Smooth As Silk

The Roma Spider weaves together elegance, performance, and a surprise soft top.

Photo: Smooth As Silk 1
October 19, 2023

Just like Audrey Hepburn in the 1950s’ Hollywood classic Roman Holiday, sometimes you just don’t see things coming. For the movie princess, it was a spontaneous adventure in the Italian city of Rome; for Ferrari fans, it was a new drop-top derivative of the Roma.

First introduced to the world in November 2019, the Roma was a new type of car for the brand: an elegant fixed-roof V8-powered Gran Turismo positioned at the bottom of its lineup, next to the popular Portofino coupe-convertible (itself on sale since 2017). In many ways, the two models were very similar—the older car essentially formed the mechanical and structural basis of the newer one—but in some key aspects they were much different. Ferrari would argue a full 70-percent different, citing that many new parts were required to transform Portofino into Roma.

At the time, the company claimed it needed both models, with their distinctively different forms, in order to reach different clients. Then, just weeks after the launch of the Roma, it doubled down with the introduction of the modified Portofino M, which inherited the Roma’s updated engine, SF90 Stradale-sourced eight-speed gearbox, and a full five driving modes on the steering wheel-mounted manettino.

It seemed like such an ambitious plan for a small company, producing two models for a segment in which it sells only a few thousand cars per year. Yet now, three-and-a-half years later, Ferrari has revealed, with a wry smile, that we understand little of what goes on behind the closed gates of the Maranello factory—from where the Roma Spider has suddenly appeared.

Photo: Smooth As Silk 2

In last issue’s “Vive la Difference,” I spoke with Emanuele Carando, Ferrari’s Head of Product Marketing, about the reasoning behind this unexpected new model. To paraphrase, the automaker’s official line is that its clients enjoy being surprised by new products, so it’s therefore Maranello’s job to please them with distinctive machines which they, as mentioned before, don’t see coming.

While this statement is undoubtedly true, there’s another important aspect to consider. Using this strategy, Ferrari has found an ingenious way to grow in size without losing exclusivity. The company’s annual production numbers may have passed the 10,000 mark for the first time in 2019, and grew to a record 13,221 in 2022 despite the pandemic, but that hefty total is composed of models produced in small batches, each of which is still regarded and valued as a collector’s item.

This brings us to the present, where the 3.5-year-old Portofino M has been succeeded by the Roma Spider. The new convertible (the company no longer offers a “coupe-convertible,” since the former element is covered by the original Roma) is different, but is it any better than its predecessor?

I should note that Ferrari doesn’t like using words such as “successor” and “predecessor” when it comes to the relationship between Portofino M and Roma Spider, as they somewhat muddy the strategy waters and there will be some production overlap between the two. So to get the full picture, let’s start with the parts that carry over.

Photo: Smooth As Silk 3

THE 3,855-cc TWIN-TURBO V8 remains untouched, which means it still generates a hefty 620 hp and 561 lb-ft, with 80 percent of maximum torque available at just 1,900 rpm. All this grunt is sent through the same Magna-sourced dual-clutch transmission (which will soon be standard across the entire Ferrari range) and acted on by the usual array of clever aids (from the electronic differential and SCM-E Frs dampers to Side Slip Control and Ferrari Dynamic Enhancer) that allow drivers to deploy most of what the engine is capable of without exceeding their abilities. Likewise, the massive carbon-ceramic Brembo brakes (their discs unchanged at 15.4 inches front and 14.2 inches rear) remain present and ready to rein in the fantastic speeds possible.

The Roma Spider’s wheelbase stays the same at 105.1 inches, but it’s 2.5 inches longer, 3.2 inches lower, and 1.4 inches wider than the Portofino M, and its wheels sit as much as 1.7 inches further apart on their respective axles. (These measurements are shared with the Roma, although the coupe is an additional 0.2-inch lower.) The new car is also 22 pounds lighter, although, at 3,646 lbs. wet, this hardly seems like progress; surely the fabric roof should bring a greater weight saving. Compared to the Roma, though, it’s impressive that the penalty for the retractable roof, pop-up rolls bars, and chassis reinforcements comes in at just 185 pounds.

