Improved version of Ferrari's drop-top GT gets a 552bhp twin-turbocharged V8 but light steering curtails its outright driver appeal

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This is the new and improved version of the Ferrari’s folding hard-top grand tourer: the California T.

The new model is a sizeable facelift of the six-year old California, with an additional T on the badge referencing the most significant change to the car: the adoption of a twin-turbocharged engine.

Ferrari claims 0-62mph in 3.6sec and a top speed of 196mph

The new engine is a 3.9-litre (well, 3.85-litre, or 3855cc if you want to be really picky) unit instead of the old 4.3, but the fitment of two, twin-scroll turbos mean power is up by 70bhp to 552bhp.

Extra poke isn’t the primary reason for the forced induction, though. Instead it’s to improve efficiency, because even Ferrari isn’t immune from such trends. In place of the 299g/km CO2 output of the old model, the California T emits 250g/km and returns 26.9mpg. That’s marginally better than a Vauxhall Insignia VXR. While making 552bhp and, at times, 557lb ft.

At times? Yes. Only when seventh gear is engaged on the twin-clutch transmission (which has longer overall ratios than before), does the engine make its full complement of torque. And it’s not because the driveline (which owes more to 12-cylinder Ferraris than the early California) can’t hack the torque.

No. It’s because the company’s engineers are as concerned about the character of a turbocharged Ferrari as you or I might be. Ferraris are meant to rev stratospherically. They’re meant to get faster as they move up the rev-range. They’re meant to sing. They’re meant to feel naturally aspirated.

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So in short gears the California T’s torque is capped – to around 440lb ft in first, second and third – and the torque increases with revs. In higher gears it peaks earlier and the slope is flatter, until you reach the full-whack, table-top curve of seventh.

The idea is that the T feels more like a naturally aspirated car in low gears – Ferrari makes some bold claims about the response times of the twin-scroll turbos – but is as lazily responsive as a GT car should be in higher gears. Does it work? We’ll come back to it.

Elsewhere, the exterior panels, save those for the unchanged roof, are all different. The interior has been looked over; the dashboard refined; leather upgraded; a boost monitor (all but unreadable in sunlight) added; and the communications screen refreshed (for one that still lags behind the best).

And, finally, underneath there are 12 percent stiffer springs, a 10 percent quicker steering rack (not that I remember thinking it needed one) and the latest-generation magnetorheological dampers – they can stiffen or soften very quickly, is what you need to know about those.

Is it better than its predecessor? Yes. Leagues better. The old California wasn’t a duffer, but it never quite pulled off the trick of either riding properly or maintaining correct control of its body movements. This one does both, at the same time. In fact, it rides particularly well, regardless of in which position (Comfort or Sport) you place the manettino, which brings stiffer damping. Ferrari couldn't resist tinkering with the California further, and subsquently produced the HS (or Handling Specialé) which quickly became our pick of the range with its stonking ability.

It’s not as tied-down as a 458 Italia, say, but then it’s not meant to be. Some 70 percent of California buyers are new to the brand and “they’re not the same type of guys” who buy mid-engined Fandangos, so there’s precious little crossover.

But whereas you’d wonder if the old California really represented Ferrari, or whether it was an extension too far for the badge, the California T feels like a product of Maranello should.

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So it’s responsive; eager. The engine, you could argue, is a bit on the quiet side, perhaps inevitably given it’s a turbo, but it still has a flat-plane crank and quite a lot of work has gone into creating equal-length exhaust manifolds. That means it still sounds raw and clean and crisp like a flat-plane V8 should, rather than like a Subaru, as far as I can tell from the simulation Ferrari played us. But it is fairly quiet.

And in those lower gears the sensation of increasing urge really is there. Peak power is present right through the last 1000rpm to the 7500rpm redline (high for a turbo), so there’s pleasure to be had from wringing the Ferrari's engine out.

There’s not a lot of turbo lag in lower gears (you notice it a little, but that’s inevitable), and while there’s more lag in higher gears, you’re rewarded with more urge without having to shift down or work the engine hard, so it makes for a fine grand tourer. But for what noticeable lag there is, this isn’t a frustrating engine. Response, at higher revs, is genuinely impressive whatever the aspiration.

Less satisfactory at any rate, is the steering. I found it a bit light; a bit quick (at around 2.3 turns lock-to-lock it might not sound super-fast, but the turning circle’s good so the ratio is rapid). I wasn’t alone. You get used to it, it makes the car seem lighter than it is, and there’s a fair degree of self-centering, but I’d prefer a system that felt more natural.

Still, it allows you to exploit the California’s fine handling balance. The T does what a front-engine, rear drive car with a slight rearward weight bias ought to. There’s a touch of understeer, which you can neutralise with a trailed brake on turn-in, and then there’s ample power, and a limited-slip differential, to loosen the tail. Oppo, dab, away, etc.

Other notables? The price is still around £150,000. Diddy rear seats are now only an option because only one percent of the old model’s buyers chose a rear bench. The raw stats say 0-60mph in 3.6sec (launch control, see) and 196mph flat out. And it’s quite easy to spend an awful lot of money on options.

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Ultimately the Ferrari California T can hold its own against anything that’s meant to do a similar job: Mercedes-AMG SL, a Bentley Continental GTC, whatever.

And whatever you pick, the Ferrari California T has some relative merits against it. It does things differently to any other GT but now that ‘different’ includes a greater dose of finely honed Ferrari character, different is no bad thing at all.

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Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Ferrari California T 2014-2017 First drives