Review: 2016 Ferrari California T Handling Speciale

Review: 2016 Ferrari California T Handling Speciale

When Ferrari launched the California it was clear that the Maranello outfit wanted to produce a car to entice people into the brand and away from other sports car makers. Yes, the company said there were hints at heritage models but that was the gist of it.

Ferrari produced a car that had a dose of practicality. After all, it had four seats (sort of) and a folding hard top. It had a decent size boot and was not going to force you into a visit to the chiropractor after sitting in traffic. It had the potential to be a daily runner, an accolade previously reserved for the Porsche 911 when it came to sports cars.

Then the company switched to turbo power for the Cali and in 2015 along came the California T complete with a few other changes.

But what about those people for whom the California is just not Ferrari enough? These are the people who want a 488 and its superb driving characteristics but need a bit more practicality. Not to say that the California T is not a great car in its own right, but there are undoubtedly those who wanted it to have a bit more of an edge.

Ferrari must have thought so too, because earlier in 2016 it introduced the Handling Speciale (HS) version, and we spent a few hours with it recently.

The engine technicians went on a tea break, because the 3.9-litre V8 has been left alone to deliver the same 412kW at 7500rpm and 755Nm of torque from 4740rpm. Instead it was the gearbox and suspension people who had to put in some overtime and the whizz kids who write software.

The software thing is important because those whizz kids have totally rewritten the gearbox software to make the HS change up through the gears 30% quicker than the stock T and change down 40% quicker.

Then the suspension guys made the front set-up 16% firmer and the rear 19% stiffer. They also tweaked the dampers and included a Bumpy Road setting. This setting could easily have been called the “South African Road” setting, because no matter what mode you select on the Manettino steering wheel it protects you from feeling all those bumps in the road that typify any drive in SA.

Handling Speciale

I hit the start button.

Unfortunately for the Cali, I had just jumped out of a BMW M4 GTS, which was basically designed to create earthquakes in parts of the world where earthquakes are unheard of. The Ferrari seemed somewhat muted. Apparently, and unlike many other sports cars, it is supposed to be like that. It’s all about not waking the neighbours — unless you want to, and there’s a setting for that.

The engineers have changed the exhaust, making it louder in certain modes and parts of the rev range by up to three decibels. Wind it up and you quickly get to experience the roar you were looking for, the same when you opt to drop a gear.

Immediately I headed out of town, after first being pulled over twice by Joburg metro cops (bizarrely on both sides of the same intersection), one of which tried to convince me that he deserved a Christmas bonus. Sadly I didn’t have a lump of coal to give him.

Then the horse got to stretch its legs. There was zero turbo lag and imperceptible gaps in the gear changes in Sport mode on the paddles. Leave it in Auto and there was occasional gearbox lag, though mainly in traffic when the ’box was not quite sure what I wanted to do when overtaking.

That was not an issue on the open road, where it was Sport mode, manual gear changes using the long paddles and go. It held its line in every corner and those rear tyres hardly flinched. It felt every bit the Ferrari it should be, providing rapid acceleration (Ferrari claims a 0-100km/h time of 3.6 seconds), an involved drive and that all-important feeling of being in a true sports car that wears the Prancing Horse.

I haven’t driven the stock Cali T so cannot comment on whether the Handling Speciale changes give the car a dramatically different character. I suspect the everyday characteristics people seem to appreciate in the model are similar, if not the same, but find a suitable piece of tarmac and the HS behaves like a true Ferrari should. – Mark Smyth