all designed to deliver faster response to driver inputs with less body roll.

WHEN I PICKED UP THE CALIFORNIA 30 for a long weekend of driving, though, I wasn’t really convinced. Sure, a 30-hp boost is nice, but that’s an increase in output of less than 7 percent. And while I’d love to lose that much weight, the car still tips the scales at nearly 3,800 pounds.

So do these relatively minor changes add up to a more engaging Ferrari? Oh, yes. By a lot.

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The V8 engine lights with a grumbly bark that reminds me of firing up a 430 Scuderia. Even with no other exhaust changes, the new manifolds have added an edgier tone to the California’s vocal chords. There was nothing wrong with the “old” California’s engine note, the new one just sounds better.

The California 30 also feels noticeably sharper when I get on the gas compared to the original. The aforementioned two tenths of a second drop in 0-62 mph time actually represents a major improvement in terms of acceleration; this car is seriously quick. Partial credit goes to the F1 transmission, which allows the California to launch aggressively and delivers blink-fast shifts both up and down through the gears. Ferrari claims a near 200-mph top speed for this car, and while I didn’t try that out, I can report that third gear is always good for a quick-and-easy, and truly glorious-sounding, 120 mph.

During the course of hundreds of miles behind the wheel, I regularly flipped between the manettino’s three dynamic modes: Comfort, Sport and ESC Off (a.k.a., no electronic nannies). While these settings alter all sorts of parameters, from throttle sharpness to stability-control intervention to exhaust noise, the most immediately noticeable change was to shock damping.

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It wasn’t so long ago that the differences between settings on some adjustable damper systems could barely be felt, if they could be felt at all. Not so here. Switch the manettino to Comfort and the ride instantly becomes more supple; select Sport and the ride stiffens up nicely without becoming harsh. In almost all circumstances, however, including rolling along Southern California’s borderline-crummy freeways, I preferred the sportier feel and control offered by Sport mode.

The key to it all is the Handling Speciale package’s magnetorheological dampers, which are otherwise optional on the California. The oil inside them is impregnated with tiny metal bits that react to electrical charges, instantly changing the oil’s viscosity and thus allowing constant modulation of damping. It’s a great technology for significantly expanding a car’s handling and comfort envelope.

In terms of handling, the Handling Speciale setup really delivers the goods. Ferrari’s claim of reduced body roll is spot-on, and the California 30 handles more confidently than the first-gen car. There’s also a bit more steering feedback and road feel than before, without any noticeable increase in steering effort. The car lives to run, loves to attack and does a far better job of telling you what it’s up to than its predecessor.

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The California has always had beautiful front/rear handling balance, and this hasn’t changed. The California 30’s overall attitude is generally neutral, with minimal understeer. There’s plenty of grip served up by the fat Pirelli PZero tires wrapped around this car’s optional diamond-finished 20-inch alloy wheels, although massive oversteer can be provoked by selecting ESC Off and hammering the throttle. The standard carbon-ceramic brakes provide all the strong, fade-proof stopping power you could likely ever ask for. Want to attend a track day? This Ferrari’s ready to go.

THE REST OF THE CALIFORNIA EXPERIENCE is pretty much unchanged. If you liked the exterior before, you still will. (I wasn’t a fan when the car was introduced, but its looks have really grown on me over the years.) The interior artfully blends sport and elegance, while fit-and-finish and material quality are superb. The automatic HVAC system is effective and easy to use. The comfortable power front seats fit occupants of almost any shape and size. There’s a smidge of seating for kids and modestly sized adults in back—Ferrari describes the California as a “2+,” not a “2+2”—but, since the trunk gets mighty small when the top is down, it’s likely that the cabin aft of the front seats will more often be used for luggage than people.

Raising and lowering the hardtop couldn’t be easier. Thumb the console-mounted button and all the latching, unlatching and panel folding takes place in a 20-second, fun-to-watch symphony of hydraulics, servo operation and limit switches. Top-down buffeting and wind noise are commendably low, given that there’s no separate wind blocker.

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This particular California 30 had one other eye-opening feature: $80,581 in options (against a base price of $197,000). In recent years, Ferrari has really been pushing its personalization program, and while it’s fantastic that buyers can spec their cars just the way they want, such freedom certainly don’t come cheap. For example, the exterior paint costs around $12,000, the carbon-fiber interior trim runs nearly $11,000, the Handling Speciale package adds another $7,000 and the parking sensors and back-up camera cost a little over $5,000. A few thousand here, a few thousand there, and soon you’re talking about enough money to buy a really nice used Ferrari!

What’s most important, however, is that the California 30 is one spectacular automobile. It’s fast, it handles superbly, it’s wonderfully refined and it delivers all the buzzes and tingles that a car wearing the Prancing Horse badge should. If anyone out there still doesn’t think this car is a “real” Ferrari, I say get over it—the California is the real deal.

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