Experience D’Orth By Bill Orth
DRIVING THE NEW FERRARI CALIFORNIA
Last month, US Ferrari dealers were given their first opportunity to actually drive their new GT car, the California. We were shown the car in Italy over a year ago, and again at a special-invitation introduction in Santa Monica last fall, but no driving was allowed at either time.
Now that the car is nearly ready for distribution, technical training has begun for dealership service staff and salespeople, which is why Derek and I went to Nevada a couple of weeks ago. Four Californias were on hand to experience. Three were used for driving and one was used as a comparison benchmark against four of the automobiles expected to be the car’s primary competition. On hand were a new Aston Martin DB9 cabriolet, a Porsche Turbo cabriolet, a Mercedes SL 63 and a Bentley GTC convertible. When comparing the California’s fit, finish, materials, engineering and overall design, it is easily equal or superior to those esteemed cars in most of those aspects. The Porsche and Aston are disadvantaged by having to stuff a large soft top into an already-limited space; the Bentley packages its top quite well, but mostly because the entire car is substantially larger. The Mercedes SL and the California share the technology of articulating a hard top into the trunk space, and even when it is stowed, there is still some luggage room under the top assembly in both cars.
However, if an owner needs maximum trunk space, he/she can certainly forgo putting the top down, but the Ferrari has one new trick up its sleeve: Even with the top collapsed, there is an access panel that allows long objects to be slid under the top assembly and pass through into the rear area of the cockpit. And not just thin things, either—two travel-size golf bags fit nicely, an advantage lacking in the SL, Porsche and Aston. The storage area behind the seats is hardly practical for actual seating in any of the cars, other than the much-larger Bentley, and primarily represents a space where additional packages can be conveniently placed. The Ferrari can be ordered with tiny DOT-legal seats in this area, or with a nicely-upholstered shelf with hidden storage space underneath for valuables. (no cost differential either way) Cost-wise, the Bentley and Ferrari are similarly priced at a little over $200K, the Aston is just under this number and the Porsche and Mercedes are around $40-50K less. While each of these competing cars is very well made and sophisticated, the Ferrari enjoys a clear advantage in performance-oriented engineering, intriguing new technology and most of all, exclusivity. Mercedes and Porsche are able to offer their cars’ considerable features more affordably due largely to their vast economies of scale spreading out developmental costs. While each of the others allow manual shifting inputs to their automatic transmissions, only the Ferrari offers an all-new 7-speed dual-clutch manual gearbox that actually shifts faster and smoother when in its automatic-shifting model!
This technology is primarily valuable to someone who wants to minimize the operating losses common to hydraulically-controlled fully-automatic transmissions. The level of development in those units employed by the other manufacturers is phenomenal, both in smoothness and sophistication, but there’s no escaping that some percentage of their prodigious horsepower is consumed by the torque converters, a loss considered important by most Ferrari enthusiasts. As revolutionary as our F-1 transmission has been since its introduction eleven years ago, and especially in its current state of development, the new DCT offers a marked advance in both smoothness and performance. But enough talk—let’s go for a ride!
Like many new cars today, the driver needs to have a foot on the brake in order for the car to start. This assures all drive systems and interlocks have disengaged and the car starts normally with the big red button on the steering wheel. Then, a tug on the right shift paddle engages ‘drive,’ and the car takes off. (Or, if reverse is needed, a touch of the ‘R’ button on the console engages that) Once proceeding down the street, if left in the default Auto mode, the car simply applies a shifting program that processes road speed and tachometer inputs, but most importantly, what the driver is doing with his/her right foot. Most of you have read descriptions of how the dual-clutch technology works, but in a nutshell, it preselects the next most-logical gear and as soon as the above parameters call for an upshift, it happens instantly. (If you would like a more detailed technical explanation, visit: www.dctfacts.com/widc_pg3a.asp) Note that the gap between ‘widc ‘ and ‘pg’ in that address should be an underscore. As a developing technology, automatically-shifted manual gearboxes has moved from the earliest system used in Ferrari’s 355 series in 1998, to steadily more sophisticated versions through the 360, 575M and today’s 430, 599 and 612 models. Quicker shifting plus RPM matching on downshifts, smoother automatic-mode operation and more intuitive applications have evolved along with ever-increasing reliability. It seems likely that the DCT technology will ultimately displace as-we-knew-it paddle shifting, and that new sophistication is available today in the Ferrari California.
In practice, all aspects of the transmission’s operation have been made both smoother and more responsive. Gear changes are actually accomplished faster in the Auto mode than in manual, because the car doesn’t have to wait for the driver to initiate a shift when the most-opportune ratio of road speed, RPM, and throttle setting has been reached. The driver quickly learns to tell the car when he wants it to shift by how he or she is manipulating the accelerator. Indeed, apart from enjoying the sensation of commanding up or downshifts at your whim while driving in a ‘sporting’ manner, there is little reason to ever take the car out of Auto mode—since you can override the system with the paddles anytime you wish, even when still in ‘Auto’.
The rest of the car is beautifully designed and executed, with a purpose behind every aspect. For example, some magazines have criticized the “ bulky, too-high rear quarters.” Had they done their homework, they would have found that the added height over the rear wheels not only provides the space needed to conceal the top, but also takes advantage of the new multi-link rear suspension’s greater range of up-and-down wheel movement—which provides a softer ride. While the overall driving sensation is certainly ‘Ferrari,’ the California is just enough more civilized and easier to operate to appeal to a slightly less gearheaded audience. A person who was expecting the creature comforts of a Benz or an Aston will not feel like the car is too severe to enjoy, and every member of the family can drive it. When feeling aggressive, a sports-minded driver can select stiffer ride control and the quicker shifting program and enjoy the thrust of nearly 500 horsepower. A touch of a button opens or closes the snug-fitting top, the climate control works great and the new integrated infotainment system with stereo receiver/nav/Bluetooth/CD/Sirius functions is very sophisticated. What more could anyone want?
We should have received our demonstrator California by the time you read this, and all are welcome to come down and see what they think of an all-new direction for Ferrari.
-- Bill Orth –