It is understandably important to Ferrari that the 2009 Ferrari California not be seen as a poseur's car. We've lost count of how many times Ferrari officials have stressed to us that this hardtop convertible is "a true Ferrari."
We can see why they'd worry. After all, the California is relatively hefty at 3,817 pounds. It is available with cruise control. And it carries standard child safety-seat attachments for the rear bucket seats.
Yet now that we've spent some 300-odd kilometers traversing some of Sicily's finest paved goat tracks in the 2009 Ferrari California, we have no qualms about calling this car a true Ferrari.
True, this front-engine hardtop convertible is not a "fantastic go-kart," as Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo describes the midengine F430, but neither is it some Lexus SC 430 dipped in secret Ferrari sauce.
It's Like the Music
Certainly none of the folks we encountered in our one-day drive of a 2009 Ferrari California (a pretty light-blue one) had any misgivings about the car being the genuine article. Although it is possible that we simply did not hear their complaints over our frantic and nearly constant revving of this car's 460-horsepower 4.3-liter V8.
Certainly, the guy begging his parents to shoot a picture of him in front of our parked car accepted the California as a true Ferrari. And when we started the car in front of him, he uttered perhaps the most clichéd description we can imagine for the sound of a Ferrari engine: "It's like music."
It sounds spectacular -- like downshift-in-every-tunnel-and-floor-it spectacular. This engine is a version of the V8 that powers the F430, but with slightly larger bore and a bit less stroke and the addition of a direct-injection system. The net result is about 30 hp fewer. And the full allotment of 460 hp arrives at 7,750 rpm instead of the F430 motor's stratospheric 8,500-rpm power peak. Of course, the California's 4.3-liter V8 makes 357 pound-feet of torque -- a 14 lb-ft advantage over the F430's engine. The V8 in the California also shares its block with the power plants of the Alfa-Romeo 8C Competizione and the Maserati GranTurismo (every Maserati model, actually).
For those who interpret these statistics to mean that the F430 motor is a truer expression of the Ferrari ideal than the California's V8, so be it. But it is only in comparison to the F430's engine that the California's V8 feels in any way wanting for power. Compared to convertibles like the California (the Aston Martin DB9 Volante, Bentley Continental GTC and Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG, to name a few), the California's engine feels and sounds distinctly unencumbered in a uniquely Ferrari kind of way. There's an almost electric charge that zings through your synapses when you open up the throttle. It is intensely exhilarating.
In fact, this Ferrari V8 is good enough to make us almost warm up to the Lexus IS F-style, diagonally stacked exhaust finishers in the rear bumper. (As in the IS F, they're not actually connected to the exhaust system.)
Two Clutches Are Better Than One
Maybe it's because we expected the engine to be pretty darn good, but when a Ferrari engineer asked us at the end of our drive what our favorite part of the car was, we blurted out, "the transmission."
We should have said "transaxle," since the 2009 Ferrari California's seven-speed automated manual gearbox is mounted to the rear axle and incorporates the car's mechanical limited-slip differential. Whatever you call the dual-clutch Getrag unit, it is fabulous. So fabulous and so clearly a better alternative than the single electronically actuated clutch of the current Ferrari F1 automated manual that virtually all Ferraris will someday get a similar dual-clutch setup.
The dual-clutch transmission is another gesture toward improved drivability by Ferrari, which has been waffling for years between its single-clutch automated manual that no one likes and conventional manual transmissions that are so limited in availability that no one can get them. A conventional six-speed manual with a clutch pedal will eventually be offered for the California as well, but for once we're not sure we'd opt for it.
Ferrari has always made a big deal about how quickly its F1 gearbox could shift from one gear to another, and the number of nanoseconds have shrunk each year until there's now almost no difference between a street Ferrari gearbox and that of a Formula 1 racing car. By the same measurements, the new dual-clutch setup takes no time to shift.
