Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016

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Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016
Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016

The Ferrari California T is a more convincing looker and a more convincing car than the original California, but some people still want it to feel more, well, Ferrari-ish. That’s where the Handling Speciale comes in, with stiffer springs, tauter damping and a lot more noise, everywhere. It’s faster, more fun and easier to drive. And it’s less than four per cent more money.

The California was born, largely, to bring new customers to Ferrari that wanted a car they could drive everyday, with more practicality and a softer ride.

Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016 Review
Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016 Review

To swing them in, Ferrari built the California T with a folding hardtop roof, a usable back seat (well, it’s usable for sports bags and golf clubs) and space to throw phones and wallets and keys all around the cabin.

It worked, and more than 70 per cent of California T buyers now turn to the warming embrace of Ferrari from things like Porsches or Aston Martins or even Bentleys.

Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016
Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016

That still means, though, that nearly a third of California buyers already have a Ferrari in the garage, and that means the Ferrari they have is definitely harder-edged than the stock California T.

And that’s where the Handling Speciale package comes in. It’s stiffer and faster and more fun, and the trade off is a slightly firmer ride, all the time.

The engine is untouched, which means the 3.9-litre, biturbo V8 still has 755Nm of torque from 4750rpm and it still delivers 412kW of power at 7500.

Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016
Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016

There is a bunch of lovely, high-tech goodies that make this feel like one of the most highly strung of daily-driver engines, without actually being remotely highly strung.

There is a pair of twin-scroll turbochargers, a flat-plane crankshaft, three-piece, equal-length cast exhaust headers and variable boost management for the turbocharger.

Also, while it boasts of 755Nm of torque in the tagline, it doesn’t actually deliver 755Nm of torque until you’re in the tallest gear in the seven-speed ‘box, primarily because the first few gears just waste that sort of torque, Ferrari insists.

Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016
Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016

Better to deliver the amount of torque the rear tyres can process into acceleration and speed, rather than strobe up the traction-control lights.

So the engine only sends a tick over 600Nm to the gearbox in the first three gears and it rises gradually with each subsequent gear until it’s at about 660Nm in sixth gear, then it jumps to the maximum in top gear, which also helps it to stay in the thriftiest gear even while it’s accelerating hard and overtaking on highways.

The seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, pieced together for Ferrari by Getrag, is the first thing to receive the Handling Speciale treatment.

Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016
Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016

Ferrari has rewritten the software for it, making the shifts faster both up and down the gearbox, particularly in the car’s two more aggressive driving modes.

Ferrari’s boffins say it changes up gears 30 per cent quicker than the stock California T (itself no slouch) but the biggest difference is that the downshifts are 40 per cent faster.

The sound is different, too, with Ferrari rearranging its exhaust system with a pair of Helmholtz resonators to lift the sound by around 3dBa across the rev range, but they particularly focused on the bit between 1500-2800rpm. The everyday, moving-through-traffic bit.

Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016
Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016

The other massive tweak with the Handling Speciale is in the suspension. Ferrari has given it front springs that are 16 per cent stiffer and it’s made the rear springs 19 per cent firmer, too.  The magnetorheological dampers controlling them have been tweaked for speed as well, just to keep pace.

Ferrari’s engineers, who usually trot out in-house technical descriptions other sports car makers never make public, insist that the new suspension setup lowers the roll velocity by seven percent and lifts the car’s corner-exit speed by 3.8 per cent.

The sum of that ends up as a pretty nice package, but it’s not always in the way you think it ought to be.

Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016
Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016

Firstly, it’s not the worst idea to leave the cabin largely untouched, even if there are a couple of tiny exterior design fiddles to mark the Handling Speciale out to the true believers.

It’s a nice place to be and an elevating thing to spend time in. The red stitching for the leather is clearly done by hand all over the cabin (there are stitching imperfections that are endearing here, but wouldn’t pass muster at Audi or its sports-car arm, Lamborghini), the leather is beautifully soft and the carpet is cossetting.

The carbon-fibre arch over the centre console’s oddments tray is just a lovely piece of design and holds the buttons for the Automatic mode and the hazard lights, amongst others. The air-conditioning controls are intuitive to use (though the rushing air coming from the vents is sometimes obtrusively loud) and the navigation works well, too.

Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016
Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016

The extra noise isn’t as prominent as you expect when you start the car up, largely because start-up is done in its most genteel mode (you know, the one that helps it pass European noise regulations) rather than its two sportier modes. It’s deeper and more authoritative, but it’s still a fraction softer and quieter than we expected, so it can still be driven every day.

And so we flicked the Manettino across to its middle sports setting and let it rip the air to shreds. Which it didn’t.

Just because it’s gained more noise across the board, don’t expect it to lose its sophistication, and don’t expect it to climb to the stratosphere like a naturally aspirated Ferrari motor.

Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016
Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016

It creates its aural impression in its own way, with its own character, and it was the engine that took Ferrari back to turbocharging for the first time since the F40. For sure, a lot of people will prefer the sound of naturally aspirated engines, but their end is drawing nigh and the California T scores huge advantages in torque and fuel economy, without losing much in throttle response. What’s a thousand revs at the top end between friends, then?

It’s not quite the songstress its predecessor was, but it’s edging closer. The extra noise comes at just the right frequencies to deliver an unmistakeable howl everywhere. There’s a wonderful aural combination of menace and sweetness to it that you could, genuinely, live with everyday. Unlike most turbo motors, more revs doesn’t just mean more noise but more depth and more timbre and more pitch.