The performance numbers for the Portofino M, Roma Spider, and Roma coupe end up nearly identical. The same 199+ mph maximum speed is quoted for all three cars, which sprint from rest to 62 mph in 3.45, 3.4, and 3.4 seconds, respectively. The trio would also be virtually head-to-head in a 0-124 mph race, reaching that speed just 0.1 second apart. There’s also only symbolic progress in retractable roof performance, with the Roma Spider’s soft top dropping just a half-second quicker than the Portofino M’s larger aluminum panel; still, the latter’s 14-second opening/closing time remains a very good result on its own.

The Roma Spider comes with a smaller trunk than the Portofino M, with the quoted cargo volume falling from 10.3 cubic feet to 9.0. Subjectively, the new car’s rear seats look even less usable than before, but this will probably matter only to the excited tourists renting one for a drive around Maranello or perhaps see-and-be-seen Los Angeles socialites, just about the only two groups I can imagine who’d actually try to fit grown-ups back there.

Photo: Smooth As Silk 4

Despite this, the cockpit is where the most significant progress from Portofino M to Roma Spider can be observed. Carried over from the Roma, it’s a more modern place to sit, with a slicker design and bigger screens and touch pads in place of physical buttons. Some may mourn the departure of the red Engine Start button, analog tachometer, and the sculpted air vents dating all the way back to the LaFerrari, but the new car offers a more thoughtful layout and improved ergonomics.

In addition, the cockpit still offers some inspiring details you’ll find only in a Ferrari, such as the gearbox controls being housed in a metal plate that recalls the gated shifter found in the Roma Spider’s spiritual predecessors. There’s also the second (optional) display of speed, engine revs, and more mounted in front of the passenger, giving what the automaker calls a “co-pilot experience.”

It’s true, though, that progress is not always good. Although the massive 16-inch curved digital instrument display looks spectacularly modern and offers some The Jetsons-style whizzes and whooshes while browsing through its menu, I still find the human-machine interface to be the weakest point of the Roma Spider (and all new Ferraris for this matter). Thanks to an improved steering wheel nicked from the Purosangue, the controls are somewhat less unintuitive than before, which is good news given that the wheel now needs to do more than ever.

Due to ever-increasing safety standards, even small makers of exotic cars are being required to equip their vehicles with a vast array of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, which means the Roma Spider is the first car in Maranello’s history to boast both traffic-sign recognition and a lane-keeping aid. Fortunately, these systems work well in real-world conditions; they act unobtrusively and can be conveniently turned off or toned down to a pre-defined level with just one touch of a button.

Photo: Smooth As Silk 5

WITH ALL THAT SAID, it’s finally time to sample what this Ferrari is really all about. The Roma and Roma Spider might be disparaged by some with the mantle of “entry level,” but in reality these cars deliver the same performance as the 599 GTB Fiorano, which was the brand’s flagship model not too many years ago. Indeed, in the Roma Spider you can reach scary speeds just as quickly, and maintain them in full attack mode over a long distance just as easily, as in a 599. And yet that’s not at all the mission of this car, which its maker describes as representative of the Nuova Dolce Vita way of living.

It’s fitting, then, that my drive comes on the sun-bathed roads of Sardinia. Driving along the coast and through the sleepy fishing villages (a tip for visitors: the southern part of this Italian island offers a more authentic, less touristy experience), the Roma Spider really proves the right car for the moment, with the southern sun filling the cabin, the V8 burbling reassuringly, and the locals admiring the body’s svelte lines. When it comes to classic Italian drop-top GTs, the Roma Spider is as good as it gets in 2023.