How is this possible? Well, Ferrari defines a shift as the torque interruption that occurs as one gear changes to the next. But with the dual-clutch there is no torque interruption. You feel only a smooth outpouring of acceleration accompanied by the slightest jolt from the driveline. To your ears, there's a brief, low-register "brrip" as you thwack the upshift paddle on the steering column.
The new dual-clutch transmission defaults to fully automatic mode with each restart of the engine. This will be useful to those who plan to drive this everyday Ferrari in everyday traffic jams. It shifts smoothly (where the F1's auto shifts are forever turning the car's occupants into unwitting head-bangers) but it is eager to shift up in automatic mode and improve your fuel economy. We left it in manual mode almost exclusively; squeezing the shift paddles is no great hardship, even in traffic.
It is partly down to the transmission that the 3,800-pound California can catapult to 100 km/h (62 mph) in less than 4 seconds, according to Ferrari. The standard launch-control system doesn't hurt, either. Other figures of interest: 193-mph top speed and 111 feet to stop from 100 km/h (62 mph). And fuel economy? Well, according to Ferrari it is "no more than 10 percent worse than its best competitor." We didn't bother to ask what this might mean in English.
The 2009 Ferrari California is ably halted by four massive carbon-ceramic brakes. The ceramic rotors, which were the exclusive property of the $650,000 Ferrari Enzo just a few years ago, are standard equipment on this merely $200,000 hardtop convertible. At 15.2 inches in diameter up front and 14.2 inches in the rear, these giant platters help burn off speed more than adequately.
The California comes with the choice of two 19-inch wheels. Either will carry 245/40R19 front and 285/40R19 rear Z-rated tires (Bridgestone Potenzas on our test car). Twenty-inch wheels will be optional with 245/35R20 and 285/35R20 tires, respectively. And for those hankering for a bit of Corvette style, Ferrari will offer a high-polish aluminum wheel. Sadly, chromes will not be available.
The California comes with a simplified manettino switch, a rotary knob on the right side of the steering wheel that tailors the stability control, transmission programming and suspension action to driving conditions. In the California this means the choice of Comfort or Sport, plus a "CST Off" mode that disables the stability control.
Our test car came with the optional Delphi-developed magnetorheological dampers bolted to its dual-wishbone front and multilink rear suspension. On Sicily's lumpy expressways, this heavy Ferrari felt a bit nervous at high speeds, but on the back roads, it proved satisfyingly alert.
Who among us would have guessed that Ferrari would be the first carmaker to produce a hardtop convertible that efficiently packages all of the mechanisms, panels and mechanical bits of the top into a car and still manages to leave some cargo space in the rear of the car? Not us.
Yes, the rear end of the car is massive and by far the California's least attractive aspect. But start peeling back the layers of this plump onion and your admiration (if not adoration) for the rear grows. For the sake of cargo space (remember this is a GT, not a sports car), the two metal roof panels stack on top of each other snugly, like Pringles chips, a trickier thing to do than most carmakers bother with.
With the hardtop up, there are 12 cubic feet of cargo capacity. Folded away, there are still a decent 8.5 cubes of emptiness tucked between the roof panels and the rear-mounted transaxle. Ferrari even provides a small pass-through from the trunk into the rear of the cabin that can be used when the top is up or down. Incidentally, it takes 20 seconds (according to our watch) for the top to fully close or fully open.
The California's interior looks and feels beautifully crafted, with little extraneous ornamentation. The only bit of over-exuberance is the aluminum arch that rises from the center console.
According to Montezemolo, 60 percent of the orders for the 2009 Ferrari California have come from people who aren't already Ferrari customers. This certainly bodes well for the company, which created this hardtop convertible to the outrage of many Ferrari enthusiasts expressly to expand its audience.
But we must admit that we would not be among potential buyers, even if we could somehow scrounge up the cash. Our $200,000 would still go to the F430. It still represents the extreme performance that makes Ferrari such an important car company to us.
Nevertheless, our tour of Sicily has proven to us that the 2009 Ferrari California fits our definition of a true Ferrari. Just rev that engine.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.