Fits to a T

Updating the California with a turbocharged engine proves to be a perfect pairing.

Photo: Fits to a T 1
July 17, 2014

Conquests. That’s what the 2008 California was all about. Opening up the Ferrari experience to a whole new audience. And, boy, did it work: In the five and a bit years from launch, Maranello built 10,000 examples, making the California the single most popular Ferrari of all time (at least if you count the original car and the 2012-on California 30 as a single model). Seven out of every ten of those cars went to first-time Ferrari customers, guys—and thousands of gals—who might otherwise have bought a top-of-the-line Mercedes, an Aston Martin or maybe a Bentley. With that remit in mind, it was understandable that the California perhaps didn’t quite excite some of the people who already owned a Ferrari. That’s where the new California T comes in.

Before you even hear a single word about the new technology on this car, you know it’s a more serious machine. The revised styling is a joint project between Pininfarina, which designed the 2008 car, and Ferrari’s in-house team, led by design director Flavio Manzoni. Working together, they did a fine job of turning the friendly looking GT into something much more aggressive.

In front, the California’s grille has been expanded, its headlights pulled back and two broad hood vents added. Moving to the flanks, the coving is now far more pronounced and the waist more pinched, lending a harder, leaner look. But the most successful changes come at the rear. Hiding a folded hardtop without decimating trunk space was always going to make for a rather matronly rump, but by lowering the trunk lip fractionally and employing visual tricks like orienting the tailpipes horizontally instead of vertically and enlarging the diffuser, Manzoni has created the impression of a much lower, wider car. The overall result is a stronger, more modern design, one that stands on its own merit rather than relying on retro cues (particularly the now-departed old-school hood scoop) for its personality.

Photo: Fits to a T 2

So it’s a better-looking Ferrari, one that’s visually more in step with the company’s other current cars. And in its own way, the latest California is every bit as significant as the LaFerrari I drove in the last issue. The clue is in the T. It’s not the letter as used in the 1989 Mondial t, with its longitudinal engine mated to an east-west transmission. This time, the T stands for turbo, because the California T is the first of a new generation of turbocharged Ferrari road cars.

ENTHUSIASTS TEND TO THINK OF FERRARI as being master of the naturally aspirated engine, but the company has a long history with turbocharging. The 288 GTO and F40 are the most famous examples by far, and the current F14 T Grand Prix car is the most recent, but these are only part of the story. In the early and mid-1980s, during Formula 1’s last dalliance with forced induction, which saw the debut of the twin-turbo 126C series of GP machines, Ferrari built a number of 2-liter, home-market-only 308- and 328-based GTBs and GTSs. These cars received a destroked V8 to get past punishing tax penalties on cars with engines over 2 liters, but were then boosted to restore (some of) the lost sparkle.

Today, global pressure to cut CO2 emissions and, ironically, tough Chinese taxes on cars with large-capacity engines have prompted Ferrari to revisit turbocharging. However, it wasn’t until very recently that technical director Roberto Fedeli and his team became convinced that the technology existed to take this route without losing the cars’ distinctive character. While Maranello’s big GTs will keep their V12s, likely augmented with LaFerrari-derived KERS, the V8s will downsize with the help of turbos.

Photo: Fits to a T 3

The California T’s engine can trace its ancestry to the unit Ferrari builds for sister company Maserati, but it’s not the same V8 as found in the Quattroporte. While both measure 86.5mm across the bores, the 3,855cc Ferrari gains 57cc courtesy of a 1.2mm longer stroke, and only the California features the distinctive firing order that comes from a racing-style flat-plane crank V8. A slower-revving but more-refined cross-plane V8 makes sense in a luxury sedan like the Quattroporte, but Ferrari wanted to ensure the California still felt like a Ferrari.

Where the California 30’s naturally aspirated 4.3-liter engine made 490 hp at 7,750 rpm (up from 460 hp in the original version), this new one kicks out a thumping 560 hp at 7,500 rpm. But it’s the torque transformation that’s the big story here, the total now standing at 556 lb-ft, up from 372 lb-ft before. In reality, it’s a little more complicated than that, because the full 556 lb-ft is only available in the seventh ratio of the mandatory dual-clutch transmission. Punch the right pedal in any of the first three gears, and you’ll have a maximum of 450 lb-ft to play with, which climbs only to 479 lb-ft in sixth.

This unusual state of affairs is due to Ferrari tailoring the boost provided by two twin-scroll IHI turbochargers. Rather than use it to create a table-flat torque curve which provides even performance across the rev range, the engineers have built an engine that rewards revs. The idea is that when you’re cruising in the now 23-percent longer seventh gear, you have the low-down flexibility provided by the extra torque. But hit the fun roads and start working the lower gears hard, and the car has a very different character, the meat of the performance now being located further up the rev range.

