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Andrew Heasley, drive.com.au, June 24, 2009
With a potent 4.3-litre V8 and gorgeous open-top body, the exotic Ferrari California is the perfect way to enjoy a drive in the Victorian country.
The spectre of flaunting wealth in an area of Victoria recently ravaged by bushfire seems, well, unseemly.
As people gradually start piecing together their shattered lives from the ashes of Black Saturday, one wonders what they'd make of a shiny, black, mega-dollar Ferrari snaking along the bitumen between the burnt-out hillsides.
No, we weren't there in the Yarra Valley and districts for a gawk or to show off behind the wheel of Ferrari's latest model, the California.
As representatives of Ferrari-importer Ateco were quick to point out, they understood the sensitivities but the Yarra Valley and surrounding areas are relying, in no small part, on tourism returning and the economic benefits that flow from it for the communities trying to get back on their feet.
And it was their conscious decision to hold the launch of the California there. And so we went.
The California is a departure from the type of vehicle one would normally associate with the brand that's won more Formula One grands prix than any other.
Rather than some hard-core race-car-for-the-road, the California is entirely civilised, pampering even. Its brief was to be a Gran Turismo - a grand tourer - to swallow big distances comfortably and to be easy to drive.
For starters, it’s both a coupe and an open-air car: it adopts the latest in convertible technology with a push-button folding hard top. In an acrobatic action, the roof lifts, the boot lid unhinges and the roof disappears in a spritely 14 seconds.
The new California also debuts Ferrari’s latest seven-speed automatic, which uses a twin-clutch set-up for the first time on a Ferrari. It's a quantum leap of earlier robotised manuals in cog-swapping speed and finesse.
It also features a three-program Manettino switch that changes the car's dynamic traits at a rotation of a steering-wheel mounted switch, between comfort, sport and (race) track.
In comfort setting, the emphasis is on gentle throttle response, relaxed steering efforts, smooth gear changes, absorbent suspension and progressive braking.
In sport mode it sharpens the throttle, steering and braking response, quickens the gear shift and firms up the suspension.
In track mode, it switches off all electronic safety nets except the anti-lock function on the brakes and is designed for a circuit workout. It's also dubbed locally as the “find another job” button, such are the consequences for the importer's staff who fancy themselves as bit of a Schumacher.
The car we're to drive has the optional “Magneride Dual Mode Shock Absorber system” that offers electronically adjustable compliance settings.
Oh, and under the long bonnet is a mid-front-mounted, 90-degree, 4.3-litre V8 that pumps out 338kW and 485Nm. It's said to be good for a 0-100km/h sprint time of “less than four seconds” and a top speed of 310km/h.
Miraculously, Ferrari claims an average fuel consumption of 13.1 litres per 100km (helped no doubt by a very tall seventh gear), though carbon dioxide emissions are 305g/km.
But first things first, the cabin. In the test car, it’s a sea of caramel-coloured leather, with firm and supportive seats.
There are three buttons embedded in what looks like an alloy femur that rises from the centre dividing console: one says “Launch” (you know that it would be inappropriate - as the politically correct would say - to explore what that button does in valet parking), one for reverse and one for beginners, “auto”.
Close to the driver's elbow is the roof activation button, and behind it the two electric-window switches.
Confession time: the passenger window switch came off in my fingers the first moment I used it. Thankfully, it snapped back in place as easily - it's a chrome-plated plastic jigger - and stayed put thereafter. Oh well, it is an Italian car, after all, albeit a $472,000 one, before paying on-road costs that will likely take the price beyond $500,000.
To get the crackle-red engine of the Ferrari California fired up, there's the all important red starter button, something that looks more like a gimmick on lesser cars.
Nothing can prepare you for the metallic rasp that leaps from the four pipes stacked in two clusters when blipped at idle. It's shattering.
A flip of the California’s right paddle, the gear box slots into first, ease off the brakes and onto the accelerator and you're away in a half-million-dollar projectile.
Roof up, the Ferrari California enjoys good visibility out the front, sides and to the rear, even if the roof lining is in close proximity.
At low speeds, it sends an exhaust boom into the cabin, just in case you forget there’s some wicked engineering under foot.
In comfort mode, the Ferrari California threads its way along the freeways, absorbing suspension joints effortlessly and maintains a set speed without fuss. At 110km/h, there's more than 200km/h to go ... in theory at least.
Cantering along, it gives a moment to take in the cabin. The heater controls are so simple to understand they could come from a Japanese car.
The audio/sat-nav system is a big screen unit, that for all the world is identical to Chrysler's MyGig system with a hard drive for song storage, USB/iPod connectivity, voice activation and phone connection.
But it’s when you get off the freeway and onto the winding roads that the California really shows its brilliance. Time for the Manettino's Sport function.
As the road threads from corner to corner, left, right and doubles back in a hairpin, the California exhibits somewhat contradictory behaviour: it is simultaneously glued to the bitumen while feeling light on its feet.
It’s an unexpected sensation in a car that weighs more than 1.7 tonnes with huge gumball tyres (our test car, one of two registered in Australia, had optional, larger 20-inch alloys, replacing the standard 18s).
The Ferrari California simply steers exactly where it’s pointed, deep into corners, settles surefootedly and slingshots you to the next. Part of the secret is its aluminium chassis that allows it to be stiff and light.
The other is the brake system: Ferrari puts carbon-ceramic brakes on the car as standard, and you can choose to have the calipers enamelled in red, yellow (as per our test car), black or grey. They work without fuss, washing off speed as fast as you'd like.
For the uninitiated, the Ferrari California's driving dynamics build driver confidence, rather than stripping it way. It’s perhaps no wonder, then, that we're told the California is attracting buyers half of whom have never owned a Ferrari before.
Despite the chilly 12-degree temperature, we dropped the roof and cranked up the heating, to let in the Ferrari's signature exhaust song.
There's a throaty roar under acceleration and a delicious burble on over run when you lift off the pedal. There's not a trace of scuttle shake encountered from the open-top body.
But no one was ready for the stockwhip crack on fast gear changes approaching the 4.3-litre V8 engine’s 8000rpm redline when swapping between second and third gears.
Bouncing off the scarred hillsides, the crack echoed through the blackened trees.
Later, as we slowed to a stop for road works, the California roused the curiosity of road side workers who gave it more than a cursory glance as we waited behind their lollypop stop-go signs while they went about their vastly more important task of rebuilding communities.
It's a sign of life returning to the region, as are the green wisps sprouting from charred tree trunks and the new emerald green fronds unfurling from the tree ferns.
True, only the very privileged will get to own and enjoy such a car.
In Australia, Ferrari dealers already hold 200 orders for the California, even as the first are being delivered now.
Win Lotto and plonk your deposit down, and you'll still have an 18 month wait. Longer, if you want to customise your Ferrari California.
Ferrari Australia representative say they expect to be able to deliver almost 40 Californias for the remainder of 2009, and next year's allocation of cars from Italy has yet to be determined.
Standard California not fancy enough? Try these options for size:
‘Daytona’ style seat trim: $7000
‘Diamond’ style seat trim: $7000
LED Carbon Fibre steering wheel: $8200
Magneride dual mode shock absorber system: $7500
19-inch forged diamond alloys: $9500
20-inch diamond finish sport wheels: $8000