Whether through foresight or serendipity, the introduction of the Ferrari California – the Prancing Horse’s least expensive model – at the 2008 Paris auto show coincided with the start of the Great Recession.
What better way for the exotic car maker to expand its business than to launch an entry level model when most people were losing (or worried about losing) their shirt? Actually, the target market was certainly more likely people who weren’t worried about said shirt loss, but perhaps may not have wanted to rub it (as much) into the faces of those who were.
So it was that more than 50 years after the original Italian sports car named after a U.S. state arrived on our shores, the 2009 model followed, value-priced and packed with Maranello’s latest technology. Whereas the Ferrari lineup had previously consisted of front engine V12 Gran Turismo (GT) and mid-engine V8 sports cars, with a flagship supercar thrown in every seven to 10 years (e.g. F40, F50, Enzo), the California was the first ever front engine V8 Ferrari.
Described as a retractable hardtop two seat GT with optional 2+2 seating – the rear two passengers usually preferring the seats of the front two – it became one of the company’s volume models.
V12 x 2/3 = Engine
At the heart of it lay a variant of the Ferrari F430 engine, an aluminum 4.3 liter V8. But this was the first Ferrari to have direct injection. Churning out 453 hp, it produced less power than the unit in the F430 but more torque on its way to a redline near 8,000 rpm.
Power was directed to a rear mounted dual-clutch semi-automatic transmission featuring seven speeds. This partly explains why only 46% of the car’s hefty 3,900 lb. mass rides on the front wheels. Later an optional six speed manual version became available. But rumor has it that pretty much none were sold, making it nearly as rare as unicorns.
On the Trot
Either way power was delivered through a multilink suspension set up at the rear with magnetorheological shocks riding on 19 inch wheels. Helping to tame that power was the three mode Manettino system. One could choose between sport or comfort mode, or turning it off altogether. Launch control was but a push of a button away to dispatch any unwashed drag racing pretenders that pulled alongside at stoplights in their taxis and Honda Civics.
The 0.32 drag coefficient of its aluminum coachwork let the California reach a top speed of 193 mph, though certainly it wouldn’t hit its 13/19 city/highway EPA mpg at such velocity. Still it could manage zero to 60 mph in under 4 seconds, pull 0.96g on the skidpad and, thanks to its drilled and vented carbon-ceramic brake discs at all four corners, the chubby droptop could bring itself to a stop from 60 mph in a very impressive 106 feet.
On a more pedestrian note, 12 cubic feet of trunk space was available with the top up, and 8.5 cubic feet with the top down. That’s pretty practical, provided you had somewhere between $200,00 to $225,000 and showed enough humility at the dealership.
A Prancing Thoroughbred’s Existential Dilemma
No doubt Ferrari sold a fair number of these. However, one gets the sense the company was a bit defensive about it, going to great lengths to position the car as a real Ferrari despite any perceived misgivings about its authenticity.
Many people who can afford a Ferrari want to buy into the brand and cachet, but they don’t really want to compromise on comfort and practicality. This car is for them.
Ferrari was able to deliver on those desires without materially diluting its image. But while it certainly is an impressive car, there does seem to be a perception in the media that the California was a bit on the soft side, lacking the edginess the other models were known for.
Regardless, production of the California continued through 2013, with a 2012 update that included a 60 lb. reduction in weight and a 30 hp bump in power. It was replaced for 2014 by the California T, an updated model featuring a twin turbocharged V8 engine. Clearly the concept was sound enough.
Photo courtesy Ferrari S.p.A.