Photo: Fits to a T 4

Predictably, this new engine does not wind as high as the old one. The T’s limiter calls time 500 rpm sooner, at 7,500 rpm, although that’s still a heady number for a turbocharged motor and, more important, the engine pulls hard all the way up. Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound as seductive as a naturally aspirated Ferrari V8, thanks to the inherent silencing qualities of the turbocharging process. There’s volume, certainly, but the frequencies are lower, and if you’re waiting for it to break into a 458-style scream, you’ll be disappointed. It’s probably worth remembering that the old California never shrieked like a 458 either, but there’s no getting away from the fact that, while the California T sounds thrilling by the standards of most cars on the road, it doesn’t make vintage Ferrari music.

This was always going to be a problem, and Ferrari’s engineers worked hard to deliver the best sound possible. For example, they created equal-length exhaust header pipes to equalize the firing pulses, even though these are so complicated to produce (in part because they house the turbochargers themselves) they had to be cast in three separate parts.

Other engine work included fitting a variable-displacement oil pump that cuts energy consumption by almost one third, using roller finger valve followers to reduce friction and creating “high tumble” intake manifolds to improve combustion efficiency. However, the most interesting feature is the variable boost mentioned earlier—and it works a treat.

Photo: Fits to a T 5

THE TURBO V8’S EXTRA TORQUE makes itself felt as I cruise around Tuscany at part throttle, dispatching the gentle inclines woven into the rolling fields with far fewer gear changes and much greater ease than in the previous California. But when I push the throttle wide open, a very different picture emerges: The F1 transmission snaps down three gears in Automatic mode, the engine note hardens and, rather than plateauing, the kick in the back just keeps kicking. Although the throttle response is instant, I can feel a slight delay as the turbochargers spool up—but it’s a brief pause, and from that moment on, all hell breaks loose.

Ferrari says the Cal T’s 0 to 62 mph time has fallen from 3.8 seconds to 3.6, but the real test is the 0-124 mph (200 km/h) sprint, which the new car demolishes in 11.2 seconds. That’s faster than a 430 Scuderia, and a full 2.6 seconds quicker than a Cal 30. Baby of the Ferrari range the T may be, but it’s a shockingly quick car. And it has the rest of the package to back up that go.

The newest California benefits from the latest advances in Ferrari’s carbon-ceramic brake, magnetorheological damper and stability-control technologies, as well as a 53-percent rearward weight bias, the faster steering of the earlier California’s optional Handling Speciale package and 12-percent stiffer springs. The result? This car offers absolutely beautiful balance through the curves, with very little understeer to speak of. There’s normally little oversteer either, but once the rear tires do break free, the Ferrari’s neutral balance allows me to drift sideways out of every turn with the steering wheel held straight, just like a 1950s Grand Prix star. For a 3,814-pound car, this agility is deeply impressive, if spoiled slightly by the fat windshield pillars that can easily hide other cars when I’m having fun on really twisty roads.

Photo: Fits to a T 6

The best news, however, is that the T’s newfound athleticism doesn’t come at the expense of ride comfort, even with the simple, three-position manettino set to Sport mode, midway between Comfort and ESC Off. This is an astonishingly comfortable car, with impressively low wind and tire noise levels and so much more refinement than the Maserati Ghibli sedan I drove on these exact same roads a year ago. You really could enjoy a California T every day, and while EPA numbers aren’t yet available, Ferrari says that, in real-world conditions, the turbocharged V8 consumes 15 percent less fuel than the normally aspirated one.

A little of the credit for the aforementioned refinement should go to the redesigned seats, which are better on both the eyes and the butt. (The tiny rear seats are still best saved for inflicting torture on very badly behaved small children, or augmenting a trunk that just has room for two suitcases once the metal roof has performed its 14-second vanishing trick.) Apart from the addition of Ferrari’s latest infotainment system, the other interior change sits between the dashboard’s two central air vents. This circular digital gauge, which Ferrari calls the Turbo Performance Engineer, displays the level of turbo boost, as well as turbo response and turbo efficiency, whatever they are. Essentially a glorified clock, it’s fun for five minutes then forgotten.

But you certainly won’t forget a drive in the California T. It will be fascinating to see how Ferrari adapts this new turbocharged V8 to next year’s 458 replacement. We’re promised more revs, more noise and more drama, and Maranello has a habit of delivering on its promises. The California, meanwhile, has evolved into a much better car, one that’s more enjoyable to look at and to drive. While still just as likely to lure new customers to the brand, it now offers significantly more for long-standing Ferrari fans to like.

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