A chick Ferrari, but a muscular chick

I really want to hate this car.

The styling is bonkers. It’s got a backside like a Botero painting. Thanks to its retractable hardtop, 2+2 seating and slew of cosseting conveniences (power seats, power tilt steering) the Ferrari California bends the scales at nearly 2 tons (3,850 pounds), which is utter sacrilege.

The purist in me is appalled that this thunder-thighed California invokes the name of the original, the urbane and finely tailored 1960 250 California Spider SWB. That car, as Ferris Bueller would have noted, was a proper gran turismo Ferrari, with an honorable V-12 under the hood. The new California flouts tradition as the first Ferrari with a V-8, not a V-12, under the hood. Output: a mere 450 hp.

J’accuse! It’s a chick Ferrari. When I drive it I feel pretty. Oh so pretty.

More than that, I see the California as the next step in the creeping commodification of Ferrari. When I started following the company in the early 1990s, the promise was that it would never build more than 3,000 cars per year. Then that number rose to 4,000, then 5,000. Now, the number is more like 8,500 annually.

And what about the mystique of the handcrafted Ferrari? I’ve been to the new assembly line in Maranello, Italy, where the California is being built. Yes, there’s a lot of handwork and guys in blue overalls. But there’s also a surprising amount of -- gasp! -- automation. I want my Ferrari to be built by a little Italian guy with a white mustache and leather apron, preferably named Geppetto.


Of course, it’s fast -- a top speed of 193 miles per hour -- and it’s quick: 3.8 seconds to 60 mph with the “launch assist” system engaged. And yet the metabolism of this car is so unfamiliar. The steering is relaxed to the point of actually being a little logy on center.

The ride is firm, yes, but nothing like the concussive, kidney-killing chop of a proper Ferrari. It makes major-league exhaust noises, but at 90 mph, when you kick down three gears and crush the throttle, the pickup isn’t all that amazing. Knock knock, on the engine-room door. Who’s there? Nobody.

Ferrari -- the citadel of exclusivity, the ivory tower of uncompromise -- is becoming just another carmaker at a breathless rate.

But alas, I don’t hate the Ferrari California. I’m sorry. I love it. Luuuuv it!

I should probably explain.

I love this car because it takes most of the good of a Ferrari -- the power and handling, the Poltrona Frau leather splendor, the orgasmic sound, the ontological redness -- and puts it in a usable, daily dose. If you spend any time with Ferraris -- the 599 GTB, the F430, the Enzo -- you know that they can be epic. For about an hour. Then you desperately want to get away from them. Kind of like going out for a night of bingeing with Amy Winehouse.

It’s a simple fact that the mood required to attack the road, to tommy-gun every corner -- rat-tah-tat-tat! -- just doesn’t last that long. When the red mist clears, you’re left driving several times more car than you need. Ferrari sports cars don’t really care for stop-and-roll traffic. They’ll do it, of course, and are reasonably refined. But honestly, for daily driving, a Ferrari sports car is a bit of a drag.

The California -- a GT, which is to say, a long-distance touring car -- is calibrated to a much more humane and realistic standard. One example: The ride height of the car is high enough that you don’t have to worry about scraping the nose on every dip and driveway.

Another example: The seven-speed dual-clutch semi-automated manual transmission’s automatic mode is the default setting. In other words, if you want to shift gears yourself, with the paddle shifters on the steering column, you have to switch off the automatic mode. But the transmission is so syrupy smooth, so polished with high-speed algorithms, most newbie Ferraristas will forget the paddles are even there.

And if you should need to bring the warp core on line, just stomp on it. The transmission will kick into sport mode. Even under full power, the manual shifts are scarcely less fluid and serene.

Another example: Typically Ferraris use double wishbone suspension geometry front and rear. To make room for the retractable hardtop and some semblance of a trunk, the California employs a space-saving multi-link suspension. Now, at the hair-on-fire limit of handling, the multi-link setup would be less than prime. But the handling trade-off exists so far out on the edge of the envelope, most buyers will never notice. And you can get a set of golf clubs or skis in the back.

Up front, the California exhibits just a little more front-end push than one might have expected in a Ferrari, but it’s still got great forward bite. Once the car has its teeth sunk into the corner, it just rips it.

The flat-crank 4.3-liter V-8’s output is modest by supercar standards -- 450 horsepower at 7,750 rpm and 357 pound-feet at 5,000 rpm. And the truth is the car’s mind-blowing acceleration number (0-60 in 3.8 seconds) is thanks primarily to gearing and the extra-smart launch control.

In the real world, the car doesn’t feel nearly so unbridled, which is a good thing. The set-to-kill variety of Ferrari tends to buck and stumble a bit at parking-lot speeds. Not so here. At part throttle the California is as mellow and agreeable as your garden-variety Mercedes-Benz.

Meanwhile, the California isn’t exactly slow. If you need to pluck your eyebrows, simply lower the top and race through the gears. The wind will take care of the rest.

And then there’s the retractable aluminum hardtop, which is fantastic. Just load up on the hair spray and go.

So, yes, the California is a softer, gentler Ferrari, and yes, if you want to throw gender at the equation, a little less masculine, in shape and athleticism. Even Ferrari’s representatives will concede that the California is intended to broaden the appeal of the brand. That’s Italian code for “more women buyers.”

But it’s kind of like playing tennis with Venus Williams. Sure, she’s a female, but her most casual lob will take your fool head off.




2009 Ferrari California

Base price: $197,350

Price, as tested: $210,000 (est.)

Powertrain: 4.3-liter, 32-valve DOHC V-8 with variable valve control; seven-speed semi-automated manual transmission; rear-wheel drive

Horsepower: 450 at 7,750 rpm

Torque: 357 pound-feet at 5,000 rpm

Curb weight: 3,850 pounds

0-60 mph: 3.8 seconds

Wheelbase: 105.1 inches

Overall length: 179.6 inches

EPA fuel economy: 13 mpg city, 19 mpg highway

Final thoughts: I hate myself for loving you