While that’s all great, the only downside is that it feels like the noise-production system really just hitting its stride when the shift lights come on at the top of the steering wheel and demand you pull another gear.

Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016
Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016

The upside to that is that the gearshift is, quite unmistakeably, faster. Up, down, whatever. It’s brilliantly quick. It’s think-it quick. It’s almost utterly intuitive now, in that you think you might want a gear, twitch your fingers and the next gear is engaged and working before your fingers leave the column-mounted shift paddle.

It’s all a lot more complex and engaging than that, though. Anybody could have made it faster. Ferrari has nearly halved the shift times and simultaneously tripled the interesting.
It’s fun enough on hard acceleration, where you don’t even lift the throttle, but just pull on the right paddle.

There is a sharply delineated crack in the soundtrack, barely a ripple of vibration or jolt through the cabin and the next gear makes the engine do it all again, though it all sounds a bit deeper with each passing gear.
But it’s the downshifts that steal the show and during our photography session on Italy’s SS1, the ancient Roman road Via Aurelia, which could be a contender for the world’s oldest continuously used road, the mountains echoed and rang to the sound of California T Handling Speciale downshifts. And there were only five of them, making enough noise for 20.

Brake hard into a corner, cranking the custom Brembos down onto the carbon-ceramic brake calipers, and the Handling Speciale bleeds noise as it bleeds off speed. You can fix that with the very simple expedient of pulling gently on the left paddle, forcing the Ferrari to snap down another gear. Again, it’s done, cracking home with an audibly savage braaap on the throttle almost before your nerves have finished telling your finger muscles to contract.

It’s also fabulously fast, blistering to 100km/h in 3.6 seconds, punching on to 200km/h just 7.6 seconds later. And, remember, this is the ‘everyday’ Ferrari.

Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016
Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016

It’s imperfect, though. If you want the extra noise, be proactive and push it back into its most comfortable electronics-management setting. Try to have the best of both worlds, cruising with the new, added noise, and you’ll find yourself assailed by a constant-throttle drone so monotonous and pervading that you’ll have to reach for the Manettino to back the noise off sooner or later anyway. So do it sooner.

By the way, that’s the case with the roof up or down. The only way the noise levels really change with the roof up is that the hardtop circulates some of the sound around the cabin a little better.

When the roof is down, the Ferrari’s front-mounted V8 engine is almost inaudible, with just about all the noise coming from the exhaust tips at the rear of the car. If you closed your eyes and focussed on the sound, you’d swear it was mid-engined, like the 488 GTB.

Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016
Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016

But Ferrari isn’t just spinning the noise with this one. They’re really pushing the handling sparkle, and they’re right to, but they’re not telling the whole story.

We found the car to be sharp, crisp and aggressive in its handling and its grip levels and balance were good, without quite rising to the outstanding levels we were expecting.

There was nothing frightening about it, but we were a little surprised that it didn’t get its power down better out of corners and that it reached its understeer limits when it did. Don’t read that to be a negative, because both of those things occurred at ferociously high speeds in real terms. We just expected a little more.

Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016
Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016

And we found it. Pushing the car’s Bumpy Road button on the steering wheel transformed it into the car we always hoped it might be.

This is the button first suggested by Michael Schumacher for the 458 Scuderia, and it keeps the damper rebound settings soft while keeping everything else firm. It means that when you twist the Manettino setup switch on the steering wheel to its hardest settings, the dampers stay in their softest operating mode.

Then the Handling Speciale truly does make the California T shine and it should be the default setting for anybody who ever drives or owns one.

The balance seems to shift further rearward, making the car handle more neutrally mid-corner and, especially, from the point where the driver picks up the throttle again.

It lets the tyres keep smooching the tarmac, where they just marginally, but frequently, bounce out of contact if the dampers are left to full Manettino control.

It works wonders everywhere else, too, with the steering feeling much calmer as well, and it all gives people unprecedented confidence to drive the car harder in the front half of corners, carrying more speed and showing off the new spring balance to its best effect.

It goes from being a car that runs out of grip at the front to a car that feels like it will never run out of grip at all. Even when it does, it’s so progressive and positive that even the moderately skilled will easily haul it back into the safe zone, even with its skid-control systems switched off.
And while the softer-damping trick works well on smooth roads, it works more impressively the rougher the road surface becomes.

It also rides better this way, with the car oozing its way across road imperfections in contrast the more vertical impressions bumps make on people in any of the three standard modes. And ride quality (and noise levels) is the core thing California T owners trade in for the Handling Speciale’s extra grip.

Find this trick and you’ll truly find what Ferrari has done to turn the California T into a more Ferrari style of Ferrari.

And while $15,750 might be the price of a good A-segment hatchback, in California T terms, it’s not even another four per cent more money. It’s like an $1150 option on a $30,000 car. And that’s almost a bargain.

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2016 Ferrari California T Handling Speciale pricing and specifications:
Price: $425,638
Engine: 3.9-litre, 32-valve twin-turbo V8
Output: 412kW/755Nm
Transmission: seven-speed dual-clutch
Fuel: 10.5L/100km (NEDC)
CO2: 250g/km (NEDC)
Safety rating: TBC