New Direction

The Roma reinvigorates Ferrari’s entry-level lineup with elegance, luxury, and improved driving dynamics.

Photo: New Direction 1
October 22, 2020

The Sweet Life. That’s the English translation of the title of Federico Fellini’s 1960 cinematic classic La Dolce Vita, and it’s also a pretty good description for a day spent exploring both the Piedmont region of northern Italy and one of the most interesting cars to come out of Maranello for some time.

No, the Roma isn’t the fastest, the most expensive, or the most technically advanced Ferrari you can currently buy, but it does push the marque in an exciting new direction. Or maybe that should be an exciting old direction, because this new GT takes its inspiration not from the modern Formula 1 team but from a pre-supercar age when Italian cinema was the toast of the world, and if you were ever lucky enough to catch sight of its movie stars, you might well find them in something fast and glamorous like a 250 Europa.

But if that suggests this new Ferrari is some kind of halo model, the reverse is actually true. In fact, it sits quite close to the bottom of the range, costing only a few grand more than the Portofino it’s based on, where its job is to attract new customers to the marque. Around 70 percent of Roma buyers are expected to be first-time Ferrari buyers, and they will use their new Ferrari differently from existing clienti. They may well drive it daily rather than save it for weekend blasts, and annual mileages are expected to be in the 4,000-6,000-mile range, a 50-percent increase on the average use most of Ferrari’s sports cars get.

Photo: New Direction 2

You might be thinking you’ve heard this before: Wasn’t the Portofino supposed to bring new customers to Ferrari showrooms? The Portofino that costs pretty much the same and, since it’s a retractable hardtop convertible, can transform into a coupe like the Roma whenever desired? The answer is yes, but the Roma is different in many ways, especially the way it looks.

Those familiar with Fellini’s La Dolce Vita might recall it concerns Marcello Mastroianni’s gossip journalist, who longs to leave his debauched and high-octane but empty life behind for something classier and more meaningful. Is this what Ferrari is saying with the Roma, offering customers a car that wants nothing to do with the nonsense of lap times and vulgar aerodynamic devices?

Because visually, this is a very different kind of Ferrari. Though some are front-engined and some mid-engined, all of Ferrari’s cars have a similar, recognizable look. They’re modern, aggressive, race-inspired. Even the Portofino styles itself as a miniature 812 Superfast.

Photo: New Direction 3

Steep center console purposefully separates occupants.

The Roma is something else. It’s Ferrari does Aston Martin, a classy, time-only dress watch to its complicated chronograph Maranello stablemates. It’s effortlessly cool and sophisticated, but it doesn’t shout to let people know. It’s a Ferrari for people who don’t want to attract the kind of attention a regular Ferrari attracts.

That’s not to say the Roma is some sort of wallflower, however. The fascinating new front grille sees to that. Supposedly inspired by the sharky snout of the 250 GT Lusso, it’s also available in a contrasting color, though I think it looks great as-is. Interestingly, its modest air-intake openings are made possible by the reduced cooling requirements of a new eight-speed dual-clutch transmission. It’s mounted in the rear (along with the electronic differential) and connected to the engine via a rigid torque tube, just as on the 275 GTB/4.

There are more visible nostalgic cues. The peaked front fenders and pronounced hood bulge nod to the 250 Testa Rossa, while the semi-Kamm tail tips a hat to cars like the 456 GT, itself inspired by Ferrari’s 1960s’ GT models. And is it coincidental, or is there a hint of the Daytona’s softer sister, the 365 GTC/4, in the shape of the side window over the rear fender?

Photo: New Direction 4

Taillight design new to Ferrari lineup.

Whatever the case, Ferrari design director Flavio Manzoni and his team have managed to integrate those cues with new touches like the slash-cut tail lamps to deliver a car that looks sharp and modern yet classically styled without being retro. They’ve also concealed the aero trickery at play. While a small, three-position spoiler rises automatically from below the rear window at 62 mph to improve stability, much of the work is done by vortex generators hidden beneath the car. (Ferrari says the Roma produces 210 pounds of downforce at 155 mph.)

IT’S APPROPRIATE THAT I’M HANDED THE KEY to this incredibly elegant Ferrari outside the Albergo dell’Agenzia, a hotel located next to the University of Gastronomic Sciences, a lynchpin of Italy’s slow food movement; the Roma could well be the automotive equivalent. That key is so gorgeous—it’s essentially a leather-backed hood badge, something I first encountered on the SF90 Stradale—that I spend a moment weighing it in my hand before climbing inside and prodding the new touch-sensitive starter button (also inherited from the SF90). With no haptic feedback, firing up the V8 feels like less of an event than before, but the final result is anything but underwhelming.

