California Screamin’

Ferrari takes down the top and revives a heady dream

Pat Devereux Shopping

The 2010 Ferrari California represents many firsts for the company. It’s the marque’s first front-engine V8, first hard-topped convertible, first model to offer seven forward gears, and several other things besides. But it’s not the first Ferrari to carry the California name.

That distinction goes to the almost-obscenely gorgeous 250 Spyder California SWB introduced in 1960 — still, understandably, one of the world’s most sought-after classic cars. The model soared to fame as a key prop in the 1986 cult movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but the sting in that tale is that the car used was merely a replica shell running on humble MG mechanicals. So don’t cry too hard when you see it destroyed.

When production of the real car ceased, the California name rested until the introduction of the V12 Ferrari 365 California in 1966. A much longer and wider car than the original, this car had all the classic Ferrari cues, and was sought by those in the know — which was few. This second California was offered, for only one year, exclusively to Ferrari’s VIP customers, and of those, only 14 accepted the offer.

For reasons known only to Ferrari, the California name did not grace another of its cars until 42 years later, when the new model appeared last year. The wait was worth it. Some people have charged that the new California is too soft and relaxed to be a proper Ferrari, but they clearly haven’t driven it. If they had, they would know that this California softens on demand and charges forward like it’s on fire when the mood strikes.

How it does so comes down to the Italian company’s mechanical and stylistic alchemy. The V8 engine produces a total of 454 bhp and 357-pound/foot torque, which drives the car to a speed topping 170 mph through a new dual-clutch, seven-speed gearbox. For anyone who has memories of the neck-snapping changes of the automated manual gearboxes of Ferraris past, this setup is a silky revelation.

If, however, you want to warp rather than waft, the car happily changes its character — at the flick of the manettino switch on the steering wheel — into the full red-blooded sports car you’d expect from any car wearing the Ferrari badge. So, in what is becoming something of the norm in high-end sports cars, you can change the car to suit your mood.

This extends beyond the chassis and engine. The retractable hard-top roof plays a big part in setting the tone, too. Chosen as much to ensure the car retained as much rigidity as possible so that the handling would remain crisp and precise, the hardtop also simplifies the business of push-button removal of the roof. You can raise or lower it in around 15 seconds, which is as quick as you’d expect in a Ferrari.

What you might not anticipate, though, is how smooth the air flows in the cabin with the roof down. With the roof up, the car feels like a proper coupe, with nary a whisper of wind noise. With the roof down, the California delivers a fantastically controlled cabin environment that, unlike several other premium open-topped cars, is a model of relative calm.

It’s so serene and the roof so swift to open or close that you find yourself opening and closing it more than you might on another car. Lock it up for a blast on the freeway, then drop it down as soon as you hit the slip road to hear the bark of the quad exhausts again. And again, and again: You’ll enjoy this for a while.

The Cali’s precise handling and stop-the-world carbon ceramic brakes also allow you fully to exploit all the performance the engine has on offer. Yes, the car, at 3,825 pounds, weighs a little more than we are used to for a Ferrari. That’s the price you pay for the ability to open and close the roof at will. That extra weight also means that the car handles superbly with the roof up or down, as a majority of the extra mass is due to stiffening of the chassis. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. There is such a thing as too skinny, even in the desert, when you are talking about cars.

The final chapter in what is already a great story is the interior. Swathed in buttery smooth leather tucked and secured tightly around every twist and curve, it’s a pleasant place to watch the scenery rush by. The seats are firm yet cosseting, the controls — even the high-tech screens that flank the traditional dials — easy to operate. The only question mark is the area behind the front seats, which is far better suited to baggage than passengers.

The new California offers the same heady mix of vivid Ferrari performance and superb open-topped sophistication that has always been synonymous with the Ferrari California name.

Ferrari California is priced from $192,000.