Review: Ferrari passes its turbocharging test with the California T

Ferrari's 2015 California T may not be a true sports car, but it hits all its marks

Ferrari Chief Executive Amedeo Felisa doesn't want to throw a turbocharger under the hood of the company's legendary sports cars.

But the storied manufacturer of screaming V-8s and V-12s is reluctantly conceding a role for forced induction — and it's not to make the cars faster. Even Ferrari can't escape the global push by governments to boost fuel efficiency and lower emissions.

"Being the best manufacturer in the world, and the best manufacturer of naturally aspirated engines, we don't like the turbo," Felisa told reporters last year at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. "But we have to understand that this is the right way to develop for emissions." Which leads us to the 2015 California T, a hardtop convertible that is the first turbocharged Ferrari since the vaunted F40 supercar nearly 30 years ago.

The engine bolted to the new T is also a sign of what's to come for Ferrari; a heavily revised version of the mid-engined 458 is expected to debut at the Geneva Motor Show in March with a derivative of this same turbo V-8.

Turbocharging allows automakers to get the same power out of a smaller, more efficient motor — though the efficiency generally goes away if you're hammering the throttle. Reducing engine size is crucial in some global markets, such as China, which levies a tax on cars based on their engine's displacement.

The California T comes in at 3.9 liters, and not by coincidence: China's tax jumps after 4 liters.

For a company being dragged into turbocharging, California T is as good a place to start as any. The first modern California was introduced in 2008 as an entry-level grand tourer — entry-level meaning about $200,000 in Ferrari parlance.

That car was derided by Ferrari cognoscenti as an abomination to the brand, with its odd looks and watered-down performance.

Then it promptly became the bestselling Ferrari ever.

Badge-conscious buyers throughout the U.S., China and Russia snatched up Californias as if there were a caviar buffet hidden in the trunk. Ferrari brags that 70% of California owners are new to the brand.

On paper, the T benefits mightily from its new engine. Though smaller than before, the engine's power jumps appreciably. It now makes 552 horsepower and 557 pound-feet of torque, compared with the earlier version's 453 horsepower and 357 pound-feet of torque.

The smaller engine and pair of turbos go a long way in boosting the California's fuel economy. The EPA now rates the 2015 model at 16 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway, compared with 13 and 19 mpg on the earlier car.

Rear-wheel drive and a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission remain, though the gear ratios have been modified. Brembo's carbon ceramic brakes are now standard. Traction control, steering and driver-selectable suspension have all been revised.

Though the weight remains essentially the same (a healthy 3,813 pounds), zero-to-62-mph times drop from 3.9 seconds to 3.6 seconds.

The California T is also better looking. The body is still aluminum (chassis too) but Ferrari and the designers at Pininfarina formed it into a cleaner design.

The headlights have been narrowed and now bear a passing resemblance to the rest of the Ferrari family. The puckered fish lips front bumper and grille have been softened to look more upscale.

The rear has also been simplified. The ungainly exhaust pipes, previously stacked in both corners, have been rearranged to sit side by side.

Inside, the California T now has the same steering wheel as the rest of the Ferrari lot. This one replaces the column-mounted stalks by hosting a smorgasbord of buttons for the headlights, blinkers, windshield wipers and more.

The California has a back seat, but please don't use it for humans.

The car still starts at a tick under $200,000, though options including the magnetic suspension, full leather interior, sound system, carbon fiber steering wheel and trim, and gorgeous Rosso California paint pushed the final sticker on our test car to a lofty $268,761.

On the road, the California T is a more complete, refined effort than the initial 2008 model. And it's easy to live with as a daily driver, a refreshing change for something Italian.

With the top up, the cabin is silent. The ride is firm but not jarring (there's a Bumpy Road button on the steering wheel to soften things), and visibility is excellent.

All the trademark turbocharged engine sounds are there, but the high-pitched whine blends nicely with the V-8 at higher revolutions per minute. Still, the turbos mean the engine doesn't rev with the same drama as the earlier car; the change is a bit like handing Pavarotti a kazoo.

After a smidge of turbo lag at low RPM, the car scampers forward like a Ferrari should, despite its curb weight.

But the California isn't a true sports car, as Ferrari acknowledges. This is a grand tourer, which becomes clear in spirited driving.

The California could use one more aggressive driving mode, in addition to the Comfort, Sport and ESC off (This turns off all stability and traction control). As it is now, drivers who want to tap into all of the car's power need to put the California into manual shift mode and control the engine and transmission with the massive paddle shifters poking out of the steering column.

Even in the most aggressive mode, the California's handling, though improved over its wandering predecessor, feels muted.

So if you want a sports car, buy a sports car. One-percenters looking for a more aggressive $200,000 convertible should consider Porsche's 911 Turbo S. The California T's closest competitor is probably the Mercedes-AMG V-12-powered SL65.

For what it is, the new California T hits all its marks. But this was the easy one, a good first venue to test out turbocharging.

What comes after this California T will be the true test. The glorious scream of an eight- or 12-cylinder Ferrari has been Italy's unofficial national anthem since the 1950s. Mess that up, and the screams of unhappy customers will replace it.

david.undercoffler@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
73°