Having bemoaned the loss of engine noise that has accompanied the switch to turbo power over the last half-decade, I’m pleasantly surprised by the twin-turbo V8’s vocal idle, particularly given this car’s GT leanings. The volume and serious tone hint at the extra 20 horses this 620-hp V8 offers over the very similar unit found in the Portofino, though in fact it would be more like 40 hp if not for the particulate filter fitted to the exhaust. This emissions-control device is mandatory in Europe, not in the U.S., but Ferrari has decided to standardize its engines across the globe.

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TFT instrument panel first seen on SF90 Stradale.

Pulling out along the cobbled track from the hotel, it’s not the new power I notice most but the supple ride. The adaptive magnetorheological dampers are optional, but most customers will choose them [and so they should!—Ed.]. As on the SF90, the “Bumpy Road” mode that softens the shocks is now activated by pressing the steering wheel’s manettino, rather than a separate button.

And what’s this? In addition to the Wet, Comfort, Sport and CT-Off settings, this manettino offers a Race mode, the first such appearance on a junior GT Ferrari. Maybe the Roma’s elegant styling is a red herring?

By the first corner, I’m pretty sure it is. It’s the brakes I notice first, which have got the same firm, short-travel feel as the SF90. Not so short that they’re too snappy to modulate without applying spoon-bending powers of concentration, but short enough to give you some real confidence on unfamiliar roads. They also separate the Roma from more luxury-oriented rivals like the Bentley Continental.

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There’s real precision to the steering, which feels more measured than in Ferrari’s sports cars and relays plenty of detail about what the optional double-five spoke forged wheels are doing way down that long, domed hood. It’s an epic view, and the pronounced fender peaks help me place the car through turns, though the fairly thick A-pillars and large door mirrors can get in the way on really twisty roads when I need a wider field of vision.

I’m going fast enough through those twists to need a little more damping than Comfort mode can deliver. One clockwise click of the manettino to Sport solves the problem. Now the car feels noticeably flatter as I pitch it into turns and settles sooner over crests and through dips in the road.

Switching to Sport also highlights the benefits of the eight-speed transmission. It’s the same unit fitted to the SF90 Stradale, although where that hybrid car uses its electric powertrain to reverse, this one has a regular mechanical ratio for backing up. The way it slurs changes at low speeds, and responds to downshifts in manual mode at high ones, is seriously impressive—but not as impressive as the auto-shift mapping which seems to select the right gear on approach to a corner almost before I’ve even realized I might need one. It’s great in Sport and almost telepathic in Race mode, where the combination of iron-grip body control and zero-tolerance attitude to wheel slip turn the Roma into a seriously capable back-road weapon, and banish any thought that this is Ferrari going soft.

Photo: New Direction 7

Updated 3.9-liter V8 produces more sound and fury (620 horsepower) in Roma specification.

One might look at the Roma and expect it to be a softer, less exciting car than the Portofino, but it’s actually the other way around. The feel of the brakes, the way the transmission responds, and the better roll resistance and steering precision mean it’s the Roma that’s the more satisfying car to drive hard. Yet it’s also feels more luxurious, more comfortable, and just more relaxing when cruising.

Stepping up from seven to eight ratios translates into a nicely tall top gear for relaxed motorway cruising and more acceleration in the intermediate gears. Ferrari says there’s 15 percent more longitudinal pull in third gear in this car than there is in the Portofino.

From the lights, the Roma is a tenth of a second quicker to 62 mph than its convertible sister. And while the Roma’s 3.4-second time is more than the 2.9 seconds the 720-hp F8 Tributo needs, the level of go feels exactly right for this kind of car. It’s strong and exciting but never too manic. Turbo lag is next to non-existent, and because Ferrari’s clever engine mapping doesn’t deliver the 561 lb-ft of peak torque in one dollop in the lower gears, instead making me work the engine to access it, it feels just like a hugely powerful naturally aspirated V8.

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Brake and wheel sizes unchanged from Portofino.

In the higher gears, the mapping allows boost to build sooner to make that torque more accessible for effortless freeway passing. There’s some exhaust drone depending on cruising speed, but the driving environment and excellent seat comfort means I wouldn’t think twice about using the Roma for commuting or even filling it with luggage for a cross-country vacation. You won’t get much in the way of human cargo in the vestigial “2+” rear seats, but with the seatbacks folded they offer a handy 2.6 cubic-foot extension to the already useful 9.6 cubic feet of trunk space.