With this in mind, I’m not as bothered as I might have been by an occasional reluctance of the turbochargers, something I hadn’t noticed before, or perhaps to this extent, in the Portofino M or Roma coupe. Apart from this tiny shortcoming, which might have resulted from ever-stricter emissions regulations, the twin-turbocharged F154, used here in BH guise, feels as efficient and exciting as ever. There’s a reason this V8 has been awarded the International Engine of the Year prize 14 times since its introduction in 2013.

As expected, a modern Ferrari comes with some specific traits. The winding Sardinian roads reveal the Roma Spider’s great dynamic potential, with its front end offering supercar-levels of grip, electric power steering that is overwhelmingly alert if not the most engaging, and an overtly stiff (for a luxury convertible) all-aluminum chassis. The dual-clutch transmission deserves a round of applause on its own; it’s simply the best of its kind, demonstrating serious mind-reading abilities both when discreetly shuffling through the gears on a relaxed drive and adding to the drama during spirited runs.

Photo: Smooth As Silk 6

The Roma Spider doesn’t really fit in the same bracket as Bentley’s Continental GT or the Mercedes-AMG SL 63, both of which are bigger, heavier, and outfitted with all-wheel drive. This Ferrari may feature 18-way adjustable seats with neck warmers, Apple CarPlay, and all of the other luxuries you’d expect, but it’s still, well, a Ferrari at heart.

However, while you’ll find Race mode on its manettino, the Roma Spider doesn’t deliver the same level of precision, involvement, or ferocity as the 296 GTS or 812 GTS. Long tail slides from Ferrari’s Side Slip Control system seem to be reserved for those sportier (and pricier) models, but, realistically, the Roma Spider isn’t required to have such treats on its menu.

What matters here more is how impressively comfortable the adjustable suspension is on rough Italian asphalt. The patented trick wind deflector, which raises at the push of a button from the rear seat’s backrest (but requires a reassuring push by hand to close), doesn’t quite do what Ferrari promises, namely a 30-percent reduction in air turbulence in the cabin and the ability to talk with the roof down at speeds up to 110 mph. Nonetheless, it’s a simple solution that’s effective at calming the wind significantly, allowing easy conversation up to roughly 80 mph.

With its five-layer roof raised, the Roma Spider isn’t noticeably different inside to the Roma coupe. A folding soft top may come as the most surprising feature of the car, given that one was last seen on a front-engined Ferrari a half-century ago, when production of the Daytona Spyder ceased. (On the mid-engined models, the solution, in a far simpler format, was last seen on the F430 Spider.) But it’s made a grand comeback now, with the company saying the Roma Spider’s fabric roof will provide quality and durability expected from a modern Ferrari.

In addition to providing a weight and packaging advantage, the designers claim the soft top brings back the charm of the convertibles of the original post-war Dolce Vita era. Indeed, the Roma Spider’s roof is a stylish thing all on its own. There are five colors to choose from, one of which offers an intriguing shiny 3D effect (as seen on the featured car) thanks to what Ferrari describes as a technical fabric developed specifically for this model.

The designers also say they were so fond of the top that they decided to keep a fragment of it exposed even when the actual roof is stowed under the trunk lid. That may be, but I suspect it’s more a clever way to keep the proportions of this relatively big convertible in shape. From some angles, the rear section, with its erect seats and densely packed back end, may look bloated, in a similar fashion to a convertible Porsche 911.

In the end, the Roma Spider comes across as a suitably special car—not just for historical significance and unique character (even by Ferrari standards), but also as a competent and capable all-rounder. This is to be expected, of course. Without solid foundations and fantastic performance, clever marketing and romantic references to the past wouldn’t be sufficient to surprise and delight the company’s demanding clients.

Also from Issue 210

  • 308 QV vs 328
  • Dino 208 GT4 rally car
  • Tifosi: Making Memories
  • 750 Monza technology
  • 2023 Pebble Beach, The Quail, Motorlux
  • F1: Spanish Surprise
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