AH, THE FLASHING stability control light, harbinger of a prevented crash or a stolen moment of heroism. And in the case of the brilliant new Ferrari Portofino, the accomplice to frustration and annoyance.
Let us explain. Yes, it’s true that most owners of Maranello’s 3.9-litre twin-turbo V8 drop-top are more likely to know the time it takes to put the roof down, than the 0-100km/h figure (both impressive figures at 14 and 3.5 seconds respectively). And so most are going to return nothing but puzzled looks when you mention something called CT Off (“It’s in the 488” ... “The 488 is the mid-engine one the next wrung up”). But if you’re anyone like us, this will be a wee issue for you.
That’s because Ferrari has, at last, made its entry level, two-plus-two, folding hardtop sports car good. Very good. For a long time, the Prancing Horse’s front-engine convertible was a stunted creature hidden in the corner of the showroom, which you bought for your partner because you wanted to get on the list for the Speciale, tdf or Pista. But in its evolution from California to California T, with a little dash of Handling Speciale along the way, and now Portofino, Ferrari’s drop-top-for-the-masses finally has the chassis to match the breathtaking twin-turbo, dual-clutch rear-drive powertrain. In other words, you might actually want to buy one for yourself!
Let’s rewind a bit and cover off what exactly is Portofino. Replacing the 10-year old California, the Portofino is a brand new chassis using an uprated version of the outgoing California’s powertrain. While it’s 16mm longer and 28mm wider than the California T, the Portofino retains the same 2670mm wheelbase, and is an impressive 80kg lighter thanks to new manufacturing techniques, says Ferrari, that will be used on other models in the future. Weighing 1664kg, outputs are up slightly (29kW/5Nm) to a fairly staggering 441kW and 760Nm, thanks to new engine bits such as pistons and conrods, and new intake and exhaust designs. There is a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic fitted, and with launch control Ferrari claims 0-100km/h in the aforementioned 3.5sec, 200km/h in 10.8sec and a top speed of 320km/h. Bats**t crazy fast, in other words.
With its almost Zagato-esque rear end, we think the styling is a significant improvement on both the first California and the facelifted T. The headlights are a bit squinty, but this is actually a car you’d want to look at for the sake of looking at, with delicious details like the carbon-ceramic brakes hidden behind 20-inch wheels. Or the quad pipes and rear diffuser, or the myriad surfaces clearly sculpted by air. This is a beautiful car.
Inside is just as nice, with expensive materials everywhere. A flat-bottom steering wheel contains all the key controls, indicators included (as buttons), the famous manettino and glee-inducing yellow-and-black Ferrari horn button logo. Aft of the wheel there’s a large yellow tachometer reading to 7500rpm, flanked by two large screens with more driver information. It’s a gorgeous cabin that feels right for the price, even if there’s a certain hand-made quality about it distinct from the solidity and perfection found in something German.
But you don’t buy a Ferrari for its interior; you buy it for what’s under the bonnet. And the short-stroke, flat-plane-crank V8 is seriously good, response crisp despite heavy turbocharging and a huge kick of torque available from low in the revs, racing to a potent, heady redline. For traction’s sake, torque is stepped out gradually as you go up the gears, the full 760Nm not available until fourth gear. And as you’d expect, it’s seriously potent, in a league of acceleration the preserve of only supercars.
It’s the chassis where, perhaps as you’d hope, the Portofino runs rings around its predecessor. An ultra-fast steering rack takes some getting used to, but once you’re keyed in, there’s plenty of agility available, backed up by supple damping and some serious lateral grip from the Pirelli P Zero tyres.
Combined with all that power, the Portofino puts its middle finger firmly up at Australian speed limits and hightails it down a road in a way you weren’t quite expecting from the “entry level” Ferrari. Yes, the relatively skinny front tyres (245s front, 285s rear) make the Portofino a default understeerer, but it’s possible to correct the balance holding the brakes right to the apex. Although only to a point, as the Portofino is hardly telling you what it’s doing in crystal clear detail.
With slightly numb steering, and not the greatest seat-of-the-pants connection, the Portofino is hardly 488-telepathic about what it’s going to do next, which can be a bit frustrating as there is a very capable chassis beneath you. Confidence reaches a certain point when you are not getting the information you need.
The Portofino also has the potential to be a lot more fun for the more experienced driver. Imagine an obedient throttle responsively serving up a huge 441kW/760Nm; rear-wheel drive; a lightning-quick, electronically locking rear diff (the latest E-Diff 3 from Ferrari) and a very fast steering rack, and you can imagine Maranello abstained from a CT Off mode (which, in models like the 488, lets you hang the tail out a bit with a degree of electronic oversight) for the simple purpose of tyre preservation. Alas, it’s ESC Off only for such antics - at which point the Portofino may or may not become another car altogether - a difficult risk-versus-reward calculation we would imagine for most owners.
That aside, the Portofino is superb, a huge improvement on the California T. It also rides well, is fairly quiet with the roof up, and has a cracking exhaust note. It’s still shaded by a 488 Spider for ultimate precision and excitement - no surprise there - but one of those is always available if you find yourself cursing, rather than thanking, the Portofino’s ever-flashing ESC light.
4.0-litre twin-turbo V8, RWD, 375kW/675Nm, 0-100k m/h 4.1sec 1870kg, $398,495
Not as fast, nor as sharp, but dropdead gorgeous with a sinful V8 note and beautiful ride and interior. Another option is waiting for the impending DBS Superleggera Volante