The Ferrari California, launched in 2008, easily became the Italian carmaker’s most successful model ever. That was due in no small part to its lower price bracket compared with its more powerful stablemates, which in turn attracted many first-time buyers to the brand.
Mind you, at $399,888 plus on-roads, the Portofino is hardly a prestige bargain, but Ferrari, like no other automotive brand on the planet, commands such high residual values – even for its so-called entry models. Certainly, that’s what history tells us.
Exclusivity is the name of the game in the classic car world, and nothing demonstrates this quite so successfully as the 1963 Ferrari GTO that recently sold for US$70 million – thought to be the highest price ever paid for a car, let alone a Ferrari.
And, it’s not just those rare ’60s GTOs with racing provenance that attract such sky-high prices. Less exclusive models from the ’70s and ’80s like the 308 GTS and 355 are now worth up to three times their original asking price.
We could go on and on with specific examples, suffice to say, Ferraris are now a safer bet than the NASDAQ and way more fun. Beyond that, there’s a good deal of cachet that comes from owning a Ferrari – even the least expensive model.
It’s also far too early to tell if the Portofino will ever be worth more than its as-new sticker price, but given the brand’s history in this area, there’s a good bet it will. Ferrari has also moved the game forward significantly, with the Portofino boasting a stack of improvements over the California.
That might be so, but I’m here to tell you that I came away from my most recent drive of the California T Handling Speciale in Italy with a very big grin on my face. Also, a huge amount of respect for that car’s ability to carve up the Italian countryside around Castelnovo ne’ Monti. And we were pushing hard.
On the other hand, the Portofino is lighter, faster and stiffer than its predecessor, and depending on who you’re speaking with, easier on the eye too. But I’ll let you be the judge of that.
To my eye, at least, it’s a beautifully designed Ferrari with lines that impress from almost any angle. Working the retractable hardtop is a party trick in itself – theatrical in its workings and needing just 14 seconds to lower or raise at speeds up to 40km/h.
Word of warning, though. If you do decide to drop the top in peak-hour traffic, make sure the car behind you is well back and not a tailgater, or that roof might not deploy. That’s because the entire rear section of the car comes away at least 30cm or more to allow the front section to neatly tuck in under it.
So sleek is the design that most punters won’t pick it is a convertible, and with the roof closed it is actually lower than the California T, and heavily raked at the front and rear for that jet-fighter-cockpit-style look.
And just like the California T, the brand-new Portofino is billed as the ‘everyday’ Ferrari, only the 3.9-litre twin-turbo V8 has been given a slight boost. Power is up by 29kW to 441kW at 7500rpm, while peak torque has grown by 5Nm to 760Nm between 3000 and 5200rpm.
While that might not seem like much of a hike, it surely is when you factor in the 80kg weight reduction that Ferrari has engineered out of its latest creation from Maranello.
Ferrari’s approach to weight reduction starts with the chassis and body-in-white – all of which have been designed from the ground up to shed kilos. Take the A-pillar. It now consists of just two components compared to 21 in the California.
You can feel that from the very first time you turn the car in. The sensation is even lighter than its 1664kg kerb weight might suggest. And, the all-new electric power steering only accentuates the sharper response of the Portofino.
Some might find it even too light, certainly that was my initial thought, but you start to get used to that and the fact that it’s a very quick ratio – the same as the 812 Superfast, in fact. The end result is a car that requires very little driver effort, even in the really tight stuff.
That said, we’d like more feedback through the steering wheel despite the ‘everyday driver’ positioning of the Portofino. The 812 Superfast gives a lot more back in this regard, and yep, we know it’s a significantly more expensive car.
It seems to reward most when enthusiasm gets the better of you. Grip levels are high and there’s a lot of confidence on offer from behind the wheel. Still, it’s nowhere near as tied down as the superlative 488 in this regard – just to keep things in proper perspective.
Launch it from standstill, though, and you’ll hit 100km/h in 3.5 seconds flat. If you’re able to press on, then 200km/h comes up in 10.8 seconds and on to a top speed of 320km/h if you keep the right pedal buried.
Better still, there’s no discernible lag before the twin turbochargers spool up and start doing their thing, meaning throttle response is super sharp in almost any gear ratio, at least in the Sport position.
Switch to Comfort and the Ferrari becomes noticeably more docile within a split second. Throttle response is retarded, the bypass valves close up shop and the shifts are a lot less urgent – just what you want for the daily commute.
Ferrari, like no other carmaker in the segment, seems peerless in its talent to both dial out turbo lag and provide an exhilarating exhaust note from a boosted V8. There’s also something very cool about using the Manettino switch on the steering wheel, rather than simply a button on the console.
And there’s no better way to enjoy that kind of intoxicating note than with the roof wide open. It amplifies the volume times 10, and essentially becomes the default driving position for this car, even in poor weather, just as long as it’s not bucketing down, of course.
There’s more good stuff, too, like the huge mid-range punch the Portofino possesses. You can’t really enjoy it here in Australia, but at least you get a taste of its true potential in a place like the Old Pacific Highway north of Sydney, where some idyllic twisty roads remain.
It all comes together so well with Ferrari’s beautifully honed seven-speed F1 gearbox. It’s a dual-clutch unit that upshifts and downshifts with such glorious precision and speed that you’ll find yourself overusing the paddle-shifters just for the hell of it.
There’s a proper ‘crack’ each time you pull one of the beautifully crafted metal paddles, which makes you realise that perhaps Ferrari has one over Porsche’s much lauded PDK transmission in this regard.
Pushing on through those twisties and you don’t get the sensation you’re driving a drop-top GT – at least not from a dynamic sense. If there is some slight body roll, you can’t feel it from the driver’s seat.
There’s a good reason for that, too. Body stiffness is up by 35 per cent over the California T, along with stiffer springs (15.5 per cent at the front, 19 per cent down the back) and a reworked active suspension system, now with dual-coil dampers with updated software.
Punching out of corners is easy in the Portofino thanks to all of the above hardware, and the inclusion of a third-generation electronic rear diff that works in concert with the car’s F1 traction-control system. It feels very settled as you power out of corners.
But where Ferrari really stands apart from its closest rivals is its expertise when it comes to ride/handling balance, and particularly so with the Portofino. What’s more, it doesn’t matter what mode you might be in, the suspension is able to iron out the bumps.
So good is this system that it would even rival properly luxury cars in the ride department. But even in Sport, which changes the damper settings almost instantly, there’s still plenty of pliancy to deal with the kind of surface imperfections that might cause other performance cars to become unsettled.
Not so with the Portofino – it just locks into its line and stays there, even under big loads. It’s very reassuring for those behind the wheel who like to have the occasional crack in the twisties.
And while the Portofino might provide the most affordable entry into Ferrari ownership, the cabin smacks of exclusivity and craftsmanship. The layout is not dissimilar to the 812 Superfast, with superbly sculptured sports seats that seem to mould to the curvature of your spine and the softest of hand-stitched leather upholstery.