Friday, 6 June 2008

Ferrari California

According to archaeological evidence, man has inhabited Italy for 200,000 years. (Unless you’re an elbow-patched God-bothering Jesus muncher, in which case you’ll think it’s rather less than that.) It is a very long time, but of course in those early days they were just banging rocks against slightly larger rocks and daubing impressionist-style representations of their pet mammoths on the foothills of the Graian Alps. Until, that is, one fur-clad monobrow stumbled across the notion of assisted perambulation after he accidentally chipped all the pointy bits from his favourite alabaster square – this changed mankind’s lifestyle, liberty and aspirations exponentially.

After this, nothing interesting really happened for a while (the Villanovans made some nice pottery, the Etruscans painted pretty portraits of each other, the Romans raced around in chariots and set lions on their slaves), until in 1957 the Ferrari 250GT California Spyder appeared in a puff of lusty mischief and everyone suddenly twigged what the whole endeavour of civilisation had been leading up to. It was a sublime machine – gorgeous coachwork, sumptuous trim, a potent 3-litre V12 under the bonnet and impressively fleet of foot due to a very low kerb weight. It embodied the spirit of effectively combining luxury and efficiency of the ancient Romans – more along the lines of the racing of chariots than the whole setting lions on one another thing, obviously – and proved to be a massive success for Ferrari. With such heritage and fondness of memory it was inevitable that our Modenese chums would resurrect the ‘California’ moniker sooner or later.

…and lo, it is so. Don’t worry, this is no cynical marketing exercise like the New Beetle or the Mustang II; we can maintain the faith we have in Ferrari’s relentless pursuit of excellence. Despite rather a lot of misguided and frankly baffling media criticism, the new California is a genuinely exciting prospect.

This might sound like an obvious remark; surely, you’re thinking, any new Ferrari is an exciting prospect? Of course you’re right, but there are a few intriguing tricks to the new baby that push levels of mental engagement higher than most: for one thing, it’s the first Ferrari to have a front-mounted V8. You see, the bigwigs have been listening to their customers, some of whom have been saying that the F430 is rather too compromised as a day-to-day car. Astounding as the mid-engined monster is, it seems that certain people would like to be able to fit a few shopping bags where the engine is. (Each to their own… I’d take the mid-engined format every time, but then I’m only saying that because I can’t afford to actually get involved in these decisions.) So, they like the power, they prefer that particular size, they enjoy the overall experience… simple fix, just throw the engine in the front. Easy. It’ll be less hardcore by definition – mid-engined layout, obviously, offers optimised weight distribution and thus assists grip, traction, controllability, swiftness of adjustment etc – but it’s by no means a slouch. You can’t argue with 454 Italian horses and a 0-62mph time comfortably below four seconds.

It’s also the first Ferrari to have a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. The absence of the trademark metal H-gate may make the old-school prancing horse aficionados choke on their linguine but come on, we grew to love paddle-shift even though that seemed sick and wrong to begin with. Brand heritage is everything to Ferrari, but it’s essential not to overlook evolution. Besides, it’s not just everyday Volkswagens that use semi-auto dual-clutch transmissions… if it’s good enough for the Veyron, it can’t be half bad.

Oh yes, and there’s another exciting first for the marque. The California has a folding steel roof. That’s right – until now the old guard of the supercar elite have eschewed the weight, bulk and mechanical complexity of the format in favour of the more traditional canvas tent affair, but it does make sense for this particular model. If the consumer wants a Ferrari as a useable daily driver with somewhere to put the shopping, they’re likely to also be rather keen on having a sealed roof unit with a heated rear screen and nowhere for the air to whistle in when the top’s up. Makes sense. And although the California, as with its forefather, is aimed squarely at the US market, you just know that the bendy tin-top will do them all kinds of favours over here. After all, the UK buys more convertibles per capita than anywhere in the world. Although nobody’s quite sure why.

Don’t let all the chatter about usability and suchlike lead you to think that the California is in any way a ‘soft’ Ferrari. 0-62mph below four seconds is epic. It has carbon brakes as standard, the all-aluminium construction makes it light and stiff, the traction control system is lifted directly from the 599GTB – this is truly a force to be reckoned with. Ignore the cynics, the arrogant folk who love to criticise for criticism’s sake. This is, quite simply, a fabulous car; achingly gorgeous, dripping in heritage yet bang up-to-date, fast enough to peel the skin from your face and deposit it down the back of your t-shirt… the petrolheads from Modena have done it again. A modern classic and a future icon – it’s what they do best.

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