2016 Ferrari California T review

Put down your stopwatch and just enjoy the ride in Ferrari's California T

Ferrari's mild-mannered California T adds comfort without losing its Italian charm.
Ferrari's mild-mannered California T adds comfort without losing its Italian charm.
Ferrari's mild-mannered California T adds comfort without losing its Italian charm.

Highs

  • Compelling design with the top up or down
  • New turbocharged power plant offers substantially more power
  • Excellent braking capability
  • Gets the grand touring fundamentals right

Lows

  • Somewhat lackluster exhaust note
  • Seats are not well bolstered and the standard seats lack lumbar support
  • Improved looks, but mundane compared to the competition

DT Editors' Rating

Press cars come and go from my life on a regular basis, and it’s easy to get jaded along the way. But it’s a testament to the enduring charisma of the Ferrari Marque that I couldn’t help but beam with pride at the Rosso California red Ferrari drop-top that sat at the ready in my driveway shortly after its trailered delivery.

In years past, the California has been accused of being too aesthetically pedestrian and lacking the performance necessary to do the revered Ferrari name justice. But judging from the crowd of onlookers who gathered to gawk at the California T as it was unloaded from its metal cage, this hardtop convertible and its newly revised looks have no trouble turning heads among the many shiny objects vying for attention in Los Angeles.

And in terms of the latter accusation, the California T marks the Italian automaker’s first foray into turbocharging since the legendary F40 model of the 1980s. Much like the rest of the automotive industry, Ferrari is moving away from larger naturally aspirated engines toward smaller displacement motors that are supplemented by turbochargers.

In terms of sheer output, it means that the California T’s new twin turbocharged 3.9-liter V8 makes 553 horsepower and 557 pound-feet of torque, increases of 70 hp and a whopping 185 lb-ft over the outgoing model, which is enough to propel this 3,800-pound hardtop convertible to sixty miles per hour from rest in 3.6 seconds.

By most measures that’s supercar-level thrust, but I would hesitate to classify the California T as a supercar. Instead, it’s an exceptionally capable grand touring machine that’s less about lap times and more about the driving experience – a car truly at its best with the top down, the stereo up, and a twisting, open stretch of tarmac laid out before it.

Getting up to speed

Ferrari’s transition back into the realm of turbocharging wasn’t a decision made lightly, and the alteration wasn’t performed sheerly in the pursuit of increased output. As international emissions and fuel economy regulations become stricter, performance brands are among those most affected, and Ferrari is no more immune to those regulations than anyone else is.

For better or worse, this change in engine configuration has a fairly substantial impact on not only the California’s power delivery, but its overall personality as well. Yet there’s no denying that the move served its purpose: Along with the performance improvements, the California T also boasts a 15-percent drop in emissions and a substantial improvement in fuel economy as well.

This hardtop convertible and its newly revised looks have no trouble turning heads.

To go along with its newfound output, the California T also sees numerous revisions throughout the car. Revised sheetmetal bolsters the visual drama and aggression, taking some design inspiration from Ferrari’s other front-engine offering, the F12 Berlinetta. The model’s seven-speed dual clutch transmission gets a new set of gear ratios to better utilize the boosted power band; the adaptive suspension has been retuned; and the traction control system also gets revamped for more effective power delivery. The interior sees a few minor tweaks as well, while the introduction of Ferrari’s new infotainment system now offers Apple CarPlay support.

At least on paper, these tweaks all point toward a more aggressive and visceral California than we’ve seen in years past. But there was only one way to know for sure, and LA’s famous Angeles Crest Highway was calling my name.

Out on the road

One of the main reasons I’d hesitate to classify the California T as a supercar can be found just driving around town. City driving in a supercar can be a stressful proposition: Supercar attributes like a low front splitter threaten to scrape the pavement at the mere suggestion of uneven ground, and a stiffly tuned suspension is always ready to abuse your nerves over pockmarked urban streets. Neither of these is an issue when driving this Ferrari.

The California T is instead designed for real-world, daily driven use. Its suspension is tuned to be taut without being punishing over rough road. The paddle shifts from the gearbox are reasonably quick, but not violent. The interior is equally as posh as it is purposeful, and it takes a mere 14 seconds for the California T to transform from a coupe into a roadster when the urge strikes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s with that top down that the brilliance of the California T is fully realized. Here the exhaust system – which is inherently quieter than the previous model due to the muffling effect of turbochargers – sounds more characterful, and any of the California T’s hardcore sports car aspirations give way to a stellar grand touring experience.

At speed on an engaging stretch of road, the California T’s suspension tuning can feel a bit soft coupled with its particularly quick steering rack. But the optional two-mode Magneride dampers do offer some adjustability in that regard, with Sport mode corralling body roll to a noticeable degree when selected.  I’d consider it money well spent for that reason.

Of course if you’re going build a car like the California T that’s capable of getting up to some serious speeds in a real hurry, you’ll also want brakes that can keep up with it, and thankfully the California T’s carbon ceramic Brembo brakes are up to the task while remaining surprisingly free of compromise.

On a sunny day, with the top down and a good stretch of road, the Ferrari realizes every car guy’s childhood fantasy.

Unlike many carbon ceramic systems used in other performance cars, the California T’s stoppers remained quiet whether hot or cold and offered a solid amount of bite at the top of the pedal. Ultimately, the California T’s brakes behave much more like a traditional brake system in all the right ways while still providing the heat management benefits of this track-focused design.

Ferrari’s engineers have clearly also spent many hours fine-tuning the new engine with an emphasis on providing linear power delivery. The 3.9-liter V8’s pair of turbochargers use a variable boost system that modulates torque throughout all the gears except seventh, not only to make the California T’s power more usable but to make the motor more efficient as well.

There’s still some detectable lag pulling through a gear from a low-rpm trot, but the ocean of torque that’s delivered once everything’s spooled up quickly nullifies that concession every time one dips generously into the throttle.

What’s in a name

Pricing for the Ferrari California T starts right around $200,000, and my test car rang up a grand total of $273,430 all in, with more than $20K of that attributed to the special Rosso California and black hardtop paint combination. That kind of money certainly puts the California T in some fast company, but where many cars in this realm attempt to deliver an emotional impact with potential owners by way of performance metrics, the California T offers something different, something unique.

While automotive perfection is impossible to achieve — and the California T is no exception to the rule — on a sunny day with the top down and a good stretch of road in front of you, the childhood fantasy that every car guy had is fully realized in this Ferrari.

Those dreams weren’t about having the most sophisticated launch control system or announcing your lateral G capability to anyone who had the misfortune of feigning interest. Those dreams were about the sounds and sensations of hauling ass in a red Ferrari convertible and simply enjoying that incredible, singular moment.

The fact that the California T does that particular task so well is assuredly not a coincidence, and I have no doubt that there are plenty of people who will be more than happy to concede mythical lap times for driving bliss.

To them I say enjoy the ride. California’s golden highways await.