Ferrari Portofino

All-new starter model deliberately dilutes the Maranello magic

JOHN CAREY

FIRST OVERSEAS DRIVE

ROOF-DOWN in Puglia, the heel of boot-shaped Italy, the Portofino is making a good first impression. The interior of Ferrariís new 2+2 is door-todoor craftsmanship. The neatly designed instrument panel is an expanse of perfectly stitched leather and crisply detailed metal, studded with a just-right helping of technology, including a big central touch screen. The new, magnesium-framed front seats are snugly comfortable, the driving position pretty well perfect. And the Portofinoís topless aerodynamics cocoon the cockpit in calm air.

But then thereís the sound of what seems to be an asthmatic playing an out of tune didgeridoo. The ugly racket isnít being made by some second-rate roadside busker. Itís coming from the Ferrariís behind.

The Portofinoís exhaust system has electric bypass valves just upstream from each of its pair of twin-tipped mufflers. Their opening and closing is entirely controlled by software linked to the mode selected on the steering wheel manettino. Thereís no manual over-ride.

Even in Comfort mode, calmest and quietest of the three manettino settings, the software will often choose to open the flaps at low revs and light throttle openings. The dissonant rasp that emerges around 2000rpm is an assault on the ears.

PLUS & MINUS

Engine; transmission; ride; roof-up beauty; roof-down calmness

Dynamics not full-strength Ferrari; exhaust note at low revs; rear seats

The immediacy of throttle response is truly outstanding for a turbocharged engine

Ferrari drivetrain engineers say the Portofinoís exhaust note was carefully tailored to build in volume through the revrange, which they divide, being opera-loving Italians, into bass, tenor and alto ranges. The aim is obvious; to add some aural drama to daily driving. While the bass should be sacked, the tenor and alto can really sing. Above 4000rpm and all the way to the 7500rpm cut-out the engine makes Maranello music.

The Portofinoís twinturbocharged 3.9-litre V8 is a heavily reworked version of that in the California T. It has new pistons, connecting rods, exhaust manifolds, intercoolers and accessory drive. Fuel efficiency is improved compared to the California T, and power increases by fully 26kW.

Itís a gloriously potent engine, yet amazingly flexible. The immediacy of throttle response is truly outstanding for a turbocharged engine, and what it delivers feels flawlessly and fearsomely linear.

If the engine is great, the transmission is even better. Itís the same rear-mounted sevenspeed double-clutch transaxle as Ferrari uses in the bigger GTC4 Lusso, with all-new control software. In Comfort mode it does a very fair impression of a torque-converter auto.

Switching to Sport mode makes shifts noticeably more brusque, but the way it behaves when left in Auto mode is superb. Braking hard for a hairpin it makes perfectly timed downshifts, and accelerating out makes snap-crackly upshifts until pressure on the accelerator is eased.

For a chance to use what are probably the best paddle shifters in the business choose manual transmission mode. The long, column-mounted paddles are a sensual delight, and deliver near-instantaneous shifts.

While the Portofinoís drivetrain is full-strength Ferrari, the same canít be said for its dynamics. For a high-performance GT, the Portofinoís suspension delivers a surprisingly comfortable ride in both Comfort and Sport modes but something is amiss.

Ferrariís engineers managed to shed 80kg, compared to the California T, in designing the same-size Portofino, most of it from the body structure and chassis components. But the car doesnít, from the driverís seat, feel light.

Nor does it feel quite as torsionally stiff as the 488 Spider, despite Ferrari claiming a 35 percent improvement in rigidity over the California T. This burlier chassis has allowed for the fitment of stiffer springs and retuned magnetorheological dampers. Itís not all good news though. The Portofinoís broad tyres generate ample grip, so carrying corner speed, or handling heavy braking and hard acceleration isnít a problem. But the chassis fails to create a sense of complete connection with a high-precision machine, something other modern Ferraris invariably manage to do. The electric power steering is too inert and selecting Sport mode on the manettino, which stiffens the carís adaptive dampers, doesnít do enough to boost agility compared to Comfort mode.

Thereís no doubt the Portofino is a better V8-powered 2+2 GT coupe-cabrio than the California T. It has better looks, extra loudness, more straightline speed and a touch more of the spurious practicality that comes with a pair of tiny rear seats. But this isnít a dose of full-strength Italian espresso intensity from Maranello, more watered-down Americano.

JOHN CAREY

01 DIALLED IN

Wheel-mounted manettino has only three positions, lacking the sophistication of more focused Ferraris. The Portofinoís modes are Comfort, Sport and ESC Off.

02 CROWN DUALS

Large centre screen is a big improvement. Slim passengerside display, a feature introduced in GTC4 Lusso, is also available in Portofino.

03 TIGHT FIT

Slim-backed, magnesiumframed front seats free an extra 50mm of rear legroom. That still disappears to zero when tall front occupants move their seats to a comfortable position.

Open and shut case

The Portofinoís hardtop takes 14 seconds to open or close; exactly the same as the outgoing California T. Unlike the Cali, the roof can be raised or lowered up to 40km/h. Roof-up boot capacity is 292 litres, enough, says Ferrari, for three standard-size airline carry-on trolleys. Thereís a lot more crammed into the Portofinoís tail, including the rear transaxle and an 80-litre fuel tank, which explains its 46/54 front/rear weight distribution.

Up front, all of the V8 is aft of the front axle, effectively making the Portofino frontmid engined.

OR TRY THESE...

Aston Martin DB11 Volante $380,000 (est)

Scheduled to arrive in Australia around the same time as the Portofino, at a similar price. Though powered by an AMG twin-turbo V8, the overall flavour is unmistakably British.

Mercedes-AMG SL63 $370,900

Or maybe German is more to your taste. The SL63 is heftier than the Portofino, but its engine almost matches the Ferrariís for power, and beats it handily for torque. But itís not so lovely to look at.