There’s a hint of early Corvette about the double arches of the dashboard, which separate the driver from the passenger better than a chaperone at a religious school’s prom. Both the configurable TFT instrument cluster (operated by touch-sensitive buttons on the steering wheel) and the retro-look transmission selector debuted in the SF90, but the latter makes more sense in this context than it does in the modern supercar.

That said, the slick-looking portrait touchscreen above that selector is a reminder that this Roma is also a thoroughly modern Ferrari. That’s where you access the HVAC, navigation, and radio controls, though if Ferrari’s promised software update to fix the lagginess doesn’t work, you might prefer to holler “Ciao Ferrari” and use voice commands instead.

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Hood bulge recalls 250 Testa Rossa, striking grille another new design element.

Modern or not, there are still some convenience technologies Ferrari isn’t ready to offer. While you can order adaptive cruise control (that’s the ugly box below the front bumper, by the way), you can’t have any kind of active lane-keeping assistance. That may surprise those new buyers coming from other, less sporting luxury cars, but it’s still a step too far for Ferrari, which is trying to preserve its brand strengths while pushing in a new direction.

And the Roma is unquestionably a new direction. When it was first announced, I wondered what it would offer that the excellent Portofino didn’t. After spending some time in one, though, the Roma reveals its own unique character, and driving experience, and I can definitely see how it might steal sales from cars like the Aston Martin DB11 that the Portofino couldn’t. While it might not be aimed primarily at fans of Ferrari’s sports cars, it’s easy to imagine how the cool, classy Roma would make a great garage companion to something more highly strung, like an F8 Tributo or an 812 Superfast.

Back in 1960 on the set of La Dolce Vita, Marcello Mastroianni’s Marcello actually drove a Triumph TR3. But we reckon Mastroianni, one of the most famous film stars of his generation and arguably the sauvest Italian man of all time, would have loved the Roma. And so do I.

Sidebar: Family Ties

Some will see the Roma simply as a Portofino coupe. They are not entirely wrong, but they are also not fundamentally right. While the new model is based on the bones—the chassis, engine, drivetrain, and suspension—of the old, the process that transformed Portofino into Roma reveals the new car to be something very different indeed.

The front-mid-engine layout with tiny rear seats is familiar, as is the rough scale, although the Roma is roughly three inches longer, 1.5 inches wider, and 0.75 inch lower (as well as 200 pounds lighter). However, Ferrari says the chassis and bodyshell are 70-percent new. It is likely much of that percentage pertains to construction techniques rather than rethinking the basics, yet that is no denigration. Instead of simply re-using what is already there, the company constantly innovates in all areas.

The engine too is familiar, a gentle reworking of the existing 3.9-liter twin-turbocharged V8. Power rises from 600 to 620 hp, thanks to a new exhaust system, turbocharger speed sensors that equalize the banks, and revised valve action in the cylinder heads. These changes also give the Roma a wider torque plateau, by 500 rpm, and, unusually, a quoted horsepower plateau between 5,750 and 7,500 rpm. The Portofino must make do with the more usual power peak, at 7,500 rpm.

A more significant difference is that the Roma receives the 8-speed dual-clutch gearbox that debuted in the SF90 Stradale, rather than the Portofino’s 7-speed unit. The new gearbox offers more than just an additional ratio (all gears are 4 percent lower than before), such as quicker shifting (15 percent up, 21 percent down), 13 fewer pounds, and an input shaft that sits more than an inch lower in the case. The Roma’s center of gravity resides some three quarters of an inch lower than the Portofino’s, a boon to handling.

Also aiding feel and control in the corners are the latest versions of Ferrari Dynamic Enhancer, which adjusts the car’s attitude via the brakes, and Side Slip Control, which does much the same through adjustments of the electronic differential. Neither of these electronic wizards appear on the Portofino, although both cars share the company’s usual traction and stability control systems, as well as their suspension hardware, brakes, and wheel and tire sizes. Inside, the Roma receives the SF90’s brake-pedal feel (apparently a function of the brake booster), TFT instrument panel, retro-style transmission selector, and five-position manettino. —Diego Papadopoulos

Also from Issue 186

  • Portofino M first look
  • Stradale vs Scuderia vs Speciale
  • 360 Buyer's Guide
  • 2020 IMSA season roundup
  • Ferrari reaches 1,000th Grand Prix
  • F1: The Long Run
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